Maybe Kanye isn’t as talented as Bowie. Maybe his legacy won’t be as great. But he is the only mainstream star today taking the same kind of risks
And there it is. As sure as night follows day, the news that Kanye West is considering making an album of David Bowie covers and interpretations has provoked the inevitable apoplexy. The venom thrown at West is dispiritingly predictable, and to a degree understandable. After all, he makes himself very easy to dislike – just as Bowie made it extremely easy for terrified parents and uptight bores to dislike him in his creative heyday.
The fact is, though, that West is the closest we have to Bowie in the modern mainstream. There is nobody else who can sell as many records as West does (30m-odd album sales and counting) while remaining so resolutely experimental and capable of stirring things up culturally and politically.
This is a man who could enter a sales race with 50 Cent at the peak of his fame, and win with an album full of musical references to King Crimson, Aphex Twin and Italo-disco, and lyrics that depict a mind and a global situation in as much turmoil as Ziggy or Diamond Dogs’s apocalyptic narratives ever depicted.
A man who brings to audiences of millions tracks that sound like Autechre or Gary Glitter or both, co-produced by Glaswegian former happy hardcore DJ turned electronica experimentalists or gender-subversive Venezuelan noise musicians, with lyrics about slavery, deities and the drug trade. A man who has posed difficult questions about the nature of masculinity in popular culture, and blended rap’s braggadocio with equal measures of doubt and fear. A man who can get Paul McCartney making records that will be pumped out of Jeeps in Atlanta, and with one phone call fill the stage for the Brits with the cream of underground grime stars. There is nobody else – nobody – this weird in the mainstream.
This is not – as if it needed to be spelt out – to say that West is “the new Bowie”, or is as good as Bowie. It’s not even to say that West is a great artist, or even a good person. All of those are value judgments, and only decades of posterity will tell whether West’s importance, influence or popularity will approach Bowie’s. Anyone is more than entitled to dislike West: as I say, he makes it easy. Even fans find it hard sometimes: he has said and done crass and questionable things, from his association with Louis Farrakhan of the Nation of Islam to his creepy support for the rapper Tyga’s relationship with Kylie Jenner, which began when she was 17 (the age of consent in California is 18). But then, is anyone going to pretend that Bowie, too, wasn’t a (scary) monster at certain points during his creative heyday?
The point is, you might find West’s work offensive or lacking merit. But you cannot deny that he has made records that sound like no one else’s, taking enormous creative and commercial risks each time, lyrically examining the nature of what he does as well as questioning the collective mood of the times, inhabiting myriad disturbing alter egos, and becoming loathed and vilified like no other musician. He has expressed himself in other media as well as music, and entered partnerships with artists from the most mainstream to the far leftfield.
That’s what makes him like Bowie, and why it makes more sense to have him pay artistic tribute to Bowie rather than any of the MOR pop stars who are rumoured to be lined up for a tribute at the Brits. Yet here we are, once again, with social media flooded with venom about what an “idiot” he is (always the digs focus on his intelligence), with his face photoshopped on to penises, and memes showing how he and Justin Bieber are responsible for the rot of modern culture.
In comparison to this collective roar of disgust, the disgruntlement at the likes of Chris Martin and Noel Gallagher being considered worthy to step into Bowie’s shoes is but a murmur. It’s almost as if people who claim to love Bowie in all his variety and transgressiveness don’t actually like it that much when other stars step outside their allotted roles.
This article was written by Joe Muggs, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 19th January 2016 13.30 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010