After Kanye, Pusha T and Nas, Teyana Taylor’s album is next up — but has the G.O.O.D. music rollout been good to black women?
Between Kelis and Whitney Houston, women seem to be last and least
I have edited myself for nine years and I woke up this morning and said, ‘Not today.’ I remember so clearly when the pictures came out with that whole thing that happened with [Rihanna] and Chris Brown. — Kelis Rogers
There are, unfortunately, two factors that determine how intently society as a whole holds a man accountable for accused acts of violence against women: the extent of our love and adoration for the accused and the depths of our disregard for the accuser. In the cases of celebrities alleged to have abused black women, we get a perfect cocktail of people elevated to the level of mythical cult icon mixed with the least respected or cared-for community. What results is a multitude of instances that are, in short, #MeToo-proof. If this sounds like hyperbole or histrionics, then one simply has to look at the past month of Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. music releases to see how forgiving fan bases can be when black women are an artist’s collateral damage.
FRIDAYYYYYYYYYYYYYY K T S E
— TEYANA M.J. SHUMPERT (@TEYANATAYLOR) June 21, 2018
G.O.O.D. Music is set on Friday to release Teyana Taylor’s as-yet-untitled solo album (though it may be called “K T S E,” and that could stand for something along the lines of Keep That Same Energy), yet the road to this point has been rocky. West and his artists are fighting for headline space in the midst of a wild summer of World Cup games, Beyoncé and Jay-Z albums nuking the ‘net, NBA offseason drama and presidential foreign-policy-induced trauma. West’s cravings to be the top story are as drastic, and troubling, as ever.
West’s announcement of his G.O.O.D. Music label’s summer album releases began inauspiciously enough, with a late-April tweet in the middle of one of his many tirades announcing four projects on consecutive Fridays: a Pusha T album on May 25, a Kanye solo project on June 1, a joint album (West and Kid Cudi) on June 8, a Nas solo album produced by West himself on June 15 and Taylor’s on Friday. In any (other) given year, this list of releases would engender unilateral excitement and rampant hip-hop head hysteria.
But 2018 isn’t every other year — it’s more like a computer simulation wrapped inside a dystopian novella. So instead of just releasing the projects as announced, West followed that tweet up with what may go down as one of the more bizarre and counterproductive press runs in the social media era. In its wake, his substantial fan base is vacillating between feeling conflicted and downright hurt.
It’s hard to pinpoint the most jarring moments of behavior from West leading up to the release of his album, ye. First, he repeatedly endorsed President Donald Trump and his “Make America Great Again” slogan, surrounding himself with 45 supporters like right-wing pundit Candace Owens. Then he went on TMZ and loudly proclaimed: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years … for 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” The Kanye 2018 politics are disappointing for fans who grew to love him for being the type of unafraid artist who stands in front of a national TV camera and declares, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in response to the way the country responded to Hurricane Katrina.
Of course, whether it be curiosity, the ease of obtaining music in the streaming era or the years of good credit West has earned over the past 15 years, the streaming numbers for his ye album were strong, garnering him his eighth No. 1 album on Billboard charts, with 175,000 equivalent buys. But numbers don’t tell the whole story: West may have irrevocably damaged his brand and good standing within the larger black cultural landscape. The reactions to his antics were as intense as they were swift. Twitter dragged West.
An exclusive look at Get Out 2 pic.twitter.com/Sq8qehyjZd
— Karen Civil (@KarenCivil) April 25, 2018
Me deleting Kanye’s music and making more room for all the new artists who deserve platforms out here. pic.twitter.com/Zsf4fCUBwx
— Quinta (@quintabrunson) April 25, 2018
"With the first pick in the 2018 Racial Draft, the Whites select…Kanye West." pic.twitter.com/ZtqsqTUA8i
— manny (@mannyfidel) April 25, 2018
Think pieces lambasted what were characterized as the Grammy winner’s desperate cries for attention, and even his peers challenged his newfound politics. Part of the antics are standard album rollout fare, especially from West, who uses controversy to garner attention for his albums ahead of their releases. And there was a hope that, at least once the albums started actually coming out, the shenanigans would all make sense. However, the first album on the G.O.O.D. music slate, Pusha T’s DAYTONA, showed that West wasn’t anywhere close to being finished with his mayhem.
Pusha T is the Virginia-born MC and one-half of the legendary rap duo Clipse. He made his name peddling descriptive, emotional rhymes about selling drugs, and he has recently entered the American pop cultural mainstream for his highly publicized rap feud with Drake. It seemed like his album, DAYTONA, would be straightforward and, at least by comparison, uncontroversial.
And musically, it was. Majestic drug raps over some of West’s most focused, engaging beats since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. That should have been the story, but Mr. West had to pull controversy from the jaws of normalcy. According to Pusha, West made an eleventh-hour call that he was changing the album cover, paying a reported $85,000 to use a paparazzi photo of Whitney Houston’s bathroom sink — taken after one of her drug binges. The choice to use the image of a dilapidated counter topped with makeup, beer cans and a copious amount of trash is repulsive.
That Houston (who died from accidental drowning while drugs were in her system) and her real-life drug addiction were being used as a prop for an album about drug dealing demonstrated a blatant disregard for Houston’s life. We should all be as offended by that album cover choice as we are by West’s “slavery” comments, but we aren’t. Because we value West’s perceived genius more than defending the honor of a black woman, even one as universally loved as Houston.
There’s a limit to what we can chalk up as artistic expression. The Pusha T album cover is exploitative and glorifies the death caused by addiction. That message flies in the face of Pusha T’s music. His creations don’t simply celebrate drug culture. His music focuses its gaze on the plight of those affected by consuming drugs as well as those caught in the destructive cycle of selling them. The decision to use Houston’s death to paint Pusha T’s cover has gone largely unchallenged by anyone outside of the late star’s family. Bobby Brown, Houston’s ex-husband (who admits to hitting the singer), has threatened violence against West, and Houston’s estate is split between choosing acceptance or anger. Otherwise, the decision is getting a pass.
And the only way I can describe it was like double-dutch. I felt like, ‘Do I jump in? Do I say it?’ Because I had bruises all over my body at that time. — Kelis Rogers
Then there’s Nas. The most stark example of what happens when a folk hero is allowed to treat a black woman however he wants without having to face any consequences. A month before his G.O.O.D. Music album, Nasir, dropped on June 15, his ex-wife, Kelis Rogers, went public with details about a marriage characterized by physical and emotional abuse.
“There was a lot of drinking,” she told Hollywood Unlocked in April. There was a lot of physical and mental abuse. … I probably would have stayed longer had I not been pregnant. Because I really did love him, and we were married. This was my person.”
Kelis and Nas met in 2002. She was three years removed from her smash hit, the Neptunes-produced “Caught Out There,” and a feature on ODB’s “Got Your Money.” Nas and Kelis would quickly become hip-hop coupledom royalty, predating Jay-Z and Beyonce’s union, marrying in 2005. She’d gone on to release her gold, Grammy-nominated single “Milkshake,” which made her a household name in her own right.
But by 2009 she was embroiled in a nasty split from Nas and a fight over spousal support that still isn’t resolved. But the abuse allegations are new, at least from Kelis. Carmen Bryan, Nas’ ex-girlfriend and the mother of one of his children, also detailed abuse: “The next thing I knew I was being hit in the face with a closed fist,” she wrote in her 2006 It’s No Secret. “The impact of the blow was so fierce that I saw stars.”
Now, let’s get the obligatory caveats out of the way: Yes, it’s possible both Carmen and Kelis are fabricating their stories, making them part of the 2 percent of women who lie about domestic violence. It’s also possible that Kelis is using the accusations as leverage in the never-ending child support litigation. However, that’s one hell of a trump card to hold on to for a decade.
Whether the allegations against Nas are true or not, they surely should merit some response from the MC. After all, rap fans have spent the last month lambasting Drake for not responding to rumors that he fathered a child whom he has worked to keep a secret. If anything, accusations of domestic abuse should get just as much attention and fervor for some sort of explanation.
But that didn’t happen. Nas, at press time, hasn’t said a word about any of it. He has high status within the black community for his work as a kind of poet laureate. It’s been 24 years since Illmatic, an album that will stand as one of the greatest rap releases of all time. He’s been one of the pre-eminent voices of an entire generation of black Americans. Meanwhile, despite her nominations, plaques and talents, Kelis is just a black woman. So while there will be a small contingent of fans who turn their backs on Nas or at least demand that he be held accountable, his career won’t suffer.
The elephant in the room is that, Pusha album aside, the G.O.O.D. Music releases sound uninspired and rushed. Ye is on the bottom tier of Kanye West albums, as his rhyme scheme is as elementary as ever and his subject matter is as unfocused as at any other time in his career. His collaboration with Cudi, Kids See Ghosts, lacks much replay value despite its uplifting message of overcoming doubts. And, finally, Nasir is a surprising dud. The MC, one of the most agile wordsmiths ever, suddenly sounds dated and unable to stay in the instrumental pockets West has knit for him. Maybe Taylor’s upcoming project will offer a glimmer of hope, but so far the label is 1-for-4 on quality releases. Pusha T, Houston photo or no, is the winner so far.
Trump support. Domestic abuse. Desecration of heroes. The G.O.O.D. Music releases have tested the limits of what’s desirable from those we idolize. And shown us just how low they have to stoop for us to even consider moving on from our fandom.
This past month flies in the face of the notion that we are in a culture that is too eager to “cancel” celebrities who make the wrong moves in public. In truth, for far too many people, blatant disregard for black women isn’t a cancelable offense, much less an offense worth much discussion. In the end we’ll simply have to live with the fact — won’t we? — that these are our heroes.