The rise and fall of Kanye West

How the most important hip hop artist of the century has become a pariah with no future, a demise five years in the making

Singer Kanye West.
Xavi Sancho

One evening in late February 2011, designer John Galliano sat drunk and stoned on a sidewalk table of Café La Perle in Paris and directed a series of anti-Semitic insults at the occupants of an adjoining table. The incident was recorded and went viral. The couturier was immediately fired from Dior and generally ostracized. It seemed that his career was dead, but three years later he was hired by Martin Margiela, and Vogue magazine offered him the chance to tell the world how much he regretted his behavior. Ten years after that fateful February afternoon in the French capital, books are once again being published celebrating his talent and articles written reminding us that he may have been the last free designer.

This week, Kanye West, 45, one of the greatest hip hop artists of the 21st century, has similarly entered a spiral of senseless anti-Semitism that has cost him, among other things, his lucrative deal with Adidas. Shortly after the German firm issued a statement announcing it would be ending its creative and commercial relationship with Yeezy, the rapper’s label, West’s career as a musician, designer and celebrity was well and truly over. The only remaining question is whether we will be talking about Kanye in 10 years, just as we talk about Galliano today. Or will we, rather, have to wait until the rapper dies to celebrate the talent that won him 22 Grammy Awards?

“Kanye, for me, controversially, is, in my opinion, the greatest artist of our generation. I love his music,” Nick Cave said on October 27 in London. “But for me, for him to pull out these antisemitic tropes, I think it’s, personally, disgraceful. Does this person need to descend from such great heights down to such tedious shit we’ve heard so much so often? It’s deeply disappointing to me, and for some time it might be difficult for me personally to listen to a Kanye record.”

The difference between Kanye West’s case and that of other artists who have been involved in similar controversies is that, at the moment, only Cave seems to be talking about the artistic talent of the accused. And he does so while pointing out that the brilliance of albums Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy do not excuse him from offensive behavior, something that fans of Louis C. K., Woody Allen and Picasso sometimes find hard to grasp.

But the certified artistic death of Kanye West has been five years in the making. The beginning of his descent into nonsense, outbursts and flirtations with all sorts of offensive attitudes coincides with the release of his first bad album. The year 2017 was to be something of a Jacobean year for West, who has changed his name to Ye. He had bought a ranch in Wyoming, was deliriously happy with his wife, Kim Kardashian, and was preparing the release of his new album Ye, which was to be followed by Yandhi, his much-announced sequel to one of his most successful albums, Yeezus.

He was also to produce music for colleagues such as Pusha T and Kid Cudi that was to be released on his label GOOD Music, which would make him the most successful hip hop reference of our era. But Ye’s release was delayed again, and again, and again. Meanwhile, West began to tweet relentlessly and outrageously, prompting his expulsion from Twitter, though he has just been readmitted to the platform following the Elon Musk takeover. He even posted that he was preparing a philosophy book that would help everyone not just to be happier, but to be as happy as him. When the album was finally released, the disappointment was monumental. The only good thing about it was the phrase that could be read on the cover: “I hate being bipolar, it’s wonderful.” Yandhi never saw the light of day.

Up to that point, the Atlanta native’s musical career had been virtually flawless. In 2000, he collaborated on The Blueprint, the album that revitalized Jay-Z’s career. He wrote songs for Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson, but, curiously, he struggled to get a record deal to release an album under his own name because the labels did not see him as badass enough. In 2004, he finally released his first solo album, The College Dropout. Immediately, he became a legend. And it was precisely in 2011, when Galliano was hurling anti-Semitic abuse, that he reached artistic and commercial nirvana with a tour to present his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which, according to swathes of the media, was the best hip hop show ever; then came Watch the Throne, a collaboration with his friend Jay-Z.

But as his solo career kicked off, there were also signs that all was not well with West, particularly when he stormed out of the American Music Awards after failing to win. But in these last five years his decline has accelerated, destroying his personal and professional life simultaneously. He divorced Kim Kardashian, ran for US president, released his worst album, Donda (2021). And, a year later, the sequel; and, for the first time since he debuted in 2004, no one cared.

In 2020, Kim Kardashian, then still married to the musician, released a message on social media: “As many of you know, Kanye has bipolar disorder. Anyone who has it or who has a loved one in their life who suffers from it knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand.”

The words were echoed by the media, including the BBC, which also quoted the testimony of a young bipolar girl: “I’ve done things I’m going to regret for years.” One can only hope that, one day, Kanye West will be able to say the same. In the meantime, fans of his music can only repeat the phrase on the cover of that distant and forgotten Ye: “We hate Kanye West, he’s wonderful.”

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