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Kanye West & Michael Jackson: American Prodigies

Updated: Feb 2, 2022

Permanence, perseverance and persistence in spite of all obstacles, discouragement, and impossibilities: It is this, that in all things distinguishes the strong soul from the weak.

“Kanye West is a genius” is a redundant statement, but every time he does something new, I’m reminded that we have no frame of reference for the capacity of genius every time it presents itself. The Donda roll out is a perfect metaphor for Kanye Wests place in culture, we never know what we're looking at until we have the enhanced vision of hindsight to look back in awe, & marvel at the genius we had just unwittingly experienced. We just saw one of the greatest pieces of performance art in human history & didn't realize it till it was over.

I wasn’t alive when Michael Jackson was dropping albums. I’ve heard stories but I’ve always had music on my phone.

When I talk to older people about music, their stories sound so exciting. They're always bragging & boasting about the variety of legendary artists they had access to that dedicated their lives to the artistry & provided once in a lifetime experiences. All of my favourite artists come from the 60s & 70s because of the level of dedication their was to artistry at that time. It wasn't as easy to make a record, record labels needed stars in order to make back the expenses they would spend on things like producing the record, printing the vinyl's & distributing the record.

Record labels in the early 20th century but specifically in the 60s & 70s would have artist development camps, everyone would have to know how to make a song, how to dance, how to perform, how to move an audience, they would have to be refined before ever seeing the light of day. The barrier to entry was much higher so there was much more work done in order for artists to hone their craft & create musical experiences. Now anyone can make a song anywhere & nobody pays for music anymore. Record labels began signing the artists with the most views. With the rise of streaming & the internet, the incentive to make music an experience disappeared. We're mostly sold lifestyles now, music is usually used as a marketing tool for brands nowadays. Every YouTuber is also a rapper. There isn't really a need to dedicate time to making good music, making a great roll out, making great videos & creating an entire experience for the project.

When I try to compare my experiences of listening to music, to the stories I hear from older people about watching the ‘Thriller’ music video for the first time, or watching the Martin Scorsese directed ‘Bad’ music video for the first time & how it was a monumental occasion for the entire world, Kanye West is one of the only artists I can name in my lifetime that has continuously created genuine experiences every time he drops an album.

I had always known of Kanye as a kid but everything I learned about him as I got older is what made me respect him. I went back and I listened to what he was saying in College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808s & Heartbreak, I listened to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, I watched the Runaway film, I heard Yeezus & I listened to the interviews. In every single one of those albums Kanye made radical & honest remarks, he crafted soundscapes that would influence decades to come, and created experiences with each ones roll out, whether it be a movie, an interview, a controversial statement or an overall legendary moment. Kanye West was this incredible musician with a passion for life, creation & creativity that couldn't be manufactured, to the point where he split his jaw in half due to a car accident on his debut album & he rapped about it with his jaw wired shut.

The production on every single one of his projects could compete with any album ever crafted, sonically speaking. The music is so layered with melodies, strings, orchestras, horns, hip hop drums, samples from across the globe that leave you in awe. From the sped up soul samples of College dropout, to the stripped down harsh industrial sounds & smooth Russian samples in Yeezus, this music was always one of a kind. The lyrics are always poetic, filled with substance, humour, stories, ego, personality & wit. They're uniquely Kanye. The music videos are consistently strange, eclectic, artsy & well made. He clearly had a very particular taste & perspective from the start. Kanye West was this sophisticated black vanguard that was leading the charge of evolving culture, art & intellectual thought through this Hip Hop renaissance.

I've written so many versions of this article over the past month, firstly because I had no idea what I was looking at, & secondly, because of how meaningful this album is in this mans career, because of how meaningful Kanye West is to me, to Black people, to America, to the 21st century, and I mean this in all sincerity, to the human race.

There's an interview from the 90s where Oprah Winfrey is speaking to Michael Jackson, & she brings up various tabloid rumours, and he politely tells her that if he was in a room with Michelangelo, he wouldn't ask him about tabloid rumours, he would ask him to breakdown the techniques that go into his genius. So often in our culture we don't embrace genius, we're quick to skim past it, dim it down, tear it down, give our opinions for hot takes, or talk about the sensationalism surrounding it. I will not be talking about Kanye West vs Drake or any of the usual sensational headlines that follow Ye's name. I believe this project, & Kanye West as an artist, deserve much more praise, understanding & respect than he seems to be getting.

Kanye is our generation's Michael Jackson, there’s no one else, in any facet of culture, that is outworking & outdoing that man creatively, but you wouldn't know it because of how the media chooses to depict his genius. There’s no underground album that you can play me, there’s no broadway show that you can show me, there’s no book that you can read me, there's no movie that you can make, that’s more iconic, sincere, beautiful & legendary than what Kanye West has just done, at age 44.

This was a story over 20 years in the making that we have been a part of. Donda is an album named after his actual deceased mother who raised him alone a lot of the time, their relationship is already heavily documented, his song 'Hey Mama' that he notoriously dedicated to her is a chart topping hit, he publicly said he blamed himself for her death because if he hadn’t moved to LA she’d still be alive.

He’s also going through marital issues during the creation of this project, in the most exposed relationship in human history, while being a billionaire genius person & all the perils that comes with that.

Donda is also the name of Kanye’s design company, it's his baby, his rocket ship into the future. It’s creative philosophy is to put creatives in a room together with like minds in order to simplify & improve everything we see, taste, touch, and feel aesthetically. That sense of collaboration presents itself all throughout this project.

Donda, the design hub, became an incubator for some of the worlds greatest designers in Kanye, Virgil Abloh, Matthew Williams, and Justin Saunders. Ultimately Donda was a mission to raise the taste level of the world. It was about showing the youth that it's possible for them to do anything, and it gave inspiration to the kids of the Internet generation who learn things like beat-making on the computer as opposed to in band class.

For years, what Donda actually was remained mysterious. The original mission at Donda was to figure out how aspiration could be turned into actual projects. Kanye & his team were focused on music & fashion during its inception and they figured out new methods of learning & actualizing, thanks to the powers of the internet. The process during the inception of the organization was going from tiny details to the broadest possible reach: You create music for a show, then you create a stage for the show, then you create the media for the show, then you create the effects for the show, and then you create merchandise for the whole thing, then maybe you create a pavilion that travels with an art project by Vanessa Beecroft.

Kanye West, much like Michael Jackson, is a black child prodigy & a product of the 60s counter-culture movement that the entertainment Industry didn’t expect to be so business savvy.

Michael Jackson & Kanye were both able to infiltrate the mainstream public consciousness in the beginning of their careers by coming off as safe & relatable to Middle America & White suburban homes. MJ by being a child & Kanye by wearing pink polos, yet they were both black men in America, occupying spaces that few have ever reached before them. Kanye was already famous for his music but after marrying Kim, he gained levels of exposure that few in human history have ever received, & MJ is the most famous human to have ever lived.

The 2010s had a very different Kanye West than the 2000’s, not many artists have been able to evolve & reinvent themselves at that level, as often & successfully as Kanye West

Kanye's mother was arrested for the sit-ins at 6 years old, his father was a black panther, he's been an activist for black plight globally since the start of his career. When people say they miss the "old Kanye" the sentiment used to stem from Ye's apparent lack of social activism since marrying into the Kardashian clan.

After marrying Kim Kardashian, people started to talk about missing an old Kanye because they didn’t see him talking about social & political issues as much anymore, specifically during the passing of Mike Brown and the increase in police brutality protests across the nation.

In 2015 Jasmine Mans went viral for her poem 'Footnotes For Kanye.' It was a beautiful & sincere poem that made me emotional at the time. She was upset at Kanye's silence on social issues. Everyone fell in love with the College Dropout, Late Registration Kanye West because he spoke to social issues that were happening at that time that he genuinely cared about. After the passing of his mother, the Taylor Swift moment & the marriage into the Kardashian family, Kanye became this media pariah that was sensationalized for everything other than his revolutionary beliefs.

In the 2010s Kanye's mission evolved, he became this revolutionary product designer, his media appearances became more erratic with Kanye discussing his aspirations in fashion, architecture & design & the perils he faced there instead of social issues & politics. Kanye began merging aesthetics with functionality, in the same way his albums merged beautiful production with substance, inspiration & social awareness. Through design he was able to create these usable pieces of art & pushing the boundaries of art, aesthetics & culture. He was also able to vastly expand his streams of income. Kanye began seeing design as a way of making existence better & as he continued studying ancient architects, the romans, the Athenians & ancient civilizations, he saw design as the ultimate solution to the problems he raised on College Dropout. But fans wanted his focus to be on music, with Jasmine saying "Ye says his hearts in designin' I just wish his heart was still in rhymin"

The funny thing is, the same people that wanted Kanye to talk about social issues & his political beliefs, were mad at him for his opinion when he went to the White House to speak with Trump to try & free Larry Hoover, one of the main themes on the Donda album.

There was a media uproar about Kanye wearing the MAGA hat, he was called a sell out by liberal media. They wanted him to talk about social issues, but when he publicly supported Donald Trump, they only wanted him to talk about the social issues they cared about, they wanted to control him. This album is a response to all of it, it's post-Trump Ye, with references to the red cap from Jay Z & an actual interview from Larry Hoovers son.

Ye's celebrity plays such a huge part of culture that it can’t help but make its way back into this meta art. We all remember the TMZ moment, the MAGA hat & White House moments. The Trump moment was so divisive that it was culturally appropriate for the multiple media personalities to publicly say that Kanye Wests White Wife should slap him in the face for his political beliefs. The world was increasingly turning on Kanye for his opinions & trying to control him.

Kanye's mental health also played a large role in shaping who he had become in the latter part of the 2010's after he had been diagnosed with Bipolar disorder at age 40. Kanye felt as though the media was using his mental health to dismiss his genius.

Donda is Kanye's response to all of it. Kanye's highly anticipated 10th studio album was his most important & personal album to date, it had to be great, there was so much pressure based on the title alone.

From a production standpoint this man was already untouchable, Late Registration would be any other artists peak, but he was able to achieve new levels with each new album & this album is no different. Songs like Hurricane, Jonah, Come To Life, Heaven & Hell, Pure Souls, Donda, Into the night, Praise God, Jail. & so many more could quite literally stand among the top of his discography in terms of production. That is insane considering where his discography stands among all of music. He's only getting better.

Despite being an upbeat & inspirational album at times, Kanye connotes the weariness of trying to prove that you are capable, that you are truly human, poised and humane, not the stereotype propagated by a system that despite your refined diction, accomplished lexicon, educational pedigrees, wall street work ethic, artistic merit, veteran status, genius capabilities and elite neighborhood attained, can still relegate you to a crazy crackhead.

There’s a moment in this piece that I shudder to think about. It's in LP2 before we knew any song titles, Kanye is on the mattress in the middle of the stadium and Kanye looks physically distressed in pain. It’s been days since that moment & I think about it everyday.

This man is the greatest artist of our generation for that reason. Because in his integrity to the art, there’s no treason, he’s already done it all & seen it, but he knows art is supposed to contain the most realness. When something is fake, we can all feel it. It doesn’t resonate for that reason. This man is clearly grieving. He’s a billionaire, he could go on like the rest of them, make mediocre work & keep deceiving, but he’s an artist first & that's the reason. Kanye can’t help himself but be consistently great, even in the middle of the concert he was calling Mike Dean to fix a mix mistake.

There’s theories that the live streams were supposed to be a play on Dante's Divine Comedy, which would make sense, with the red outfit in the first LP symbolizing Hell, & Jay Z referencing Hell as well as ending with “Jail” which was the perfect segue for purgatory. In purgatory Kanye slept in a tiny room in the Mercedes Benz stadium for weeks. At the end of that performance he quite literally gets raptured into paradise at the end of Purgatory, he levitates into the sky in the middle of the stadium. The end would probably be Paradise, with Kim Kardashian finally coming out to possibly be Beatrice in the end. Kanye also literally set himself on fire at one point, which could also be a reference to the Jesus Walks video where Kanye is standing in a house on fire. As well as in the Jesus Walks video he had the KKK member redeem himself by walking with the cross & withstanding fire in the video, he revisited those same themes of redemption here, even having Marilyn Manson & Dababy out with him to symbolize repentance & redemption.

Kanye is saying he has redeemed himself after having been through hell & back, he has walked through fire & he can't be burned anymore. The album went deep into themes of redemption, it had various biblical themes that I'm still looking into, it was completely Avant Garde but it was an experience.

I don’t even know the depths this album tried to reach with its various allusions to biblical imagery, the American prison industrial complex, relationship issues, celebrity, resurrection, friendship, betrayal, forgiveness, grief, blackness in America, sustainability, a lot of heavy things that Kanye is dealing with, & thinking about within an extremely personal experience, while also being one of the most uplifting & inspiring pieces of music I've ever experienced.

This album represented his dreams, his mother, his family, his goals, his religion, his entire life, his role in culture, all of it, the expectations for a project with this name were already high, but the experience more than delivered. At no point did we have any idea what we were watching. Nobody conceptualizes, let alone actualizes the things Kanye has been able to do. Freud once observed that the great Renaissance polymath Leonardo da Vinci was “like a man who awoke too early in the darkness, while the others were all still asleep” some people are like that, Kanye West is one of those people today, & Michael Jackson was one of those people back then.

Everyone’s surprised at how hard all of the features went on Donda, you know why? It’s because it's full of young artists that understand what Kanye West has been able to do for culture, despite what the media depicts of him. Artists still believe in Ye. Lil Durk, Fivio Foreign, Shenseaa , Baby Keem, Rooga, Roddy Ricch, Griselda, Kid Cudi, Don Toliver, Dababy, Young Thug, The Weeknd, Lil Baby, Jay Z, Jay Electronica, Mike Dean, literally everyone on the album gave some of the best performances they've yet to give on a song,

After working on this album for nearly 3 years & premiering it in front of the world unfinished, Kanye locked himself in a tiny room in a stadium for weeks with just a mattress, actively working on the album, occasionally coming out to see soccer matches in the same iconic outfits from the streams, then going back in, changing the album, & evolving it in real time according to the feedback he got. He completely redefined what an album even is. The third LP is so vastly different from the first.

This album is uncomfortable at times, it's beautiful, it’s dark yet inspirational, it’s experimental & soulful, it’s extremely current, futuristic, & nostalgic. It had appearances from Jay Z, Roddy Ricch, Rooga & Lil Durk that made the toughest of us tear up. But it’s everything about this roll out. It's everything in the last 3 years. Hearing a thousand versions of Hurricane on YouTube, seeing Kanye go to Africa & scrapping various albums, going on Watching The Thrones YouTube channel to see all of the latest details about this classic project.

Kanye’s affinity for architecture, film & design is evident in these Donda streams through his use of visual space. Architecture is just a spatial language, Kanye used light, colours, people & at one point actually built his childhood home, to convey his spatial poetry. His mise-en-scène continued to expand & become more detailed as the shows went on, his use of the Turrellian lightwork when he was levitating into the sky in LP2 was one of the most beautiful cinematic moments I’ve ever experienced. As well as the usage of lighting, spacing, the way in which the performers were shaped & choreographed surrounding the areas in which Kanye was performing, with each new performance getting larger & more extravagant than the last.

At no point did I know what I was watching, & at no point did I know what to expect next. The announcement of the first show was seemingly random, at one point Kanye would turn into a clock, the lighting, shadows & composition were all used as storytelling devices. We waited for weeks, every night would end without an album release.

The constant frustration of not getting the album after each stream only added to the excitement, & Kanye knew it. The final product was worth the wait, the release on Sunday literally felt like Christmas. There’s people that can do cool things, but no one else can do what Kanye West does. Elon Musk said this guy is his biggest inspiration for a reason.

The outfits, from the Akira inspired Red suit, to the Balenciaga Bear Hunter jackets, the Donda Vest & the mask, down to the leather jacket & the hat, every single outfit in this roll out was new, had a different meaning, represented a different part of the story & was impactful. They're all Thriller Red Jacket-esque moments that are officially ingrained into the public consciousness.

Kanye, frequent collaborator Virgil & various others on the Donda team have been very open about wanting to raise the American pop cultural taste palette, merging high art with hip hop & American popular culture, utilizing functionality, utility, & responsibility with aesthetics, design, shifting culture & creating a renaissance period.

Certain people exist to define generations. Michael Jackson was a child prodigy, he was born knowing how to sing & dance, nobody looked like him, nobody sounded like him, nobody danced like him & no one shined as brightly as him. His music emanated pure energy, it was honest, it was moving & it quite literally shook up the world. He had his own world, he broke barriers in music, dance, fashion, & film. Michael Jackson pushed every human to strive towards the perfection he seemed to have achieved in his art.

Little Michael Jackson from the Jackson 5 was also a highly curious & inquisitive kid. As a kid born in 1958, Michael Jackson was born in a segregated America. He was in show business since he was 5 years old. He entered with his family, his older brothers & dad as manager. Michael spent that time in MoTown records, with Stevie Wonder, Billie Holiday, Smokey Robinson, the Isley Brothers, along with various other groups & artists that are some of the best artists to have ever existed in human history, & this little prodigy was constantly absorbing this information & energy.

It was a perfect storm of circumstance to create the greatest artist that has ever existed. He asked questions about production, about composition, about idea conceptualization, about arrangement & he got answers from some of the greatest minds to have ever created music.

Michael Jackson became a beacon for aesthetics, culture, & coolness. Michael was always in tune with subcultures as seen with him having an up & coming Martin Scorcese direct the Bad music video, or using Hip Hop drums, Punk riffs & getting breakdancers to show him all of the newest dances in the streets.

Michael studied every single aspect of performance & entertainment from when he was 5 years old, he needed his representation to be perfect, the outfit had to look just right, his hair, his music, the dances, even his later stuff that was panned was way ahead of his time & influenced various artists like Lady Gaga. Michael Jackson was like an alien, the problem is, he was that good because he was very smart. He studied early Hollywood musicals, vaudeville performers, & all the great dancers through history.

The thing is, art doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Art always has a creator & the creator exists in a culture & society.

The culture of the music industry is predatory, American culture, especially during the era of the Jackson 5, was predatory towards black people & artists. The counter culture movement was happening as Michael Jackson is growing up. Malcolm X, James Baldwin, Martin Luther King, Muhammad Ali, Jean Michel Basquiat, John F Kennedy, & the arrest of 6 year old Donda West are all happening as little Michael Jackson is taking the world by storm.

Michael was studying everything about the entertainment industry, which meant he studied the industry aspects too. After seeing his father & siblings lose millions in various lawsuits when he was a child, Michael had learned business practices & little Michael Jackson wasn’t so little anymore. After Thriller became the highest selling album of all time, Michael Jackson made some savvy business moves, Michael purchased the publishing rights to the vast majority of the Beatles' catalog for $47 million. The labels & media were infuriated, they said it was “disrespectful to the art” but they were just mad Michael Jackson had beat a game designed against him. That sparked the infamous Michael vs The Media war that is going on till this day.

The labels are set up so labels always have leverage over the artist, but Michael Jackson had secured the largest musical acquisition in the history of 20th century music, that was not his own catalogue, & everyone knew it. Those are the catalogues that keep the lights on at record labels forever. They buried him for that for the next 40 years for that move. Bad was a response to all the criticism he got from the media, he was telling them he was doubling down on the bad boy image they were so quick to give him for making wise investments.

Michal Jackson would go on to be torn down by the media for decades, go through various lawsuits & disputes with his label, repeatedly say that his label executives were devils that were going to murder him & then he was murdered by an incompetent doctor.

Kanye West has been outspoken about MJ's battle with the media & paralleling it with his own for over a decade now. Kanye has also had very similar public fallouts with his label & the media. Kanye is now a billionaire, he's gotten to certain levels because Michael broke down the doors but he's still facing the same problems Michael faced, but Ye's solution to his own issues seem to be his faith in God.

I’m excited for the premise of Donda. I'm excited for the implications seeing music as an experience will have for the next generation. I'm excited for Donda as a design company, & the future of Kanye West. I truly do believe that Kanye is a once in a lifetime Da Vinci type of figure. Da Vinci was largely viewed as a painter, so many of his inventions were disregarded by the people of his time. His research into biology, human flight & architecture was in depth & far ahead of his time, but again, those around him could not fathom his level of genius.

As a person who grew up experiencing Kanye West's genius, I really think that guy can do anything. He’s constantly in autodidactic education mode, he has groundbreaking team building techniques for creatives, his ability to have contrast that works is second to none, be it merging sounds that shouldn't work, styles that you wouldn't expect to go together, or mending rival gangs by putting them on the same song, Kanye is always pushing for unity & unusual pairing to enhance excellence. His ability to create the ambience necessary for the creative process has always been evident, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy sessions infamously taking place in Hawaii, with everyone having to wear suits & carrying themselves in a certain manner.

Just like Michael, Kanye is constantly learning in order to innovate. Ye would live in Rome, Tokyo & Paris, sleep in various ateliers, studying the cobblestone roads, using design references from the renaissance & bible, going to Uganda, studying the urban design & architecture of various communes in the local villages, listening to the sounds of nature & incorporating that into new avenues of creativity.

Kanye West is pushing for a shift in the cultural approach towards creativity, in an era where we are constantly consuming things & calling them content, its easy to devalue art, but by making it an experience, Kanye makes his art more than content. His ability to stir controversy is second to none, which makes us talk about what he made or says for weeks. The man has not done a single interview & yet he’s the most talked about human in the world right now. Without showing his face or saying a word.

Kanye West recently bought acres of land & he’s trying to reconceptualize civilization & Donda is how he is going about that. The album is just the beginning, the album is a reminder to us of Kanye West's potential. Some people’s role in the matrix is to rearrange the way the system’s made, it’s to reshape the form & unlock new landscapes. Their role is to reshape thought processes, unlock the subconscious, grab from the unknown & translate it to us. Kanye's insatiable passion is what keeps him experimenting with these soundscapes. I'm grateful to have been alive at the same time as this man, & to be able to make art with him to look up to.

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