Kanye: Jerk or Genius?

14 September 2014 Clementine Bastow

Kanye: Jerk or Genius?

Photo by Pascal Le Segretain/Getty Images


When country singer Gretchen Wilson snared the Best New Artist gong at the 2004 American Music Awards, fellow nominee Kanye West stormed out. “Robbed,” he barked at the assembled press. “I was the best new artist this year, so get that other bullshit out of here!”

Putting aside the fact that some-hits wonder Wilson winning over West and his incredible debut album, The College Dropout (2004), will go down in history as being on par with Crash winning the 2006 Best Picture Oscar, West’s reaction to the loss was the world’s first experience of what appeared to be the biggest ego in popular music. It certainly wasn’t the last.

More than anyone else working within popular culture today, West is top of the list whenever features are written about outrageous celebrity outbursts: he has bum-rushed the stage at numerous awards shows, run his mouth off on live television, given self-aggrandising interviews, and smashed the cameras of paparazzi. And, as that 2004 AMA storm-out illustrates, he hit the ground running. Most celebrities turn to outspokenness in the twilight of their career in a desperate grab for relevance; West has made total honesty his personal brand. 

Speaking on a 2005 telethon raising funds for Hurricane Katrina victims, he went off-script and decried the relief effort’s tardiness before concluding with the rather more unequivocal statement: “George [W] Bush doesn’t care about black people.” (For his part, Bush later described it as “the worst moment of my presidency”, strong words for the man who was Commander-in-Chief when the 9/11 attacks occurred.)

A few years after that, there was perhaps his most infamous moment. Taylor Swift had just taken the stage to accept her award for Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards when West stormed up, grabbed the mic, and announced, “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you. Imma let you finish but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time…one of the best videos of all time!”

And then there’s his Twitter feed, which has quietened somewhat in recent years, but was once the forum for multiple-tweet discussions about art and politics, including one memorable evening in 2012 when West explored his feelings on the use of the word ‘bitch’ in rap: “Is the word BITCH acceptable? To be more specific, is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing? Even typing it in question form it still feels harsh? Has hip-hop conditioned us to accept this word?”

Of course, such thoughtful discussions tend to take a back seat to his all-caps explosions, like his spray at American talk show host Jimmy Kimmel: “SARAH SILVERMAN IS A THOUSAND TIMES FUNNIER THAN YOU AND THE WHOLE WORLD KNOWS IT!!!”

For these crimes, he’s regularly called out as a massive tool (among other things), though he sees such moments as the product of his instinct to fight for justice. Last year, in a freewheeling interview with The New York Times’ Jon Caramanica before the release of his seventh studio album, Yeezus, he expressed no regrets: “It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.”

And you know what? Maybe he’s right. The notion that ego and talent (jerk or genius) are mutually exclusive is a 21st-century invention. In the everybody-wins-a-prize-for-trying era, it often feels as though the general populace values good intentions and mediocrity over the Kanye West model, which is to believe yourself capable of greatness and to strive for it without apology.

Nobody is more acutely aware of this than West himself. And, perhaps most terrifyingly for the traditionally conservative commentators of the American mainstream media, he’s not afraid to talk about how racism intersects with criticism of his work and thoughts.

In an interview with BBC Radio presenter Zane Lowe last year, West referred to the outraged response to his song ‘I Am a God’ (from Yeezus): “We 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, when 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... Would have been better if I had a song that said, ‘I am a nigga’? or if I had a song that said ‘I am a gangsta’? or if I had a song that said ‘I am a pimp’? All those colours and patinas fit better on a person like me, right?”

The thing is, to prioritise discussion of West’s outbursts over his actual art is in itself an act of silencing. His back catalogue is one peppered with insightful discussion of politics, race, love, and art – not to mention some of the most startling production of the past two decades.

This year marks the 10th anniversary of the release of his first record, The College Dropout, which remains one of popular music’s most arresting debuts. Its leading single, ‘Through The Wire’, is an autobiographical tale of West’s near-death experience in a car crash, after which his jaw was wired shut during his recovery process. That he managed to record his rhymes literally through the wire is itself the mark of a tenacious artist. The fact that he self-produced the recording, accompanying it with the then-trademark West genius of a sped-up soul sample (in this instance, Chaka Khan’s ‘Through The Fire’), is the cherry on top.

That album took in everything from West’s complicated relationship with his Catholicism (‘Jesus Walks’) to the intersection of racial politics and minimum-wage drudge work (‘Spaceship’) and his, as the album title suggests, short-lived tertiary education (‘School Spirit’), all the while accompanied by incredible production values and witty samples. It still sounds fresh a decade later, which is not something you can say about a lot of turn-of-the-century buzz records.

West’s most interesting album, however, remains 808s & Heartbreak (2008). West could never be accused of keeping his cards close to his chest, but on 808s… his feelings are so raw that the record becomes compellingly uncomfortable listening. It was written and recorded not long after both his breakup with former fiancée Alexis Phifer (he’s now married to Kim Kardashian) and the unexpected death of his beloved mother, Donda West. On its opening track, ‘Say You Will’, West speaks directly to his ex, the words I admit that I still fantasise about you standing out from the bleak drum-machine backing track.

‘Miserable bastard’ music is typically the realm of moody white guys like Nick Cave or Elliott Smith, which is why West’s record – a dour electro-pop album concerned with grief and depression, on which he sings despite previously having admitted to being a terrible singer – remains such a striking outlier within both his own back catalogue and the broader genre (if you like) of miserablism. The decision to sing was apparently met with dismay by West’s record-label associates, who were so terrified West was making the wrong decision that they suggested he release it under a pseudonym.

As his work has evolved and become increasingly bombastic, peaking with last year’s abrasive Yeezus, the low-key introspection of 808s… seems all the more remarkable. And, played against the braggadocio of West’s public persona and the sturm und drang of his touring productions, it tends to disappear into the background. In that way, it’s almost an allegory for West’s more introspective moments, and even the amount of thought that goes into his work.
It’s much easier to laugh at lyrics like hurry up with my damn croissants! (from ‘I Am a God’) than it is to sit with West’s meditations on art and life.

This is not to say that West is beyond reproach, but focusing solely on his outbursts is unhelpful in the extreme. Or, if we’re going to focus on his ego, perhaps we can see it in a positive light. In comparing himself to Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, West reminds us of the power of self-belief; something he’s well aware of. “I think that’s a responsibility that I have, to push possibilities, to show people: ‘This is the level that things could be at’,” he told The New York Times. “So when you get something that has the name Kanye West on it, it’s supposed to be pushing the furthest possibilities. 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.”

Late last year, West was incorrectly decried as having compared himself to Nelson Mandela on the day of the former South African leader’s death. It’s a mark of how much contempt people have for West’s self-belief that they believed the story, which turned out to come from a satirical website.

On the topic of misinformation, there’s a quote that is often incorrectly attributed to Mandela (it’s actually by writer Marianne Williamson): “Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that most frightens us... And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our own fear, our presence automatically liberates others.”

Is that what so frightens us about Kanye West?


» Clementine Bastow is a Melbourne-based writer and critic and regular contributor to The Big Issue. Kanye West’s Australian tour, originally scheduled for May, finishes today.

This article was first published in Ed #457.