Somewhere in the middle of the pep rally/three-ring circus/listening party that Kanye West threw for himself in the World’s Most Famous Arena, he played a song that crystallized everything about the twisting-turning, hype-and-hush, start-and-stop, naming-and-renaming trail that finally (finally!) led to his seventh album.
Four songs in, the maximalist stripped things down and said what everyone’s been thinking:
I miss the old Kanye, [expletive] from the gold Kanye
Talking ’bout the soul Kanye, set all his goals Kanye
I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye
The always rude Kanye, spazz in the news Kanye
“What if Kanye made a song about Kanye, called ‘I Miss the Old Kanye,’” the song continued. “Man, that would be so Kanye.”
And every single word is true. The Kanye manning the matte-black MacBook amid a sea of celebrities staring at clothes he created wasn’t the rapper who came into the industry 12 years ago with a Benz and a backpack. If you knew West for anything, it was for talking in loud, roaring NASCAR circles in interviews (“How Sway!”) about black marginalization — in the fashion industry. It was like his only value was shock value.
But if that was West’s only currency, in unveiling “The Life of Pablo” — no, the title he finally settled on still doesn’t make much sense — he cashed it all in.
His listening party at Madison Square Garden was proof positive of celebrity’s power. The clan of Kardashians marched in wearing increasingly over-the-top furs. Lamar Odom made his first public appearance since a near-death episode at the Love Ranch. Young Thug modeled clothes for the third installation of West’s clothing line. And millions watched in theaters around the globe (I watched in Dedham) or on Jay-Z’s “for-the-artists” streaming service, Tidal, which had 99 Problems before attempting to stream West’s party on Thursday, and dealt with a new one when the site couldn’t handle all the traffic.
The songs were surprises in themselves.
West teased on Twitter that he was in the studio with Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin, but when their voices took the wheel on the album opener, “Ultra Light Beam,” it still made for a moment in which you were confused, but curious.
It was no different when Frank Ocean’s voice, which hasn’t been heard in three years, crept in at the end of the album closer, “Wolves.”
Pulling so many pieces together made West seem like a magician, especially considering that not even a month ago he didn’t seem to have an album to pull together.
Stargazing through the crowd to find the famous faces — the ones from Kanye’s rap family tree, like Big Sean,
2 Chainz, and Pusha T; the ones from his Hollywood family tree, like Nick Young; and the old rivals like 50 Cent and Wale — made you forget that over the past 12 months, every shred of evidence pointed to West’s newest album possibly being his biggest trainwreck.
After four songs rolled out at the top of 2015, propped up by the star power of Paul McCartney and Rihanna, the project stalled. Then Drake hijacked the rap-world’s attention with the surprise release of his retail mixtape, “If You’re Reading This, It’s Too Late,” and Kendrick Lamar pushed West further toward the back burner with the year’s definitive masterpiece, “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
None of that mattered on Thursday. West somehow was once again at the center of not just his own fashion show and his own release party, but his own universe.
One of his lines that rang out in the arena seemed to make sense of it all: “Name one genius that ain’t crazy.”
Julian Benbow can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.