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Kanye the Vulture Eli Lake

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Kanye West on February 2, 2024, in Los Angeles, California. (Rachpoot/Bauer-Griffin/GC Images via Getty Images)

The first time I really took notice of Kanye West was at the tail end of hip-hop’s golden age in 2001. He was one of the hot new producers on Jay-Z’s Blueprint, framing Hov’s rhymes with candy-coated samples of classic soul tracks sped up and augmented with heavy drum loops. Most people would be content to be heirs to Pete Rock and DJ Premier, creating beats for more talented lyricists and making a mint in the process. 

But Kanye was not. He needed to be the main attraction. 

When he dropped his debut, The College Dropout, in 2004, I was curious and skeptical. The beats were fire. But most producers don’t rap for a reason. (Listen to Large Professor’s guest verses if you don’t believe me.) Then I heard “Slow Jamz,” which did not feature a particularly strong Kanye verse, but it was so meta—literally speeding up a Luther Vandross slow jam for a song about slow jams by artists like Luther Vandross—and I was hooked. When Twista came in for the second verse, I realized I was listening to greatness. And it wasn’t just “Slow Jamz.” “Through the Wire” did not feature the agility of Eminem or the authority of Jay-Z, but it was raw and honest as Ye described the aftermath of a car wreck that nearly killed him. “Jesus Walks” was a jaw-dropping blend of the sacred and profane. The entire album was wall-to-wall bangers. 

At this point I was rooting for Kanye. He defied hip-hop’s division of labor and proved that with enough chutzpah, the producer could become the star. His follow-up to Dropout, Late Registration, convinced me he was in the same category as James Brown or John Lennon: a visionary. Nearly every track is a gem. My favorite moment comes at the end of “We Major,” a celestial symphony of brass and wobbling synthesizers that sounds like it came to Earth from a Stevie Wonder dream. Just as the composition resolves, Kanye asks, “Can I talk my shit again?” Please do. 

Fast-forward to October 8, 2022. That’s when Kanye tweeted that he planned to go “Death Con 3” on Jewish people. In short order, he was telling Alex Jones that he wouldn’t let the Jews tell him he can’t admire Hitler; sharing conspiracies about the Jewish-owned media on the podcast Drink Champs; and hanging around with the incel / nativist / moron / antisemite, Nick Fuentes

When you think he can’t go lower, he does. In December, a video of Kanye emerged where he claimed that Jews, like the Rothschilds, were out to get him. Then when TMZ asked him whether he regretted his “Death Con 3” tweet, he responded, “For all the Jewish kids that love me, I’m sorry that y’all had to hear a grown-up conversation where they’re screaming at each other. But we got to a point where something needed to happen.” 

Oy. 

I am a proud Jew who opposes cancel culture. So I never wished Kanye a “social death,” to borrow a phrase from Dream Hampton. My first thought was that someone should invite him to Shabbat dinner and set him straight. But as Kanye continued to double, triple, and quadruple down on this ancient hatred of my people, I realized I was being naive. The man is not going to change. 

So when I hit play on his new album, Vultures 1, it was with a sense of deep wariness. It would be easier if it was incoherent garbage, like so much of what comes out of Kanye’s mouth has been lately. But it wasn’t. I liked it. And I wasn’t the only one. 

The one consistent theme in Kanye’s music is himself. He is a proud egotist. (Album cover for Vultures 1 via Instagram)

Since its release earlier this month, Vultures 1, a collaboration with Ty Dolla $ign, has reached number one on Apple’s streaming charts. It confirms what we already knew: Kanye West is too big to cancel. Despite losing endorsements from Adidas and Balenciaga, despite losing his representation from CAA and his own lawyers, Kanye’s art still demands attention. 

Vultures 1 is not Kanye’s best work, but his B-minus is an A-plus for most artists. And in 2024, despite his controversies and failed cancellations, Kanye is still capable of finding musical brilliance inside of his crazy. The album demands relistening because it’s filled with hidden delights. There is the chorus of Italian soccer fans chanting a filthy hook on “Carnival.” The first half of “Talking,” which features his 10-year-old daughter, North West, is haunting and beautiful. The second half punctuates Ty Dolla $ign’s gorgeous melody with distorted industrial-strength base stabs. Despite its adolescent animosity, the album’s title track, “Vultures,” is crafted with a master artisan’s attention to detail. It features layers of dissonant chords that sound like an orchestral alarm before evolving into majestic resolution. 

All of this vindicates the adage to separate the art from the artist. Anyone who has enjoyed great music, literature, or visual art has applied this pithy rule. Paul Gauguin raped the Tahitian girls who posed for his portraits. Novelist Norman Mailer stabbed his wife Adele with a penknife in 1960, nearly killing her for saying he wasn’t as talented as Fyodor Dostoyevsky. Jazz trumpeter Miles Davis abused his first and second wives when blinded by rage, cocaine, and booze. 

There’s no shortage of Jew-haters in the canon. T.S. Eliot, for example, wrote in “Burbank with a Baedeker,” The rats are underneath the piles. / The jew is underneath the lot. The villain of Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice is the Jewish moneylender Shylock, who demands a pound of flesh from one of his debtors who cannot repay him. We study these works not because of their antisemitism but despite it. Can I glean something valuable from the work of a man who thinks of me less than a rat? Sadly, the answer is sometimes, but not always, yes.

And anyway, if museums stopped showing Gauguin, or Spotify stopped streaming Miles, or libraries stopped carrying Mailer’s books, or even if T.S. Eliot and Shakespeare were revised to meet our better standards, we would only be punishing ourselves. We make exceptions for genius. So we make exceptions for Kanye. And make no mistake, Kanye West is a genius, and knows it.

The one consistent theme in Kanye’s music is himself. He is a proud egotist. The final line of “I Love Kanye” sums this up with perfection: I love you like Kanye loves Kanye. And Vultures 1 is no exception. It is both an expression of and commentary on his recent controversies, making the artist’s life, in this case, the art itself. In “Keys to My Life,” for example, he references his ex-wife Kim Kardashian’s affair with SNL alum Pete Davidson. Look at what I stumbled on / Another nigga chillin’ on your couch with pajamas on, he raps over ethereal, gothic chords. 

On three of its tracks, Kanye addresses his quarrels with the chosen people. The opening of the album, “Stars,” features this line: Keep a few Jews on the staff now / I cash out. In its closing track, “King,” Kanye chants, Crazy, bipolar, antisemite /  And I’m still the king. On the title track, “Vultures,” Kanye raps, How I’m antisemitic / I just fucked a Jewish bitch. That line is tasteless enough on its own. But he completes the verse with petty venom: I just fucked Scooter’s bitch and we ran her like Olympics / Got pregnant in the threesome, so who’s baby is it? “Scooter” here is Kanye’s former manager, Scooter Braun, who divorced his wife Yael Cohen in 2022. They had three children before the dissolution of their marriage and at some point one imagines they will hear this misogyny and cringe or possibly cry. It made me nauseated. 

Vulgarity is nothing new for Kanye. All of his great works contain songs that celebrate debased carnality. The chorus of his masterpiece, “Runaway,” implores us to raise a “toast for the assholes.” Part of Kanye’s genius was that you still rooted for the antihero despite these confessions. But “Vultures” doesn’t get us there. The line about his estranged manager’s wife is not aspirational fantasy. It’s toxic enmity. 

After three listens to Vultures 1, I’m torn. Yes, I miss the old Kanye. The latest version of this ever-changing artist is that of an unhinged megalomaniac. The artist has turned into the kind of man who boasts of his sexual conquests and lives a life unattainable to anyone who doesn’t have fuck-you money. I gotta fly to Japan just to be secluded, he raps on the aptly named “Problematic.” 

I don’t like the new Kanye very much, but I make an exception for his genius even though he is now an antisemitic edgelord. He is hardly the first great artist to embrace the socialism of fools. He will not be the last. I separate Kanye’s art from Kanye and appreciate the glimpses of beauty that lurk inside his vulgarity. The difference is that I am no longer rooting for him. 

Eli Lake is a Free Press columnist and podcaster. Follow him on X (formerly Twitter) at @EliLake and read his latest Free Press piece on how October 7 might bring down the Squad.

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June 18, 2024 Heather Cox Richardson

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My First Job, at the Stanford Internet Observatory Julia Steinberg

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Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised I’d “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time,” writes Julia Steinberg. (Photo by David Madison/Getty Images)

The Stanford Internet Observatory—a research center tasked with rooting out “misinformation” on social media—is shutting its doors. Chances are if you’ve heard of the SIO it was in a scathing piece from Michael Shellenberger or Matt Taibbi, who have accused the center of being a key node in the censorship-industrial complex.

It was also my first employer. Like a zillion other bright-eyed Stanford undergrads, I was drawn to work at a place that promised to “learn about the abuse of the internet in real time, to develop a novel curriculum on trust and safety that is a first in computer science, and to translate our research discoveries into training and policy innovations for the public good.” To me, that meant ending internet abuse like the glamorization of anorexia on social media or financial scams that steal billions every year. But mostly I worked on the Election Integrity Partnership (EIP), which SIO ran during the 2020 and 2022 elections. The purpose of that project was to identify so-called “fake news” spreading on social media. 

In actuality, SIO hired a load of interns to scan social media for posts deemed to be mis- and disinformation. It turns out that the posts we students flagged were often sent along to moderators at Twitter (now X), Facebook, Instagram, and TikTok, which took them down in order to quash dissenting viewpoints—viewpoints that sometimes ended up being right, as in the case of Covid likely being the result of a lab leak, or Hunter Biden’s hard drive being his actual hard drive—not Russian disinformation. 

Thanks to the work of independent journalists, the SIO’s work has come under a lot of scrutiny, including in Washington. A recent House Judiciary Committee report alleges that, by cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security, the SIO’s Election Integrity Partnership “provided a way for the federal government to launder its censorship activities in hopes of bypassing both the First Amendment and public scrutiny.” 

The SIO has stated that “Stanford has not shut down or dismantled SIO as a result of outside pressure. SIO does, however, face funding challenges as its founding grants will soon be exhausted.” But on June 13, Platformer reported that much of SIO’s staff was on the way out: “Its founding director, Alex Stamos, left his position in November. Renee DiResta, its research director, left last week after her contract was not renewed. One other staff member’s contract expired this month, while others have been told to look for jobs elsewhere, sources say.”

The Supreme Court will soon rule on a case, Murthy v. Missouri, that addresses whether the U.S. government should be able to collaborate with social media companies to censor commentary. The plaintiffs, in their brief, lambast SIO for its role in abetting government censorship. We’ll be watching that case closely.

Julia Steinberg is an intern at The Free Press. Read her piece on the college dropout who unlocked the secrets of ancient Rome using AI. And follow her on X @Juliaonatroika.

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My Promise to Palestine Chris Hedges

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When I accepted the Tafik Diab Prize for my writing on the genocide in Gaza in Cairo on June 10 I explained why the cartoonist Joe Sacco and I are planning to do our next book together on Gaza.

Written speech:

I would like to start with a story that happened to me in Gaza on October 5, 2000. One day I was working on a report at Natzarim (Jewish settlement). There were Palestinian boys near me. The boys threw rocks towards the Israeli army. A soldier shot one of the boys — and the boy died. Four boys each lifted up a limb and we ran. The incident aftected me to such an extent that I did not shave for three weeks. After three weeks, I went to visit the boy’s house to meet his family. I told his mother I was with her son when he was killed. The mother told me that when her younger son heard that his brother had been killed he went into the kitchen, and then he left the house. After ten minutes she asked her husband where her son had gone. They went out to look for him and saw him in the street with a knife in his hand.

She asked him, “Where are you going?”

He answered, “I am going to kill Jews.” I have never been able to forget that child. I often wonder where he is. He would be a man in his thirties now. Is he still alive? Married? Does he have children? Are he and his family frightened of the bombing? Where have they taken refuge? God willing, I will write a book on Gaza with the cartoonist Joe Sacco, the author of “Palestine” and “Footnotes in Gaza.” During that time I will look for him, I will complete his story and the stories of many others. Israel is determined to erase them from existence and from history. This is my promise.

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