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Is Kanye West the new Bob Dylan?

Curses to it all, that damned music press it at it again. They’re always doing it, and it never gets any easier to stomach when they inevitably turn out to be wrong. You’d think after the years of endless promises and subsequent letdowns, I’d learn to stop getting my hopes up, but doggone it, I can’t help myself – I absolutely love the old guy to death, and whenever some stuck-for-adjectives rock critic gets hyperbolic and deems yet another acoustic-guitar-toting youngster “the next Bob Dylan,” my interest piques, always erroneously, as in the end the subjects of these articles never ever deliver what their praise-singers have promised of them. Much like the perennially unrewarding search for the new Michael Jordan, it’s one of popular culture’s great frustrations.

Dylan fans everywhere will tell you the “new Dylan” label is one of the great critical blunders of our time, but I for one refuse to take the side of pessimism. You see, despite being a greatly faithful and embarrassingly nerdy fan of Mr. Dylan’s, I’ll never get past the fact that, having sprung from the loins of 1983 and all, I missed out on a rather large fraction of the man’s more important contributions to the musical world. Debate though I gallantly try, even the most intelligent comment I can make regarding homoerotic imagery in “Ballad of a Thin Man” can always be run directly into the ground with, “But man, you wouldn’t know, you just weren’t there.” I get that from the old guys all the time (the commentary, not homoeroticism), and though I stamp my feet in frustration, there’s really no contesting it. In 1965, I no more existed than did a small winged pixie that travels from house to house and pays sleeping children for their old teeth. It’s forever my curse.

So I get to thinking: how great it would be to have an entirely new Bob Dylan, one for me to experience firsthand, whose strides and missteps I can witness with the rest of the world, about whom I can tell some self-important whippersnapper some forty years from now that he or she just wasn’t there.

But it never happens. They’ve tried – oh, how they’ve tried – but they always fail, always blatantly, and always quickly. In the early 1970’s, Columbia Records proclaimed that their very own Bruce “The Boss” Springsteen was none other than Mr. Dylan’s second coming, as his first couple albums were full of street-beat poetry-type stuff about young love and life and all that crap, all common enough themes, but it didn’t matter; he had scruffy hair and used a lot of words, and that was good enough for them. But damn it all, that rascally Bruce went right on and established his own identity, choosing to abandon his boardwalk prophecies and instead make a few of the best blue-collar rock and roll albums this great nation has ever known. How dare he, I’m sure they thought.

Loudon Wainwright III was hailed as a new Dylan once, but he never amounted to anything more than a consistently good folkie, which is respectable, but you can’t be any kind of Bob Dylan without “going electric” at least once, or indulging in some equally dramatic career metamorphosis. In the 1960’s, Donovan (the guy who sang “Mellow Yellow”) was supposed to be the new Dylan, but he ultimately just turned out to be a huge wuss.

The list goes on, as do the letdowns. Beck: too goofy. Jakob Dylan: too obvious. Ryan Adams: too Ryan Adams. The latest one I heard was some guy who calls himself “Bright Eyes”; no one who calls himself “Bright Eyes” will ever be the new Bob Dylan. The new Stephen Morrissey, perhaps, but not the new Bob Dylan.

Sometime earlier this year, I was having a phone conversation with my friend Allison regarding an article that Chuck Klosterman wrote comparing the search for the new Bob Dylan to the search for the new Larry Bird. I, a non-Bostonian and only a casual follower of NBA basketball, had no idea that there was a search for a new Larry Bird at all, and like many consumers of pop culture media, I’d grown perpetually frustrated with this constant clamoring for a new Dylan – so frustrated, in fact, that at one point in our conversation, I pulled a random CD – which happened to be Kanye West’s The College Dropout – off my shelf, and declared in furious jest, “Fuck it – Kanye West is the new Bob Dylan! Everybody else gets to be one – why not him, right?” I, one who rants and generally adores the sound of his own voice, concocted an absurdist argument to support this claim, and Allison – easily my most insightful friend when it comes to matters of popular culture – said, “I know you were just joking, but that probably makes more sense than anything I’ve read by those critics calling Bright Eyes the new Dylan.”

I figured she was just flattering me (most people do, as they’ve learned it shuts me up quicker), but the more I reflected on it, the more I came to the realization that I might have actually been onto something. It may seem ridiculous at first to think that an Yves St. Laurent-touting rapper could be even remotely connected to Mr. Dylan in the great web of music history, but that’s the beauty of it. It’s only fitting that Dylan, who has built a forty-plus-year career around completely unpredictable shape-shifting, be succeeded by someone whose professional styles fall as far outside of Dylan’s own personal boundaries as possible while still being considered music (truthfully, the real new Dylan is probably off developing reusable Band-Aids in a laboratory somewhere, or completely altering the menu of his restaurant just when the regular patrons had grown comfortable with the old one).

In terms of what he does for the masses who pay his bills, Kanye’s a dead ringer. Check the method: he throws fits in public, he’s a self-aggrandizing ass in front of the camera, and he contradicts himself way too much for any reasonable person to ever really figure out – or care to figure out – what he’s on about. Specific circumstances notwithstanding, I don’t see much difference between Dylan flipping out over a broken glass in Don’t Look Back and Kanye ripping George Bush a new one on that Hurricane Katrina telethon, no more difference than I see between Kanye bitching on MTV about how much he deserved to win Album of the Year and Dylan looking condescendingly down at an entranced Donovan while playing “It’s All Over Now, Baby Blue,” also in Don’t Look Back. It’s all melodrama, and both men possess it in bundles.

Of course, no one cares about any of that because their music’s so great, and rightfully so. That “voice of a generation” crap is the stuff of wretched nostalgia documentaries, but nevertheless, the Bob Dylan of the 1960’s was most surely the best musical storyteller of his time, and I’ll be right gosh-darned if Mr. West isn’t this age’s equivalent to that master narrator. I know nothing at all about automobile modification, and typically find the idea of welding gigantic erector set spoilers onto one’s trunk to be a gargantuan waste of time and money, but to hear Kanye West’s “Drive Slow” is to understand this phenomenon anew. He begins by telling of a young guy a few years older than him, a big-man-on-campus type who took young Kanye under his wing and gave him a cool nickname so the other kids wouldn’t make fun of him, and subsequently introduced him to an entire culture of cool cars and fly honeys, where he felt accepted, relevant, and part of something important. Whether or not you care about the pimping of one’s ride – and I most certainly do not – an attentive listener is powerless but to care, not necessarily about compact cars with racing stripes on the side, but about a character going through a struggle for acceptance that we’ve all undoubtedly writhed our way through at one time or another. So also goes “We Don’t Care”: I can’t relate to being on welfare, living in the ghetto, or selling drugs to buy twenty-inch rims for my car, but I can relate to being a person and being down and out, and almost unequivocally, the best stories are those which transcend the bounds of their settings, suckering in their audiences with their tactfully placed universal-human-condition droppings which are undeniable to even the most ambivalent of listeners. Most storytellers can’t do it; Kanye West can.

And of course Dylan could too. I can’t imagine there were many upstanding citizens in 1963 who’d have given a rat’s arse about Hattie Carroll or her lonesome death had Bob Dylan not written a supremely powerful song about it, but lo and behold he happened to pick up the newspaper that day, and via their record players, many people in turn became familiar with this story that may have otherwise passed them by (or at least, so I presume – I can’t say for sure, for as many will tell you, I wasn’t there). It’s what great narration is all about, making a listener invest personally in something in which he really has no reason to invest, and it was and is a specialty of both of these writers.

An even better parallel: in the late 1970’s and early 1980’s, Dylan infuriated fans and critics alike by releasing a couple albums called Slow Train Coming and Saved, two albums containing nothing but finger-pointing, fire-and-brimstone Christian rock songs (except for the harmlessly childish “Man Gave Names to All The Animals,” which sounded like something that Raffi would have written had he switched over to Christian rock). Writers and fans tell me (I have to rely on them, mind you, as I wasn’t there) that this was as bona fide a jaw dropper as they come, especially coming from an artist who was embraced by many as a liberal icon. People would go to Dylan concerts expecting to hear “Like a Rolling Stone,” and instead be handed Bible verses and songs about servitude, not a Greatest Hit to be found. History puts these performances in perspective as really quite impressive, but at the time, it was an abomination. Dylan singing Christian songs – puh-leaze, said the aging hippie.

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But Kanye West went one better. Not only was he able to trick his audience into not hating his Jesus song, but he managed to turn it into an honest-to-God hit single. “Jesus Walks” garnered countless hours of radio play, video play, and surely more than its fair share of time on the turntable at dance clubs, just as the lyrics to the song openly hoped it would, and somehow a materialistic, potty-mouthed rapper scoring his then-biggest hit with a Christian-themed song seemed an appropriately Bob Dylan thing to do, especially when a couple tracks later he found himself in a collaboration track with Jamie Foxx about boudoir music. To be unfathomably confounding and grossly inconsistent is one thing; to tackle your Jesus phase a mere several months into your career is another crusade entirely.

But of course, you don’t get away with being a walking puzzle of contradictions unless you possess some degree of enviable coolness, and this is also something common to both Bob and Kanye, despite their both essentially being huge dorks underneath it all. If you listen to Dylan’s interviews and onstage banter from very early on in his career, he’s a huge, awkward, giggling dope, dressed like a wayward paperboy, giddy at the attention he’s getting and completely willing to indulge his audience in stories about his daily adventures; by 1965, he’d become the textbook jackass hipster, the kind of twit that answers questions with questions and wears sunglasses indoors, too cool for everyone and one-hundred percent fully aware of it..

Kanye, on the other hand, was never quite so humble, but we do witness a colossal leap in arrogance from his first album to his second, the former of which offered sentiments like, “Always said that if I rapped I’d say something significant/But here I am rapping about money, hoes, and rims again,” as if he knew he was handing his audience a bunch of tripe, but was doing it anyway because it was fun and really harmless enough, and anyway there was plenty of substance to balance it out. But come his second album, Late Registration, he was making no such apologies. He’d assumed a whole new degree of coolness altogether, and if he wanted to tell you about what kind of sunglasses he was wearing, or how sweet he looked when he rolled up into some party, or what brands of luxury cars he was deciding between at the dealership, then damn it, he was going to, because he was cool enough to do it, and if there really was some idiot who didn’t envy all this stuff – well, he was probably too lame to deserve to understand what any of this is about, anyway.

But then, Kanye wasn’t too cool to drop a couple rhymes about how miserable and hopeless it was back when he was sleeping on “a cheap-ass sofa,” composing beat after beat, praying someone like Jay-Z would come along and give him a break, and that’s the kind of drama-club bellyaching that makes Kanye better than ninety-five percent of his insubstantial, bling-bling-blingin’ contemporaries. Someone less cool would have intended such a lyric as a message that hey, anything is possible; Kanye’s point is basically just how lucky he was, though he’d probably assert that luck had nothing to do with it.

Dylan and West are united by the fact that they’re both larger-than-life figures, but that means nothing, as there are hundreds of larger-than-life figures that populate the pages of supermarket tabloids on a daily basis. What sets them apart is their blatant flaunting of their own fallibilities; Kanye, who is more than happy to have a raving seventh-grade-girl hissy fit on TV, while the young Dylan spent endless hours pompously sticking his nose up at interviewers who clearly just wanted to discuss their admiration for his work (never been a celebrity, myself, but I’d assume people asking you question comes with the territory). I, for one, grant them these things because I know I might well be inclined to behave the same way if sudden, explosive fame had gone to my head, and because it’s made so abundantly clear that this is what’s happened, they seem to me just a little more palatable as cultural figureheads. Indeed, some pop stars and actors simply come across as though they were “born to be famous”; Bob Dylan and Kanye West do not. They come across as though they were indeed both born to be masters of their trade, but put a camera in front of either of them and they turn into rhythmically inept dancing bears. Just like most of us would.

But who knows. For now, it’s enough to have found the new Dylan, until he inevitably strays from the path like they all do, but my personal optimism is that Kanye West remains the new Dylan at least long enough for me to tell some young rapscallion that he just wasn’t there for “Jesus Walks,” when he tries to knowledgably cite it as the source of the Christian hip-hop craze that sweeps the nation in twenty years. But if not, there is always another random CD to be taken off the rack and assigned a bunch of ridiculous parallels, and who could say; maybe the new Dylans then will be even more inane and fabricated than the new Dylans now. For the sake of all of their legacies, we can only hope.

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