FRIDAY UPDATE: "The concert is still on! We will see you tonight!" reads the message on Baltimore Arena's website regarding tonight's Kanye West concert. The Yeezus show is on; check back tomorrow for my review.
For the past decade, it seems no one can resist labeling Kanye West.
The hip-hop forefather Russell Simmons, along with countless critics, have said he is a "genius," while President Barack Obama has called him a "jackass" on more than one occasion, surely causing many detractors to nod in agreement. In the last year, The New York Times called him a "visionary," and TV host Jimmy Kimmel reminded the rapper on national TV, "a lot of people think you're a jerk," as if he was unaware the Internet existed.
West would agree most with Simmons, but even then he would be unsatisfied. He made this clear on his latest album, last June's "Yeezus," by naming the third song, "I am a God." He was considerate enough to include God as a featured guest on the track.
"He has a different outlook on life," said Al Payne, 92Q's program director, last week. "He calls himself a genius and he is a genius. He's not being arrogant by saying that."
The case can be made for all of these points, but it all boils down to debatable semantics. What cannot be debated or understated is the fact that West, the 36-year-old from Chicago who headlines Baltimore Arena on Friday, has spent the last 10 years confounding the expectations and broadening the boundaries of popular music. No other provocateur is as equally skilled as he is as polarizing, and that makes West — a gleeful agitator in a pop-culture landscape dominated by corporate synergy and celebrity endorsements — one of the most important mainstream artists working today.
How did we get here? How does West have the cachet to credibly "pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist," as he says on "I'm in It"?
Start with the resume. West has won 21 Grammy Awards from 52 nominations and sold more than 21 million albums worldwide. He has released six consecutive No. 1 albums to near universal acclaim. "Yeezus," an aggressively agitating and often stunning achievement, was the consensus No. 1-rated album for 2013 among hundreds of critics, according to the Village Voice's annual Pazz & Jop albums poll. (This writer had "Yeezus" second; view the full ballot here.) It was the fourth time in six albums West had won the honor, tying him with Bob Dylan for most wins. It took Dylan more than three decades to achieve this; West did it in one.
But for Rickie Jacobs, the 27-year-old Baltimore rapper who has studied West since he released "The College Dropout" in 2004, his impact is more significant than accolades. Jacobs said he dropped a fictional stage name for his "regular government name" because of West. As an artist, he is still inspired most by West's rejection of satisfaction and his constant pursuit of improvement.
"He's that artist any up-and-coming artist should want to study and get the education on because he always wants to get better," Jacobs said earlier this week. "He seems like he drives himself crazy as far as wanting to improve and that's how I feel about my music."
Like swarms of paparazzi, the word "crazy" often follows West. When it comes to the rapper, both seem connected lately: West gets into a public confrontation, gossip site TMZ captures it, a settlement is reached and West airs out his grievances publicly. Recently, the rapper pleaded not guilty to battery and attempted grand theft after an altercation with a paparazzo in Los Angeles. He also reportedly settled out of court with an 18-year-old male West punched inside a chiropractor's office after a racially charged comment by the teenager upset his fiancee, Kim Kardashian.
Payne said these tabloid incidents can distract from the music, but it is not entirely West's fault. He blames the general population's unquenchable thirst for controversy.
"Our society is now finding artists that are lightning rods, and we're pushing them just for TMZ," Payne said. "How does TMZ make its money? It makes its money by coming up with big stories and us going to the website."
Baltimore rapper Kane Mayfield agreed that the non-music headlines West garners can overshadow his art, but that typically happens when an artist reaches the heights West has.
"With the best artists, you're going to have that kind of problem, especially if you're outgoing and eccentric, and you're not boring or dull or freakishly reserved," Mayfield said earlier this week. "Somebody who puts it all on the line is going to have problems like that because when you put yourself out there, people are going to have a snap judgment and make an opinion."
Mayfield is also smart enough to take a step back and remember the truth about celebrity culture as a whole.
"You don't know these people. You know what the marketing people think you should know, but you don't know anything about them," he said.
For someone as outspoken as West, he is private and protective of Kardashian and their daughter, North. While he has deflected personal questions, such as which parent is on diaper duty, in the past year, West has overcompensated in interviews about his own professional abilities. He has famously compared himself to Walt Disney, Michelangelo and Steve Jobs. To detractors, these are outlandish comparisons, and to fans, it is West taking control of his narrative from the media.
Brandon Soderberg, a Baltimore writer who covers hip-hop for Spin, said West's frequent reminders of greatness do not strengthen his case.
"It doesn't do anyone any good to explain their art to people over and over again," Soderberg, 29, said.
West has always been most effective through demonstration, not explanation. He subverted rap by masterfully blending conscious-rap ethos (black empowerment, classism and institutional racism have long been core subjects of West's music) and an MC's natural obsession with being and having the best (luxury raps about haute couture, million-dollar cars and his own general "dopeness" populate West's entire catalog). In one of his first major photo shoots, he popped a Ralph Lauren collar while wearing a Louis Vuitton backpack.
Jacobs said ultimately, West is a trailblazer for aspiring rappers who no longer feel they have to put on an act to fit an untrue persona.
"It's cool to be yourself now. Like Drake and Lupe Fiasco, they're cut from the Kanye cloth," Jacobs said.
While West has undoubtedly influenced the latest generation of rap's A-list, he remains firmly placed at pop music's forefront. While not everyone asked in this story could agree whether West is a true genius (3-1 in favor of yes), all said it did not matter.
But from Payne to Soderberg, they did find common ground. All agree it is West's devotion to the art form — from elevating expectations in rap to shifting the dynamics of radio to releasing fully formed and thought-provoking albums — that separates him from everyone else. Payne said the Yeezus Tour, which is not sold out, is the latest extension of West's artistic journey.
"It's like no other hip-hop show that's out there right now," he said. "His presentation, his art, the way he blends everything together. It's definitely going to be different."
A decade after his first album was released, it would be foolish to expect less.
If you go
Kanye West performs Feb. 14 at Baltimore Arena, 201 W. Baltimore St., downtown. Doors open at 7 p.m. Tickets are $46.50-$126.50. Call 410-347-2020 or go to baltimorearena.com.