America is broken, a scattered pile of ebullient progress, stagnating hate, and the fractured pieces of a national identity. It’s not news that America has deeply entrenched bigotries and remains fundamentally divided on foundation values, but it was easy to forget that reality and pretend that Yes We Can overcome our worst natures with our best actions and fix the world for good. With the electoral triumph of fascism, or at the very least plutocracy, we are given a stark reminder that believing in change is not the same as achieving it.
No artist, or piece of art, better captures the smashed state of the union in 2016 than Kanye West and his album The Life of Pablo. A sloppy, slapdash affair with half-finished songs, borderline misogynistic punchlines, and a bare minimum of coherency, Pablo is also a casually brilliant, overwhelmingly colorful collection of sounds foreign and familiar, sliced and twisted into novel forms and bent to obey Kanye’s all-consuming will. It’s beautiful and it’s horrifying; it’s brutally honest, then lies right to your face; it gives you hope for the future and makes you terrified of the present; it is America, today.
Pablo is a fever dream, a surreal, exhilarating experience that plays like a mainline of the presidential campaign. Soul-crushing lows trade bars with breathless highs, climaxing to choruses that inspire equal parts shame and joy. Kanye makes you almost embarrassed to listen, to take part in his unrelenting rampage, then finds redemption in cutting insight and renewed commitments to God, family, and creative truth; it’s a royal rumble between the unleashed id of Donald Trump, the overwrought appeals of Hillary Clinton, the blinding optimism of Bernie Sanders, and the fearsome foolishness of the Republican presidential hopefuls spilling out of their clown car.
With the album alone, Kanye assured his cultural currency in 2016, but he raised his relevancy and turned his public image into performance art by pitching a fashion show as a world premiere, reimagining the concert experience around his own egomania, releasing music videos that blurred the line between art and pornography, and producing enough incendiary comments to keep his name in headlines all year. Kanye turned 2016 into his own personal theater of the absurd, and it was glorious, troubling, and overwhelming, often all at once.
When Kanye declared that he would have voted for Trump, it was disappointing, but not surprising. They share a flair for the dramatic, a complete lack of filter, a disregard for establishment naysayers, a tendency towards Twitter as their primary pulpit, and the unabashed arrogance that assures them the world is theirs for the taking: qualities that should be treasured in artists and feared in presidents. Kanye waxes lyrical about models and bleached assholes, and we can laugh it off; when a presidential candidate indulges in the same “locker room talk,” we should be appalled.
The principal difference between the two most dominant cultural forces of 2016 can be found in their approaches to hate and love. Trump cultivates animosity and wields it as a weapon, against his enemies and everybody else, at anybody and nobody in particular, knowing that the hate itself is what counts, that the most unifying force is fear. Our president elect and the alt-right movement ostracized their political enemies into Others and screamed enough vulgarities to normalize obscenity and open hatred, creating a grassroots movement that ripped through rural America like a wildfire.
Kanye too knows the power of hate, and has used it to his advantage, but the underlying message in his work is a plea for love and acceptance, for unity through creative energy and a collaborative, musical community. Sadly, his aspirational best is disregarded for his fiery worst, and Kanye receives the public ire normally reserved for our nation’s greatest threats. It was most troubling as he fought his personal demons, and the press and public made sport of a man’s mental condition, a casual cruelty not seen since the hospitalization of Britney Spears.
Whatever his psychological state may be, it’s clear that he is unwell, and our ghoulish satisfaction at his recent implosion should be a source of societal shame. Kanye has fanned the flames plenty, with ill-timed insults, indefensible opinions, and his burn-out on the back end of the Pablo tour, but he still deserves our respect and basic human decency. He over-extended himself, trying to do too many things at once, much like America tripped over itself trying to save the world before making things right at home. Kanye was hospitalized with over-exhaustion, and we’re saddled with an administration that inspires fear, breeds anger, and admonishes hope.
What can we do in the face of a hateful tyrant and his cronies feasting on the bones of America? We’ve rang the alarm too many times to raise mass panic, so now we face the slow march back to the light, through fearsome, overwhelming darkness, but we do not despair: we stare straight into the void and we laugh, and we spit, and we scream and we howl until we are heard. We deflect the hate as best we can and seek to replace it with understanding, we fight for what’s most important and stand for those who can’t, and we stay strong despite the overwhelming odds against us, because we must.
Theories about the inherently chaotic nature of the universe are no longer necessary; we see it on our computers, hear it on the streets, and now fear it in the White House. We suffer the tragic with the beautiful, embrace the sweetness with the sour, and take life as one bleak cosmic joke, because our world has become fully absurd. 2016 is the year we jumped the shark, with Trump behind the wheel and Kanye as his co-captain. All we can do now is try and stick the landing.