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Is Kanye West a Great Artist or a Great Marketer?

By Coral Mesika
 Photo by Axel Antas-Bergkvist on Unsplash
*Updated 2024
For almost two decades, Kanye West, otherwise known as Ye, has built an empire based on his success as a rapper, singer, music producer and fashion designer. He has shocked the public time after time with entertaining bordering on inappropriate and even infuriating antics that have only made him more famous. Whether he is speaking out against vaccinations or declaring his candidacy for US president, and especially when propagating racism and anti-Semitism, West knows how to grab the world’s attention. His never-ending spotlight between praise and criticism has raised the question: Is Kanye West a great artist? Or is he only a decent one just with great marketing skills?
Here are three arguments in favor of Kanye West as a great artist and three arguments supporting his being a great marketer.


Kanye West as a Great Artist


He is more than just a performer

Kanye West started his career not as a rapper but as a producer. According to The Rolling Stone, West produced songs for Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Mariah Carey, Alicia Keys and many other big names in the music industry. Most of the time, the tracks weren’t associated with his name, because he produced for big record labels and wasn’t yet a known artist. After becoming a big name himself, he started his own label – GOOD Music – with Sony BMG, where he released John Legend’s albums. In fact, Legend has said in the past that his career would not be where it is today without West’s involvement. Not long ago, he also signed Chicago rapper Valee, making him a star practically overnight.


Kanye has a long-standing career

West officially began his career as a rapper/singer in 2004 with the release of his first album “The College Dropout” – a great success. Twenty years lager, his newly released “Vulture 1” album features many artists, a testament to his popularity and longevity in the industry. Some critics say this latest album tarnishes his legacy while others deem it as a successful comeback that has saved not only his reputation but also his finances from bankruptcy.


His other albums each experiment with a new or different style. His 2019 album, “Jesus is King,” shows this ability to explore new territory, reflecting his recent embrace of evangelical Christianity. He’s received 24 Grammy awards, outnumbering all other rap artists except for Jay-Z (who also has 24). Furthermore, West’s biggest influence is how he reinvents himself through every album. He isn’t afraid to take a concept to the extreme and mold new styles into the music industry. While he may not be “the greatest artist of all time” as he has claimed, his long-standing and award-winning career success speaks for itself.


He is influential in pop culture

In addition to creating and pushing new styles into his music, directing video clips like video art and designing shoes and clothing, West changed the direction of hip hop after his first album release and has since contributed to the trend of streetwear culture becoming mainstream. Growing up in the suburbs, Kanye didn’t have a rough childhood like many other rappers before him. Rap was, until then, associated with violence, abuse and drugs that the rappers had experienced before pursuing their music. Kanye rapped about everyday problems, about topics that many people could commonly relate to. (That being said, his ex-wife would probably have preferred him not to rap about his infidelities). This new line of rap gave way to other major artists and led him to bridge the gap between mainstream and underground rappers.



Kanye West as a decent performer but a great Marketer


Outrageous public outbursts

Think about the last time Kanye came up in a conversation; it’s not just his music that gets people talking. His long history of speaking (or tweeting) very openly in public and saying just about anything that comes to mind are particularly well-timed when he needs to get back into the spotlight. Though it’s hard to beat his recent controversies, specifically his sporting a “White Lives Matter” shirt followed by anti-Semitic social media posts, probably his most famous outburst was in 2009 at the VMAs, which will always be remembered as the time he ruined Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech, making it all about him.


He used the VMAs as his stage again six years later, when he went on a 20-minute rant saying he will be running for president in 2020 – which he made official on July 4, 2020. That same month, in an anti-abortion rant, he raised eyebrows when disclosing to the public that he and his ex-wife had initially considered aborting their first child. He has also publicly admitted to having an opioid addiction, and claimed black people “chose” slavery. As a result, the public finds itself talking oh-so-much about the versatile rapper – but for the wrong reasons. Instead of discussing his music, we are left to judge his impulsive antics and an over-inflated ego.


Kanye West as a fashion designer

“Kanye as an artist” is a claim fortified by his other artistic forays; namely, his fashion career. Would his designs get as much attention if he weren’t Kanye?  According to Dazed Magazine, West took up internships at major fashion labels in order to learn the inner workings of the fashion industry. It seems that the rap star was granted these prestigious opportunities because of his celeb status, which led him wherever he wanted- including to the runway in 2011. Despite countless harsh critics commenting on his designs, he managed to continue on to his next collections, which still were not entirely accepted by the public. Though his collaboration with the Gap ended sooner than intended, before its launch, media reports asserted that the company was relying on his celebrity and “innovative” (some say controversial) fashion marketing strategies to save it from bankruptcy. His Yeezy brand partnership with Adidas also came to an abrupt end in 2023, with the company taking a $246M hit, as a result of his anti-Semitic rants and hate speech. Most recently, his marketing skills shone when his $7M Super Bowl ad took everyone by surprise yet reportedly brought in $19M in sales for his Yeezy brand products.


Wouldn’t just let the art speak

West claimed he would be “the loudest voice of this generation.” A distinguished artist does not need to be the “loudest” voice – just an influential one. It is hard to take an artist seriously who claims to have so much power but does not acknowledge anyone around him (sans for fellow producers) and, even worse, espouses and enables bigotry. It is hard to focus on West as an artist when he is foraying into politics, religion and health – and, some say, in uninformed or irresponsible ways. For many, West’s greatest album is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which was released in 2010; since then, it seems that Kanye is very busy trying to convince people he is amazing, rather than just letting his music do so. The latest backlash that West is receiving from fellow artists regarding his recent anti-Black and anti-Semitic hate speech is sending a message that perhaps West the person should stay silent for a while and let his past music speak for itself.


The Bottom LineKanye West has proven he can be a great music producer and rapper; however, it is difficult to take everything he does seriously given his public actions and outbursts. Should we separate his celebrity status from the quality of his works? What’s your take? Is Kanye a better artist or marketer?


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