David Bowie’s death meant nothing to me. I was not consumed with an urge to bawl my eyes out, whether privately or performatively via Facebook status or tweet. I did not feel a light had gone out. He was not my prophet; he was not even the prophet of my father (for him the gospels of Knopfler and Fleetwood-Buckingham-Nicks). I reject out of hand the notion that Bowie was never “meant” for me as a straight white middle-class man, could never have been my guy. The people jealously protecting Bowie as “theirs” need to stop being such giant narcissists: art isn’t made for someone by someone who "gets" them – by that logic, along with the genderfluid pansexuals affrighting the air with their wailing, we should be hearing encomia from racists and statutory rapists – but rather put out there, take-it-or-leave-it-style, for people to take or leave. With Bowie, I mostly left.
But I’ve been revising my opinion about his legacy – or, more accurately, about the borderline hysterical mania for appropriating and burnishing The Myth of Bowie in the days after his death – over the last week or so, in the scrummage of opinion and counter-opinion that has surrounded the semi-abortive release of Kanye’s new album, The Life of Pablo. When Bowie died I thought the performative public grief was just that – a means of shoring up your own cultural capital and (ugh) brand. But as criticism and hot takes have poured in about Kanye – over the classless Wiz Khalifa-baiting tweetstorm, the unforgiveable (but, like, purely technically speaking, legally accurate?) assertion that Bill Cosby is innocent, the album’s weird, shoddy, delayed release – I began to see the Bowie stans in a different light. I was now the one shouting to be heard, coating every assertion in hyperbole (I may even have said Kanye was our generation’s Bowie – stick that in your pipe and smoke it, 55 year-old dude who wore mascara for a hot minute in the 70s), defending my guy.
One thing that stops me really going to town on David Bowie’s musical or cultural legacy is the thought of the immense pain he must have been in in the weeks or even months running up to his death. Despite his celebrity, he was a private man, in a loving, enduring relationship. It does not seem fair, or decent, to really rip into someone who more or less opted out of celebrity culture, to speculate about him, to feature him in a debate in whose outcome he would be entirely uninterested.
But it also distresses me to see the willingness with which people will rip into someone who has not taken that vow of abstinence. I’ve lost count of the WhatsApps I’ve exchanged about Kanye’s Twitter game in the past month or so; it is undeniably different and worthy of comment to see a major celebrity so unfiltered, so wilfully blind to the fundamentals of Twitter-as-brand-management (a sample Kim Kardashian tweet over the same period: “Download the Kendall & Kylie Game at the App Store”). But is it healthy for every tweet to fuel a thinkpiece? If it is the online equivalent of rubbernecking at a car crash in slow motion, what bodies are we forgetting in the wreckage?
Look at the change in the personae adopted on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus: where one album takes the glass as half-full, silencing the haters with superhero theme music swaggadocio, the other shows what happens when you give in to the gnawing realisation that there’s no point trying to convince people you’re not the bad guy – far easier to show them the face they expect to see. Cue the rawest, most alienating production of his career (another sizzling-hot take in a Mallmann-worthy assemblage of them: ‘On Sight’ is as agenda-settingly historic in its own way as ‘Everything in its Right Place’ was on Kid A); cue some of his ugliest, least tasteful lyrics. Kanye on Yeezuswas a motherfucking monster, just like he said he was in 2010 – but this time he was one that we had made.
The opprobrium would be more merited if Kanye wasn’t so transparently excellent at what he does. Whilst not his most eye-opening record, or his most bombastic, The Life of Pablo is still a very, very strong album. I had forgotten the pleasure of getting a whole new album from Kanye – the repeat listens, the weird hooks, the laugh-out-loud lines thrown away like anyone could write them (breaking new ground for pettiness on ’30 Hours’: “My ex says she gave me the best years of her life / I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right”), his ability to dredge up so much conflicted emotion in a single lyric (“Cover Nori in lamb’s wool / We’re surrounded by the fucking wolves” – what a beautiful, simple, evocative line! Such tenderness, such paranoia). It is also nice (continuing the run he started on808s & Heartbreak) to have an album that feels like it is designed to be heard as an album – a purposefully organised collection of songs, not a bunch of singles. Given the chaos and fluidity that enveloped everything from the album’s four-times-changed name (for what it’s worth, So Help Me God was my favourite) to its inchoate-until-the-last-minute tracklist, this is even more remarkable.
It’s funny, though. The Life of Pablo is the first Kanye album that does not feel like it is transgressively ploughing a brand new furrow, which is maybe another way of saying it feels more like a retrospective. You have old-school Kanye (what he calls the “chop up the soul Kanye”) leading things off on ‘Ultralight Beam’, the glacial tones of 808s & Heartbreak covered with a fresh coat of snow on the triptych of ‘FML’, ‘Real Friends’ and ‘Wolves’, the God’s-entry-music bombast of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reimagined on ‘Waves’, and the two great advances of Yeezus: the willingness to be sonically and lyrically ugly (think the distorted electro of ‘Feedback’; the gawpingly distasteful lines about bleached assholes that marks Kanye’s entrance to ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt 1’), and the ability to find things transcendently gorgeous in the middle of all that dissonance (whatever happens around the 2.50 mark in both ‘Wolves’ and ‘FML’ defies language).
I’m not sure this lack of formal innovation shows stasis. The album represents a movement away from the single-mood-dominated records of the past towards something more variegated. An attempt to pass the torch onto young pretenders (Chance, Kendrick – these are no longer his parties in L.A.), but also to acknowledge that they possess a clarity of purpose and vision that he might have held once but that he can hold no longer – that such commitment to an idea is admirable but also arguably naïve. That being a husband is great (his bragging about Kimoji tearing up the App Store on ‘Facts’ is totally adorkable) but that a dude still wants some strange from time to time (not sure whose tits are out on ‘Freestyle 4’ but I’d hazard a guess they’re not duct-taped). That family is at once the most important thing (see: ‘Wolves’) and – in a clear rebuttal of the clear-eyed message of ‘Family Business’-era Kanye – a burden (“I’m a deadbeat cousin / I hate family reunions”).
Some people have put one (shambolic release) and one (tonally varied album) and one (eye-opening Twitter rants) and one (references on the record to various prescription meds) together, and have made the square root of minus four, concluding that Kanye is on the verge of – or is indeed going through – some sort of psychic collapse. As well as decrying this as deplorable, tawdry journalism, I can’t see much evidence for it here. T.L.O.P. shows Kanye in a pretty good, pretty balanced place; still playing the heel card when it suits him but otherwise marshalling the different elements of himself into something that feels coherent in its inconsistency. A Tumblr, or Pinterest board: a collection – for his failings, Kanye remains a once-in-a-generation curator – of the different facets of being Kanye West in 2016. We forget that underneath it all – and this doesn’t change if you think of him as a total fraud, the Emperor in his new Yeezys – he is just a person, with two young kids, living many different lives. A mid-album spoken-word interlude creates the opposition between the old, gospel-sampling pink-polo wearing Kanye and his present-day incarnation, “bad mood Kanye”. Hearteningly, the track is called ‘I Love Kanye’ and finishes with a laugh, the auditory equivalent of a shrug: he is both of these Kanyes (“Kanyes”), and neither of them. In its weird cross-stitch of moods and messages,T.L.O.P. may not be Kanye’s best album, but it definitely is the most humble in scope, the one where he is most human, most clearly conflicted. Sometimes the hardest thing your day contains isn’t institutional racism, or the death of a loved one during elective surgery, or being the biggest celebrity on the planet, but just living and keeping the multitudes you contain from overwhelming your own internal sea walls. Everything and nothing; the least and best of human attainments. I guess the human thing to do is to wish him luck.