In honor of me turning 30, I made mix CDs of my favorite songs from each of my 30 favorite musical artists/groups. Read the introductory post for more background information on my 30 at 30 project. Reminder: there is no scientific rationale for this list. They’re simply my personal favorites. Coming in at number 4 is Kanye West.
With apologies to Eminem, Kanye West is probably my most controversial inclusion on this list, especially ranking as high as he does. Kanye West is a polarizing figure who over the past 10-15 years has grown from little known beat-maker, to well-known rapper to full-blown celebrity. Love him or hate him, if you pay any attention to pop culture in 2015, you likely have an opinion about Kanye West.
Rembert Browne wrote an article in February titled “We Love (And Hate) Kanye West Because He Says What We Think,” in which he astutely observed the following:
What Kanye has managed to do is unlike anyone else. He’s not a divider. It’s not that black people love him and white people hate him. Or men love him and women hate him. Or rap fans love him and non-rap fans loathe him. Or young people love him and old people despise him. Or even that Democrats love him and Republicans think he’s the absolute worst.
He’s found a way to rub large segments of every demographic the wrong way. Even Kanye West fans are split on the public persona of Kanye West. There are few things like it.
The polarized response to Kanye is similar to that of another public figure who Kanye name-drops in his verse on the “Ego” (Remix) embedded above, a certain NBA superstar that shares some common character traits with Mr. West: Kobe Bryant.
Like Kanye, Kobe has a loyal legion of fans who will passionately defend him against any negative comments. And like West, there is also never a shortage of negative comments being made in reference to Bryant. (Seriously, if you want to lose faith in rational human interaction, search Twitter for “Kanye West” or “Kobe Bryant” at pretty much any time of day or night.)
Both West and Bryant are undeniably gifted. Kanye West is both critically and commercially one of the most successful hip hop artists of all-time. Similarly, Kobe Bryant is statistically one of the most impactful players in NBA history and his starring role in five NBA championships puts him in the discussion among the games all-time greats. You can argue where Kanye and Kobe fall in the all-time pecking orders of their respective crafts, but they have accomplished to much to be left out of the discussion regardless of whether you like them or not. (There are also people who are entirely dismissive of the NBA as a genre of basketball and/or rap as a genre of music, but I’ll table those arguments for another day.)
The anti-Kanye camp and the anti-Kobe camp have many of the same gripes. Their complaints center around one of the most compelling questions in celebrity culture, an issue that likely has a different answer depending on who is being asked. Should celebrities be judged based on their work, their life outside of their work, or some combination of both? And if it’s the latter, what is the formula that determines such a criteria?
The biggest complaints about Kanye and Kobe are rarely about what they have accomplished in music or basketball. Generally, the complaints about them are about the perceived character flaw of hubris that they share. “Pride comes before the fall,” say the haters, as they wait with bated breath for Kanye and Kobe’s fall from stardom.
The criticism is not entirely without merit, especially if our celebrity approval rating factors in life outside of work. Unfortunately for Kanye and Kobe, if life outside of music and basketball is a significant part of the equation, Kanye and Kobe will always have their critics. Because like it or not, the same reason people hate them is what makes them great.
Kanye West and Kobe Bryant are special for a reason. Kanye West is more than a good rapper. He is a musical pioneer who Paul McCartney recently compared to John Lennon. Kobe Bryant is more than a good basketball player. He is a basketball savant, obsessed with perfecting his craft. However, the greatest strength of Kanye West is not his ability to rap. And the greatest strength of Kobe Bryant is not his ability to score a basketball. The greatest strength of both Kanye and Kobe is their unwavering self-belief. In Kanye’s mind, he is the best rapper alive. In Kobe’s mind, he is the best basketball player alive. Do they sometimes blur the lines between confidence and cockiness? Absolutely. But their belief does not have an off switch.
We live in such a celebrity-obsessed culture. Our society places great demand on our celebrities: musicians, athletes, and entertainers. We want our celebrities to aspire to greatness and, in turn, to inspire us to greatness. Yet we also want our celebrities to be selfless and humble before, during, and after they have achieved said greatness. Fans are willing to forgive a litany of celebrity sins from performance enhancing drug use to infidelity, but if they deem certain celebrities are being selfish or self-centered, they will turn on them or tune them out.
The character foil for Kobe Bryant is Tim Duncan. They came into the league one year apart and both undoubtably will be first ballot Hall of Famers. Both have won five NBA championships. Bryant is 17-time all-star, 4-time All-Star Game MVP, 1-time NBA MVP, and 2-time Finals MVP. Duncan is a 15-time all-star, aa 1-time All-Star Game MVP, a 2-time NBA MVP, and a 3-time Finals MVP. Bryant has played his entire career in the bright lights of Hollywood for the Lakers while Duncan has played his entire career in small market San Antonio for the Spurs. Unlike Kobe Bryant, no one hates Tim Duncan. He is universally respected as the consummate professional and ideal teammate. Is Duncan better than Bryant? Is Bryant better than Duncan? Which player has been the NBA’s best of the 2000s? It is a debate that fans will have for years to come.
It’s less clear who the character foil is for Kanye West. Who is the Tim Duncan of rap? Will Smith? Nas? Rap is more of a brash, in-your-face genre. Perhaps looking more broadly at music in general, someone like Beyoncé would be a more apt comparison as someone with a higher Q score. Everyone would agree Kanye is a better rapper than Beyoncé and Beyoncé is a better singer than Kanye. There is no argument there. But if the question was framed as: who has had a bigger impact on music, Kanye West or Beyoncé? That sets up for a more interesting debate.
As a fan, I am generally willing to overlook minor character flaws in celebrities—such as a lack of humility—especially when the artist/athlete in question would arguably not be as successful without that characteristic. Of course I believe there are some aspects of an artist’s or athlete’s life that cannot be overlooked. There are some personal lines that cannot be crossed without overshadowing professional successes. In general, however, I prioritize the performance over the player and the art over the artist. And that is why I have no trouble ranking Kanye West as my fourth favorite musical artist of all-time.