Is Kanye The Greatest Living Rock Star?



After Kanye’s declaration at Glastonbury that rap is the new rock and roll and so therefore could crown himself ‘The Greatest Rock Star in the World’, I got to thinking about what really makes a rock star? Is rap the new rock? And if so is Kanye it’s undisputed King?

The Oxford English Dictionary definition of a rock star includes the description ‘a person treated as a celebrity, especially in inspiring fanatical admiration’. This picks up on an important element of the label – creating your own myth. Many of the stereotypical rock stars of the past like Keith Richards and Bob Dylan lived up to this idea by inventing stories about their own lives, which lead people to then obsessively try to work out if these things were true – did Richards really snort his own father’s ashes? Rap is no different with many artists openness about their past lives leading us to mythologize their struggles. Jay Z grew up selling crack cocaine in the Brooklyn projects. His is a classic rags to riches tale and Jay Z’s candidness about the whole affair hasn’t quashed peoples interest in it. His example illustrates the difference between rock’s 70’s heydays and today. Today it’s a lot harder to make things up. It would be hard for Jay to invent a story about his life because somebody somewhere in the depths of the Internet would be able to verify if it was true. Modern self-mythologizing must be truthful, artists must expand on their own struggles in order to form narratives people are capitivated by. The current King of self-mythologising has to be Kanye West. Kanye’s own struggle stems from his misunderstood genius. He named his album Yeezus, a play on Jesus (if you write a song about Jesus, you’re basically Jesus right?), so as not to leave us in any doubt of how special he is. This has garnered him critique and admiration in equal measure. His God complex is best summed up in his short video for Power that depicts him within an old renaissance style painting deliberately evocative of similar images of Jesus from that time.

One thing that self-mythologising requires is a huge amount of bravado and self-confidence – other necessary qualities for Rock stars. Rock Stars have always been people who staunchly do their own thing. Ever since John Lennon said those immortal words ‘bigger than Jesus’ Rock Stars have been swaggering around claiming to be the best thing since sliced bread. The biggest ego award has to be handed to Oasis the band famed for saying that they weren’t arrogant they just knew they were the best band in the world. But this kind of self-confidence and swagger has undeniably helped Rock Stars, in part because this level of faith in your own ability engenders it in other people too. Not only this but they play out some of our underlying fantasies. Their ability to do and say exactly what they want the way an average person never could allows us to live vicariously through them. This definitely applies to Rap. From mad stories about cars, private jets, champagne, drugs and orgies the Rap lifestyle is pretty bang on what 70’s rockers were up to. But more than that rap also has its fair share of swaggering stars. In fact there are so many it’s hard to choose between them from the early days of Public Enemy, NWA through to 2Pac, Biggie and 50 cent. Rap has very much embraced its cocky side. These days there is pretty stiff competition between the different generations with Kendrick ‘No One Kill My Vibe’ Lamar and the ‘Rap God’ himself Eminem. But its got to be said the award for most inflated ego has to go to Kanye who actually wrote a song called ‘I Am A God’. Rap not only lives up to the confident swagger and attitude of the past but is also surpassing it. Lets take a look back at one of Kanye’s video’s in fact the very one in which he stormed on stage at the EMA’s and made the now infamous outburst ‘THIS VIDEO COST A MILLION DOLLARS, I had Pam Anderson, I was jumping across canyons and shit. If I don’t win the award show loses…credibility’. This outburst was in the early days of Kanye’s ego and we all know how much it’s grown since.

Such a level of self-belief is necessary for another Rock Star quality – innovation. In order to be a real star you have to do something to be remembered for. From the very early days when Rock and Roll was dubbed ‘the devils music’, Rock Stars have been defying convention. And Rap is no different. Just as Rock began as a defiance against the status quo in terms of youth culture fighting the adult conventions Hip Hop was born from disenfranchised black youths feeling their voices were unrepresented in society. Rock Stars embody the dissatisfaction with the way things are and turn that into life-changing music. From the early days of Bob Dylan going electric to a crowd of disgruntled fans in Sheffield through to Nirvana and Radiohead. The Rock Stars of these bands are not afraid to go against the status quo but also to go against people’s expectation of them. Hip Hop has been just as bountiful as Rock in producing stand out artists that do exactly this, alt-rappers Q-tip and Andre 3000 to name a few. Kanye himself has refused to be boxed in to a genre developing from his early days of stripped back raps through to 808 and Heartbreaks’ autotune and the experimentation of Yeezus. You gotta respect Kanye’s determination to try something new. In the world of music video he somehow always manages to shine even brighter than his peers. In the video for Runaway he created an entire film with amazing visuals and narrative format to go with the songs from the album. Interestingly the LP’s tracklist was taken from the development of visual narrative not the other way round.

In Black Skinhead he experimented with CGI and interactivity, on his website users were able to alter the speed and motion of West’s bouncing figure, in what is perhaps one of the most menacing videos of all time.

Maybe Hip Hop is the new Rock and Roll, its stars certainly seem to tick all the right boxes. Being as the Rock and Indie scene is so lacking in the way that Hip Hop is flourishing it is fair to say that maybe the baton has been passed. So if Rap’s the new Rock and Roll is Kanye it’s biggest star? Seems like it. The issue is this. You can’t just decide you’re the biggest Rock Star in the world, you have to earn it. You have to be able to perform it. And if you can’t do that to a crowd of 100,000 in the best possible state of mind to enjoy your set (Yes I’m referring to Glastonbury) then what’s the point? If you’re a real Rock Star you own the stage, you leave people begging for more not booing and retreating to the portaloos. To paraphrase Corey Taylor the fact Kanye had to tell people says it all. Not a particularly Rock Star move…

Emily Harrison

Amateur filmmaker and photographer. Anthropology graduate and firm believer that where words fail music speaks. -
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