"The Old Kanye," as even Kanye West refers to himself, was like the Robert Moses of hip-hop, tearing apart neighborhoods, installing roads and requiring the general population to follow his rules.
Who made Auto-Tune a legitimate tool for MCs? (T-Pain had to bear the brunt of West snatching that innovation from him.) Who recast the very nature of the sample? Who made radical vulnerability a thing?
The current Kanye — we'd say "new," but he'll be different by the end of the day — is more like a nervous Airbnb owner in charge of an impressive property he's constantly fussing with. On Thursday, instead of releasing his new album, "The Life of Pablo" — as promised in a recent tweet — West played a version of the album at Madison Square Garden and simultaneously revealed his new fashion line, Yeezy Season 3. Was it a successful event? Is it a good album?
To the first question, the answer seems to be yes. Kanye smiled a lot and danced with his famous friends as he played new songs from his laptop. Naomi Campbell wore a big fur! Models wore my old crocheted wool vests from the '70s! (Maybe.) Young Thug sat on a platform, wearing a shearling coat that had apparently been crossbred with a highlighter, looking bored (though one of the 38 instructions handed to the models was "NO SMILE"). Video of the whole event has been posted online, and if you want to get into a colorful, messy party for free you can.
As to the album, it is still being revised as of this writing. But a shift has already taken place. West was in charge of genre innovation for more than a decade. Now he is simply of his genre.
West has been something of a force field when it comes to public gaffes, the hip-hop version of "Manny being Manny." West has always combined spirituality, profanity, self-doubt, immense braggadocio, skill and ineptitude. But the nature of his successes and failures has changed.
When West blasted George W. Bush over the federal response to Hurricane Katrina in September 2005, he fast-forwarded a vital American political discussion. When West interrupted Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards in 2009 to point out that Beyoncé's "Single Ladies" video was "one of the best videos of all time," he was right. (Does anyone even remember which video Swift received an award for?)
A West fan must be willing to embrace the Cuisinart of his ego and ambition, and that's a reasonable bargain. But this bargain depends on the balance of triumphs and mistakes in play; a listener can turn from a supporter into a sycophant in the space of one song.
One mistake of the moment is a line on "Famous," a song that features Swizz Beatz, a sample of Sister Nancy's "Bam Bam" and a passage of Rihanna singing from Nina Simone's "Do What You Gotta Do." (A sample of Simone's original recording closes the song.) The line comes toward the opening of the song, when West claims that he might "still" have sex with Swift, and that he made her famous. In a disappointingly removed and hesitant way, Swift's team has denied that she approved the lyric, an assertion that West has already contradicted, even crediting Swift with the idea for the words. It's only one line on a complex album, but it's worth a look.
First of all, enough with Swift. He's already reviewed the VMAs interruption, at length, in a speech at the 2015 VMAs, where he also announced his intention to run for president in 2020.
The real disappointment is in the politics. Men and women can certainly talk about having sex in a song. Nicki Minaj and Drake did it, consensually, in "Only," a sexually charged and collegial number that makes both artists look confident. "Famous" just feels like West losing track of anything like a political center, insulting a woman he's gone to lengths, in public, to befriend.
In his 2015 VMAs speech, West asked, "If I had a daughter at that time would I have went on stage and grabbed the mic from someone else's?" Well, West does have a daughter now, who was in the Madison Square Garden audience on Thursday. Among other questionable lyrics, West described an unwholesome encounter with a model in "Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1 & Pt. 2," which finds West worrying more about his T-shirt than the woman in question. The line must have made someone in the Kardashian clan uncomfortable, even if North West didn't catch the lyric.
None of this helps following one of West's worst years on Twitter, unless the next 10 months go really well. In January, he attacked rapper Wiz Khalifa and West's ex, Amber Rose. Rose then shut him down with a single tweet about their shared sexual history. West deleted all of the offending tweets, then unconvincingly denied her claims after an uncharacteristically long pause.
On Feb. 9, apparently determined to become a fully licensed misogynist, he tweeted (and has not deleted) "BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!" As you're reading this, there is probably some new back and forth between West and Swift over the "Famous" line, her PR team or one of her squadron.
One reason to set aside most of the album, not simply because it isn't fair to assess unfinished work, is to take stock of what West wants us to do with him the rest of the time, when he's designing clothes or making public statements. At the end of the Madison Square Garden show, he declared that he wanted to be the creative director of Hermès and tweeted the same. Will he do that? Will he run for president? His most consistent move of late is the takeback, so place your bets carefully.
To let him "Kanye gonna Kanye" through all of this would be a condescension to a major artist, which he is. Contradictions and ugliness have a place in art, a privilege West leaned heavily on in "Yeezus," an album that still burns.
"The Life of Pablo" is a rambler, so far, a compendium of disparate feelings and guest appearances that comes across like the sketchbook it looked like on Twitter, where West was continually posting pictures of notebooks and legal pads covered with titles.
If West needs inspiration when it comes to having a sense of humor about yourself and having a generous attitude toward others, there's a member of his team he can talk with: his wife.