Editor’s Note: Well, guys, I tried. I wanted to get my post about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy out in time for the album’s fifth anniversary on this coming Sunday, November 22. But it’s now Friday, I’m only about halfway done, and I still have a podcast to edit for next week; so I’m throwing in the towel and splitting my original post in half. To be honest, this may actually be the better decision regardless of timing: after all, how better to communicate the dramatic ups and downs that led to Kanye West’s fifth and possibly greatest album than by ending on a cliffhanger–or, to put it in Syd Field terms, the end-of-act-two “turning point” at which our (anti-)hero reaches his lowest moment? So that’s what this installment is about. In the meantime, if you’re new to the series–or just need a refresher due to my sporadic updates–catch up here with Parts 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, and 7. Then, you can pick right up with Parts 9, 10, 11, 12, and 13. And chin up! We’re still getting close to the end! – Z.H.
A long, long time ago–right around the time I started writing this series, in fact–I made a joking reference at work to Kanye West’s then-recent quote about how he doesn’t like to smile because it “wouldn’t look as cool.” My coworker reacted to the namedrop with a familiar eyeroll. “You’re a Kanye West fan?” he asked, disbelief in his voice. Not always being in the mood for a verbose defense of one of America’s Most Hated Celebrities, I just responded with some flippant remark about how I like to root for the underdog. “Yeah,” he said, “but he makes himself the underdog.”
My coworker was, of course, totally right. As we’ve discussed in exhaustive detail over these last seven posts, Kanye West is many things, but one thing he’s not is an innocent victim. While I will always maintain that the intensity of the hatred he’s subjected to is unnecessary–and, I would further argue, often motivated by racist undercurrents–the fact of the matter is that it’s not entirely undeserved. He does and says stupid things; he deliberately and flagrantly courts controversy; he violates pretty much every social contract there is about acceptable behavior for public figures. But the thing Kanye West fans understand–and yeah, I’ll own it, I’m one of them–is that his self-defeating, self-destructive tendencies are ultimately inseparable from his artistry. Yes, Kanye makes himself an underdog, both frequently and spectacularly; he Brings It on Himself. But somehow, he’s never better or more vital as a creator than when he’s backed himself into a corner with his own hubris.
In the year following the release of 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye made himself an underdog to a greater degree than ever before, and probably ever since. The twin tensions long brewing beneath the surface of his rise to success–hip-hop fans’ disenchantment with his emboldened aesthetic experimentation, and the general public’s disgust with his boorish, arrogant behavior–at last came to a head; his relevance as a mainstream artist was, for the first time since his 2004 debut, called seriously into question. What resulted, however, was also his best album since that debut–indeed, quite possibly his best album, period. But before we get to the triumph, first we have to chronicle the fall. This is the story of the moment when Kanye’s good fortune finally ran out.
Looking back, it’s hard not to see a declension narrative right from the start. In late 2008, Kanye was in his most precarious position to date, both personally and artistically; still reeling from the death of his mother and the end of his engagement, he also had to grapple with the expectations of an audience that wasn’t fully on board with his new musical direction. For once, Kanye wasn’t on top of the world–not that he would have admitted as much, of course. His sole appearance on Common‘s Universal Mind Control–the first album by his longtime friend and Chicago compatriot not to be produced by West since 2002–is a gassed-up hook for the Neptunes-helmed “Punch Drunk Love (The Eye),” in which he turns down a girl making eyes at him in the club because he “already know I’m too fly.” Meanwhile, his verse on the electro-flavored “What It Is” by T-Pain-affiliated girl group Sophia Fresh is basically a dissertation on the types of butts he finds acceptable (in case you’re wondering, he “don’t need no little ass,” but requires a “ghetto ass”). He also shares some choice words about his portrayal in the media: “I ain’t finna ‘splain my life up on no Larry King / ‘Cause when I show her that thing, she say, ‘That explains everything.'”
It’s worth noting that the Auto-Tune effect Kanye had used for much of 2008 is absent on both of the aforementioned tracks. It’s also applied much more subtly than usual for his appearance on “Digital Girl” by Jamie Foxx; though, if you’re thinking that dates it less, keep in mind that Kanye also namedrops both iChat and the Macbook Air in his first verse, a tongue-in-cheek rap about sexting that could pretty much only have come out in 2008 (and not just because the other guest on the track is The-Dream). Today, of course, hearing a post-808s Kanye sans AutoTune is nothing special; he’s long since established the effect as just one part of his musical arsenal, not the whole thing. But in the immediate aftermath of his divisive fourth album, there were plenty of listeners who feared Kanye had been permanently replaced by a new, all-singing replicant model. The YouTube comments on “Teriyaking,” his second collaboration with Yokohama’s Teriyaki Boyz, are a fascinating trip down memory lane in that respect: two warring factions of fans frozen in time mid-argument over whether or not Kanye’s embrace of Auto-Tune was a fad, like some kind of late-2000s music geek version of Pompeii. For the record, “Teriyaking” does feature an honest-to-god rap verse by Kanye, along with his up-and-coming protege Big Sean. Like all things Teriyaki Boyz, however, it’s a fun novelty cut at best; certainly not the stylistic return to form a few desperate Auto-Tune-haters on the Internet had been hoping for in early 2009.
But there may have been some solace to be taken in Kanye’s beat for “Brooklyn Go Hard,” a Jay-Z track from the soundtrack for Biggie Smalls biopic Notorious featuring one of 2008’s up-and-comers, alternative hip-hop/electronic artist Santogold (now known as Santigold). Like Yeezy’s earlier production of T.I.’s “Swagga Like Us,” “Brooklyn Go Hard” places a vocal sample from its younger, indie-friendly guest M.C. (in this case, the opening line of “Shove It” from Santogold’s self-titled debut) against a hard-hitting beat that bridges the gap between conventional hip-hop and contemporary hipster fare. Coming down a bit heavier on the “hipster” side of the equation was Kanye’s next collaboration with Santigold: “Gifted,” from the debut album by the Sam Spiegel/Zé Gonzales vanity project N.A.S.A. Like most songs by the alt-minded DJ duo, “Gifted” is notable mainly for the self-conscious eclecticism of its guest stars; Swedish indie pop it-girl of the moment Lykke Li also makes an appearance. But Kanye’s verse is compelling enough, braying that he “won’t be held accountable for what comes out” of his mouth and demanding his due credit for the growing popularity of tight pants in the rap community.
Back in more familiar territory, Kanye produced and contributed the hook for “Big Screen” by his old friend from the Go-Getters, GLC. The song is nothing earth-shattering: lyrically, it’s just a retread of Ye’s 2004 collaboration with Twista, “Overnight Celebrity,” but with a beat that doesn’t try nearly as hard. Fortunately, Kanye is eminently listenable even when he’s on autopilot, and his luxurious synth-and-strings arrangement is a perfect match for the music video’s vintage Black glamour aesthetic (see Video 7 above).
Next up was another of Kanye’s periodic dips into crossover pop: the electro-flavored “Knock You Down” by Keri “Stranger Bitch” Hilson featuring Ne-Yo. For Kanyologists, Ye’s verse is most significant in retrospect: he would later admit that it was meant as a confession of his feelings for then-friend and future wife Kim Kardashian, who was in a relationship with New Orleans Saints running back Reggie Bush at the time. In that context, West’s lyrical references to “the cheerleader of my dreams / That seem to only date the head of football teams” and pointed suggestion to “leave your boyfriend now” take on a much more intimate dimension. For my money, though, the real standout lines are the ones that require no personal context to understand: namely, the immortal couplet, “This is bad, real bad, Michael Jackson / Now I’m mad, real mad, Joe Jackson.”
Given the caliber of Kanye’s forthcoming collaborations with Pusha T, you’d be forgiven for expecting great things from his next early 2009 appearance: “Kinda Like a Big Deal” by Clipse, the rap duo comprised by Push and his brother Malice (now known by the born-again moniker of “No Malice”). Unfortunately, it’s another phoned-in verse, in more ways than one: he originally recorded it for T.I.’s “On Top of the World,” only to be replaced by Ludacris; the fact that the lyrics are so generic it doesn’t even make a difference should tell you basically everything you need to know. His showing on “Maybach Music 2” by Rick Ross featuring T-Pain and Lil Wayne is an improvement only by default, with a patently unnecessary rehashing of his scatological metaphors from “Swagga Like Us” (“Anything Ye poop on / Will explode / ‘Cause I am the shit and this is my commode”). If nothing else, Kanye is still able to defend his title as master of the clever throwaway lyric, with this verse-ending imaginary exchange: “Where’s dat? / Austin / Where’s dat? / Texas / What’s in front? / Benzes / What else? / Lexus / Well, whose Maybach is this? / Mr. West-es.”
Leave it to Kanye, though, to save his best verse of the year to date for a saccharine pop-R&B cut by The-Dream. “Walkin’ on the Moon” isn’t Kanye at his best, per se, but it’s arguably “Romantic Kanye” at his most endearing, alternating between his usual baller boasts and self-effacing vulnerability: “You know, that drink let you say things you ain’t allowed to / Things that you fear, but you way too proud to / Say out loud, ’cause niggas gon’ clown you.” The climax of the verse, in which he suggests that he “ice down” and “white gown” his female subject, is just earnest enough to excuse the punchline, “and uhhh, maybe we should talk about all this after I pound you.” I’m no gossip detective, but I’m willing to guess that Kanye’s contribution to “Walking on the Moon” was another thinly-veiled come-on to Kim K.; in any case, it was definitely a nice change of pace from his otherwise middling contemporary output.
Kanye put another mark in the win column with his appearance on the remix for “We Fight/We Love” by ex-Tribe Called Quest M.C./producer Q-Tip. His verse settles nicely into the song’s warm neo-soul vibe, calling back to the themes of romantic strife and loss from 808s (check the “See You in My Nightmares” reference), but with a refreshing absence of Auto-Tune. Again, it’s hardly a lost gem, but Ye acquits himself well even when he’s sharing a track with one of his idols. And besides, any time we get to hear Kanye drop a shameless plug for his sneaker line in the middle of a breakup verse is all right in my book.
Regrettably, his next guest spot didn’t carry on the positive streak. Kanye’s brief verse at the beginning of “Diamonds” by former Roc-A-Fella songstress/future Love & Hip Hop cast member Teairra Marí is distinctive mainly for the cringe-worthy couplet “It’s funny how all the jewelry / Just gets your cat so purry”–a sobering reminder of the fine line between stupid and clever that is Kanye’s customary lyrical domain. Still stupid, but at least a little more clever, was the remix for “I’m the Shit” by Baltimore club veteran DJ Class. Amid the usual braggodocio, Kanye throws some very specific shade on the listeners who were less than enthused with his last album: “I dropped another album ‘fore we finished up the tour / And it’s still Top 10, ’bout 15 weeks later / So that’s a middle finger for you 808s haters.”
Those lines were fair warning, because the world was still far from hearing the last of 808s-era Kanye. In May, BBC Radio DJ Zane Lowe premiered “Supernova,” the Kanye-co-produced first single from the G.O.O.D. Music debut by 808s collaborator Mr Hudson. With its frosty synthpop arrangement and prominent TR-808 beat, it feels like a more polished take on Yeezy’s previous work with Mr Hudson; and Kanye’s verse (Auto-Tuned, naturally) revisits some of his pet themes of the period, painting a picture of successful people who’ve “got it all” but still pine for a normal life: “I can’t take another minute of it all,” he sings. “I wanna break up the scene and see you running back to me.”
Kanye’s next production was even more of a throwback. One of the earliest signees to G.O.O.D. Music, spoken-word artist Malik Yusef had been in Kanye’s circle since 2003, and is recognizable even to casual listeners for his appearance on the Late Registration track “Crack Music.” For “Promise Land,” from Yusef’s sophomore album G.O.O.D. Morning, G.O.O.D. Night, Kanye hooked Yusef up with another Late Registration vet, Adam Levine, who lays down a silky hook not unlike the one he contributed to that album’s “Heard ‘Em Say.” In fact, with its live string arrangement and no-nonsense rap verse by Kanye, the song could easily have been a holdover from 2005, right down to Ye’s self-aggrandizing introduction: “They say we need a prophet that can touch on the topics / And make it hot as the tropics… well, you got it.” His obligatory boasts are more prosaic on his other Yusef production, “Magic Man.” Over a smooth, ’70s-style beat–seemingly not a sample–West, Yusef, and guest Common trade verses over their supernatural gifts with the ladies. But it’s G.O.O.D. stablemate John Legend who steals the show with his song-closing interpolation of the traditional spiritual “He’s Got the Whole World in His Hands“–adjusting the lyrics, naturally, to “he’s got your whole girl in his hands.”
By now, you’ve probably detected my lack of genuine enthusiasm for Kanye’s work in late 2008 and early 2009. It’s not that it’s bad, of course; all of the songs discussed so far are perfectly listenable, and many of them are even quite good. But after the highs of 2003-2008, even his best stuff from the following year often feels like it’s treading water. The first true exception to that rule is “Make Her Say”: the second single from the major label debut by another key member of the 808s team, alt-rapper Kid Cudi. It’s a simple song, even arguably a stupid one; its main conceit is taking a sample from the acoustic version of Lady Gaga’s “Poker Face” and flipping it to sound like the biggest pop star of 2009 is singing about rough fellatio, a double entendre worthy of Beavis and Butthead. But its simplicity is ultimately the source of its effectiveness: with nothing but the aforementioned piano and vocal sample, the beat from the Vibrettes’ “Humpty Dump,” and scratches by Yeezy’s old tour DJ A-Trak, “Make Her Say” creates the perfect frame for its breezy verses by Cudi, Kanye, and Common. It’s not high art, exactly, but it is fun: something Cudi’s album, and Kanye for that matter, desperately needed.
Also dumb and fun in near-equal measure is Kanye’s verse on the remix for Beyoncé’s hit single “Ego.” Having apparently decided that the original, winking lyrics about Bey’s love for her man’s “huge ego” were too subtle, Kanye spends the whole of his introduction ostentatiously clearing his throat before every use of the word; I would not be remotely surprised if somewhere there existed an outtake that also featured him coughing the word “penis” between lines. Once he gets the dick jokes out of the way, however, he turns in a pretty good recapitulation of some of his trustiest themes, even borrowing a few famous lines from The College Dropout’s “Last Call”: “Coulda let the dream killers kill my self-esteem / Or use the arrogance as steam that power my dreams.”
The release of the “Ego” remix was perhaps a prescient one, as Kanye was once again under fire in the media for precisely that–his real ego, I mean, not his penis. Two months earlier, the satirical animated series South Park had aired an episode called “Fishsticks,” which parodied Kanye’s self-proclaimed status as the voice of his generation: when Kanye (“poorly impersonated” by South Park co-creator Trey Parker) doesn’t understand a simple joke that equates liking fish sticks to being “a gay fish,” he becomes obsessed by it, determined that as a “genius” he should be able to get to the bottom of why others find the joke funny (see Video 20). The rabbit hole he enters finally leads him to the epiphany that he actually is a gay fish–which in turn results in a full musical sequence, set to a parody of his recent single “Heartless” (see Video 21).
In real life, the joke took off, giving an absurd name to the already-existing undercurrent of Kanye hate; to this day, you can check any Kanye-related comments section and find at least a handful of “gay fish” references. And, while Kanye wasn’t quite as humorless about the joke as Parker and co-writer Matt Stone had imagined him to be, he was openly hurt by it: taking to his blog (sadly no longer updated) to announce that he had been “working on his ego.” “I JUST WANNA BE A DOPER PERSON,” he wrote with his customary caps lock, “WHICH STARTS WITH NOT ALWAYS TELLING PEOPLE HOW DOPE I THINK I AM.” He then promised that, while he had “a long road ahead of me to make people believe I’m not actually a huge douche,” he was “up for the challenge.” As the world would soon discover, it was a challenge he’d fail with flying colors.
Besides, anyone who actually expected a newly humbled Kanye–and also bought Twista’s Category F5 album on iTunes, admittedly a pretty small Venn diagram–would have been disappointed as early as mid-July, when the album and its Kanye- and No I.D.-produced bonus track “Alright” was released. It is, once again, familiar lyrical territory for Mr. West: boasting about his cars, his girls, and himself, rhyming “Kanye Omari” with Jeremy Piven’s Entourage character Ari, and dropping one killer (if questionably tasteful) line in “niggas come by talkin’ ’bout they make it rain / I’ll make that bitch Katrina.” Still, Kanye’s boasts go down a lot easier when they’re earned, and “Alright” earns them as an underrated beat: pairing live piano by co-producer Jeff Bhasker with distorted drums and synthesizer and an endlessly manipulated vocal sample of the title line. It sounds a little like Graduation, a little like the tougher moments of 808s, and a little like Child Rebel Soldier‘s “Us Placers,” but overall it has a sound that’s fairly unique–and welcome–in Kanye’s catalogue.
Just over a week after Twista’s album, Kanye and No I.D. returned with a much bigger production: “Run This Town,” the second pre-release single from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3. Like the previous Blueprint’s Kanye-produced opener, “A Dream,” “Run This Town” goes all-out with the rock-flavored drama and radio-friendly hooks, to equally middling results. What’s frustrating, however, is that it had potential. Kanye pulled the arrangement’s most prominent feature, its ascending rock guitar line, from the intriguingly obscure source of “Someday in Athens” by the 4 Levels of Existence; I mean, who doesn’t want to hear a chart-topping rap-pop crossover built on a Greek prog-rock sample? But its use in the song is so repetitive, it soon just flattens into background noise. The same can also be said of the vocal hook by the rising star of Jay’s new Roc Nation label, Rihanna: never a particularly strong singer, here she’s just sort of bleating monotonously, for what feels to this listener like an eternity.
In its best moments–namely, when the 4 Levels and Rihanna both shut up for a second and make room for co-writer Jeff Bhasker’s elegaic piano–“Run This Town” lives up to its epic scale, even offering a stylistic preview of the grandiose arrangements Kanye would craft for his fifth album. For the most part, however, it’s the musical equivalent of Kanye’s verse, another style-over-substance gloss of the pleasures and perils of “the fast life”: a lot of sound and fury, signifying nothing.
Kanye’s next guest appearance–as a rapper only, not a producer–was on “Forever”: a posse cut from the soundtrack of the LeBron James documentary More Than a Game, featuring Lil Wayne and Eminem alongside Drake, the Toronto child actor turned “emo rapper” who was already well on his way toward becoming the most successful example of what we might term the “post-Kanye” M.C. Drake has always been up-front about the influence of Kanye’s music, particularly 808s & Heartbreak, on his own: in a 2009 MTV interview, soon after the release of his breakout mixtape So Far Gone, he cited West as “the most influential person” in his musical life. And Kanye largely returned the favor, posting on his blog that Drake’s line “Are any of y’all into girls like I am? Les-bi-honest,” from the Young Money track “Every Girl,” was the “BEST LINE OF THE YEAR SO FAR!” (Kanye, presumably, had never heard the Sweet’s “A.C.D.C.,” which beat Drizzy’s already eyeroll-worthy wordplay to the punch by about 35 years).
Their relationship wasn’t always as simpatico behind closed doors, however: Kanye would reportedly kick Drake’s frequent producer, Noah “40” Shebib, out of the sessions for Dark Twisted Fantasy because he “might just hear my new shit and subconsciously steal my new shit and it wouldn’t even be your fault.” So it’s interesting, if not necessarily meaningful, that the first song on which both rappers appeared together was about as far from 808s/So Far Gone-style “emo-rap” as possible; there’s even an airhorn in the mix, for Christ’s sake. As for Kanye’s verse, it’s pretty much the same as the one in “Run This Town” (or any number of other songs from 2009), only clumsier–and, in the case of the line, “I had raped the game young, you can call it statutory,” much more tasteless. Going on a year after the release of his last album, the formerly fruitful theme of Kanye’s love-hate relationship with fame was growing more and more stale.
Given his major role in the previous two Blueprint albums, it came as no surprise when the tracklist to The Blueprint 3 was released that Kanye would be responsible for seven of the album’s 15 tracks. In fact, according to Jay, his ever-eager protégé originally intended to produce even more of the album–as in, the whole thing. Hov later told NME that Yeezy planted the “seed” for The Blueprint 3 when he showed up to meet him in Manchester with “10 tracks, already sequenced, like, ‘Here’s the album, just rap on it.’ Literally, ‘This is the album start, it should come on like this, and end like this.’ I’m like, ‘Heeey, let me have a say-so in this!'” In the end, Jay did get his “say-so”; the final product also included tracks by No I.D., Al Shux, Swizz Beatz, Timbaland, the Neptunes, and the Inkredibles. But I’m willing to bet that opener “What We Talkin’ About” is the exact same beat Kanye had initially pegged as Track One: with its icy synthesizers (sampled from French electronic pioneer Frederic Mercier’s 1978 song “Spirit“), guest vocals by Empire of the Sun frontman Luke Steele, and Hova’s “State of the (Roc) Nation” verses, it’s precision-manufactured to be the perfect introduction.
Unfortunately, not all of Kanye’s work for The Blueprint 3 is quite up to snuff. It’s not often when you can say a Swizz Beatz production sounds hipper and more forward-thinking than a Kanye West one; but that’s exactly the conclusion I come to when I put Swizz’ Justice-sampling “On to the Next One” up against Yeezy’s “Thank You”–basically just a deconstructed version of “Encore” from The Black Album, only not even as interesting as that description makes it sound. Things get better, at least, with “A Star is Born”: an interesting juxtaposition of a distorted electronic beat, the sampled horns from “Touch Me” by the Mother Freedom Band, and a typically silky Tony Williams hook, like some weird hybrid of Kanye’s College Dropout and post-808s styles. Then, with “Already Home,” we get the inverse, with a hook by Kanye’s new B.F.F. Kid Cudi over some very 2004-sounding strings from reggae outfit Gladdy’s Allstars’ “Mad Mad Ivy.”
In general, however, it’s tough to deny that Kanye’s Blueprint 3 contributions pale in comparison to the best of his work with Jay-Z. Take, for example, the wannabe hater-baiting anthem “Hate”: it’s an amusing enough piece of stunt-work for Jay and Ye, I guess, but the beat is monotone–just an Auto-Tuned voice repeating the title ad nauseum, like a blander retread of Lil Wayne’s “A Milli”–and Kanye’s opening verse is so deliberately clumsy, he seems to be appropriating Juicy J’s patented “D-student in English class struggling to read” flow. Then, while you’re at it, please also take the Mr Hudson-featuring closer “Young Forever,” which interpolates Alphaville’s 1984 jukebox-karaoke standard “Forever Young” to predictably mawkish results. It’s not that these songs are bad, necessarily; it’s just that they’re nowhere near inspired enough to live up to the gold standard of the Blueprint name. Kind of like The Blueprint 3 itself, actually.
Still, whatever the artistic merits of The Blueprint 3–or any of Kanye’s output during this period–his commercial credentials at the end of the summer of 2009 remained beyond reproach. “Run This Town” hit Number 2 on the Top 100; its parent album sold almost half a million copies in the first week. Kanye, it seemed, was firmly ensconced in the position he’d carved out for himself in hip-hop’s upper ranks. He even had a co-headlining tour lined up for the fall with Lady Gaga: his biggest crossover move yet, announced in no less mainstream a venue than the daytime talk show The View. Not even a divisive fourth album could hurt his momentum–indeed, if anything, it had only broadened his audience. But at the MTV Video Music Awards on September 13, less than a week after the release of The Blueprint 3, he finally met an obstacle he couldn’t overcome: a 20-year-old rising country-pop crossover star named Taylor Swift.
In retrospect, Kanye’s appearance at the VMAs was an unmistakable trainwreck waiting to happen. As we well know, Kanye and live television are a recipe for chaos even in the best of times; just remember 2005’s Concert for Hurricane Relief (or the 2004 American Music Awards…or the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards…). But at Radio City Music Hall in 2009, he seemed ready to run off the rails even before the cameras were rolling: passing around and swigging from a bottle of Hennessy on the red carpet while feeling on the ample booty of his then-girlfriend, model and aspiring “bad bitch” Amber Rose (see Video 27). So, when Swift took the stage to accept the award for Best Female Video for her song “You Belong with Me”–an award that, in Kanye’s view, belonged to his friend Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”–it really wasn’t all that surprising when he pulled a proverbial “Kanye,” snatching the mic and giving a brief, impassioned speech in support of his choice: “I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish,” he told a stricken-looking Taylor, “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time” (see Video 28). Then he shrugged impishly at the cameras, gave back the microphone, and walked back off the stage as abruptly as he’d arrived.
As it turned out, though, this latest misbehavior couldn’t be shrugged off quite so easily. Even more so than the Hurricane Relief incident, the fallout from the VMAs was instantaneous: Kanye West was the number one trending topic on Twitter immediately following the ceremony, with some 300,000 related tweets appearing in the first hour alone. Some of this attention was fairly benign; “I’mma Let You Finish” and its accompanying “Kanye Shrug” took off as Internet memes, for example, giving social media and forum dwellers a convenient vessel for their mockery, affectionate or otherwise. But “Swiftgate” also served as a lightning rod for an increasingly vicious backlash against Kanye’s perceived arrogance and rudeness; it was the moment, snowballing from South Park’s “Gay Fish” routine, when America finally stopped rolling their eyes at Kanye and started shaking their fists. Even President Barack Obama got in his shots, calling Kanye a “jackass” while off the record during a CNBC interview with a frankness one wishes he’d been as eager to show to his political opponents (see Video 29). It seemed that in ruining Taylor’s moment, Kanye had gone a bridge too far. Speaking up against an unpopular president during a time of national crisis had been one thing; grabbing the microphone from the hands of a frightened blonde girl best known for singing sweet songs about cheerleaders and fairy tales was quite another.
Even Kanye’s uncharacteristically earnest attempts at damage control would soon prove to be futile. After being thrown out of Radio City Music Hall, he posted a seemingly sincere, albeit defensive apology to his blog while the show was still on the air (“we watchin’ the show at the crib right now ’cause…well, you know,” he explained). The following night, before a previously-scheduled performance with Jay-Z and Rihanna on The Tonight Show with Jay Leno, he apologized again, appearing contrite and shaken (see Video 30). When Leno pressed him on how his mother would have reacted to the incident, he fell silent for over twelve seconds before stammering out a response: “Yeah, you know, obviously I deal with hurt… and, you know, so many celebrities, they never take the time off, and I’ve never taken the time off to really…you know, music after music and tour after tour… and I’m just ashamed that my hurt caused, you know, someone else’s… I need to, after this, take some time off and just analyze how I’m going to…you know, make it through the rest of this life, how I’m gonna improve.”
And sure enough, that’s exactly what he did. Less than a month after the VMAs, his aforementioned tour with Lady Gaga was quietly cancelled, and Kanye retreated from the public eye, keeping his lowest profile since the notoriously publicity-hungry star got his first taste of fame. Next time (for real, I promise), we’ll talk about what happened during this period of (relative) radio silence–and the musical tour de force that marked its triumphant conclusion. Here’s the updated playlist to keep you busy in the meantime: