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So why, some of you may be asking, did we choose to pick the most divisive figure in pop music as our Artist of the Year? "Kanye is a super polarizing figure," wrote one Rhapsody editor during an extended email debate. "Have you seen his interviews lately? He's kind of a whack job. Personally I have a super hard time separating that from his music." Another editor responded, "I'd say Kanye polarization makes him more interesting, not less. It's what he thrives on. That is his story, seems like. (And I'm not much of a fan at all myself.)"
Other nominees passed through our filters and were summarily dismissed for varying reasons, from Justin Timberlake and Daft Punk (too 2006, some argued) to Kacey Musgraves (too much of a niche artist, which isn't necessarily a bad thing). A few imaginatively proposed Pharrell Williams, the charismatic voice who beamed from Daft Punk's "Get Lucky" and Robin Thicke's "Blurred Lines." A third editor nixed the idea by writing, "Sounds like Pharrell is more 'sixth man of the year' and less 'MVP.'" Vampire Weekend, Katy Perry, Jay-Z, Rihanna, Lorde, Ashley Monroe and Brandy Clark were also mentioned, but in the end, we were just trying to avoid the obvious, inescapable name. (Sadly, Beyonce's just-released blockbuster arrived a bit too late to this party.)
Perhaps the only one to equal Kanye's understanding of trolling ugliness as cultural disruption was Miley Cyrus. Yes, her bizarre performance at this year's MTV Video Music Awards got us good and hopping mad. (Unfortunately, her subsequent Bangerz isn't nearly as controversial.) She animated a pop audience that, in 2013, resembled the bloodthirsty hordes at a Roman coliseum. Our collective pretext for our anger is to label any controversial lyric, music video, interview or, god forbid, random Tweet as evidence of deeply-rooted racism, sexism, and/or homophobia. We project our anxieties and self-loathing onto these ciphers. Yet the worst thing someone could be called was "boring," a complaint we Rhapsody editors often used to cut down an Artist of the Year candidate. We want to be provoked.
In the funhouse mirror that distorts our views on pop culture and makes it seem less like a beautifully arranged ambrosia bowl and more like a disgustingly molten melting pot, Kanye West's Yeezus is the image that shouts back. He confronts us with the institutional racism a fantastically rich and successful black man (or worse, a rapper) can encounter when he tries to enter the world of European high fashion as a producer, and not just a consumer. If we are all godly creatures, he reasoned, then "I Am a God." He struggles to overcome his views of women as a reward for fame and success, and embrace the ideal of everlasting love and being "Bound 2" someone in a monogamous relationship. He trawls through his insecurities with humor -- "Hurry up, where's my damn croissants?" is one of my favorites –- and unsettling opinions. I'm only one of many listeners that registered disgust with songs like "Blood on the Leaves." (See here.)
In his zeal to challenge our social mores, whether through the thrillingly acid keyboard abrasions of songs like "On Sight" and "New Slaves" or the Confederate flag-appropriating T-shirts he sold at concerts, Kanye unearths the fractures that spindle through post-millennial America. He seems possessed by a ballsy, f*ck-it attitude.
Perhaps someone like Lady Gaga should have accompanied her Artpop promotions with music as brazenly innovative as Yeezus, with no radio singles and no apologies. But she didn't, of course. Kanye West's 2013 campaign was a triumph of the pop superstar as iconoclast. No one else was as willing to sacrifice career and reputation for the sake of an abrasively personal vision, regardless of the consequences.