There Is No “Old Kanye”

Old Kanye West
Kanye West circa 2003 before "College Dropout" was released, responding to being boxed in as a producer with a good old-fashioned rant (Theo Huxtable/YouTube)

I was going to make this a case study of Kanye West’s public image in the vein of “Understanding Kanye West Rants” or my piece on his Sunday Services. But continuing to hyperanalyze his interviews and fact-check statements by and about him would only mask the feelings that give this piece its soul.

Believe it or not, I still see “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” under that MAGA hat. I still see “I woulda been blacked out on your ass” despite the best attempt “[slavery] sound like a choice” made at overshadowing it.

Kanye’s one-liners have found a new level of wacky. His rhetoric has gone from inaccessible to dangerously ignorant. However, his essence still pours out of him. The same essence of the man who flipped soul samples with ancestral vigor, freed hip-hop from the shackles of hypermasculinity, made the weird kids leaders of the new school, and brought the marginalized front and center.

“I took the opportunity to look as stupid as possible.”

– Breakfast Club Interview, 2013

I can’t wholly confirm the endgames of my favorite creatives. But unlike the reclusive natures of Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino, or the calculated nature of Drake, Kanye does not hide his intentions. In fact, it’s his naïveté more than anything that fueled his grandest moments, both the triumphs and the fuck-ups.

It was the foolish belief that hip-hop would champion a colorful backpacker that allowed Ye to seize his moment and godfather rap’s current era. Likewise, he foolishly thought we could look past the gobsmacked face of a White pop princess-to-be at the 2009 VMAs to see passionate praise of a deserving Black woman. He believed he could liken himself to Jesus and still have his acute self-awareness acknowledged, shown in his religious commitment to collaboration and sharing the spotlight, plus humbly considering himself “not a real musician.” It’s his childlike indiscretion in tirelessly sharing his wildest dreams to a skeptical public, even when reactions soured from “Oh, Kanye!” to full-blown mockery.

I’ve never seen a creative, an artist, a Black man so unguarded about projects that never came, thoughts that should have remained thoughts, and feelings that most of us would pretend we didn’t feel.

“I’d be worried if they said nothing.”

– “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1,” 2016

Even as he sat through nearly an hour of rotten low-hanging fruit being slung at him on The Breakfast Club in 2013, Kanye expressed gratitude for the chance to be challenged by real people on his seemingly unreal feelings and ideas. In line with his impulsive transparency, Ye considers face-to-face engagement the highest form of idea exchange—even (sadly) at the expense of books. His infamous spazz-out on Sway was not the hollow anger of a sociopath caught in a cunning web. It was a full-bodied frustration of a human being desperately trying and failing to connect with other human beings.

Many of his outbursts were inadvisable. He’s also clearly out of his depth commenting on national politics, a problem I have more words for later. But what has made Ye so fascinating, frustrating, and impactful all these years is that he never really performed for us. He never stayed in a lane or played a role. He’s entertaining because he never looked to entertain, never posed to make sure we got his best angle. He spoke, felt, tried, tried many more times—he lived and we watched closely.

Whether it was for inspiration, ridicule, praise, or denouncement, 21st century Western pop culture has based much of itself on the pure impulses of Kanye West. It still does. No schemes, no calculated PR moves, just a man who loves to overshare in a world that drains celebs like Capri Sun pouches.

Kanye West views his public life as a running open forum about what a Black creative can and should do. Trouble is, we see it as a circus. While this dissonance has driven him mad before, the fact that he hasn’t stopped trying is astounding. He doesn’t mind being the acquaintance who thinks they’re your best friend because you pay them attention, even when it leads to exploitative clickbait and embarrassment. Ye continues to do things like discuss personal finances, share family pains, and stay on-camera to let TMZ have its most dignified moment ever by railing him on American history.

Sometimes he’s lauded as the mastermind of a new wave. Other times he’s the reckless idiot we choose to band together against. Regardless, Kanye West works to help us find bravery in his bravado, no matter how it makes him look.

“Fuck being cool.”

– Saint Pablo Tour, Sacramento, CA, 2016

It is that truth about Kanye’s behavior—the disinterest in being likable—that makes some of today’s backlash toward him confusing. For those who grew up in the midst of Ye’s entire public life, it’s hard to forget people clamored for “the old Kanye” as early as 2008 when he, as always, released something spontaneously from his heart that polarized people. That time it was 808s and Heartbreak and people hated him for it.

Five years later, we found ourselves starkly split on Yeezus. And whenever he started talking about working outside of music, we told him to shut the fuck up. We didn’t want to think that hard, the same way Jay-Z didn’t want to think of Kanye as more than a producer. We hated that he ranted about European billionaires and “corporate backing” as if he wasn’t rich enough.

We couldn’t even begin to consider a motive beyond money, that he was fighting to free us from the belief that humanity’s greatest stars and storytellers need to stay within the screen. Need to be the show, but never run the show. Need to be reminded they are entertainers, first and foremost, and that we’ll never allow the most captivating ones to stop entertaining us.

“Do you want to marginalize me until I’m out of my moment?”

– Sway In The Morning, 2013

In our consumption, we wring athletes, artists, actors, writers, and other visible cultural agents dry, then laugh at their shriveled remains. Especially the Black ones, and especially the ones we like. With humility unfamiliar to most, Kanye expressed his fear of this throughout his Yeezus media run in 2013. He knows even he will be old news if all he does is make music and tour until death.

But we wouldn’t call Demna Gvasalia “washed up” if the bags in Balenciaga’s latest season were basic. (Search “washed up designers” and “washed up rappers” back to back. It’s sad what we do to our own.) We don’t look at Space X and complain Elon Musk peaked with PayPal, and we don’t take moments like Musk’s weed-smoking on Joe Rogan’s show and turn them into all-out assaults on his character, intelligence, and value to society. Only dedicated tech critics are writing the story of Apple’s decline—the rest of us are content with their late entry into the tv streaming game.

We allow White billionaires to periodically change our daily lives with little to no pushback. We watch them workshop ideas, scrap them, and sing their praises when they finally drop something fire. They aren’t dragged through the mud and stripped of their credibility when they fuck up because their clout does not come from the soul-infused currency of public support the same way it does for our beloved stars.

Not every idea Kanye West has will be “Runaway” or Yeezy 350-level like most of Da Vinci’s ideas were not Mona Lisa or the Vitruvian man. But since Kanye has enraptured us and consistently challenged us with his creations, he should be given the space and support to apply himself in different fields on even larger scales.

Why is this such a hard proposal to support?

If an entry-level coder at Facebook came up with Messenger, only the cruelest motives would keep them from a massive promotion. Using Ye’s talking points from his first Zane Lowe convo, how absurd would it have been for no label to invest in Drake after “Replacement Girl”? How insane is the thought of the Medici family not renewing their patronage of Michelangelo and allowing the Sistine Chapel ceiling painting to die inside of him?

So again, why can’t we let Kanye West graduate into exciting new creative spaces?

Oh yeah, he’s Trump’s most famous mouthpiece.

“Slave nets!”

– Howard University, 2019

For years, the public has looked for a legitimate reason to discredit the mind of Kanye West. Now there really is one.

Kanye has always taken haphazard swings at America’s sociopolitical fiber. But the shots he’s taking these days are absurd, even for him. He poses a cultural threat to liberative activism and social justice discourse in a very sensitive period of history. He treats his political discourse like his creative products—test a raw idea, get feedback, revise, repeat—and once again, naïve belief in his impulses keeps him from understanding the raised stakes of his behavior. Botching The Life of Pablo’s rollout doesn’t push back the progress of humanity. Loudly supporting Donald Trump does.

Whenever Kanye is asked about mildly-specific policies and stances of the POTUS, he’s quick to admit his lack of knowledge and investment. He even goes so far as to still consider himself a liberal, most recently in his October interview with Zane Lowe. No deep dive is required to note that Ye is either completely oblivious to Trump’s stances (e.g. Muslim travel ban) or refutes Trump’s stances (e.g. Chicago’s murder rate).

Little evidence suggests Ye is anything more than severely uninformed and attracted to Trump’s ability to seize and shift national discourse. T.I. neatly packaged the truth of Ye’s Trump support in 2018 saying Mr. West, “loves the thought of [Trump].” But that’s almost as bad as him genuinely believing in White nationalism and anti-immigration. He’s not a bigot, but he’s a willing supporter of a dangerously influential one all because of his “dragon energy.”

Kanye, and Trump, begrudgingly, are right to say politics need disruption like any stale field. Being arguably the most disruptive innovator of this generation, it is no surprise Kanye has an appreciation for Trump chucking austerity and posturing out the window. But the source of Kanye’s “dragon energy” in music, footwear, and celebrity culture are humanistic principles—freedom of expression, democratization, a fight for the inner child in all of us. At the core of the Yeezy brand is a 4th grade boy sketching Jordans. At the core of Kanye’s first three albums was a wide-eyed art student using the medium of rap for his capstone project.

The source of Trump’s “dragon energy”? A hollow, cheaply-built yet expensive-looking chamber where “Bilyins!” echoes endlessly.

While the view of West as an egomaniac is a lazy oversimplification, this particular episode is absolutely an instance of him being unable to see past himself. A man who freestyled a denouncement of American media for its racist portrayals of Black folk in 2005—a decade before “wokeness”—should easily see past the bullshit of the Trump brand. In over-identifying with Trump’s version of reckless disruption, he’s shitting all over the people most willing to listen to him. He’s letting me down, along with people who share in my Blackness and class struggle.

As enraging as he’s been, hearing Ye discuss his life these days sounds like a natural continuation from those 2013 interviews. This, to me, is promising.

Where most see his Trump support as a symptom of dissociation, or more cynically, a plea to be White—though I still recommend Ta-Nehisi Coates’ 2018 piece—I see Ye’s quarter-baked politics as a less fun version of Yeezus intro “On Sight”: abrasive, unrefined, and unagreeable in order to say he’s frustrated with us. That we’re not really understanding him.

This doesn’t excuse his political rhetoric, and it’s not up to a fan to read him Frederick Douglass’ autobiography at bedtime. But something tells me he would walk back his most offensive statements of 2019 if E! News tweeted, “Kanye creates to serve PEOPLE. Cut the check @BernardArnault” alongside their typical gossipy fair.

He’s nowhere near getting through to the public on that level: White adults are either propping him up as Jesus’ latest miracle or the same wacky Black guy he’s always been. Black folks are torn between his new creative direction and his inane politics. Either way, in typical Kanye chaos, he’s slowly getting people to engage with every next move instead of just watching and yelling—though plenty of that is still happening.

“I am here for nobody’s entertainment.”

– Beats 1 with Zane Lowe, 2019

Ultimately, I have one common wish across all the identities—fan, Black man, American, hip-hop lover, creative—I carry into this conversation: I wish Kanye West was discussed with honesty and fairness. I wish there wasn’t such a lust for the next out-of-context quote. I wish our end goal in watching ultra-famous influencers was understanding, not voyeurism. Then again, they wouldn’t be ultra-famous if we weren’t voyeuristic.

Whether you’re aware of it or not, people have been invested in the results of Kanye’s endeavors for most of his career. But in the daily reality of most of our lives, he’s just been something fun to watch. With ample evidence suggesting he is, in fact, a human being trying to make the most of his gifts and curses, our gawking of him feels gross. And if he was the sociopathic megalomaniac many believe he is, our volatile viewership would just be more disgusting.

If you don’t understand why he’s so important, it’s fine. Admit that and stop making conclusive statements about him until you’ve learned enough to do so. If you don’t understand why his interviews are full of tabloidy gems, leave it alone or do the work and listen to or read the latest headline quote in its context before yelling online. These are principles that should apply to our treatment of all public figures.

Lastly, if you don’t get why people can’t decide if Kanye is either a genius savior or glorified Uncle Tom, it’s okay. This man’s legacy, like any great figure that really changed something about the world, is going to be far from simple.

I’m not interested in saying he’s right about everything, or that every song, shoe, or stage design was sheer brilliance. But when someone as accomplished and meaningful as Kanye West still dares to fail, still cares to show his face and take our best shots for the sake of dialogue—is still himself after all these years—I can’t turn my back on that.

Update 4/5/2020: Edited briefly for brevity, media, and structure.


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