You only think you hate Yeezy
Why does Kanye West attract so much rage and odium?
In terms of must-read interviews this season, Vanity Fair’s one-on-one with Kanye West is probably near the top of the heap. If you haven’t read it yet, you really should. In talking about everything from music, politics and society to sweatshirts to The Gap, West does what he always does and talks up a great game. He also, as we know, delivers a great game, especially on the music front. Be it “808s & Heartbreak” (which is getting a welcome re-evaluation at the moment, including some playing-the-album-in-full shows) or “Yeezy” (which is one of those albums whose influence seems to increase with every passing year), West remains pop’s most fascinating artist. The fact that he wants to do more than just record-tour-repeat and has made more than the token moves of his peers into fashion just amplifies that fascination.
Yet at the same time, West remains pop’s most disliked artist. No-one else comes close to him on the rage index. Other acts get a slapping now and then when the public decide it’s time for some karmic rebalancing, but nothing like the continuous stream of vitriol which West attracts. Every single thing he does, from his private life to his artistic leanings, is liable to cause large swathes of the general public to break out in a rash. Sure, he’s had his share of mis-steps and pratfalls, be it his awards show carry-on or that Glastonbury festival appearance earlier this year which didn’t quite burnish his reputation as intended, but he’s not alone in commiting similar sins. Did Yeezy get elected pop’s favourite whipping boy when no-one else turned up for the ballot?
West is one of those individuals where descriptions like “confident” and “ambitious” are more pejorative than positive. From the get-go – check this interview from 2004, for instance – West knew exactly what he was doing and his worth. He was also fascinated with The Gap back then too, as you can see. Right back when his career as a recording artist was just starting, West was out there talking the talk, walking the walk, speaking his mind and not caring two hoots what anyone thought of him. Those who shared a recording studio with him in those early days could probably tell similar tales.
What has changed is the scale of the catwalk he’s on. Every single year, his profile has grown and with that, the criticism has also multiplied. During the recent media coverage to mark 10 years since Hurricane Katrina bashed the hell out of New Orleans, West’s off-the-cuff “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” criticism still stands out by virtue of the anger of his tone and stance. He was telling an uncomfortable truth and people, it turns out, don’t like uncomfortable truths all that much.
But that alone doesn’t explain the aversion to West which you get online and even offline. Other hip-hop acts have went down similar roads to West – his sparring partner and regular collaborator Jay-Z, for instance, has also cast the net far and wide when it comes to other projects – but never with the same amount of disapprobation and contempt. For whatever reason, West has become the one it’s OK to hate.
We’ve probably seen nothing yet if he decides to carry through his musings and run for the job of US president in 2020. Given Donald Trump’s current shenanigans, no-one would dismiss the possibility of someone like West making a splash of some sort if he went through with his plan. Given his musings in the Vanity Fair interview about seeking to improve the world through design and not wanting to run against anyone else, his run would certainly be intriguing. And we’ve probably seen nothing yet when it comes to Yeezy hate.
But none of the rage has stopped him to date – if anything, it’s made him stronger and more determined – so there would probably nothing new in that for him. Apart from the occasional flashes of “why me?”, he has not allowed the dislikability factor to become the main narrative. Instead, he puts the work first and front. After all, people are still paying attention.