Kanye West - genius or asshole?
Not feeling the love for Kanye? Superfan Brian Morrissey sure is. And he’s in the mood for sharing . . .
Kanye West is often placed in one of two brackets - genius or asshole. But does it actually matter that Kanye says ridiculous things? Does it matter that people hate him for it? None of it bothers me. Argue if you like, but beyond the headlines and bloated soundbites, there is a body of work, a movement and a message that is as important as any in the 21st century.
US comedian and polymath Dave Chappell described the first time he met West as “like Mohammad Ali in Olympic Village. He just knew he was going to get the gold.”
West’s debut, The College Dropout, was all backpack rap and mixed humour with boastful claims and in-your-face arrogance. Even now, the tempo of the album can be hard to grasp, it’s like trying to read a book with a cartoon blaring in the background. This came after years of making raps for some major artists, most notably Jay Z. Kanye had a hand in every stitch of the album’s creation. He was immediately doing something that separated him from others in the field; he made classics. All Falls Down was every genre of popular music rolled into one and Jesus Walks was a song about spiritual hunger, a gospel song for the club. He was bringing an artform from the street to the mainstream.
Late Registration and Graduation were more sophisticated versions of the formula; the hits kept coming, the humour continued. West’s profile grew with the hijacking of the MTV music awards and his declaration, live on TV in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, that “George Bush does not care about black people”. This wasn’t just celebrity bickering or award-show controversy; he had just called out the most high-profile figure in politics on national television.
808’s and Heartbreak was a major shift and would sculpt the sound of hip-hop in its wake. Then came the masterpiece, My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy. Previously Kanye might have been a gimmick, now he was the genius. He had evolved beyond hip-hop in a way no artist had done before him. Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was one accomplice on this project. It was an unlikely collaboration which came about after West called Vernon asking to sample the Bon Iver song Woods, before inviting him to Hawaii. What they produced together was hailed as a masterpiece.
Watch the Throne and Yeezus cemented Kanye as (in his own words, of course) “the biggest rock star on the planet”. Throw in the GOOD music project, essentially his own label, the movie he shot in Quatar, the rangers for Nike and Adidas, his fashion label – the list goes on – and you have a considerable body of work for a 37 year-old.
In an extensive article by David Samuels in The Atlantic, which bore the title “American Mozart”, Samuels calls Kanye “the first genius of the iPhone era”, while breaking down his personality in the fashion of psychoanalysis. This approach is sometimes dangerous and sometimes fascinating. It is interesting to study somebody so full of contradictions, but aren’t we all?
Frustration fuels a lot of what Kanye says and does. He can appear like an angry kid, out of his depth, clearly psyched to outwit, outsmart and outthink the media before him. Zane Lowe, the BBC DJ formerly of MTV, let Kanye vent his frustration over an hour that would produce what Noel Gallagher was to describe “one of the best interviews I’ve ever seen”.
But beyond eyond the hype and the bravado there was an articulation of the idea that defines Kanye West. Everything that Kanye West does, he does with the aim of making people feel better about people. “If you’re are a fan of my music,” he told Lowe, “you are not a fan of Kanye West, you are a fan of yourself. My music is just the espresso shot that gets you going in the morning.”
His attacks are rarely aimed at anybody in particular; but take issue with the materialism of a society that breeds division and contempt between people. “We got this new thing called classism. It’s racism’s cousin. This is what we do. And we got other thing that’s also been working for a long time when you don’t have to be racist anymore. It’s called self-hate. It’s like the real estate of racism.”
A doubter would counter that Kanye is the definition of materialism and wealth. He is to a certain extent, but more so, he is the definition of personal ambition and the drive to succeed.
His ambition is to impact humanity to the same extent that Steve Jobs did. He’s calling to the people, asking us to recognise that, “We don’t wanna feel good, we wanna be good.”
Don’t see the best, be the best. That’s Kanye.