Before we even had a name for Kanye West’s long-awaited new album, we had his review of it. “So happy to be finished with the best album of all time,” he tweeted in late January. “This is not album of the year. This is album of the life.” In fact, we had two of them: He later re-evaluated his previous assessment and issued a second one, concluding, “Out of respect for Q-Tip, Puff, Hov, Lauren, Pharcyde, Mary, Stevie, Michael, Hendrix, James, Pete Rock, Pac, Marvin…. this new album is ONE of the greatest albums not the greatest just one of …” Before that, as 2015 drew to a close with no sign of the overdue LP, Kanye obsessives were given two words to tide them over: “Saint West.” It was a birth announcement that doubled as an op-ed, and though it may have been his collaborator Kim Kardashian on the mic, tweeting the news, the baby’s name was clearly a Kanye West production. If you’re the guy who gasconaded “I am a God,” naming your kid after a heavenly caste is a no-brainer.
The review preceded the record; instead of a first name, West gave his son a first impression. In other words, West is a critic at heart. What else would we expect from a man so constitutionally incapable of holding his tongue, whose pronouncements and opining have had a cultural impact equal to his art, maybe more? West has emerged as one of those rare, benighted artist-critics, like Randall Jarrell, Renata Adler, David Foster Wallace, maybe even George Orwell, who turn our heads more easily with their essays than their art. Think of the artists who might fit that bill today—Michael Richards, Bill Burr, and lately Charlotte Rampling—and even as you consider, a figure rises, snatches the mic and says: I’mma let you finish, but Kanye is the greatest critic of our time.
And he actually is. He isn’t the best critic of our time—that’s Renata Adler, Clive James, Camille Paglia, Laura Kipnis, or Ta-Nehisi Coates, depending who you ask—but West is the greatest. His critiques are international events, endlessly parsed, scoffed at, argued about, and memed. Sure, it’s easy to think of his public decrees as the unselfconscious bloviating of an egomaniac—his habit of advertising which intoxicant is fueling each outburst doesn’t help—but as far as I can tell, he’s also the only critic in the history of the United States whose commentary has elicited a response from two sitting presidents. No. 43 called West’s famous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment the “all-time low” of his presidency, and Barack Obama, after the Taylor Swift incident, called West a “jackass.” Say what you will about Edmund Wilson, but he never accomplished that.
In his book The Origins of Criticism, a study of the rise of critical culture in ancient Greece, Andrew Ford defines criticism as “any public act of praise or blame.” Ford argues that before the fourth century BCE, when criticism became its own discipline, it would have followed any public performance. Art and critique occurred inseparably. Ford quotes George Kennedy’s introduction to the Cambridge History of Literary Criticism: “Criticism as an instinctive reaction to the performance of poetry is as old as song.”
That makes Kanye West a contemporary avatar of the ancient, archetypal critic, whose two cents are always on offer. (Especially if you’ve had “a little sippy sippy,” as West confessed he’d had before the 2006 MTV Europe Video Music Awards, when, miffed that he hadn’t won video of the year, he took to the stage to rave: “Oh, hell no. This video cost a million dollars. I had Pam Anderson. I was jumpin’ across canyons and shit.”) His venue is the live performance, and most frequently, the awards show. But West’s choice of medium is one of the aspects of his criticism that people most dislike. After West put George Bush on blast during the Katrina relief telethon, host Matt Lauer said, “Emotions in this country right now are running very high. Sometimes that emotion is translated into inspiration, sometimes into criticism.” NBC decided to edit West’s comment out of its West Coast feed. A statement from the network read: “It would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated tonight … are overshadowed by one person’s opinion.”
That’s exactly what had happened, thank God. No one today remembers any of the telethon except for that “one person’s opinion.” What America wanted—needed—to talk about was precisely what West had perhaps indelicately proposed: that the federal government may have acted more quickly and comprehensively had the hurricane struck a city that was more predominately white. The fact that NBC executives thought that as New Orleans lay broken, the country should instead focus its attention on Faith Hill’s performance of “Precious Lord, Take My Hand” is proof of how necessary West’s intervention was.
It’s West’s critiques at awards shows that really piss people off, and for the same reason that NBC condemned and redacted his Bush comment during the telethon: that it’s self-absorbed to interrupt the preordained, unbroken draft of cultural capital with one person’s opinion. His critical career began in 2004, when he stormed out of the American Music Awards in protest after losing Best New Artist to Gretchen Wilson. That was telling, because the inconvenient truth about West’s criticism is that though it may be in bad taste, his taste isn’t bad. Looking back a decade later, it is absurd that Gretchen Wilson won the Best New Artist AMA over West, whose The College Dropout is a debut that ranks among hip hop’s very best, the peer of Ready to Die, Illmatic, and Reasonable Doubt. Though it may have frazzled some producers at NBC, and hurt George Bush’s feelings, West’s comments about the federal government’s response to Katrina anticipated Black Lives Matter, and the vital, uncomfortable questions it raised about the prejudices of people and institutions that don’t consider themselves racist, but are. And come on: Taylor Swift’s “You Belong to Me” video doesn’t hold a candle to Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” The moment West rose to register his complaint wasn’t just painful live television; it was also the greatest impromptu review of our time.
Even in the decade when smarm has roundly won the battle over snark, West possesses the trait common to all critics: He just can’t help himself. About the music that made him famous: “I don’t even listen to rap. My apartment is too nice to listen to rap in.” About the movie director who helped inspire the staging of West’s Yeezus tour, in one of his soliloquies to its audience of thousands: “Y’all don’t know who the fuck [Alejandro Jodorowsky] is, when everybody copied off of him.” He’s tried his hand at literary criticism, siding with Larkin (“books are a load of crap”) and Berryman (“literature bores me, especially great literature”): “Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books.” He even took a hard line on H2O: “I hate when I’m on a flight and I wake up with a water bottle next to me like oh great now I gotta be responsible for this water bottle.”
But like any critic worth his salt, West isn’t always right. On Tuesday he tweeted, incomprehensibly, “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!” It’s idiotic coming from a great critic (assuming it really did come from him—some have pointed to evidence that this assessment could have come from sister-in-law Kylie Jenner, while others have argued that he might have been misunderstood), but not unprecedented. T.S. Eliot, whose swashbuckling criticism revived the metaphysical poets and condemned Hamlet as a failure, apparently never outgrew his anti-Semitism, writing in 1933 that “any large number of free-thinking Jews [is] undesirable.” Ezra Pound, midwife of Modernism, was a radio propagandist for Benito Mussolini. Even the secular saint George Orwell, who saw through the unholy trinity of colonialism, fascism, and communism, possessed a homophobic fear of the “pansy left.” An uncomfortable question remains: How good does a critic need to be to be great?
In September, accepting the MTV VMA Vanguard Award, West announced that he’s been “conflicted.” “I just wanted people to like me more. But fuck that, bro.” What followed was a robust defense of his public outbursts. “I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing,” he said. “Sometimes I feel like I died for the artist’s opinion. For artists to be able to have an opinion.” In other words, he was given the prize as an artist, but he accepted it as a critic.
Read more in Slate about Kanye West.