Starting this series back up is only ever a matter of time.
The last “Understanding Kanye West Rants” entry was in 2017, and if you want to take it from the top, this is a running forum I’ve held on ATC since 2016. While discussing Kanye West’s artistry and discography is important, I believe a handful of people do that exceptionally well. This series focuses on West’s rhetoric and its impact, specifically from 2013 onward.
If you’re an avid reader of this series, please forgive the absence of a fixed structure. In order to cover the diverse and erratic messaging of Kanye West, well, you gotta be diverse and erratic. In this piece I will capture the most important points of Kanye West’s latest Twitter rant starting from this tweet on September 14:
I’m not industry bro … I don’t care… I’m in service to Christ … we need world healing … I miss my brothers… I refuse to argue with black men on labels we don’t own… even twitter— ye (@kanyewest) September 15, 2020
A Call to Arms: Declaring Holy War on Vivendi, UMG, and Sony to Liberate Artists’ Masters
As mentioned in multiple UKWR pieces, much of the content in a Ye rant is dismissed simply on the basis of unfamiliarity with the battles he is describing. Much like no one knew Hedi Slimane or Bernard Arnault well enough to join Kanye in his anger in 2013, not many people are privy to the music industry’s corporate structure at the top. And no one in the replies of these tweets knows who Lucian Grainge or Arnaud de Puyfontaine are.
Who are these faceless rich guys Kanye namedrops?
The CEO of Universal Music Group (UMG) is Lucian Grainge, a faceless rich guy who answers to an even richer faceless guy. In a since-deleted tweet, Kanye first wanted to reach out to Grainge until he realized he shouldn’t waste his time “talking to non-billionaire employees” if he wanted to get shit done.
Arnaud de Puyfontaine, the richer faceless guy Grainge sits below, is the CEO of Vivendi. Vivendi is a gigantic media company that owns, among other things, the majority of Lucian’s Universal Music group (UMG). As of 2019, UMG is roughly 30 percent of the music industry in terms of revenue.
I insist on calling these people “faceless.” People in positions with real power did not get there by winning in the gladiator arena of fame and content. They allow us to believe the Drakes and Taylors and Arianas run the world when they own those people, get rich off of them, and remain hidden with zero pushback. Talking about them and showing their faces is the first step in freeing creatives.
UMG owns a shit-ton of record labels that you may be more familiar with: Interscope (TDE, Shady Records), Capitol Music Group (Motown, G-Unit Records, Quality Control), Republic (Young Money, Cash Money, XO, Taylor Swift Productions), and so much more.
So, using artists such as Kendrick Lamar, Drake, Taylor Swift, 50 Cent, and The Weeknd, let’s draw this out real quick:
Your favorite artist is signed to—or owns, if they’re lucky—a label fans know and love. That beloved label is owned by a label that owns a bunch of other fan-fav labels. The label that owns all those labels is owned by a group that owns more labels than some of us have dollars in our checking accounts. And that group is owned by a monstrosity that has two multibillion dollar companies on leashes.
A guy (de Puyfontaine) owns a guy (Grainge) who owns many guys (e.g. Jimmy Iovine, Birdman, Steve Barnett) that have a stranglehold on your favorite artist’s content.
Back to Kanye.
The lack of transparency in who really owns our favorite records has long been a talking point of Kanye West’s. Surely he is not the first artist past or present to publicize this fight—Prince and Michael had plenty to say while they were with us, and forever frenemy Taylor Swift has done plenty herself—but in true Kanye fashion, there is zero filter.
Now when I say zero filter, I mean uploading all of his royalty agreements image by image on Twitter. I mean thinking out loud when trying to figure out who to call about these concerns. I mean pissing on a GRAMMY that he threw in the toilet and letting the world see.
This is not an argument for or against Kanye’s methods. What is clear, however, is that Kanye believes shattering the Truman Show wall of the entertainment industry is the best way to create the change artists and consumers want to see. When a 21-time GRAMMY winner literally urinates on his coveted credentials, something about that institution breaks.
Why does Kanye screenshot all his text convos?
As implied in the last paragraph, Kanye screams the quiet parts out loud when it comes to creative industries. It doesn’t matter if it’s at the expense of Beyoncé, Drake, one of the richest men in the world, or himself. Naïveté and a deep love for his own inner child is the foundation on which he can act a fool time and time again and never falter. As long as he thinks he’s helping people create and exist freely without harming or being harmed by others, he’ll do or say anything.
So, when a 42-year-old billionaire namedrops other billionaires and hosts all his big-wig closed-door meetings live on Twitter, it should be seen as a man with a platform pulling the curtains back on a historically shady operation. Instead, Kanye’s public gaffes have become license to continue portraying him as a raving lunatic detached from the rest of us, even when his discourse is insightful and relevant to us.
I’m Not Rich, Why Should I Care?
Liberation, broadly, does not happen in a straightforward way. In any given moment, there will be some issues that are more urgent than others. However, not every freedom fighter must deal with the issue of the day in order for their work to mean something.
A common thread in the public’s misunderstanding of Kanye West is that the battles Ye fights are too aloof. The average person thinks they’re unaffected by Bernard Arnault or Arnaud de Puyfontaine refusing to meet with Kanye West. On a day-to-day level, they’re right.
And on that day-to-day level, you run through your Spotify daily mix and listen to “Why Would I Stop?” And you lament Big Sean’s failure to be as big as Drake, Kendrick, and Cole, thinking to yourself, “This nigga really fell off, and he a ho for beefing with Kendrick. He’d get murdered.”
What you don’t say to yourself is an artist with three #1 albums and 10 top-40 singles over the course of ten years who is still relevant today is a wild success.
We don’t say things like that about artists in the spotlight. They can never do enough. They can never give us enough. Their work, their souls, are rightfully ours, and when they’re tired of giving, they’re dead to us. And when they’re dead to us, they aren’t able to repackage their records or put them onto new music platforms because, surprise, they don’t own any of their work. They bled, sweated, and cried, and all of it is locked in a vault owned by Arnaud de Puyfontaine and co.
(Remember that one day the vault was on fire?)
The people that immortalize the best and the worst in every chapter of life, the people that give you the strength to work that shit job, get that diluted college degree, find meaning in the trappings of the world, are almost always milked for everything they have then hung out to dry. It’s why many of your favorite artists’ comeback tours or group reunions have a hint of sadness—debt, not love, is what got them back on stage. In the end, they are as free as you: not free at all.
But you’re taught to pit them against each other. You’re taught to invest deeply into a few of them. You’re taught to minimize other people’s heroes in order to protect yours. You’re also taught to throw your heroes in the trash the minute they do something enough people disagree with.
Once you see someone’s name on the other side of the screen one too many times, you’re taught they’re no longer human.
If you are tired of deifying and cancelling human beings, tired of a world where you can’t make a living without being someone’s bitch, and care about the human need to express, you do care about what Kanye West is trying to do here.
You do agree with much of his 2016 Saint Pablo Tour rant in Sacramento. You know, the one everyone could only describe as “bizarre.” You don’t think he’s that crazy after all. In fact, if you fit the description in the last paragraph, you would have to agree Kanye West is much more relatable than the artist you stan or the one you call your “spirit animal” (don’t do that to our indigenous brothers and sisters anymore, please).
Swift Replies: The Inanity of Taylor Stans
I have no issue with Taylor Swift. Not only do I not know her, she’s an objectively great pop songwriter and an artist who cares about her craft. She deserves her success and her praise, flaws and all.
What I do have issues with, broadly, is stan culture. Don’t get me wrong, it certainly has its bright spots—I personally think the BTS ARMY is the standard in positive stanning—but as a rule, stans embody the parasocial relationship to the fullest and nastiest.
Kanye West and Taylor Swift are inextricably linked. There is nothing either of them can do to break the bond forged on that fateful, nationally-televised night in 2009. Admittedly, I don’t read Taylor Swift tweets, but I’d be surprised and appalled if Kanye stans were nearly as obnoxious and abusive as Swifties are under every recent Ye tweet.
What’s particularly bothersome about Swifties and the occasional Ariana Grande/Beyoncé stan under Kanye West’s tweets is the obsession with framing Kanye as a “fad,” a man fading into nothingness because he can’t keep up with the numbers these lead pop women put up today. The reality of his legendary 20-year career, blossoming fashion career, and massive influence on the music industry’s appearance today can’t be acknowledged. Otherwise, it seems, they’d be betraying their queen.
I don’t care that Swift and Grande are outperforming Ye right now, and I’m not invested in a narrative about anyone, let alone Kanye, being “the hottest out.” In fact, I’m happy Taylor’s folklore is doing so well—that is a hell of an artistic pivot to pull off while remaining so dominant on the charts.
But I do care about a creative who’s freed himself with a path outside of music being violently dragged back into a world where his value is tied to how hot his latest tracks were. I do care about creatives, particularly Black creatives, being forced to either cram new content down our throats or see their careers starve to death from lack of attention.
I understand Kanye is culpable in this nasty relationship: “I made that bitch famous” would be fighting words for many. But not only is “Famous” a commentary on celebrity culture much greater than one artist—it’s not like Kanye omitted himself from that orgy in the video-—it is painfully clear Kanye does not need nor care about the game of clout.
This desperate need many pop stans have to diminish other artists in the name of their hero is a sad symptom of the gladiator culture guys like de Puyfontaine and Grainge have helped create amongst our favorite artists.
Love and admiration is not a scarce resource. It is abundant, endless. To think public adoration of Kanye West means less love is available for Taylor Swift or anyone else is a weak, weak worldview. Creating an ecosystem where all artists are fairly valued and autonomous would cure this, and freeing our favorite artists from the grasps of Vivendi, Sony, and Warner would go a long way in making that happen.
Nat Turner reference
Unsurprisingly, Ye is likening his fight against music industry oligarchs to legendary American slave rebellion leader Nat Turner. Kanye’s discourse on slavery, however, is…messy, to put it lightly.
He did say “[Slavery] sounds like a choice.” Even if we choose to interpret this as, “enslaved Africans had to choose between risking their lives in revolt, killing themselves, or being slaves,” even if we give Killmonger’s dying words in Black Panther immense weight, there is no excusing the insensitivity in this statement.
That being said….
Ye’s rhetoric on the idea of slavery as an ever-present reality in America is consistent and has more than a hint of truth to it.
While his 2018 TMZ quote is indefensible, the idea that Harriet Tubman freed slaves just to send them back into another form of slavery makes sense. If we regularly refer to the middle class’s current condition as “wage slavery” and collectively agree capitalists fuck “the little guy” day in and day out, the idea that Black Americans have never completely been freed in this country is not controversial at all. At all.
Of course, there’s that nagging issue of historical context often absent in Ye’s thinking, but even the staunchest defender of Harriet Tubman’s work must pause before considering “freedom” in the North to be as great a victory for Black folk as we want it to be.
The two biggest stories of Black casualties at the hands of police this summer happened in “the North.”
Along with his confusing commentary on the 13th amendment loophole that still allows legal slavery in the United States, Ye has framed issues of materialism, creativity, and the American Dream as issues of slavery versus freedom throughout his career. While the slapdash nature of his commentary hurts Ye’s credibility, he has his musical résumé, financial freedom via the Yeezy brand, and the timeless truths of his discography’s greatest quotes to greatly compensate for the lack of scholarship in his worldview.
As much as we want Cornel West to package truths about the Black American struggle more articulately, there is no denying “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop,” (2004). There’s no denying “Fuck you and your corporations, y’all niggas can’t control me,” (2013). There’s no denying a Black billionaire audacious enough to consider himself a slave. Because if he’s a slave, then isn’t LeBron one? Kendrick Lamar? You?
By becoming a financial elite and a captain of industry, no one can say Ye’s claims are coming from some bitter, run-of-the-mill rapper. What Ye is saying is, “Look, now I’m just as rich as the people I told you were enslaving me. It’s still happening.”
In other words, Ye finally has the leverage necessary to start bullying these massive, faceless entities into the light.
Everyone please cover me in prayer … I AM ONE OF THE MOST FAMOUS PEOPLE ON THE PLANET AND UNIVERSAL WONT TELL ME WHAT MY MASTERS COST BECAUSE THEY KNOW I CAN AFFORD THEM … BLACK MASTERS MATTER— ye (@kanyewest) September 16, 2020
Ye’s Word of the Day: Strengtheneth
Given Kanye’s lack of scholarship, to see him cite the Bible so effectively has been cool. This is easily my favorite citation though:
Word of the day STRENGTHENETH from the King James Version— ye (@kanyewest) September 16, 2020
PHILIPPIANS 4 13 I CAN DO ALL THINGS THROUGH CHRIST WHICH STRENGTHENETH ME pic.twitter.com/mBDOeAFURE— ye (@kanyewest) September 16, 2020
Kanye’s 2012 Island Def Jam Contract
This particularly screenshot of a contract GOOD Music has with Island Def Jam intrigued me. In the stipulations about the definition of “Net Proceeds,” item “c” says a lot about how IDJ is free to use their “reasonable business judgment” to determine how much money to withhold in order to cover anticipated returns and credits.
I’m no lawyer, but there seems to be a lot of wiggle room in this page alone for IDJ to hold onto an artist’s money indefinitely.
Of course, this is a developing story. I hope this article was informative at the very least. Optimistically, I hope Ye’s latest rant helps more people understand his current position in society and why he believes so strongly in his course of action.
UPDATE 3/10/2022: Lightly edited for design elements and sentence structure
UPDATE 11/7/2022: Edited for image positioning and syntax
I just heard about Kanye’s new album. I guess he held a listening party with Justin Laboy and Kevin Durant. Apparently they had some real good things to say about it! I can’t wait!