April 16th 2010 What Does Wikipedia Have to Do With Kanye?

I finally broke down and acquired two Kanye West albums, Graduation and 808s and Heartbreak. Being a recent college graduate, I’ve heard Kanye’s remix of “Harder, Faster, Better, Stronger” about a thousand times in the past couple of years, but I hadn’t really listened to any of his other tracks. And yet, I still had opinions about the guy—opinions that, I realized, were probably ignorant and ill-formed.

That so many people treat Kanye as the messiah of hip-hop music was partly the reason I resisted listening to his albums. I sometimes have a silly, unconscious resistance to things that others treat as the epitome of cool. In fact, trying to analyze Kanye’s creativity and impact on hip-hop made me think of the debate surrounding Wikipedia’s notability guidelines. That’s a strange connection, but bear with me.

Wikipedia’s notability guidelines are a major source of contention among Wikipedia editors. Frequent Wikipedia contributors often lump themselves into factions, with some considering themselves to be “Deletionists”, editors who devote their entire lives to keeping Wikipedia free of “cruft”. Often times, they nominate an article for deletion by declaring it to be “non-notable”. Wikipedia has arcane rules for article deletion that I won’t regurgitate here because they’re only of interest to obsessed Wikipedia administrators, but suffice it to say that many articles are deleted under these “guidelines”.

But here’s the thing: non-notability is so hard to judge. Just because I haven’t heard of a person, place, idea, or concept doesn’t mean it’s not notable. It seems a bit pretentious, even arrogant, to declare an article to be so unremarkable that it should be purged from the Internet. (Don’t forget that there is a lot of crap on the Web.) The fact is, you really have to possess in-depth knowledge of a field to know whether something in that field is notable or not. If you only have cursory experience with a subject, you can’t accurately judge whether an idea is notable or not.

Back to Kanye. I’ve heard a lot about how Kanye is a creative, original a musician, but even after listening to a couple of his albums, I still can’t tell whether he owns the originality fans ascribe to him; like a lot of Wikipedia editors, I don’t know a damn thing about this subject area, so it’s hard to tell whether one piece of music is more innovative than another. I’m not saying he’s not as good as his fans suggest; I just can’t be a good judge of his talent. But I will say this: anyone who can grab a track from Daft Punk and make it palatable and fun for hip-hop fans (i.e., people who probably wouldn’t otherwise listen to a French electronic band) is okay in my book.

Since pop music is nearly devoid of any sort of originality, any mainstream artist that has a distinctive style—one who puts out music that makes you say, “Yeah, I can tell that’s one of his songs”—must be doing something right. Compare Kanye West to Taylor Swift, who sounds like the pop queen she dethroned, and will sound like the pop queen who dethrones her in another year or two. Aside from her “I’m a marching band geek, but I’m still cool” vibe, she has no personality or originality of her own. (And yes, I’m still pissed that Kanye all but validated her entire cute, cuddly career by stealing her mic at the VMAs.)

So what can Wikipedia teach us about Kanye West? A lot, actually. I don’t consider myself to be a part of Kanye’s throngs of followers, but I was pleasantly surprised by the quality of his music. Sure, they’re not the most amazing beats I’ve ever heard, but it has made me think about taking a look at hip-hop music to find out if what they say about Kanye is really true.