You either love Kanye West, or you hate him. I don’t mean that as a cliché; rather, I genuinely don’t believe that anyone familiar with the man can have a neutral opinion of him. In fact, many people partition their beliefs (“I loveeee his music, but I hateeee his personality!”) to be agreeable. Honestly, that’s the simplest way to put it. On one hand, he composes sharp, witty, irreverent lyrics that can make you laugh and ponder in the same line; on the other hand, he publicly announces that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” on a nationally televised fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina victims. On one hand, he hand-crafts his own unconventional beats, tailored to each song; on the other hand, he publicly humiliates rising star Taylor Swift (and by extension, Beyoncé) at the 2009 VMAs.
Granted, George W. Bush wasn’t the most effective president, and Beyoncé very well might have had the better music video that year. But there’s a line that Kanye seems to believe it’s his job to cross, offending people in the process. It would be remiss to assume that he’s even heard the expression “Think before you speak” (jury’s still out on “think before you act”). However, more than his undeniable artistic talent, it’s Kanye’s inner child that defines his position, equally evident through, as mentioned, his egotistic personality and authentic music.
Without his volatile public image, Kanye would still be acclaimed, but he wouldn’t be a phenomenon. I’m not merely saying that his outrageous media incidents have increased his fanbase; I’m saying that they have created his legacy. While it’s not something that Kanye fans may consciously recognize, we listen to his music deep down because of all of his outrageous media incidents, not despite them. Hardcore fans want to experience the thrill of Kanye’s ride with him, evaluating each album and each track to learn about the artist and his creative growth. Public outbursts merely add to this impression. New fans, intrigued by the attention that Kanye receives, go to check him out and learn his bars so they can impress their friends. Many of them continue until they become hardcore fans, where in the end, they hope that one day they can tell their kids they used to go to Kanye West concerts the same way that our parents or grandparents show off to us that they used to own a signed record of a Beatles album (before selling it or giving it away to someone they don’t remember).
A part of me wonders whether Kanye knows that his controversial stunts are wrong and actively behaves unprofessionally on camera as a publicity stunt. But, in line with many of his self-aggrandizing remarks, I more likely believe that he is delusional and behaves naturally. I read an article analyzing Kanye psychologically, and it seems apparent that he suffers from a personality disorder (narcissistic or histrionic) that explains his need for attention. He loves to make himself the victim of public ridicule, a martyr to prove how cruel and unjust society can be to little ol’ Kanye. Then, he cites himself as a messianic figure that will change the future of the world to justify his aggressive behavior. And then he stuns us by dropping albums that will no doubt go down in history as some of the most influential musical works of the century.
How can we criticize him, then? We’re left in a difficult position–do we treasure him as an artifact of our time period, or do we blow him off for his ludicrous prophetic fantasy? It leaves us in a complicated stalemate situation. The status quo is unsteady, constantly pushing for Kanye and then soon pulling away, but it remains balanced in the average of its two extremes. Kanye is exactly this–a completely polarizing figure, and people feel conflicted about him because of his defiance of traditional wisdom.
Think about some age-old expressions you may have heard when being disciplined as a kid. “An empty vessel makes the loudest noise.” I guess that’s true, until My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy showed that Kanye was far from hollow as he explored addictive celebrity hedonism and their embracement of it as their only option to survive. “You can’t have your cake and eat it too.” Well, check again. Kanye gets to be an aggressively delusional egomaniac and break ground with ingenious musical production and honest lyricism.
Eerily, this situation actually satisfies Kanye’s fervent delusions. No other mainstream hip-hop artist has been as widely known and unanimously praised at the same time. His controversies aren’t bad enough to convince you to boycott his music, but they’re bad enough that you probably wouldn’t exactly buy a t-shirt of him any time soon. It’s a strange case in which nearly everyone becomes a passive bystander to the phenomenon. As aware as we are of his instability, we can’t oppose his pure talent. In this respect, Kanye has in theory achieved his goal: he’s become somewhat of a God, influential and uncontested. He predicted correctly: all we can do is gossip about him from beneath his throne until someone with bigger braggadocio and better bars than him steps up to knock him off. Frankly, no one man should have all that power.
Except it’s more complicated than that. The quality of his music not justifies his insanity, but it also explains it quite carefully. Kanye is a brilliant lyricist, and his experimentation with musical genres has rightfully earned him respect. If you listen to his albums, you can track the inner workings of Kanye’s mind throughout this portion of his life. Since I only began really listening to Kanye recently, I decided the best way to do it would be to listen to each of his albums straight through starting from the beginning. My personal ranking of his albums would be as so:
- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
- Life of Pablo
- College Dropout
- 808s and Heartbreak
- Watch the Throne
- Late Registration
I paid more scrutiny to the albums that began warping genre, namely Graduation, 808s, Yeezus, and TloP. Most people I know felt indifferent towards, awkward about, or spite for 808s, as the enthusiastic, unapologetic narcissist that they knew and loved turned into a whimpering, autotuned crybaby. Personally, while I was a little on the fence about the overuse of autotune, I appreciate Kanye’s production arrangements more, with strings, piano, and the 808 drum machine. The vibrant chorus of “Robocop” evoked a shimmering Disney World-esque fantasyland for me.
Let’s not forget some of Yeezy’s shining public moments here. I only recently found out about this, but he was in a terrible car accident late 2002, fracturing nasal bones and breaking his jaw in multiple places. His jaw was then wired shut, inspiring the debut single from The College Dropout, “Through the Wire.” This isn’t even including the thematic undertones of College Dropout involving the uncertainty of chasing one’s dream. His heart and soul is ineffably tied to his work.
Not to mention the events inspiring 808s. His mother passed away from surgical complications November 2007, and within a year, his fianceé Alexis Phifer broke off their engagement. He channeled his loneliness the only way he knew how through the symbolic disguise of autotune. I think it’s obvious that this wasn’t his greatest work, but I also think we could stand to appreciate the emotional release that the album allowed Kanye. He has gone on record to state that he didn’t release the album because he thought his fans would like it more; he did it solely to express himself. How many other musicians trust themselves that deeply?
The Life of Pablo was similarly impressive with its bold gospel influence. “Waves” basically sampled a series of chopped-up chords by a choir, “Ultralight Beam” impressed with its sparse yet divine beat and Chance the Rapper’s verse. Finally, “Real Friends”–my personal favorite of the album–showed us Kanye, yet again, introspecting and ruminating. But he does so over a haunting beat that hangs just above its base chord before looping again, unresolved, and his confession that fame has ruined his relationships from both his friends’ ends and his own invites a more nostalgic sadness than 808s.
After the trendsetting, soul-flavored College Dropout, Late Reg felt too similar to me, hence its lower spot on this list. Great album, but perhaps not the best timing for a newer Kanye fan. I also enjoyed Yeezus, but it was a little too hardcore and abrasive for me to delve into. However, “New Slaves” might be one of my favorite Kanye songs of his recent years. I went through a Graduation phase as well, and although I enjoyed it, it wasn’t great for repeat listening, in my opinion. Really, though, it’s only in relation to each other that I can detect problems.
Overall, one of Kanye’s redeeming qualities that pierces through his music like a laser is his impressive self-awareness. He knows good and well that many of the stunts that he’s pulled on camera have been almost objectively the wrong decision, and he’s clearly spent time pondering the echo chamber of his celebrity lifestyle. He definitely understands his God-like status in the enormous music industry–just listen to “POWER.” In fact, the entire album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy–a title which in itself references his delusional nature–revels in exposing both Kanye’s mistakes and insights.
On the other hand, however, part of his musical inspiration for MBDTF came from media outrage at his disrespect for Taylor Swift at the 2009 VMAs. Thus, the selling point of his album hinged on making himself a victim rather than taking responsibility for humiliating a fellow artist. In fact, he’s widely lauded for his abusive victim-bullying, as he injects bravado and aggression into his self-justification. While it’s difficult to ignore his seeming remorse for his misdeeds (“Real Friends,” “Blame Game,” “All of the Lights,” “Welcome to Heartbreak”), this makes it hard to tell whether Kanye acknowledges his opponents sincerely or simply fakes it so that it’ll be all the more powerful when he verbally pulverizes the naysayers in his next album.
Simply put, Kanye’s ravings on the public channel have painted him as a target. Fortunately, his music complements this, telling a legendary story that’s lost through the clumsy medium of televised interviews, paparazzi ambushes, and vapid talk shows. It shows that his heart contains something magical and pure, quite unlike his abrasive ego. It requires us to accept his rudeness, narcissism, delusions of grandeur, and sermonizing–quite a massive pill to swallow–but behind that lies someone uncompromising in his own values, dreams, and self.
And is that not whom we all want to be? Would it be inaccurate to say that we’re a little jealous of Kanye? He defends himself and his work to the very end, and maybe, just maybe, that makes him a good person–better than any of us ever hope to be. I don’t mean to judge, personally or celestially, but Kanye West may very well be a combination of the best man in the world and the worst one as well. If his music is his heart and his public image his face, putting the two together describes Kanye’s whole immortal being, inside and out. He is a fighter who desperately overcomes all odds, physical and emotional, to change the world through his self-affirmation and belief; or he is a usurper of sorts, using his talent and delusion to punish the nonbelievers and manipulate others into granting him power.
Either may be true. As far as I can tell, he can be good or bad. He’s like the rest of us–if we tried to be anything at all.