“I’m Socrates but my skin more chocolatey”
-Kanye West, “See Me Now,” My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010
When we spoke about artistry and provocativeness last class, immediately my mind jumped to Kanye West. Most everybody in our class knows that I am an unapologetic Kanye lover. I love his music, his antics, his rants, and his ego; simply put, Kanye gives me life.
Here is a brief breakdown of Kanye the provocateur (you may substitute the word “asshole” if you wish):
September 2, 2005, speaking at A Concert for Hurricane [Katrina] Relief: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
September 9, 2007, flipping out backstage after not winning a single VMA two years in a row: “Give a black man a chance!”
September 13, 2009, crashing the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the VMAs: “Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time!”
2013, in a radio interview with Sway, “I’m standing up and telling you I am Warhol. I am the Number 1 most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh! Walt Disney, Nike, Google. Now who’s gonna be the Medici family and stand up and let me create more? Or do you wanna marginalize me until I’m out of my moment?”
2015, explaining the song “I Am A God” from Yeezus in an interview with Zane Lowe, “There’s this new thing called classism. It’s racism’s cousin. This is what we do to hold people back. This is what we do. And we’ve got this other thing that’s also been working for a long time where you don’t have to be racist anymore. It’s called self-hate. It works on itself. It’s like real estate of racism where just like that if someone comes up and says something like ‘I am a God,’ everybody says ‘Who does he think he is?’ I just told you who I thought I was! A god!”
That is nearly a decade of Kanye drama, but above list doesn’t even scratch the surface.
A drama king and showman to the extreme, Kanye rubs a lot of people the wrong way. He is passionate and provocative to the point that I’ve heard people say they won’t listen to his music because he is an asshole. That’s fair. Nobody has to consume art that they don’t want to consume. I would argue, however, that maybe some of his critics are uncomfortable because Kanye is not afraid to make things racial. He says, publicly and loudly, that his skin color affects the way he is treated. Sure, his tact in the media is questionable at best, and perhaps his rants are not the most constructive way to engage in meaningful discourse about race and class in society. This lack of tact should not, however, detract from his truthful, personal, constructive musings about race, class, gender, etc. in his music.
Kanye released his first album, The College Dropout, in 2004. It was universally well received by music critics and dealt with issues of race, religion, socioeconomic class, and gender. These songs were played on the radio among songs like “Yeah!” by Usher, the number one song of 2004 (Don’t get me wrong, “Yeah!” is also near and dear to my heart, but does not allow for dialogue–except maybe a discussion on how Lil Jon made a career out of shouting words in between lyrics.) Although his musical sound has transformed throughout the last decade, his fame has not led him to shy away from difficult topics. In fact, he became more militant and adversarial in his approach. Here are a few choice quotes from his three earliest albums:
“I say fuck the police that’s how I treat ‘em
We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom”
–”All Falls Down”, The College Dropout, 2004
“What the summer of the Chi got to offer an 18-year-old
Sell drugs or get a job, you gotta play your role”
–”Gone,” Late Registration, 2005
“I know people wouldn’t usually rap this
But I got the facts to back this
Just last year, Chicago had over 600 caskets
Man, killing’s some wack shit
Oh, I forgot, ‘cept for when n****s is rappin’”
– “Everything I Am,” Graduation, 2007
By My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), Kanye is aware of his image in the media but is unapologetic about his belief in his genius. He still acknowledges the broken system in the United States that supports institutionalized racial inequality (“The system broken/the school’s closed, the prison’s open/ we ain’t got nothing to lose motherfucker we rollin’”- “Power,”) and he acknowledges his personal flaws (“I embody every characteristic of the egotistic/ He knows, he’s so fuckin’ gifted” -“Power”). His tone becomes even more aggressive in Yeezus (2013), explicitly highlighting inequality, injustice, and how racism has affected his career:
“I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves
They thrown’ hate at me
Want me to stay at ease”
–New Slaves, Yeezus, 2013
Kanye admits his insecurities but he never apologizes for who he is. He believes in his talent and this steadfast belief might come off as egocentric (“They claim you never know what you got ‘til it’s gone/ I know I got it, I don’t know what y’all on” -“Gone,” Late Registration, 2005). Why are people so turned off by his confidence? After all, he had to fight to be taken seriously as a rapper and confidence is the key to success in any profession.
Falicia raised an interesting question last class: If a white person behaved like Sherman Alexie, would their work immediately be panned? I don’t think so. I think, if anything, white artists are allowed to be assholes more than artists of color. Nobody assumes that when white artists do or say something crazy that they are representing the entire white population. White people are assholes all the time and nobody cares!
So what if Sherman Alexie or Kanye come off as assholes? In his songs and in real life Kanye frequently speaks about empowering today’s youth to escape their circumstances and follow their passions. Kanye wants to be an inspiration and while trying to explain this fact he can come off like a pompous, unaware, overconfident jerk. Maybe kids need to see someone so confident in themselves in order for inspiration to become action.
Just yesterday (April 20th), Paper Magazine published a feature written by Kanye West. This article is a fascinating look at Kanye’s complexities. Depending on the sentence, I saw Kanye as a genius, an idiot, humble, a megalomanic, or delusional. The article itself is all over the place, reading like a stream of consciousness. Kanye talks about his dreams of breaking into the fashion business, fame, innovation, beauty, racism, and his epiphany moment at the dentist’s office. I highly encourage reading this feature (if you’re not buying my argument about Kanye at the very least you’ll be entertained.) At the end of the article Kanye says, “The times that I’ve looked like a crazy person — when I was screaming at an interviewer or screaming from the stage — all I was screaming was, ‘Help me to help more! I’ve given all I’ve got. I’ve gone into fucking debt. It’s all I’ve got to give. But if I had a little bit more opportunity, I could give so much more.’ That’s what I was screaming for. Help me to help more.” He doesn’t explain what he’s given, what he’s giving, or what he will give. With this one quote Kanye explains how his perceived jerk behavior is a means to achieving something more significant, a rally cry in a society that doesn’t respect black voices as much as white voices.
In “See Me Now,” Kanye self-identifies as an “immature adult, insecure asshole.” That very well may be true, but it does not make his art any less powerful or important. Kanye West may be the perfect combination of asshole and genius that this world needs.