By Devin O’Neill
Kanye West is a truly awful human being.
His recent partnership with that paragon of regressive gender norms, Kim Kardashian, only reinforces his obnoxiousness. We had hoped, previously, that he might surprise us; that his life’s trajectory might transcend the petty struggles that we deal with under the heel of money, sex, power, the dominant modern narratives of a culture in capitalistic squeeze. But he’s marrying her.
There are no restraints on his ego, and there’s no self-aggrandizing, culturally transgressive sentiment he won’t verbalize. He’s a completely unedited human being, and that’s not something you can be in civilized contemporary society. There are certain limits to the acceptable reach of your personality.
One of the most rancid examples of his expulsive blitzkrieg is “Blame Game,” off of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – a record title that should tell you a lot about how Kanye thinks of himself.
The song is a serious trip into emotional hell. It’s one of the most psychologically complex, tortuously self-absorbed hip-hop songs I’ve ever heard.
The track is a lament over the end of his relationship with his longtime girlfriend a few years ago. In the wake of that relationship, maybe even during it, she was having sex with someone else, someone local, while he was on tour, apparently.
Kanye vacillates, during the course of the song, between detailed description of his own ability to satisfy her kinks and an almost frantic rant, an outline of his desire to keep track of her and control of her, to prove himself worthy, to understand who’s at fault for the end of their relationship. This rant is separated, via his production tweaks, into a chorus of distorted voices, almost as though his schizophrenic brain is arguing with itself.
At the end, serving as one of the most uncomfortable moments in contemporary music, is an extended monologue by Chris Rock, in which Rock plays the ex’s new lover, describing in lurid variety her expertise at pleasing him sexually. After each lascivious entry in the pornographic catalog, Rock demands to know where the girl (nameless, here) learned all these tricks. She replies, robotically: “Yeezy taught me. Over and over again.
In an additional layer of horror, this scene is constructed as though Kanye were hearing it through her phone, which accidentally called him back – he’s eavesdropping, via butt-call, on the most simultaneously emotionally devastating and Kayne-aggrandizing conversation imaginable.
Except that none of this actually happened. It’s all a product of Kanye’s fevered imagination.
Hovering over all this is John Legends plaintive chorus:
Let’s play the blame game, I love you, more
Let’s play the blame game for sure
Let’s call out names, names, I hate you, more
Let’s call out names, names, for sure
…and ending with an impossible mantra, one we can’t, oh god, get behind, but must, because if we’ve had our hearts broken we’ve felt it.
I can't love you this much.
I can't love you this much.
It’s not enough for Kanye to resort to a rapper’s conventional arsenal of egotism – sex with lots of big-booty hos, massive gold chains, cars, rims. No, he has to create a twisted internal portrait of his mind so excruciating and disgusting in its detail that we see how much of a monster he is, see the lengths he’ll travel to throw a tantrum, we see the wasteland of his heart and still can’t entirely sympathize with him because he paints his own obstinate self-love with such a clear brush. And he does all this over an echoing, skittering beat that sounds like a trash-filled alley, topped with layered pianos and strings.
In case you’re missing my point so far, an idiot is not capable of making this kind of music.
This is the reason that I’m so deeply skeptical, almost disgusted, at the public’s reaction to the “Bound 2” video. Something sinister lurks in everyone’s reaction to that video, and to Kanye West in general.
It’s not that the video isn’t ridiculous. It is. It’s not that it doesn’t deserve discussion, criticism, or parody. It does. Kanye loved the parody James Franco and Seth Rogen made.
But the conversation, the direction of the conversation, is evidence that people don’t really understand Kanye West, and they don’t want to. And that’s a shame. It’s an erasure of a contemporary cultural force that’s unrivaled; that cuts a perpendicular path to the assumptions we make and the conversations we’re having. He’s proof that art isn’t dead, but we’re trampling over him while complaining that it is.
He’s an egomaniac, to be sure. He’s incredibly full of himself and he doesn't miss any opportunity to talk about how awesome he is.
He’s like Muhammad Ali in that way. Muhammad Ali was an egomaniac. He never missed an opportunity to let people know that he was the greatest in the world. THE WORLD. He talked shit to his opponents constantly (during matches!), to the audience, to the media. It was his aggressive, unique way of inhabiting his own life. Many people thought it was awful. In instances even I think it was awful.
Ali revolutionized the sport of boxing by sheer power and magnetism of his personality. At a time when most fighters let their managers do the talking, Ali thrived in – and indeed craved – the spotlight, where he was sometimes provocative, frequently outlandish and almost always entertaining. He controlled most press conferences and interviews, and spoke freely about issues unrelated to boxing. He transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride and his willingness to antagonize the white establishment in doing so. In the words of writer Joyce Carol Oates, he was one of the few athletes in any sport to completely “define the terms of his public reputation.”
Of course, Ali backed up his bravado with skill. So does Kanye?
Believe it or not, I’ve left a lot of things out.
Some people have reactions to his body of work that really baffle me – but they’re evidence of how oversimplified his public image has become. The other day, someone in a comment thread expressed that they were impressed with “whoever makes Kanye’s music,” but they don’t really like HIM. As though he were an industry-manufactured pop star. Many don’t seem to realize that he started as a producer, and that that’s still his primary identity: he’s as anally obsessive about his music and image as somebody like Trent Reznor, and he crafts every second of his songs with careful precision. Every beat, every instrument, every voice and every collaborator. When you listen to a Kanye album, he is responsible on some level for every sound you hear.
And what sounds they are. Just take a second and listen. I promise it won’t be torture. Three tracks. Just three. Listen to all the instruments, all the layers, all the composition and production. Even if you hate him.
Listen for how the piano shifts the mood of this first track; the gospel element it brings in. He made that album after his mother died, and he felt he needed to sing, in order to get his emotions out – but he can’t sing. He’s a terrible singer.
So he used autotune instead. Because nothing will stop him. Not even his own complete inability to sing. If you couldn't sing for shit, would you try to make an album that consists entirely of you singing? He didn’t even blink.
So what is it that makes Kanye West such a problem to deal with? Why, in the midst of all of this work he’s making, does he feel the need to be so insufferable? Why does the public experience him as such an obnoxious fuck, and why don't they experience any of the other dimensions of his work?
I think, really, the problem is our inability to resolve him into something we can easily digest. We don’t really like the energy he puts off: it’s manic, uncontrolled, it doesn’t respect the tacit social contract that celebrities are supposed to have with their audiences. He’s not ashamed of his wealth and power. He has not been slowed down and made less hungry by his success.
Celebrities are supposed to be grateful. After all, we all want money and power, right? They’re not supposed to want more things than they already have, because they already have so much. Of course, Kanye doesn’t want THINGS, exactly. He doesn’t just want more cars and gold-plated toilet seats. He wants the ability to change the world, to make a dent in it. He thinks he still has something to give, and he speaks loudly about that. This Breakfast Club interview is pretty illuminating:
This is the most infuriating aspect of Kanye, worse than his womanizing and his self-love and his manic personality: his social politics. Because people can’t for the life of them understand what he’s saying. Why does he go on and on about Steve Jobs in interviews? About Michelangelo? About fashion designers we’ve never heard of? What business does he have comparing himself to these people?
He is a human being at the very center of a very big cultural machine; that he’s right about. None of us have the perspective on the situation that he has. He knows what capital can do, which is why he dismisses Charlemagne’s accusations in that interview, that he doesn’t need to be materialistic to change the world. He knows that one has to have access to the system in order to restructure it. He, between the two of them, is the more realistic: global revolution isn’t going to be possible unless those billionaires start changing how they think. Bill Gates and Warren Buffet have made similar assertions.
The machinery of capitalism has to be rewired.
But is he really the one to do it? This disgusting performing freak?
I’m not arguing here that he’s got it all figured out. He’s fucking up constantly. He’s letting us watch the process of him fucking up, which is much more terrifying than him simply being omnipotent. His naked hunger is vulnerable, just as vulnerable as his naked pain and uncontrolled behavior in songs like “Blame Game.” We are not supposed to talk about the things he talks about. That ache and that rage and that all-consuming desire are not proper topics for public conversation.
They may not even be proper topics for art. That may be what we’ve decided. But this is his gift, for this moment in history: he’s bringing transparency to the forces shaping our culture. This is the hell of the contemporary male ego. This is the pressure. This is what a successful career in his industry looks like. This is the schizophrenia it produces.
He’s smart enough to take himself apart and lay his guts on the table, he’s skilled enough to sculpt those guts into impeccably produced songs, and he’s a good enough artist to not leave anything out. To not edit. To let us look the beast in the eye.
He dreams bigger than songs, though. He dreams of a multi-billion-dollar company that democratizes inspiring design, the way Eames dreamed. And we would prefer it if Kanye’s dreams died.
Really, truly. That’s what we want. We want him to shut up, we want him to stop trying, we want him to calm down, we want him to make a million more versions of “Gold Digger,” his biggest pop hit. Anything but this. Anything. This shit is embarrassing.
Our failure to get him to resolve into something easy and digestible has resulted in all kinds of distortions. It’s resulted in a flattening out of his identity. We edit a lot of things, a LOT of things, out of our picture of him. We don’t have a conversation with him so much as we hold up abstracted quotes and yell at them.
The “Bound 2” video is an excellent example. A good portion of the public has managed to delude themselves into believing the cheesy tenor of the video, the flat production, the ridiculousness of the concept, were all a complete accident. They believe Kanye’s a bumbling idiot with no sense of humor. This despite all the evidence to the contrary: an entire career of self-deprecation, self-lampoon, irony, and deep cleverness.
This next video was executive produced by West himself. He threw a bunch of money on the table and set Zach Galifianakis loose.
People manage to convince themselves that “Bound 2” was meant to be taken seriously, even though in it Kanye is fucking Kim Kardashian WHILE driving a motorcycle across the country. On the motorcycle. Fucking her on the motorcycle. The moving motorcycle.
And then of course, there’s that quote from the interview cited above, on The Breakfast Club:
“What was treatment for the ‘Bound 2’ video?”
“Oh, I wanted to take white trash T-shirts and make that into a video.”
“So you wanted it to look bad?”
“Yes. I wanted it to look as phony as possible. I wanted the clouds to go one direction, the mountains to go another direction. The horses…because I wanted to show you that this IS the Hunger Games. I wanted to show you that this is the type of imagery that’s being presented to all of us, and the only difference is a black dude in the middle of it.”
That identity marker – a Black Dude – is clearly a central issue for West. He makes both race and masculinity festering wounds in his work.
He is loud, loud, loud about the effects his relationships with women have on him in his songs. And about the sex he wants. And about the sex he has. And about the emotional knots he ties himself in when he’s trying to satisfy his own urges. And about the culture’s relational expectations and pressures on him as a black male. It’s an outgrowth of the rest of his self-obsession: he’s not curbing his sexuality or insecurity at all, and if he feels a feeling, he’s going to rap about it. If he wants a blowjob, he’s going to tell you.
This produces some of the most complicated emotions I experience when dealing with his work. Because the things is, I know exactly what he’s rapping about. I could pretend to you that I’m never starved for sexual affection, that male sexuality doesn’t sometimes feel like a dirty burden, that I don’t feel the urge to shout about it, just to confess, and excise guilt for the things I want. “This is what I like! I don’t care!” But I’d be lying to you.
I’ve experienced incredible, sickening rage and jealousy when I lose my current partner to somebody else. I’ve experienced the urge to sexually dominate another person. I’ve experienced an ego-saturated link between my sexual prowess and my worth as a human being. I’ve experienced the urge to be dirty, and to subject partners to dirty, aggressive things.
There’s something about the line...
Black girl sipping white wine
Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign
…that makes me thrill, given the culturally marginalized identity he’s operating from. And I think Kanye knows that. I don’t think Kanye accesses these things because he’s naive about their implications. I think he knows that his innermost impulses, externalized, cause problems. The images would terrify. So he externalizes them anyway, come hell or high water. Because that’s what he thinks art is.
He makes me, in some ways, very uncomfortable as a male listener. Because I know I’ve thought those things. I know I’ve felt those things. I know, for example, that I’ve experienced being on the receiving end of oral sex as a power trip, even thought I’m not “supposed to,” even though that’s all cultural, even though there'’ nothing inherent in the act that makes it that. My interest in dissecting those impulses fuels my interest in BDSM, and feminism, and masculinity generally. But that doesn’t mean I’m going to pretend I don’t feel those things. I do.
I know I’ve wanted to be rich and powerful, and I know I’ve experienced conflict and self-loathing over that. I know I’ve gone back to relationships, thoughts, and patterns that I shouldn’t have, repeatedly. I know I’m in constant conflict with my desires for success, and acceptance, and sex, as a male. Do I take risks with my own creative work because I’m being fearless, or because takings risks will make me sexier, splashier, will get me the kind of attention I want? What’s my real motivation here? Which of my internal drives are the most important? Why am I writing this article?
He and I are living in the same hell.
I don't know which is better, getting laid, or getting paid.
I just know when I’m getting one, the other’s getting away.
All this frantic energy reached a head with Yeezus. It’s one of the most strained, painful, borderline insane musical landscapes I’ve ever dealt with, and listening to it straight through is a harrowing experience. It’s what biological tension sounds like; the urge to reconcile a million different animal impulses without compromising any of them. This is impossible. You can hear the thing cracking under its own pressure. And it’s breathtaking.
This is the context “Bound 2” is placed in. After an entire album full of screaming existential hell, it breaks at the very end like a beautiful sunrise. It’s pop-y, welcoming, and the chorus reaffirms the importance of love and connection and careless partying. After suffering Kanye’s demons along with him for nine tracks, it’s like being able to breathe again.
This is why the video is perfect. It’s jokey, cheesy, expansive, and oriented around his new relationship. It paints K and K as stars of their own B-grade tourist photo-op fantasy, and his tone in the song is nonchalant, facetious, tossed-off; a relief. Whatever, I’m an asshole, fuck it, sure, let’s go on vacation. It’s a giant blast of ridiculous sunshine. It’s the only thing that could possibly counteract the Night on Bald Mountain that is the rest of the album.
That journey, just like Kanye’s journey in general, is not a safe one. Kanye West is not safe. That is the main thing he is not, artistically. He doesn’t let anything stand in the way of his work, least of all his own inhibitions. Nothing but emotional honesty from Kanye, despicable as you might find him. No games. The moment-to-moment mess.
For all these reasons, I, as a culture producer, find his career both inspiring and terrifying. Inspiring, because I hope to be that honest someday. I’m not that honest. Not yet.
Terrifying, because I can see quite clearly the way he’s treated. His ideas are simplified. His intentions are misinterpreted. His complexities are reduced to caricature. His biggest dreams are laughed at. The more emotionally honest he is, the more hated he is.
If I get where I’m trying to go, this could be my future. So people can laugh all they want, but I’m watching, and I'm taking notes.
I was at his concert at Staples Center in Los Angeles, and I was high on LSD. He stopped between songs, right before “Runaway” (“baby, I’ve got a plan: run away as fast as you can” – another admission of his own repellence), and launched into a discussion about his recent interviews. And then he raised his hands to the sky, and yelled “Y’ALL LIKE IT WHEN I TALK SHIT? YES OR NO!”
He said this as he stood in the middle of his incredible, MOCA-ready multimedia stage, surrounded by solid green lasers.
The response from the thousands present was unmistakable. One massive “YYYEEESSS!!!”
Despite his complete lack of restraint, despite all his awful excesses, there is one thing that Kanye West will never do: he’ll never stand in your way if you want to dream big. It’s the exact opposite of his philosophy. He said in his Zane Lowe interview, and he’s said over and over, that he wants to serve as an example: you can do anything you want. Anything. You. Want. If he ever stopped or gave up, that promise would be bunk. He’s got a lot riding on him.
Make no mistake: Kanye West is not your enemy. He’s on your side. If you asked him, to his face, what he thought you were capable of, I’ll bet you a hundred dollars he would look you straight in the eye and answer: “anything.”
It may, of course, all collapse, go up in smoke. His ideas about design or clothing or a democratized innovation empire might prove to be so much bullshit hot air. But he is not going to agree with you about that before he tries. And he’s not going to pretend that he doesn’t think he can do it. He’s going to go on saying that he can.
And he’s going to go on being a complete human mess as revealed through his music; he’s not going to clean up his songs for you.
His struggles with corporate America might change form; his loud, brash, public-interview-contentions with the boardroom policies of major global organizations. I suspect that he’s just now encountering this world really deeply, this weird world of billionaires and fashion houses, and since he’s Kanye West, he doesn’t know how to shut up. Soon, he’ll learn to shut up just like the rest of them, just like the rest of the suits, the corporate leaders. He’ll learn to properly tailor his image. Maybe. I hope not.
It was telling when he said, during that Breakfast Club interview, while smiling knowingly: “I’m learning to simplify and repeat.” That phrase is straight out of corporate branding. I’ve heard it at a million seminars. I hope he doesn’t use it to kill his own madness entirely. Though, of course, he’d be much easier to deal with if he were Coca Cola.
He has reached beyond where he is supposed to be. He is not supposed to be Coca Cola. That is his primary crime.
His relationship will probably continue too, at least for a while. He’s managed to find somebody almost as hated as he is. Who else could he marry? Who else would know how to put up with all this shit? Who else could he hook up with that’s capable of buying him Christmas presents and commiserating about the press?
He is not a moral exemplar and he is not a finishing-school teacher. He’s not someone you want to learn etiquette from and you definitely don’t want to take the stories in songs like “Blame Game” as ethical parables. They’re not. They’re too complicated, fucked, and filled with genuine human feeling to be parables of any kind. He will never resolve into easy focus if he keeps doing things like that. It’s hopeless.
Kanye West is a truly awful human being.
But he’s awful in all the ways that I’m awful. And for this I love him very, very much.
Devin O’Neill is a transmedia storyteller, branding practitioner, and performance artist. He enjoys things he shouldn’t, on purpose, and tries to get other people to enjoy them too. Make friends with him at https://facebook.com/devinoneill
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