- Inspired by and in response to the Sunday 1st July New York Times Arts & Leisure article “Into The Wild With Kanye” by Julian Berman
I love Kanye West the artist.
The strength of his music production is undeniable. His cultural importance is immense. This is a man single-handedly responsible for seismic shifts in mainstream hip hop; a creative visionary whose influence ripples not only through music but in how countless artists after him have structured their rollouts, album art, live shows and music video production. His ability to transition so smoothly between wildly different styles is awesome. Each album has its own vibe, and, one after the other, they age beautifully. The sonically brilliant My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, where bold melodies shift in and out of infectious compositions, is my favourite.
I often lie flat on my bed with my eyes closed, listening to music on speakers. Today, ‘Lost In the World’ is on repeat. It’s a song with a chameleon soul; one that somehow serves my every mood, be it happy, contemplative, falling apart, or rebooting. Around the one minute mark, the beat unfolds. It’s pure bliss. If only I could just keep listening to this, I’d be content. But for better or worse, I have decided to undertake the challenge of coming up with a case for Kanye West the person, to whose last couple years of utter chaos and divisive politics I must now turn my attention.
It’s obvious that Kanye is someone people either love to hate or simply love. Defending his musical talent is one thing, but doing the same for his public persona is something else entirely. And what do people who hate Kanye think of him? They think he’s a delusional, self obsessed, auto-tune creation who deliberately says controversial things to stay relevant and keep his brand valuable. As I’ve watched him string one controversy after another, I can’t help but wonder whether some of that’s right. His cringe-worthy crashing of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech in 2009 pales next to hundreds of bizarre, nonsensical tweets and far from modest comments across the years like “I am Picasso. I am Michelangelo. I am Basquiat. I am Walt Disney. I am Steve Jobs.” But for many, the tipping point was far more recent: his embrace of President Trump and his conversation about slavery with TMZ.
Kanye’s outspoken support for Trump has fuelled plenty of politically-charged conversations and put him at great risk with his audience and close friends in the hip hop community. Not long after a stint in a hospital for a “psychiatric emergency,” the same guy who interrupted a live TV fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina to exclaim “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” was pictured meeting up with the President in Trump Tower. Beyond claims that he and Trump share the same “dragon energy”, whatever that means, Kanye fails to mention any tangible aspects of Trump’s politics that he actually supports. I reckon he hasn’t actually done any research into Trump’s politics. Kanye thinks in his head “I like Trump” — perhaps because it’s unconventional (at least in his social sphere) to do so, and Kanye loves to go against the grain — but doesn’t seem to know why he likes him or what good or bad Trump may be doing in reality. His later tweet that “my wife just called me and she wanted me to make this clear to everyone — I don’t agree with everything Trump does” is just another vague statement. So what is he doing? Is he trying to say that people should determine what is right for the country by not fully aligning with either side of the political spectrum? Or is it some kind of business move? Does he appreciate how narcissistic Trump is? Or is he just stuck in a false conception of ‘free thinking’? I’ve mulled over the options, but can’t get any closer to a rational explanation. Maybe there isn’t one.
Now, sitting here watching the video of him in the TMZ newsroom again, I’ve started to realise that presenting a case for Kanye is really hard work — mostly because deconstructing and making sense of what he thinks is a frustrating process of picking apart whatever concept I can find within his incoherent verbal diarrhoea. Every time he speaks, I want to shout “I have no idea what you’re saying”, waving my hands at him from across a vast gulf of age, gender, race, background and belief. Any effort to understand him seems futile from the get-go.
“When you hear about slavery for 400 years. For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.” Kanye grins, and coughs. I wince. It doesn’t sound great, but it isn’t entirely out of keeping with his typical pattern of speech. If there’s one thing I’ve gathered from watching countless interviews and transcripts, it’s that the guy really doesn’t know how to express himself. If you’ve ever heard one of his rants, then you’ll know what I mean: the sentences are abrupt and erratic, half-finished thoughts that escape up the conveyer belt of his tongue and result in incomplete musings being lobbed into the public consciousness before a PR team can polish them ten times over. These statements sound like various internal conversations prematurely spoken into existence. This makes him absolutely incompatible with a media environment — Twitter is possibly the worst medium for him.
So, if the way Kanye uses language doesn’t accurately — and sure as hell not eloquently — reflect what he really thinks, can we chalk his misadventures down to a failure of language rather than of his own ideas?
“I think an extreme thing; I adjust it, I adjust it, I adjust it.” Kanye himself explains, in interview with Berman. “I said the idea of sitting in something for 400 years sounds — sounds — like a choice to me, I never said it’s a choice. I never said slavery itself — like being shackled in chains — was a choice. That’s why I went from slave to 400 years to mental prison to this and that. If you look at the clip you see the way my mind works.”
Ok, so the path to hell is paved with good intentions — and a lot of rough drafts. He’s definitely honest, and although his honesty isn’t always helpful, and his reactions are as impulsive and emotional as a child’s, and his oratory leaves something to want… there’s something kind of admirable in that. But what is the idea that’s trying to express itself underneath shocking statements like ‘slavery sounds like a choice’? I refuse to believe that he actually thinks 17th/18th century slavery was voluntary. Perhaps if we situate it in context — not only with Kanye’s jargon from that day, but from what we know about his own beliefs — whilst bearing in mind how poorly he expresses himself, we can sieve out the concepts.
After his comment that “when you hear about slavery for 400 years, that sounds like a choice”, he goes on to say: “it’s like we’re mentally imprisoned. I like the word ‘prison’ better because ‘slavery’ goes too direct to the idea of blacks… Prison is something that unites us as one race… the human race.” He then later says, “the reason why I brought up the 400 years point is because we can’t be mentally imprisoned for another 400 years.”
Mental imprisonment is the main idea.
Does he mean that the black community is mentally imprisoning itself within a victim/martyr complex? Some have suggested it, but I don’t think so. My interpretation is that what Kanye feels — despite how what he says might sound — is that despite it being 400 years since the first slaves came over to America, many of us, irrespective of race, are still mentally imprisoned by collective thought. We know freedom of thought means a lot to Kanye because he constantly talks about it. One tweet from April 2018, amongst others in a similar vein, reads: “express what you feel, not what you’ve been programmed to think.” It must be this modern-day ‘mental slavery’ that he believes is a choice. In this case, he’s speaking metaphorically about the ‘slavery of thought’.
Does Kanye leave us any clues in his music? Not really. His latest music video ‘I Love It’ featuring Lil Pump seems as deliberately silly as his gibberish whoopity-scooping in ‘Lift Yourself’, the track he released a week after professing his love for Trump. “Is this a fever dream?” One baffled comment on Youtube reads. “You can see how much fun he is having. Can’t help but smile.” Says another. I’m inclined to agree with the latter. Kanye clearly has a sense of humour, and it’s refreshing to see him not take himself seriously for a minute. It’s hard to reconcile the happy, goofy Kanye on my screen — bopping around in a ridiculous suit and huge slides — with the one responsible for many a manic Twitter tirade. But then again — isn’t this alternation between mania and creativity, this state of being so multidimensional, a direct reflection of the bipolar disorder he’s been so candid about this year? Is it fair to call him crazy when he can’t help but ricochet between the extremes of human emotion?
I don’t think Kanye West is malicious. I don’t think he actually believes slavery, historically, was a choice. I don’t understand where he stands politically, but I do think he’s motivated by publicity. Whether you like it or not, he changed the course of hip hop and defined a generation of music. His public persona rubs me the wrong way sometimes — he comes across as socially ignorant, and it’s clear that he feeds off controversy to a spectacular degree. Having said that, I do believe he has good intentions, but ultimately misrepresents his own ideas. He recognises his own depth and breadth of talent in the music and art fields, but in doing so fails to recognise his lack of expertise in other fields like politics, ideology and philosophy. Name one genius that ain’t crazy.