While they might seem to sit on opposite ends of the spectrum, there’s a lot that unites Lou Reed and Kanye West. Both are or, in Reed’s case, were, famously hard to interview. Take the time he described journalists (gulp) as “the lowest form of life”. There are countless examples of Reed treating interviewers with, at best, callous disregard and, at worst, direct aggression. Likewise, West has had a tendency to lose his cool from time to time. Consider the occasion he went on SiriusXM’s Shade 45 to promote his fashion brand, for example. When host Sway Calloway asked why he hadn’t chosen to work independently, West began screaming: “You ain’t got the answers, Sway! You ain’t got the answers! I been doing this more than you!”
But the pair are also united by a shared appreciation for the seedier side of urban life. Reed’s time with The Velvet Underground saw him imbue the band’s lyrics with the unflinching imagery of William S. Burroughs. Similarly, Kanye’s work has often revelled in the slimier side of show business. But it wasn’t the lewd sexual innuendos and tales of threesomes that sparked Lou Reed’s enthusiasm for Kanye West’s 2013 album xi – rather, the rock icon found the LP to be “majestic and inspiring” despite these things.
In his review of Yeezus, shared on The Talkhouse website, Reed wrote: “There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old shit. But the guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.” Reed went so far as to confess that he was so moved by the lush crescendo of ‘Guilt Trip’ that “it [brought] tears to [his] eyes.”
Reed saw the same qualities in Kanye’s work that many critics did at the time: namely, that West was a step ahead of the curve – burning a trail into the future of hip-hop. His unrelenting vision saw him take risks that few other artists would have had the guts to. Take his decision to do away with the catchy choruses that had come to define his output. However, it was his very failure to do this, Reed noted, that gave the album such left-field charm. “He claims he doesn’t have those melodic choruses any more,” Reed wrote, “That’s not true.”
Later adding, “But it’s real fast cutting – boom, you’re in it.” It was this instinctual approach to songwriting that Reed favoured above all else. In his review of Yeezus, he concluded: “It works because it’s beautiful – you either like it or you don’t – there’s no reason why it’s beautiful. I don’t know any musician who sits down and thinks about this. He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn’t, and that’s that. You can analyse it all you want.”