Role Models: Seafoam Walls’ Jayan Bertrand Wants to Still Believe in Kanye

On being inspired and disappointed by the complicated artist.

I caught Kanye in a later phase of his career. I’d heard him on the radio a lot before — one of his most popular songs was “Jesus Walks,” but I had no interest in it, because I was going through my own spiritual awakening and it didn’t involve any higher powers. He had just performed “Runaway” at the 2010 MTV Music Awards in an attempt to apologize for his behavior at the same event the previous year. The song felt like a “backhanded apology,” which is what he also called the album that featured it in an interview with the New York Times. I delved deeper into his old music and interviews.

What I found presented him with that similar confidence but, ironically, also felt humble. When he performed his song “All Falls Down” as a spoken word piece, I was floored. And no one can forget when he said President George W. Bush didn’t care about Black people during a live telethon! By the time I found that, I was clapping. It felt like a godsend. He was one of the first mainstream rappers I could identify with — a new representative for the spectrum of Black personalities. Instead of the usual street persona, I was met with a humble, intelligent, introspective, middle-class individual.

The beautiful soul samples, the accompanying voices and talents he used to elevate his compositions — he caught T-Pain in his prime with 2007’s “The Good Life” — and his unique style of sampling struck me, and are some of the things I still appreciate about his artistry. He’d returned in 2008 with 808s and Heartbreaks. Sonically, I couldn’t appreciate it when it first dropped; I wasn’t equipped with enough knowledge of R&B and hip-hop to understand the ground that was being broken with that project. The wave of auto-tune that was being ushered in by Kanye, T-Pain and Lil Wayne, changed popular music to what it is today, and the lo-fi hip-hop geek in me cannot look past his drum samples. (When I was looking for producers to add drums to our latest album, I sent some Kanye songs as references.)

Where was this person? I was no longer interested in the man that I saw at the award show. The silver lining around all my disappointment was that he had a great catalog to browse through. College Dropout and Late Registration were examinations of the highs and lows of life as a normal Black man. It wasn’t the stereotypical perspective of the drug dealers, pimps, or criminals. He spoke like the stereotypes that existed for Black boys and men didn’t apply to him. The anti-capitalist in me has to callback to “All Falls Down,” because of how well he painted a picture of the damage capitalism inflicts on the psyche of Black men and women. I feel like he even did his own callback nine years later with the release of “New Slaves” — the way he referenced capitalism’s effect on the prison industrial complex in both songs, was the first glimpse I had seen of his old self since throwing himself into exile. 

I was oblivious to the fact that, from there on out, I’d only be receiving glimpses. These glimpses did so much to add to the dwindling hope I have for him. When he dropped “New Slaves,” the lead single off of 2013’s Yeezus, I was hollering. I’d never seen any high-profile musicians speak out against capitalism since Rage Against the Machine — don’t kill me if anyone did, I probably just didn’t see it or can’t think of it at the moment. I expected that energy throughout the album, but unfortunately, in terms of content, that was the only track that held much weight to me. 

Tyler, the Creator is a product of Kanye’s reach, and also one of my biggest influences. Hearing them rap together on Tyler’s 2015 track “Smuckers” was like a full-circle moment to me. When Kanye opened with, “Richer than white people with Black kids, scarier than Black people with ideas,” I was rubbing my hands together and smiling like a mad-villain thinking, He’s back. And for a while, he was. When he led The Life of Pablo run the following year with “Real Friends” and a feature from Kendrick Lamar, I thought more of the old Kanye was resurfacing. He even pokes fun of the fans that feel that way on that very album with “I Love Kanye.” Then he had to go and publicly endorse Trump. 

Kanye might be the first artist to make me question whether or not I should separate the artist and the art. My general rule is that if the music doesn’t reflect any harmful personal beliefs, I’ll still listen. He has a way of making me break that rule. I think he knew it ever since he said that we’d want him on their shelves after the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He took a pro-life stance in his feature on Ty Dolla $ign’s “Ego Death,” which I was really loving it until I listened closer to his verse. 

I loved the Kanye that spoke up about institutional racism, the prison industrial complex, and the failures of capitalism; if that meant that I’d have to also listen to his love about Jesus, so be it. I’ve seen a lot of Republicans that love Jesus say some outlandish things about women’s rights and their autonomy — now Kanye was aligning himself with those people, and I found it harder to maintain the compromise. He almost had me with 2019’s Jesus is King but only “Follow God” stood out, because I loved the rapping on it. The rest was more gospel than I could handle. 

While he no longer publicly supports Trump, he still says problematic things about our history as slaves. But in the same breath, he drops Donda and I’m hooked again. His flows on the album felt so unorthodox and the production was incredible. I’m a sucker for all of it. That’s not even mentioning the outstanding performance of all the featured artists. He had DaBaby and Marilyn Manson, two people under heavy public scrutiny for their actions, by his side for his last listening party, which almost felt like he was intentionally pressing the buttons we all knew not to press. It’s not unlike the personality he was always telling us about, but lately I’ve been worried about where he draws his line. I’ll have to give up on a Kanye that criticizes capitalism though. At this point, he’s amassed too much wealth to have any credibility there. But he certainly hasn’t lost his touch with the music; his latest effort is evident of that. I desperately want to believe that he hasn’t lost touch with reality, either. 

Jayan Bertrand is the singer/guitarist of the Miami “Caribbean Jazzgaze” band Seafoam Walls. Their debut record XVI is out now via Thurston Moore‘s The Daydream Library Series.