Kanye West is a puzzling man. When I first heard that his newest album would be titled Yeezus, I did what I do in response to most of Kanye’s antics: I burst into laughter. Weeks later, however, when I realized that the album had leaked a few days before the official release date, I was scrambling over the internet in desperation trying to find it. At the time I was mid-travel, on a plane en route to an internship in India. After downloading the 10 tracks over public WiFi in a German airport, I listened to the album over and over again during the eight-hour flight from Frankfurt to Bangalore. This time I wasn’t laughing.
Now, I’m no psychologist. I’m just a black man, a hip-hop fan, and someone trying to understand Kanye West. So it’s not going to be easy, but I’ll start with this:
Kanye stands apart from his hip-hop and rap contemporaries. For one thing, while most rappers have egos that extend only to the borders of their genre, Kanye’s ambition is all-encompassing. He believes that he is the best of all music, growing wildly indignant if anyone (for example, the Grammys) fails to agree. He demands relevance, fighting for the focus of American popular culture. He also claims a dominance over fashion, and if you question it he’ll “fucking embarrass you.” At times, Kanye has even demonstrated (both indirectly and directly) a pro-black temperament, unlike so many of his racially unconscious rapping peers.
But when it comes to Mr. West, there is contradiction in everything. ‘Ye is a man who will ridicule status-seeking Hollywood girls, and then publicly date them. He’ll critique uncomely behavior in a song, and then demonstrate it on the streets. Or on his next track. Or in a magazine, or on stage, but certainly somewhere available for millions of eyes to see.
He’s always said aloud whatever thoughts come into his head, from criticisms of systematic discrimination to glorifications of sex in bathroom stalls, so we can’t really call his approach inconsistent. But what worries me is that his thoughts are inconsistent; his mind seems flaky. The same man who denounces the stereotype of black celebrities pursuing endless material wealth shows up to events in the wildest, most unnecessarily expensive attire, and then brags about it (he recently began selling his own designer white T-shirts, for $120 a piece). The same artist who wrote “Jesus Walks” now releases a song titled “I Am a God.” And somehow, the same man famous for a track about gold diggers is now a proud part of the KimYe relationship.
What I’m trying to say is that Kanye West is terribly hypocritical.
Close inspection of the Kanye contradictions, however, reveal a little more about the man. For example, if I had to offer cold speculation, I would say that Kanye does not love Kim Kardashian. Instead, he loves the idea of himself with Kim Kardashian. By being with (and impregnating) one of America’s most sexually coveted women, he can simultaneously demonstrate to himself and to the rest of the world his dominance over American popular culture. ‘Ye always talks about the power that he possesses, this cultural relevance that he commands, and (most recently) about the women he enjoys. But the power, the relevance, and the women are all components of white America, and somehow tie to Kanye’s insecurities, resentment, and frustration (neither rare nor new for black celebrities) at White America for his having to fight for recognition. In the past couple years, and culminating on Yeezus, Kanye has stopped hiding this resentment.
This transition was within sight even at the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which signaled Kanye’s push for an edgier music. That sound was new and different, but I still enjoyed listening to Kanye. I’ve followed his music since College Dropout, I have a T-shirt for Late Registration (one of my favorite albums of all time), and so I think it’s safe to say that I am a fan of his self proclaimed “G.O.O.D. Music.” Yet I can’t help but remember a time when a much less arrogant, less vulgar Kanye West was also much less popular in the rap world, let alone in the larger music scene. Is this coincidence?
Another reason for his relevance is that he is admittedly good at what he does. As a producer for artists like Jay Z, Kid Cudi, and John Legend, Kanye has undeniable musical talent. In addition, I’ve always respected his embrace of (some perceived) truth, and how he espoused Chicago-style sensibilities in a self-aware hip-hop that offered an alternative to gangster rap. But new Kanye has transformed into something else, no longer really a “backpack” artist (a term given to rappers who incorporate deliberate and introspective lyricism into their work), yet not really an artist accepted by the hardcore rap scene. Ever a contradiction, Kanye on Yeezus is like the backpacker of hard rap. He incorporates some of the darker, more profane, and cringingly misogynist themes of the hard rap scene (almost Odd Future–esque darkness), but before you can throw down your headphones in disgust, he incorporates relevant points of cultural insight.
So what do we do? Needless to say, the contradictions inherent to Yeezy are all very confusing. Countless culture and media publications were blowing up this year as critics struggled to interpret the elusive Mr. West. But it becomes less puzzling when we realize that it is not only Kanye who is hypocritical, but also his audience. We all call Kanye West crazy, confrontational, or “an asshole” (to quote the president), but we all continue to fill our cars, our homes, and our parties with his music. And he understands this.
Sure, we like to laugh at Kanye. But then we all like to listen to Kanye. On at least one point, both the rapper and the listeners are on the same page, a page that was written long ago, entitling rock star personas to embrace whatever wild behavior they want, as long as by the end of the day they created music that was fun to collect, to dance to, or to recite. In my opinion, Kanye has become the king of this. He’s practically the musical Machiavelli; as long as the end product is blaring in people’s headphones, he knows that he can do anything controversial or contradictory along the way. In his position, Kanye West is able to vent his anger, spite mainstream America, and still manage to sell us millions of records (without those three necessarily being independent).
Beneath it all, Kanye is the hedonistic nihilist, openly addicted to fame and recognition in a world he is antagonistic towards. The curious Mr. West openly cares nothing about what you think, as long as you think highly of him. Essentially, you can’t tell him nothing, unless it’s that he is good. Unless it’s that he is God.
Of course, it is difficult to judge a person solely on his music and his scant (although often mishandled) public appearances. But it is easy to see that somewhere along the last decade, between College Dropout and Yeezus, Kanye embraced the decision to be feared rather than loved. The upbeat and self-deprecating Kanye of last decade has been deposed by the egotistical “Black Skinhead,” Yeezus himself.
As I said, I’ve always enjoyed Kanye’s music. But lately I feel like I’ve been having to remind myself of that far too often, and it is getting more and more difficult to defend Kanye from myself. Or maybe I still do like the music, but it is the man whom I cannot stand. Ultimately, I think, Kanye may have succeeded and duped us all. The king of contradictions, the Prince that Machiavelli envisioned, Kanye West has gotten America to hate him, and love his sound. And that may be exactly how he wants it. No one man should have all that power.