Those poor 40-year-old mothers on set at The Ellen Degeneres Show were not ready for Kanye West last month.
It’s easy to watch any of Kanye West’s interviews over the past three years, laugh, and call him crazy.
We’re all familiar with the main charges against Mr. West:
- He’s delusional
- He’s thirsty for attention
- He’s selfish
But even the weakest effort to connect the dots between Kanye’s recent interviews would challenge these popular notions of him.
Don’t let the media’s laziness cloud the fact that Ye’s “rants” are more consistent in their messages than people like to acknowledge. That, or more consistent than people honestly realize.
I get it. Really, I do.
Watching someone as brash as Kanye West begin to explain how innovation in the fashion industry can stop bullying, for instance, is likely to have you looking like this:
But it doesn’t take as much work to make sense of these interviews as you might think.
There are several strongly highlighted themes in this string of interviews that Ye is persistent in revisiting. Beyond the outbursts, West has been very diligent about how he frames his whirlwind of thoughts.
But there are just so many thoughts. So much so, it’s going to take two articles for me just to summarize the important shit.
Part 1 of this series will evaluate the validity of Kanye West’s claims of his cultural significance, and explain his seemingly irrational fear of being marginalized.
Part 2 will address Kanye’s obsession with corporations, his motivations, and why any of us should care about his problems.
The interviews referenced in this series: Zane Lowe on BBC Radio 1 (October 2013), Breakfast Club on Power 105.1 (November 2013), Sway In The Morning (November 2013), and an appearance on The Ellen Degeneres Show (May 2016).
UPDATE (2/20/2017): Video used in this article from the 2013 Breakfast Club interview has been removed from YouTube and is no longer featured in this article. Quotes from it will still be used in reference to the interview.
UPDATE (12/5/2019): Very excited to have learned The Breakfast Club reuploaded the video. I think the quotes I pulled are concise and clean enough (plus I’m working on a new piece), so I’ll just leave the video up here for reference:
Let’s start with this quote:
“WE culture. RAP is the new rock and roll…We the real rockstars, and I’m the biggest of all of ’em.”
In his 2013 interview with Zane Lowe on BBC Radio 1, Kanye famously equated the current status of rap music to “the new rock and roll.” Jumping off of that comparison, he proceeded to call himself, “the number one rockstar on the planet.”
At the time, Kanye was absolutely right. If not for the astronomical numbers Views put up this year, it still wouldn’t be a question.
There’s a reason why he headlined Glastonbury last summer. There’s a reason why gangster rap isn’t in the mainstream anymore, and today’s hip-hop and R&B artists across the board owe him a ‘thank you’.
It was an enormous statement, but it wasn’t false. Nor was it boastful. Unless you think this is the face of someone basking in his glory:
Between Fendi turning down his idea for the now-popularized leather jogging pants in 2007, and Hedi Slimane trying to put conditions on Ye visiting his fashion show, his outburst here is a response to condescending clothing industry executives.
It’s warranted. It doesn’t make sense to exclude Kanye West from trendsetting in the clothing industry when he is the trendsetter of this day and age.
Kanye has made similar claims of grandiose only to hammer in this point: if any creative should be supported in their desire to push popular culture forward, it should be him.
The commercial success and the global influence of hip-hop today leaves little room for debate about it being the most influential body of culture in the world right now. Even more undeniable is Kanye West’s leading role in this juggernaut.
His commercial dominance, critical acclaim, and trailblazing in hip-hop music and culture is one thing. Coupled with his nearly-instant success in clothing design, it’s painful how obvious it is that Kanye is the greatest creative force in popular culture today.
Is he really though?
Don’t get me wrong. You do not have to be in the public eye to shift global culture.
For example, anyone involved in the designing of smartphones can proudly say they’ve changed daily human life forever. As far as product goes, smartphones have had a broader and more forceful impact on global culture than Kanye West’s discography.
So Steve Jobs (alive) > Kanye, right?
Yes and no.
“It’s only one Steve Jobs, you know’m saying? And now it’s only one Kanye West, and I’m just like Steve.”
-Kanye West on The Breakfast Club, 2013
Kanye will be the first person to tell you Steve Jobs was in a class of his own. But he’ll also be quick to remind you he’s in a position to become just as influential. A valid claim.
Jobs was at the head of the world’s largest publicly traded company. But innovation in tech is rarely attributed to one person. The entities that we really care about in this regard are the companies that these products get released through.
We thank IBM for creating the Simon Personal Communicator in 1992. We also thank Apple and Samsung, not Steve Jobs or Yoo-shin Lee, for the smartphone’s evolution.
Corporations are simply more influential than people, a point of Kanye’s that will be touched on in Part 2.
Anyway, this isn’t to say Kanye West’s music, film, or clothing is all his doing. But individuals in the realms of clothing and art receive more credit, therefore more cultural relevance, than people in the tech world. Steve Jobs is an exception, but leaders in music, film, and clothing receive more recognition for being influential creatives than the biggest names in Silicon Valley.
Like it or not, relevance, a classy term for popularity, is a factor in being culturally influential. It’s what makes corporate brands so effective. Same thing with a person’s image.
So when Ye proclaimed, “Picasso is dead. Steve Jobs is dead. Walt Disney is dead,” on The Ellen Degeneres Show, he was acknowledging Jobs’ individual greatness. However, he also acknowledged the unique position he’s in to become the next great paradigm-shifting creative.
Corporations aside, which entity (i.e. living person) has the greatest potential to shape what is popular to think, feel, or do through their product?
As badly as you might want to say Mark Zuckerberg, he doesn’t have creative product like Kanye does.
Is a service. Not a product, service. Facebook and other social media platforms are certainly results of creative innovation, and they affect billions of lives. But social media is simply a space to facilitate the thinking, feeling, and doing of people. Social media content is generated by its users, not its creators.
Given the vast information and wealth at his disposal thanks to Facebook, any Zuckerberg-backed product could really fuck shit up in the future. If it was purely about potential to tilt the axis of global culture, then sure, Zuckerberg is more likely than Kanye West to join Jobs and Disney in that pantheon.
But once you realize social media isn’t necessarily product, it is clear that there are people who outpace Zuckerberg in their understanding and execution of creative production.
So ask yourself one more time. Which visible entity has the greatest potential to impact popular attitudes and behavior through their product?
Very good, Kanye!
Despite the impact some significant creatives have in other realms, none of them have Kanye’s gravity.
West’s body of work is enough to argue the importance of his innovation. But what sets him apart from any fashion designer, movie director, or app developer is his proximity to the source of today’s global trendsetting and cultural innovation: hip-hop culture.
This point was emphasized in his 2013 Breakfast Club interview where he stressed why Bernard Arnault, head of Louis Vuitton (LVMH), was foolish for not taking a meeting with him.
To demonstrate, Ye pretended to deliver a public service announcement calling for all Black people in Atlanta to not shop at Louis Vuitton. Though that particular announcement probably wouldn’t destroy Louis V’s sales, the idea is that Kanye has more than enough weight to steer the masses toward or away from products. From brands. From lifestyles.
He certainly pulled hip-hop away from tall tees and Starter jackets.
He certainly pulled people toward Drake, Kid Cudi, and countless other prominent artists.
He’s drawn many people toward his Yeezys, with or without Nike, and his point seems like it will only be strengthened given time.
Megalomania is defined as a delusion of one’s own power or significance. Your polarized feelings aside, Kanye’s assertions are not delusional.
What Kanye is saying is that he can make or break trends. He can control where culture is headed in ways that no one in tech, theater, film, or other creative industries can. This sets the stage for his next talking point.
“Do you want to marginalize me until I’m out of my moment?”
Kanye posed these questions right before his infamous meltdown on Sway in the Morning, November 2013. To most, the questions do not make sense.
Isn’t Kanye rich?
Will Kanye ever not be famous?
Has no one told him to shut the fuck up yet?
How can someone so loud, mainstream, and accomplished ever be marginalized?
Allow Kanye to explain that:
In his eagerness to question why “money and stuff” meant so much to Kanye during his 2013 Breakfast Club interview, Charlamagne Tha God stated that “real revolutionaries” did not need corporate influence to change the world.
Kanye acknowledges this, but poses the question, “But what happen if y’all don’t buy no other albums?”
See, it’s not that Kanye will ever struggle selling his music. But his musical product will struggle to maintain the high level of impact it has had throughout his career.
Surprise! Kanye is humble enough to accept that he won’t be the biggest rockstar on the planet forever. “Music is fleeting. Ain’t no 50-year-old rockstar that you care about. This is a young man’s sport.”
Charlamagne counters this, saying, “All the White rockstars still prospering.” True, but irrelevant to the point Kanye is trying to make:
“When I made Glow in the Dark [tour], and when I made Graduation, that’s the point when I should have had a deal with Disney…That’s the point when I should have been given the opportunity to create more. But they want to box me into a music box….I can still make money on stage, but what I wanna give y’all is that feeling of when I was in fourth grade drawing Jordans…that you can’t deny, that people lined up for that.”
-Kanye West on The Breakfast Club, 2013
It’s one thing to make money as a creative. It is another thing to know your next product can be world-changing. That opportunity, no matter how great you are, vanishes if you stay in the world of music for too long.
Kanye has been aware of this for much longer than many of us have. He knows he can’t work solely in the music industry and expect his product to impact the world in the same way at age 50 as it has been up until this point.
Prince’s magnum opus is widely believed to be Purple Rain, released six years into his career as a major-label musician. The film was his first, and the soundtrack was his sixth studio album. Since the release of Purple Rain in 1984, he remained active for more than three decades, putting out an additional 33 albums and three films before his death.
He still had the ability, and many strokes of brilliance. But never again did Prince create something with the quality or the impact of Purple Rain.
Despite commercial success after Freddie Mercury’s death, Queen’s greatest singles and most acclaimed albums were released within five years of their major debut.
Historic live shows? Ride or die fans worldwide? Yes, it’s fucking Queen. But be honest, did they ever create anything on the level of “Bohemian Rhapsody” or “We Are The Champions” after 1978?
I’ll let you answer that obvious question and then consider this fact: Queen debuted in 1973. Their last album was released in 1995.
Five years spent creating product that grew in quality and impact. Almost twenty years spent creating product that was less than their best.
How about an example in hip-hop?
Many people, including Hov himself in this Breakfast Club interview, would say Jay Z’s top three albums are Reasonable Doubt, Blueprint, and Black Album. The last one of those three, Black Album, was released in 2003. His latest effort, Magna Carta Holy Grail, was in 2013.
Ten years spent creating products that most would agree are not his best or most influential. Obviously, Jay Z’s time has gone toward other ventures recently. But the drop off after Black Album began way before any of this TIDAL business.
Given Kanye’s drive, multifaceted creativity, and proof of concept—as shown by his Louis Vuitton collab and the popularity of Yeezys—why would he want to put himself in idle and do nothing but music for another ten years?
This isn’t to say Kanye can’t have a continued impact in music. But even legends see their impact diminish if they stay in the game long enough.
So when Kanye claimed, “We’re in a renaissance period,” on The Ellen Degeneres Show, it mirrored the time he said this:
“In 10 years of creativity—they say change your job every ten years—you still want me to be the old nigga in the club talkin’ about, “girl come to my room” and stuff like that?”
-Kanye West on The Breakfast Club, 2013
“No, we don’t want you to be R. Kelly,” Charlamagne said. And he’s right, we don’t.
A rapid-fire summary of this piece would look like this: hip-hop culture is the world’s shit right now, and Kanye is the shit of the shit. He’s the meta-shit. (UPDATE (6/17/2019): I can’t believe I said that.) It is not ridiculous to think he could change culture at the level of Walt Disney or Steve Jobs one day, and to limit him to music is disrespectful, shortsighted, and not even up to us.
So how does Ye successfully avoid becoming R. Kelly and change the world through clothing?
Why is he so obsessed with corporations?
Why should you care?!
All that and more on the second and final installment of “Understanding Kanye West Rants.”