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3 Top Hip-Hop Names Rewrite the Rulebook

Kanye West really is the nucleus, as he claimed in a recent New York Times interview.

I will be the leader of a company that ends up being worth billions of dollars, because I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus.

He sounds like a jerk, but perhaps no less so than founders of other billion-dollar companies. And he's right. On his new album, Yeezus, he is a modern-day Mercury, managing to focus all of society's broadest contradictions, lacing them to his feet like a winged pair of Nikes, to better bring the message directly to our ears, in one angry outburst.

Is he batshit crazy? Full of himself? Pretentious? Best guess: All of the above. But that's not the point.

That new album, Yeezus, debuted at No. 1 on Billboard's Hot 200 and was colorfully reviewed by Lou Reed, he of the once-and-eternally hip Velvet Underground. Reed gets it. Summing up the album as "Majestic and inspiring," Reed points out in an understatement:

What [West] says and what he does are often two different things.

I talked about West having it both ways in my article in May, mentioning that touting his limited edition line of high-priced sneakers on Twitter and on Saturday Night Live seemed contrary to his rant against materialism in "New Slaves." But I also tried to show how that seeming contradiction is like an onion that we could peel away layer after layer and never really find the core.

In his rambling review (really a joy to read, refreshing in a way that's more like a stand-up monologue) Reed notes that Yeezus is full of other contradictions: I can hold my liquor and I can't hold my liquor in the same song; throwing stones at the elite Hamptons houses when he lives like a king himself; this brilliant artist, businessman par excellence, son of a college professor, tossing out Y'all throwin' contracts at me/ You know that niggas can't read.

" 'I'm great, I'm terrible, I'm great, I'm terrible.' That's all over this record," Reed writes, painting the contradictions in terms of manic depression.

But if it is, it's our manic depression. Whatever West is, it is what we made him.

Those two-faced mashups are our society's principal themes: Racism, classism, materialism, substance-love/abuse, art vs. money, artist vs. kingpin, business vs. crime, a respectful love for one woman vs. a misogyny-and-"bitches" trope. We built a national Olympus out of that pile of trash and now he is there on top of it, our god -- creating himself in our likeness.

That is the proper role of the artist: To confront society with its own conflicts, its deepest concerns, to illustrate the nucleus.

Yeezus is a beautiful, ground-breaking record and it debuted at No. 1 on Billboard. Lou Reed's signature on that review underscores the album's cultural importance. It may not be as revolutionary as The Beatles' 1967 Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band -- but then again, it may be. It's brilliantly textured, startlingly fresh, nearly sublime in the breadth of imagination and the restraint, the economy of means.

The deepest contradiction, between art and money, is devastatingly resolved: Artistry undeniably served, all investors undeniably wealthier.

Doesn't usually work that way.

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