Is Kanye West Jesus, a genius, or just a jackass? The rapper-turned-fashion designer-turned-entrepreneur has a singular talent for polarizing popular opinion, which seems incapable of finding any sort of middle ground between idolatry and loathing.
The majority of the flak that Kanye has received over the past few years has been directed at his out-of-control ego, which most recently made a spectacle of itself at the Grammy Awards several weeks ago. When West stormed the stage after songwriter Beck won Album of the Year, it seemed at first to be a joking reference to his interruption of Taylor Swift during the 2009 VMAs. The crowd roared with laughter as Kanye came within a foot of the microphone, appeared to think better of it, then turned back and flashed a good-natured smile as he trotted off-stage.
In the media coverage following the awards ceremony, however, Kanye made it clear that the stunt was no joke. “I just know that the Grammys, if they want real artists to keep coming back, they need to stop playing with us,” he said. “We ain’t gonna play with them no more. And Beck needs to respect artistry and he should’ve given his award to Beyoncé.” The statement prompted scandalized outcry from a number of celebrities, including Shirley Manson, Whoopi Goldberg, and several other semi-relevant people who felt the need to voice an opinion on the subject.
Manson was perhaps the most outspoken in her criticism, which she expressed in a Facebook post on Monday afternoon. “Dear Kanye West,” she wrote, “It is YOU who is so busy disrespecting artistry… Grow up and stop throwing your toys around. You are making yourself look like a complete twat.” Whoopi Goldberg, on the View, took a more diplomatic approach, stating that Kanye had “stepped in doo-doo,” and chiding him, “As an artist, Kanye, you know what it’s like when somebody questions your artistry. Now, I don’t know if you listened to Beck’s album, but it was pretty damn good… I think it’s kind of rough to say ‘real artists’ like he’s not a real artist.”
Of course, this isn’t the first time Kanye has attracted controversy for aggressively asserting his opinion in a public forum. In 2006, when his music video for “Touch The Sky” lost out at the MTV Europe Music Awards, Kanye took the stage to object, declaring, “If I don’t win, the awards show loses credibility.” Then, in 2009, of course, there was the incident with Taylor Swift, which has been rehashed and reiterated so many times that the phrase “Yo, I’mma let you finish…” is by now an iconic soundbyte of pop culture.
Not all responses to Kanye’s antics have taken the form of direct criticism, however; in fact, many have embraced the rapper’s over-the-top ego as a source of humor. In 2013, Vulture compiled “The Sixteen Most Amazing/Ridiculous Things Kanye Said in His New York Times Interview,” which had run a few days before the release of Yeezus. The list includes “I am undoubtedly, you know, the Steve [Jobs] of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period,” and “I will be the leader of a company that ends up being worth billions of dollars, because I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus.” In a way, the tongue-in-cheek article celebrated Kanye’s narcissism – but it did so at the cost of taking him seriously. So totally outrageous were Kanye’s actions – so beyond the scope of what was socially acceptable – that they could only be seen as comic.
Until recently, I was among those who thought that Kanye was probably just crazy. After the incident at the Grammys, however, I felt the need to investigate. Was it all a publicity stunt? A piece of performance art? A commentary on the egoism of modern celebrities? Several hours and many interviews later – including an excellent segment with Zane Lowe, which anybody feeling uncharitable towards Kanye should take the time to watch – one thing seemed clear: Kanye isn’t delusional; he just really, really believes in himself.
Though Yeezy is known for his forceful, expressive speaking style, à la Tom Cruise on Oprah’s couch, his train of thought is in fact quite grounded in reality. Out of context, his pronouncements seem absurdly self-obsessed; in interviews, however, it is apparent that they come not from a place of personal entitlement, but rather from a genuine sense of artistic responsibility.
Kanye may or may not go down as “the voice of this generation” (as he has claimed), but his dedication to the pursuit of artistry is real. He shares in a creative vision that many of us believe in – the dedication of one’s life to “making something better for the world… to making our current time and civilization better.” This, at least, is the creed that Kanye ascribes to fashion designers, whose ranks he joined in 2011 when he launched his own clothing line.
Celebrities have often tried to parlay their success into alternative careers – think of J. Lo’s “home décor” collection, or Justin Bieber’s gratuitous perfume line – but anyone who listens to Kanye speak can tell that his passion is real. “We don’t want to just have the jewelry…” he says, “…just trying to make us feel good, we want to be good. That’s creation. That’s that thing that people slave over. That’s that thing that people are slaves to… That’s passion.”
And that seems to be something that a lot of people aren’t willing to accept – that when Kanye spoke up about Beck’s award, he wasn’t just trying to cause a scene or steal the limelight; he really, truly believed that artistry had been disrespected. The stunt Kanye pulled wasn’t about himself or about his ego, but about the integrity of his craft.
And as far as the Grammys go, he may have had a point; the award for Album of the Year has consistently failed to reward the innovative, boundary-pushing artists in the game, favoring instead those who are safe, unexciting, and innoffensive – think of 1993, when Eric Clapton’s Unplugged won out over U2’s Achtung, or 2008, when Kanye’s Graduation lost out to Herbie Hancock’s River: The Joni Letters. Beck used to be a renegade, a controversial and unnerving lyricist who at one point penned such lines as “Coquettes bitch-slap you so polite, till you thank them for the tea and sympathy” and “Freaks flock together and make all the lesbians scream.” But the Grammys don’t reward controversy; they reward respectability. And Beck, who has since mellowed out into a “polite folk singer” (as he was dubbed by the New York Times last Monday), is just the kind of artist that the Grammys endorse.
But calling the Grammys into question isn’t just about relevance; it’s also about recognizing groups that historically have been marginalized when it comes to matters of artistry. Kanye has explicitly said that his criticism had nothing to do with race, stating, “It’s not a black or white thing at all. It’s not me always standing up for a black artist. I feel that racism is a distraction to humanity. We are one race.” Sill, the Grammy Awards’ failure to recognize Beyonce’s album – which spoke powerfully about the themes of feminist empowerment, black family, and black love – raises the question of whether certain demographics receive the recognition they deserve. Music may be universal, but there is still a lot to be said for the extent to which people feel they can relate to an artist’s message.
After this year’s Golden Globes, many people expressed discontent that Boyhood – a film following the coming-of-age of a boy whose upbringing was decidedly white and middle-class – seemed to have won out over Selma, a triumphant account of Martin Luther King’s march from Selma to Montgomery, Alabama, whose release also coincided with the explosion of real-life racial unrest (both cast and crew wore shirts reading “I Can’t Breathe” at the film’s premiere). This is not to say that Boyhood was undeserving – simply that, if the demographic makeup of voters were somewhat different, it would be easy to imagine a different outcome. All other things being equal, it is natural for voters to prefer artists with whom they identify – and in this case, the result seems to be the recognition and celebration of those same groups that have always been awarded a voice in America.
Unfortunately, Kanye’s message is somewhat obscured by the unapologetic nature of his egoism, which is particularly offensive for a society obsessed with modesty. We like our pop stars glittering, flawless, perfect – but we still want them to retain the semblance of being human. The veneer of perfection is fascinating, but only when the cracks show through (see: Jennifer Lawrence). In a world where we idealize our celebrities nearly to the point of worship, it seems almost unfair that so many people took offense when Kanye appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns. In the 2006 story, Kanye defended his self-confidence: “You want me to be great,” he said, “but you don’t ever want me to say I’m great?”
Maybe it’s time that we acknowledge it’s ok to recognize talent. After all, Kanye’s message is more or less what our parents told us when we were three: “Believe you can do anything.” “That’s the main thing people are controlled by,” Kanye says, “their perceptions of themselves… If you’re taught you can’t do anything, you won’t do anything. I was taught I could do everything.”
And truthfully, Kanye believes in himself in much the same way I did when I was a kid – with a blind kind of faith, an invincible optimism, and an infinitely unrealistic understanding of his own talent. This is something we all learn as children, but stop believing somewhere along the way. The best thing about Kanye is simply that he never stopped.