By Matthew DeMello
Photo courtesy of Pop Culture Geek
If you love Kanye West or feel strongly that he’s making some of the most important music of all time right now, his ‘insufferable arrogance’ is usually the first thing you have to explain or somehow apologize for in mixed company. I use quotation marks here because that’s exactly the way the rest of the world (i.e. anyone who finds his work of no greater significance than Lady Gaga or Katy Perry) views it.
Even for a genre like hip-hop where the celebration of the self seems intrinsic, no one thinks Kanye West shows any restraint in his self-glorification. For those who love his music, it’s because they feel he’s the one of the few figures in music history who can actually walk his own talk. For Kanye haters it’s because no walk could possibly justify that much talk.
His haters are a crowd that will obviously never let him live down drunkenly crashing Taylor Swift’s moment of VMA glory by ranting how Beyonce’s video was… well, we all remember. To their credit, it would be much easier to collectively let these moments fade into obscurity if Kanye wasn’t the kind of pop star who, I don’t know, worries about where he ranks among Hot97’s totally arbitrary list of the best MCs in hip-hop.
To explain that last sentence in a bit more detail – every year, the world’s preeminent hip hop radio station based in New York City teams up with the least relevant channel on television (MTV) to calculate their annual list of the “Hottest MCs in the Game.” As lists like these go – from Pitchfork to Alternative Press – this particular one is especially insignificant. Not only does it consider the feelings of typically know-nothing MTV execs, but also Facebook likes and other audience feedback.
That still didn’t stop Yeezy from calling up the radio station and voicing his complaints about the final rundown live on air.
Now to be fair, West’s complaint was not the fact that he should have been number 1 – though anyone who feels like the thought was mulling in the back of his mind has every reason to believe so, simply by the fact he called up a radio station to complain about a list of the hottest rappers in the game. Not to mention that who he felt should be number 1 (Lil Wayne) isn’t exactly anyone’s favorite in 2013. In fact, it’s a choice that sounds like he’s trying extra hard not to come off as that arrogant.
Even the best arguments that explain Kanye West’s overwhelming ego in a forgivable context are forced to leave out examples like that last one. In the case of a recent (and fantastic) op-ed from BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu, the politics of Ye’s “black self-love” can’t totally explain why he would call-in to a radio station to argue why he isn’t the best rapper of the moment.
In contrast, there is only one real explanation that can accommodate — that, believe it or not, Kanye West is probably the most self-conscious person in hip-hop, if not all of show business. To anyone who loves him, again, that’s no great reveal. By the same token, it’s an impression that no one who is only aware of his singles would fully be able to grasp.
In such a way, Kanye’s perceived arrogance is a little bit like Bruce Springsteen’s misconstrued chauvinism. Except that by this point in West’s career, he has decided not to actively dissuade anyone from their prejudices against him but instead to only fuel the fires of their reflex vitriol. Just as to the casual listener, “Born in the USA” makes for Fourth of July cookout background noise and “Every Step You Take” is a perfect song for slow dancing at your wedding, “I Am a God” is absolutely the product of a self-mythologizing narcissist – and Kanye wouldn’t tell you differently if you asked him.
As such, the latter is considered by both lovers and haters as the most blatant effort thus far in West’s career to wear his most obvious public feature — his ego — on his sleeve. Though the major difference between even just the title of “I am A God” and say, “Jesus Walks” or “Touch the Sky” is it openly brandishes what people already hate about West – that his self obsession goes above and beyond the typically uplifting quality of an already lyrically self-absorbed genre as hip-hop.
Where by now Springsteen would calmly explain, as he did when Ronald Reagan wanted to use his song for a campaign anthem, that “Born in the USA” isn’t about how great America is, Kanye now goes out of his way to validate the misconception.
As his supporters insist, and I will not refute, all of this is 100 percent Kanye’s intention and is the entire point of his latest and universally-deemed “polarizing” album, Yeezus. If you don’t see it that way, you’re just not paying close enough attention (or again, you don’t care). Most conversation about Yeezus focuses more on why the record is a breakthrough for Kanye sonically and less on the change it represents in the relationship his art has with his celebrity.
Granted, such themes were presented front row center of his last solo release. Throughout My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye sounded like his life is caught in three separate whirlwinds, all of his own making. Between his hectic romantic circle of the time, his continued mourning at the loss of his mother, and grappling with mounting public antagonism after the VMA gaffe – Kanye was at odds with whether or not his art, and the fame that comes with it, are worth having as the means of accomplishing his life goals if he can’t absolutely control their ends.
In the near Don Quixote-lengths he goes to make every facet of his life as malleable to his will as his art, his existence comes to a crashing emotional halt (somewhere between “Runaway” and “Blame Game”) that the album documents in excruciating and beautiful detail.
By crying, “Let’s hear it for the douche bags / let’s hear it for the assholes” in probably the greatest ballad of the decade so far, he admits for the record that – no matter what he’ll tell you tomorrow — he in fact can’t be a god.
Or just God. Or at the very least, he can’t be as cool headed about living the big life as his BFF Jay-Z. If he was, why would he have 99 or so problems, and a contentious romantic interest being one of them?
Three years later with the release Yeezus, these obsessions now sound like a distant memory. His collaboration with Jay on Watch the Throne showed him much more at ease with nearly every drama that plagued him. The dramas that seemed to be giving him a breakdown on Twisted Fantasy.
Yet on Yeezus, Kanye’s not just at ease with being Kanye for better or worse. Rather, his new solution to all the uneasiness that haunted him before, all of that self-doubt that languished beneath the pomp of his previous releases, is to respond at every possible occasion with nearly unconscionable egotism.
For instance, in explaining his obsession with being recognized for his musical achievements in a recent interview with The New York Times, the following hilarious back-and-forth transpired:
West:… I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things. So when the next little girl that wants to be, you know, a musician and give up her anonymity and her voice to express her talent and bring something special to the world, and it’s time for us to roll out and say, “Did this person have the biggest thing of the year?” — that thing is more fair because I was there.
New York Times: But has that instinct led you astray? Like the Taylor Swift interruption at the MTV Video Music Awards, things like that.
West: It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is.
In an effortless bout of PR synnergy, that last response both accomplishes and validates every artistic gesture of Yeezus.
Notice how inarticulate Kanye becomes right when the subject of Swift is broached. An inquiry that gave him vulnerable and cathartic pause on live television when broached by Jay Leno, is now given a knee-jerk reaction with the bare minimum of what Kanye would like the world to know about Kanye: That he may very well think that what he did to Swift was “complete awesomeness,” as is anything he does.
This all despite a mountain of deep tracks on Twisted Fantasy from his past work where he openly wrangles with an all-consuming guilt over the incident.
I’m not sure we’ll ever catch a glimpse of that self-doubt ever again, at least not as openly as he has addressed it in the past. It clearly still consumes everything Kanye does now to the point where denying its existence through the hall of mirrors that is rap superstardom seems like a reputation worth having. With it comes a point of no return – a line in the sand between those who are keen to his underlying messages, and those who are more content in simply despising whatever he presents himself as.
If it irks you that there doesn’t seem to be a fall coming after such overwhelming pride, that is the point. Yeezus and all the obnoxious publicity that comes with it say one thing: If you weren’t on board the Kanye train/bandwagon already, there are no more stops to hop on.
Take him or leave him, he is too “completely awesome” to care. Or perhaps too fragile to let you think he does… until the next Hot97 countdown of the hottest MCs in the game.