Our Collective Record

Nicholas Judt

The music of Kanye West

The crisis is familiar: you love an artist, spend years of your life taking in his work and singing its praises, nourishing your soul on his art. Then, one day, you realize that he is not a good person—he did or said something immoral, revolting, inexcusable. The verdict is plastered in the headlines and smeared across the Internet, impossible to ignore: your favorite artist is a scumbag. So you have to figure out what to do. Can you keep listening to and admiring his work? Or must you instead do as the newspapers and the newsfeeds demand and abandon ship, shouting hurried disavowals of your past devotion before you hit the water?

Like many other people, I faced this crisis in 2018. It came via my devotion to the work of Kanye West. I discovered his music when I entered high school, and it blew my world open. I had never heard anything like it before: its propulsive energy, structural rigor, and intellectual range taught me what great music can be and how to listen to it. I would go through cycles where I listened to nothing but a single song, “Lost in the World” or “Blood on the Leaves” every morning on my way to school. There was something about West’s music that seemed undeniable to me, the progression from word to word and sound to sound inevitable in the way of all great poetry. As I walked down the street or stood in the subway listening, I felt the urge to thrust my headphones into the hands of a stranger: listen to this! You have no idea of the world I’m living in right now, the world this music has given me.

What makes West’s music this good? Perhaps the best example is “Blood on the Leaves,” a six-minute tour-de-force from his 2013 album Yeezus. The backbone of the song is a sample from Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit, a haunting song that describes the lynching of black Americans. “Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” Simone intones. “Blood on the leaves.” West begins the song with this sample, and then he splinters Simone’s words and scatters them throughout the track—the song’s first layer. Next he adds an entirely unexpected second layer: a series of verses describing a failing celebrity marriage, with particular attention lavished on drug use and the post-separation division of money. And as the song kicks into high gear, West introduces a third layer: an extraordinarily forceful and unsettling house-music beat, which thumps underneath most of the song.

The first time I heard “Blood on the Leaves,” I was bowled over by its raw power. But I was also perplexed: what was West’s intention? It seemed offensively mismatched to pair Simone’s evocation of lynching with lyrics about a millionaire’s marriage in crisis. But this, I came to realize, was precisely the point. “Blood on the Leaves” is about the degradation of American pop-culture, the ways in which its moral center has rotted. West does not want Simone’s sample and his verse to fit together—he wants them to clash, and for this contrast to upset us. How did America go from songs about lynching to songs about alimony? There is a conversation happening in the song: Simone tries to remind the speaker (heard in West’s verses) of the history he has forgotten, but he does not listen. He shouts her down, dominating the track. All the while, that bludgeoning house-beat keeps churning, crushing history under its wheel.

Importantly, West knows that he is part of the corruption and the forgetting, what with his wealth and his vanity. “Blood on the Leaves” is a blow directed against itself and its creator—which is why West casts his own voice in the role of the self-obsessed speaker who cannot seem to hear Simone’s cry from the past. The most pointed evidence of this self-awareness comes in the song’s climax: a heavily auto-tuned West implores himself to “breathe” and “live,” even as Simone’s aching description of “black bodies swinging in the summer breeze” continues in the background. Breathe and live—the two things that a lynched person cannot do. The speaker’s lack of self-awareness is galling, but West’s abundance of self-awareness makes the song extraordinary. As he put it years before on “All Falls Down,” “we all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”

West accomplishes all of this not through didactic explanation, but instead via the counterpoint of samples and words, borrowed sounds and fragmented melodies. This is the centerpiece of West’s brilliance: his ability to play various facets of his music against each other, to create nuance and argument through musical tension. West’s best songs are in conversation with themselves, as each facet of the music makes its case and their curator assembles them into a sonic whole. The participants that West draws into this conversation are astonishing in their variety, demonstrative of his encyclopedic command of music history—his samples range from 1960’s Hungarian rock to contemporary hip-hop, touching on countless traditions in between. Many artists can write a great verse, and many can produce a great track; but Kanye West is one of very few who has the audacity, the knowledge, and the skill to make music that is somehow both at odds with itself and entirely sure of its purpose.


I always knew that West was, to put it mildly, not very agreeable. His arrogance was the stuff of celebrity legend. But it never seemed consequential—that was gossip, and I was in it for the music. Then came 2018, and the situation changed. In April, West emerged from a long public absence with a flurry of tweets boasting of his support for President Trump. The photos of West sporting a “Make America Great Again” hat lapped up most of the media attention, but they were hardly the only alarming statement he made. For instance, he also tweeted “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” giving a thumbs-up to the Fox News commentator who claimed that Black Lives Matter protesters are “a bunch of whiny toddlers, pretending to be oppressed for attention.” West’s support for Trump was not an isolated media stunt: he had embraced and chosen to broadcast the views of the alt-right.

Things got worse a week later with West’s infamous visit to the headquarters of the celebrity gossip publication TMZ. Accompanied and supported by Owens, West rattled off a string of appalling statements, and justified them in the name of “free thought.” Once again, a singularly galling sound-bite sucked up the media coverage of West’s appearance: his claim that “slavery for 400 years…sounds like a choice.” But as with his Twitter rant, there were plenty of other claims that largely escaped the public’s attention. He enthusiastically repeated Fox News’ racist ‘black-on-black crime’ talking point. He lauded Trump for allowing business owners to bypass regulations and increase their profits. Perhaps most upsetting of all, he proudly embraced ignorance: “we can talk about history, but not too long.” Like the speaker in “Blood on the Leaves,” West bullishly shouted down the lessons of the past. It was a deplorable show of bad politics and bad morals.

West’s garish behavior continued for months, culminating in a visit to the White House in October. Sitting across from Trump, West gave a ten-minute, seemingly unprepared speech. There were bits of real content sprinkled in—like West’s insightful, if bizarrely expressed, take on the 13th Amendment—but they were drowned in a sea of spurious nonsense. The President looked thrilled. And then, at the end of October, it all seemed to stop. Following an apparently minor scuffle with his then-friend Owens (the two subsequently parted ways), West announced on Twitter: “my eyes are now wide open and now realize [sic] I’ve been used to spread messages I don’t believe in. I am distancing myself from politics and completely focusing on being creative.” But then, on the first day of 2019, West came circling back: “Trump all day,” he tweeted. “Just so in 2019 you know where I stand.” The Kanye show was back on the air.

When the headlines about West’s comments at TMZ first flashed across my phone last spring, I reacted with bemusement rather than anger. What he had said was jaw-dropping, to be sure, but it seemed more like a particularly ugly sideshow than an event of real political importance. I rolled my eyes, watched a few highlights from the TMZ video, and went back to my day. I had been listening to some of my favorite West songs all week, and his new comments weren’t about to stop me. The song I had on repeat that day was “Runaway. “You’ve been putting up with my shit just way too long,” West rapped into my headphones. I smiled.

But as West continued to assert his views, I began to realize that his alt-right outburst merited an angrier response than I had given. I finally got around to watching the TMZ video in its entirety, and I was struck by the response of Van Lathan, the black TMZ employee who became momentarily famous for shouting back at West from across the office floor. Lathan told West that there would be “real-world, real-life consequence” for what he was saying, and accused him of ignoring how the President he was embracing was a threat to the lives of black Americans who don’t live in West’s celebrity bubble. What struck me was the intensity of Lathan’s feeling. For Lathan, West was not merely another celebrity gone off the rails; he was a powerful man doing harm to the very community that had made him a star. Lathan, in his own words, was “unbelievably hurt.”

The magnitude of West’s betrayal fully hit me when I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ blistering essay “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye” the following week. Coates’ piece was not solely concerned with West—it was about the intersections of celebrity, race, and heritage. But what stayed with me was his searing condemnation of West’s immorality: “West’s ignorance is not merely deep, but also dangerous.” He said that West had “chosen collaboration.” He accused West of “lending his imprimatur, as well as his Twitter platform of some 28 million people [now more than 29], to the racist rhetoric of the conservative movement.” He argued that West had become “a mouthpiece” for America’s most horrific instincts.[1] He was right.

As the gravity of West’s remarks sank in, I could have abandoned it all, wiped the slate clean and said what so many others were saying at that time: I’m done with Kanye West. Instead, I found myself going back to all of my old West favorites in order to explore my conflicted reaction to his public offenses. Would I still love his art as much as I had? Would I feel guilt or regret about that love? Would the image of West in his MAGA hat prompt me to reevaluate his past work? It did not; I loved his albums as much as I ever had. Still, the conflict between my admiration for West’s music and my disdain for his recent remarks did not sit well with me. I began constructing a simple story, one designed as much to exculpate me, the listener, as to describe reality: Kanye West was a brilliant artist who could not handle fame, stumbled into the arms of an evil political movement, and lost his former genius. If this turned out to be the case—if West had been a great artist, but no longer was—then perhaps I didn’t need to reckon with the fact that I delighted in the art of a Trump supporter.

Then a burst of new music arrived, fresh on the heels of all the controversy, and my simple story fell apart. I thought the new albums were terrific. West released five albums in May and June. Three of them were works he produced for other artists. The other two were a solo album entitled ye and a collaboration with Kid Cudi entitled Kids See Ghosts. Two of the three West-produced albums (Pusha T’s Daytona and Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E) were excellent: tightly constructed, brilliantly produced (West’s hallmark), mischievously dirty, and a lot of fun. But the core of West’s project lay in ye and Kids See Ghosts, and these were the albums to which I found myself returning over and over again in the subsequent months, drawn in by an orbit of unexpected potency.

ye and Kids See Ghosts are powerful because they spring from a spirit of reckless, instinctual, first-thought-best-thought creative force: “just say it out loud, just to see how it feels,” as West says on the first track of ye. The result is that they shift form constantly, sometimes even mid-song. In the case of ye, this shape-shifting is evident from the first track, “I Thought About Killing You”: it begins as a dark, meditative spoken-word monologue, only to transform midway through into a dance track with a powerful trap beat. The album is full of such jarring pivots—stylistically, structurally, and in content. “Yikes” and “All Mine” are energized chunks of braggadocio in which West boasts about his invincibility and sexual prowess; “Wouldn’t Leave” and “Violent Crimes” are soulful, almost repentant songs in which West criticizes himself for his irresponsible behavior and his objectification of women, even as he sporadically continues to objectify them. The album does not bother to choose between its many seemingly contradictory identities—it swerves between them at breakneck speed, daring you to come along for the ride. Kids See Ghosts is equally impossible to pin down, oscillating between jittery, nerve-jangling energy and warm, contemplative self-reflection.

The music is a mess, full of intellectual inconsistencies and unpolished lyrics. And it is precisely this disarray that is the source of its impact and profundity. West’s work has always fused vast musical knowledge with sheer artistic instinct, and never before has he so fully allowed his impulses to take over, spilling his influences and contradictions and half-made soundscapes onto the tracks. This is a different artistic mode than that of “Blood on the Leaves.” What distinguished that song was its thoughtfulness and intentionality. West had a plan, and he executed it. Not a lot on ye and Kids See Ghosts feels planned. This is West’s new project: he wants to strike by ambush, creating work before he even knows what he wants to say. It’s not that the music is vacuous, but rather that West has chosen a different route to reach his insights. He wants to stumble upon them, surprising himself as much as us, and he trusts that his instincts will lead him to something worthwhile.

In and of itself, instinctual randomness does not make for a great album—the work must still be more than the sum of its parts. Thrillingly, improbably, ye and Kids See Ghosts add up to something profound. West makes us feel the pit at the center of being human, the deep chasm where loss, sorrow, desperation, and the knowledge of mortality reside. He never directly references the pit, but instead evokes everything that surrounds it, all the bluster, numbness, and giddy energy that are on the periphery of that terrible center. West shows us the shadows, not the thing itself. He doesn’t have to: we can feel how close it is. He is able to do this because he possesses the inexplicable instincts of a great poet, the ability to pluck the right phrase or sound as if from thin air. Take, for example, the most memorable line on ye, which is delivered by guest artist 070 Shake. Near the end of “Ghost Town, she howls: “I put my hand on a stove to see if I still bleed.” In an interview upon the album’s release, Shake told a revealing story about the line’s creation: “it’s funny because my actual lyric was, ‘To see if I still feel.’ And then Ye [West] was like, ‘I want you to say bleed.’” West does not need to explain his revision—when you hear Shake deliver the line, the words are simply right.

Kanye West has placed those who admire his work in a confounding predicament. His public persona over the past six months has been immoral. The content of ye and Kids See Ghosts, while far more nuanced than West’s public statements, is not unimpeachably ethical: both albums feature sexist lyrics as well as moments in which West defends or minimizes his recent behavior. And yet I think these albums are extraordinary. What happens now?


 The cleanest answer is obvious: boycott Kanye West. For some, the impulse to do so is rooted in a visceral reaction—the same hurt that Lathan described, mixed with sheer disgust. This is understandable. But others, either implicitly or explicitly, use logical arguments to justify a boycott. The most sophisticated of these rationalizations is what we could call the argument from economic dissent, and it takes the following form. It is a shame, the boycotter says, to abandon the music of Kanye West. But we cannot stand idly by as a powerful public figure advances ideas that sanction the oppression of our fellow citizens. We must make it known that these ideas are unacceptable. And for the vast majority of us, the only communication we have with West is through the music he sells. Unfortunate as it is, we must therefore show our disapproval by refusing to buy.

This is a powerful argument. It is true that the most efficacious way to voice displeasure with West is to stop buying and streaming his albums. The alternatives—an angry Facebook post, a sharply worded letter, a comment amongst friends—seem pathetically ineffectual. And we should certainly want to send a message to West that his support of racist rhetoric and policies is unacceptable. West’s platform is huge: more than 29 million followers on Twitter alone. His actions, in combination with his power, demand pushback. And yet I think that this argument for a boycott should not be accepted, for it fails to recognize (or else gravely underestimates) the damaging precedent that a boycott would set.

To grasp this danger, we must understand the premises on which the argument from economic dissent rests. By arguing that we should abandon West’s music to show dissent for his public statements, the boycotter fuses (however reluctantly) the man with the music, the artist with the art. Listening to West’s music, per this logic, is an endorsement of his brand, and thereby of him in his entirety: music, public statements, private behavior, all of it. The problem with this is that it treats artists like politicians, viewing each as an inseparable entity deserving of either support or opposition. We hold—or at least should hold—our politicians to specific standards. They ought to check their facts, avoid contradicting themselves, and be wary of the repercussions of their public statements and actions. We look to them for moral public positions. If they do not meet these standards, they do not deserve our support. And because our option is binary (vote for or against), a politician who does not deserve our support necessarily deserves our opposition. But to approach artists in the same way is an error. If we treat artists like politicians, then we will come to believe that our perspective on them should hinge on their consistency and their morality, that we should give a thumbs up to the artist who voices good politics on a late-night talk show and a thumbs down to the artist who says something morally “problematic” (to use that vaguest and cheapest of contemporary critical terms). We will listen to the albums of the artist whom we endorse as a person and disregard the albums of the artist whom we condemn as a person. This will happen quite irrespective of other factors that determine the quality of artistic work, like technique, emotional impact, or insight.

Whence do we get the notion that listening to an album is the same as endorsing all aspects of the artist, equivalent to voting for a candidate? The root of the idea is simple: in America, we vote with our wallets. When we choose to buy a certain product rather than its competition, we say yea to the former and nay to the latter. Then the companies making those products look at how much they sold and decide how they should change to get more purchases—more ‘votes,’ in other words. Buying music, the reasoning goes, is no different; when we listen to an album on Spotify, we tell the maker of the album that we support him, and that he should keep doing what he has been doing to earn our continued patronage. So listening to West’s music does not merely convey curiosity about the work of an artist—it gives a vote to the man and all he says and does.

When this argument is applied to strictly commercial products, it is logical and productive. Papa John’s and Pizza Hut both mass produce pizza, but only the former has an ex-CEO who was caught making racist comments. If I were a regular customer of Papa John’s, it would make sense for me to transfer my business to Pizza Hut. It’s just a substitution of one second-rate pizza for another; why not use my dollars to make a statement? But applying the argument to art is different. Unlike Papa John’s pizza, whose sole purpose is to create a product that will attract buyers, art (when it is good) is made for reasons other than pulling in the maximum number of customers. To use the logic of commercial mass-production for art is an embrace of capitalism in its crassest form—which is why it is disappointing to see so much of the left adopt this argument.

It is not entirely our fault: we have been raised on Marvel Studios and Taylor Swift, Fast and Furious and Ed Sheeran. Like most Americans, I enjoy some of these products and don’t enjoy others. But they are all just that: products, like Papa John’s and Pizza Hut. Encouraged by movie studios and record companies, Americans have become accustomed to the idea that works of art are merely another type of product that we buy at the mall. Browse well, then pick your favorite brand. But serious artists are not brands. They do not offer us near-identical products at comparable costs. Each piece of art is a singularity: just because two artists make work in the same medium and genre, we cannot conclude that they are interchangeable, nor that we should vote for one at the expense of another.

To stop listening to West and compensate by doubling my consumption of Jay-Z—or even to be more proactive and transfer my listening-dollars to an up-and-coming rapper with admirable politics—is to follow the pizza model. It implicitly posits that the primary purpose of West’s art was to fulfill a quota in my musical diet, to satisfy a craving that could just as well be sated elsewhere. Admittedly, West’s particular affinity for corporate branding makes my defense of art as a non-commercial enterprise look a little silly. This is a man who has his own multi-million-dollar sneaker line and has mastered the game of promoting his persona as a brand; as Jay-Z might put it, West is not a businessman, he’s a business, man. Is it not naïve to say that his output should be exempted from the capitalist game? Perhaps—but West’s work is a risky and distinctive act of creative expression. For all the money and branding that surrounds it, the music is art. To say that such work is just another product would mean that talking seriously about art is utterly inane, like spending hours debating the merits of Papa John’s pizza. This is the consequence of the argument from economic dissent: it establishes a model whereby art is just one more thing coming off the endless corporate assembly line.

We are thus caught between a rock and a hard place: either keep listening and lose an opportunity to meaningfully dissent, or boycott and lose the right to take art seriously. Neither option is ideal, and yet we must choose—there is no middle ground. It is not desirable to give Kanye West a free pass for what he has said; it is immoral. But setting a precedent that denies the value of art, that treats it as just another product, strips society of an indispensable source of value. To protect this core, we must be willing to become morally flawed. An imperfect solution is the best one I can find and the only one I can accept: uneasy but unwavering, I will continue to listen.

There is a second rationale for boycotting West’s music: the argument from hindsight. This argument posits that West’s recent statements have tainted his past artistic output, or at least brought out its worst aspects. The components of West’s music that were always present—the misogyny, bullish narcissism, and muddled racial politics—now no longer appear incidental. In light of his recent statements, they seem to be part of a consistent project running through West’s oeuvre, a project which led to Trumpism. Coates alluded to this argument in his piece on West, claiming that “one is forced to conclude that an ethos of ‘light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands,’ of ‘mutts’ and ‘thirty white bitches,’ deserved more scrutiny.” Indeed, Coates wondered whether such elements of West’s music were in fact “evidence of an emerging theme.”[2] If they were, then perhaps it is a legitimate act of artistic reinterpretation to now abandon West’s music, both past and present; why give our time to a project that was inexorably bending to the right, to slavery-as-a-choice, to racism?

The argument from hindsight is powerful because it rests on musical interpretation rather than economic justifications—it has no need of the pizza model. And yet it shares a central premise with the argument from economic dissent: that an artist’s work is one indivisible whole, and therefore can be treated as a coherent political project from beginning to end. This is a tempting approach, allowing one to cherry-pick those pieces of an artist’s work that fall in line with his current statements. But it is simplistic: most worthwhile artists do not have a single argument running through their work. Instead, their oeuvres are rich with contradictions—and this is certainly the case with Kanye West.

For while it is easy to pluck morsels of Trumpism from his lyrics, it is equally easy to find ideas that contradict West’s current statements. Take the lyric Coates referenced about “thirty white bitches.” The full lyric (from his 2010 song “So Appalled”) is “champagne wishes, thirty white bitches / I mean this shit is fucking ridiculous.” Is this a crass glorification of excess, a self-lacerating critique of the speaker’s crassness, or both? As is frequently the case in West’s music, it is hard to tell. Contradictions and the tensions they yield are precisely what makes West’s work remarkable; to gloss over them in search of a single political project would be a mistake. Nor is West unaware of his role as a curator of inconsistencies. One of the most memorable lines from ye comes during “Violent Crimes,” when West interrupts his own monologue about the misogyny that his daughter might face from violent men to take an unforgiving look in the mirror: “how you the devil rebukin’ the sin?”

There is something important at stake here: the question of who gets the final say in interpreting an artist’s work. West’s current statements do his music no favors. He is, intentionally or not, encouraging listeners to focus on the most immoral aspects of his art. But to follow his lead and thereby conclude that we were mistaken to hear anything other than racism, misogyny, and denial of history in his work necessarily posits that the artist is the best interpreter of his own work. This is not the case. It is perfectly possible for an artist to reach insights in his work that he did not intend, or else to retroactively misinterpret his own creation. So when I hear West claim that “we can talk about history, but not too long,” I see no need to revise my reading of “Blood on the Leaves” as a song that critiques historical forgetting. That interpretation did not rely on West’s affirmation—it relied only on the music. Denying the artist interpretive authority affirms the mysterious potential of art: that it can say something even its maker does not know.

The twin notions that an artist’s body of work is indivisible and that his interpretation is correct also produce a third justification for boycotting, one that is particularly pervasive and particularly flawed: the argument from purity. This argument posits that letting the words of Kanye West enter one’s head makes the listener less moral. The unethical components of the music, in tandem with the recent statements of its maker, corrupt the listener’s mind. This argument rests, like the argument from hindsight, on the notion that West’s entire body of work has a single definition, one largely determined by his current statements. If we imbibe the music, we only internalize the bad bits. The argument from purity thus falls on the same flaw as the argument from hindsight.

But it takes a further logical misstep: if we choose not to imbibe the music of artists like Kanye West, it suggests, then perhaps we can avoid immorality. Perhaps we can be pure. While this desire is understandable, it is impossible: part of being human is having immoral thoughts and figuring out what to do with them. One cannot succeed in ridding oneself of such thoughts by refusing to take in morally-questionable art. We should want to be good people—but that means doing the hard work of grappling with immoral thoughts, not refusing to engage with them. To mute morally questionable content is thus more about appearing moral than actually being moral. If we make our minds into sacred cities, guarded at all times to ensure that nothing other than agreeable and morally sound ideas (or ideas stated by agreeable and morally scrupulous people) get in, we do so with little benefit and at great cost: we starve ourselves of ideas.

Suppose that we accept my arguments against boycotting West’s music. Now we must pose a slightly different question: is it okay to like that music? Those who would answer in the negative assert that West’s music has immoral components (even when considered separately from his public persona), so to like it is immoral. This fails to recognize that morality is not a binary, but a sliding scale. Some works of art (most of them boring) are scrupulous and pure in their morality. Some works are horrific and evil in their morality (or lack thereof). But the interesting work exists somewhere in the middle. So while it would indeed be immoral to feel fondness for The Birth of a Nation or Triumph of the Will, the morality of liking things that lie somewhere in the grey zone—that are immoral here and there, but not to their core––is far more complicated.

Our assessment of these works must therefore incorporate the other scales in play—those measuring technique, emotional impact, insight, and pleasure, to name a few. When a work ranks highly on all of these scales but has morally questionable moments, it is not wrong to like that work. Morality is one factor of many in the consideration of art. In the 1936 film Swing Time, for example, Fred Astaire performs a dance in blackface. The dance is not central to the plot, it is not a lengthy portion of the film—but it is there, and it is immoral. Does this mean that we must dislike the whole film, that we should not express fondness for any of its other aspects? Or what of The Beatles, who sang “I’d rather see you dead, little girl, than to be with another man”—is all of Rubber Soul now irredeemable? No: to introduce nuance into our reactions, to say that we admire a piece of art while recognizing its moments of failure, is an essential skill. It allows us to holistically appreciate works rather than being blinded by a single shortcoming. Kanye West’s music stretching all the way back to The College Dropout is not perfectly moral. It has moments of shortcoming, some of them disturbing; these are worth discussing. But I still love the music, and I still will return to it, again and again.


 One question remains, the most important one of all: why is art worth it? It is easy to forget how to respond to this. Moment by moment, day by day, it seems like the world is falling apart. In comparison to such terrible threats, doesn’t the venerated space in which artists experiment out loud look less important? No thinking person can avoid this creeping doubt, nor the thought that follows: maybe there’s just no room in our world today for anything but politics, for the clean, sharp, stubborn lines of resistance. Why should we invest so much time and energy defending the reckless ambiguities of art? If there is a chance that listening to Kanye West makes one less moral, or makes the world less good, why is it worth the risk?

There is no one answer. Art gives us many things, and what it gives shifts depending on the needs of the society and the listener. Most obviously, it gives us insight: “Blood on the Leaves,” for example, changed how I saw America. Equally evident is that art can offer pleasure, something that is often trivialized but is an essential part of a good life and a good society. As that most poetic of American socialist slogans asserts, we do not only need bread—we need roses too. Recently I found myself listening to West’s song “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” in a nearly-deserted subway car while returning home late at night. When the beat dropped, it was so graceful, so decisive, so supple, that I let out a giddy laugh. I could not contain myself: the sheer pleasure that the music had brought me needed to be expressed. It was soul-enlivening.

And art also heals. Few would think of West’s music as soothing, and yet a strain of gentle humanism runs through his entire body of work. From “Family Business” (2004) to “Ultralight Beam” (2016) to “Cudi Montage” (2018), West has made songs that are hymns to community, prayers for deliverance, benedictions for continued life. Like so much else in his music, the healing power of these songs stems from West’s mastery of contrast—frequently such songs are situated on albums directly before or after harsh, feverishly energetic tracks. This positioning accentuates the music’s healing power, making it feel necessary and earned. West’s music offers not the cheap and short-lived salve of comfort, but the deep satisfaction of empathy. It does not solve our problems, but it reminds us that we are not alone, and that someday, somehow, salvation might be possible.

But art can also offer something else, something more mysterious. That mystery something is best defined by example. In June, someone published a short video on YouTube, an excerpt from the listening party that West held in Wyoming to release ye. The video, shakily filmed on a cell phone, drops the viewer in during “Ghost Town.” On the outskirts of the party, 070 Shake is dancing to the booming sound of her own outro: “and nothing hurts anymore, I feel kind of freeeeee.” Shake is only 21 years old, and she still looks and carries herself like the kid from small-town New Jersey that she is. She is jubilant, and as the sound of the song rises she runs off into the wide-open Wyoming field behind her, carving out a wide arc, returning to the crowd’s edge, then veering off again. As she runs, she extends her arms like a child imitating an airplane. A bright light throws her into sharp relief, illuminating a young artist’s joy for all to see. “We’re still the kids we used to beeeee.” Lil Yachty’s distinctive red braids bounce into the frame. The whole time, a stocky white man in a cowboy hat lurks in the background, not moving, flanked by an equally stationary dog. “I put my hand on a stooooove to see if I still bleeeeeed.”

It is an astonishing scene: strange, hilarious, inspiring, disturbing, intensely moving. Every time I watch it, this little video embeds itself into my consciousness like a seed and then grows rapidly, pushing outward until it is no longer a part of me but I am a part of it, and then it keeps expanding until it is not something but everything, the whole of what I see, feel, and know. In one little minute, it captures the mystery and sorrow and joy and tumult of being alive. That is what art can give.

Kanye West may not be your artist of choice. You may feel none of what I feel when you listen to his music. But whichever artist shapes your world and returns it to you as a gift, dynamic in its imperfection—do not trade that person’s contribution for a little more dissent and a false assurance of purity. Art is not a product, nor a way to reaffirm the perfection of our morals. It is the record of our collective time here on earth. If we do not choose to value that, then we may one day turn around to see that we’re living in a society with no justification for art. Or, far more terrifyingly, we may not turn around at all.

[1] Coates, Ta-Nehisi. "I'm Not Black, I'm Kanye." The Atlantic. May 7, 2018. https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2018/05/im-not-black-im-kanye/559763/.

[2] Ibid.