No One Man
Kanye West has done it again.
Inside the Golden 1 Center in Sacramento on Saturday, the sea of bodies roiled. The stage lights pulsed. Thousands of iPhone cameras flashed like lightning bugs in the darkness.
“I’m on my Trump shit,” he said. “Fuck radio.”
More frenetic shoulder shifting. Walking in and out of shadow.
“The vibes is back,” he continued. “The vibes is back.”
“You know I got the vision, and you know I’ma keep it real with you.”
“Fuck MTV, as always.”
“Fuck cool. Fuck being cool. Fuck all that shit.”
“The vibes is back.”
Listen to the sincerity in his voice:
“I been sent here to give y’all my truth, even at the risk of my own life, even at the risk of my own success.”
“I’m on my Trump shit tonight.”
“This is the future.”
“This is the way I’m thinking, to Make America Great Again.”
“The vibes is back.”
“Feelings matter, bro.”
“It’s a new world, Hillary Clinton.”
“Let ‘Ye be ‘Ye.”
“It wouldn’t be smart out of my own well-being to say things like this.”
“I ain’t here to massage you with no fake truth.”
“Get ready to have a field day, press. Get ready. Because the show’s over.”
The mic dropped.
The audience howled in dismay.
Having arrived late, having performed only three songs all night, having spent half an hour on unfiltered diatribe, he walked off the stage with his head held high.
But of course he did. He was only being himself. The Sacramento incident is just the most recent cosmic reminder that nobody actually likes Kanye West. Not really.
The old, jowly folks with their public radio and beady eyes say he’s just a rapper. Just vulgarity, no class. What art is there in that? Kanye What’s-His-Face is just another artificial pop construction designed to sedate the minds of the youth—all faux leather, tattoos, and cussing.
The soft-skinned suburbanites can’t stand his grating public persona. They wonder why he doesn’t start a charity or adopt emaciated children, why he stiffs his concertgoers and storms out of awards shows. He gets to roam the most privileged playground in the world, but he chooses to be the toddler throwing a tantrum in the sandbox.
He’s too mainstream for the twenty-something city-dwellers with liberal arts degrees. Their Ikea shelves are stacked with vinyl and their Spotify playlists filled with gravelly, atonal meditations on the spatula, or acoustic diatribes against the evils of their jobs in finance.
He’s not hardcore enough for those attached to the historical integrity of rap. He was raised middle class—his mother was a professor, his father a photojournalist. Biggie and Tupac started dealing at 12, but tween Kanye was painting and writing poetry. He’s Straight Outta Art School—no trace of Compton’s grit.
Hundreds of millions of people, from every race, gender, and income bracket—we all want him to be a little less like Kanye, and a little more like everybody else.
But Kanye is not interested in what we want, or what we expect. Sure, his raps are profane, but they also question the institution of hip-hop machismo. Sure, he has a temper, but he also sings tenderly about his mother. Sure, his street cred is negative, but his third album, Graduation, outsold by almost a million records the gangsta ethos of 50 Cent’s Curtis. Despite undermining all our assumptions, Kanye still reaches the highest heights of artistic success, and so our dislike burns into hatred. People always fume when the tide turns against them.
But not Kanye. When the tide turns against him, he informs the ocean it’s out of its goddamn mind, drops another album, and watches it debut number one.
His antics this weekend hearken back to his original scandal, at the 2009 VMAs. In an utterly unforgiveable interruption of our Hollywood pageantry, Kanye crashed the stage when Taylor Swift’s “You Belong With Me” beat out Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies.” He was having none of it.
“I’ma let you finish,” he began, taking the mic from the dove-white fingers of America’s sweetheart. “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos—of all time.” In his opaque shades and studded vest, he pointed to Beyoncé, styled and shocked in her red carpet red dress. He shrugged, returned the mic to Taylor, and strolled off.
SNL went berserk. Lady Gaga cut him from her tour. He was meme’d and rememe’d mercilessly. President Obama spoke for the nation when he called Kanye “a jackass.”
So Kanye retreated to Hawai’i, wrote, recorded, perfected, and released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the best reception of his already glittering career. Awed by his seamless incorporation of disparate musical styles and his honest, resonant lyrics, “jackass” became “Picasso.”
True, slights fade quickly in this era of attention-deficit consumption. The Internet seeks to bury us under the sheer volume of its effluent, and Taylor Swift is a forgiving country Christian. Still, the magnitude of his return to the top makes us question if he ever left, and makes us doubt—even after this weekend’s debacle—that he ever will.
He certainly doesn’t think so. Kanye believes Kanye became incarnate of Roc-A-Fella Records to raise up the music industry to grace and glory. He has repeatedly stated that he is the greatest star alive, and his aspiration is to be the best artist of all time. He is the God of Rap, and he has no qualms about saying so.
After winning a Grammy for “Jesus Walks” from his debut album The College Dropout, Kanye posed on the cover of Rolling Stone wearing a crown of thorns. The featured article was called “The Passion of Kanye West.” He proudly compares himself to Jesus Christ, God among men. Even the atheists among us screech at his blasphemy, his unmitigated egoism, his complete lack of shame. Kanye doesn’t give a shit. The third track on his album Yeezus is entitled “I Am a God (feat. God).”
And so we resist him. We flip him off on halogen-lit city streets and laugh about him in midsize sedans and sniff at him over goose-liver pate. We scream at him when he wanders off script and into self-indulgent egoism. We want to believe his head is so big because it’s filled with bluster and hot air and nothing else.
But with 21 Grammy Awards and 121 million records sold, Kanye has the most professional accolades of any hip-hop artist, and the third most sales. Every time he releases a record, it rockets to the top of the Billboard, and the industry shapes itself around his new work. The College Dropout introduced sampling from Gospel and soul music as a staple in rap tracks. Late Registration is enriched by orchestral melodies Kanye wrote for his own personal string section, redefining the cultural and instrumental limits of hip hop. His turn to melody in 808s and Heartbreak gave rappers permission to discuss more intimate and vulnerable material with more musicality. This is not even to mention his most recent studio album, The Life of Pablo. Released unfinished, intentionally fragmented and unpolished, it is in a challenge to the idea that the commercial creative process must be finite. Kanye’s art is always a spectacle, yet it always tops the charts. When he says he is the God of Rap, it’s not just another trumped up hip-hop boast. It’s a data-based conclusion.
And that’s why Kanye does not compute, for us. We hate him. We say he’s an asshole, a narcissist. Crazy. We laugh, but it is because we are confused. He makes no effort to obey social norms. He says things that we are not allowed to say, and he gets away with it. He is not a cutthroat corporate kingpin reclining on the bodies of those he’s slain—we would prefer it if he were. The CEO is out for himself, so his cruelty and conceit make perfect sense. But Kanye is a celebrity whose fame and fortune are entirely dependent upon public approval. And despite the fact that his ego is larger than some celestial bodies, despite his temper, and his tactlessness, and his obnoxious materialism, despite his stage-crashing and his stage-dashing, he has and will continue to have that approval. We love him, and we hate him for that.
But Kanye doesn’t care, one way or the other. He tells us over and over that he is the best, regardless of what we think. His humility is nonexistent. Consider “Power,” a classic Kanye track. Backed by a haunting alto chant that compels the synchrony of the human heart, he begins:
I’m living in that 21st century
Doing something mean to it
Do it better than anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters
Got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music
In the music video, Kanye stands in wait, shoulders squared, head forward, looking up. The half-moon whites of his eyes are the brightest pixels on the screen. His pupils are bottomless. He does not move. He does not speak his verse. Instead the rap reverberates through the scene like the Word of God. The view expands slowly to reveal seraphs and monsters, ethereal warriors, androgynous nymphs, glowing from within. They pulse and swirl to the syncopation of his consonants, moving beside and beneath him like a living frame. And still he stands, motionless.
He is commanding them. The music rolls their joints and ripples their muscles. His unwavering stare says he is the music. He controls the world; the world does not control him.
This is what he is saying with his unscripted interjections and controversial concert appearances. Kanye 2020 is a declaration of independence. He doesn’t like politics. He didn’t vote. But he wants people to know, “I just have a view on humanity, on people, on the truth.” And he does. It’s a view he’s been living out since he first burst onto the scene in 2004.
His truth is denial of the cardinal axiom of human existence: I am a cog.
Social progress hinges upon our faith in our own interdependence. In order to coexist, we must believe that we are insignificant. We tell ourselves that our dreams and desires are dwarfed by the needs of the world. Who are we to seek greater glory? Who are we to claim our successes as our own? We are undeserving. We are cogs, clicking onward, in the belly of this great machine…
But, as Kanye said on Saturday, fuck that. Fuck all that shit.
So we watch him stack another million, drop another album, enrage another crowd, and we wonder.
We wonder when all this hubris will catch up to him. When will the gleam in his pharaoh eyes wane? When he be cast down from on high? We daydream about the morning he wakes up and finds his bed empty, his vases smashed, his mirror broken.
Because we know Kanye is no God. That’s what is so unnerving about him. He is really just a young, black man from Chicago’s South Side. Not Jesus, not Yeezus, but human, unveiled.
He forces us to look ourselves in the face, bear witness to the ugliness of our own reflection.
So the decrepit NPR donors, and the soccer moms, the McKinsey slaves, and the hip-hop purists, all of us want him to fail. We want him to succumb to drugs and hit his daughter, to defraud old ladies and kick puppies.
Because then he’s a monster, not a man. Because then we can explain away his lack of humility, and assure ourselves that we’re right, and he’s wrong. Because then, when he declares that he will run for president, when he suggests that he is a prophet of God, when he says he wants to be the greatest creator the world has ever known, we can deny that underneath our deferential lacquer, we crave the very same things.
If Kanye trips and falls over his own ego, we can continue on—cogs, uninterrupted.
But for now, when we listen to “Power,” we frown as Kanye boasts “No one man should have all that power…”
And we wonder, might I?