Kanye West: ‘I had lost who I was. I was in the sunken place’
Three days in Wyoming as the hip-hop firebrand tends to his scars
Kanye West: “An artist should be irresponsible in a way – a three-year-old.” Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty
It had been just a few months since the rapper, producer, fashion designer and cultural fire starter had gone through one of the most taxing periods of his public life: his wife was robbed at gunpoint and a series of erratic concert appearances followed, culminating in a nine-day stint at UCLA Medical Center. He was in a state of shambles, and it showed.
“He could look at me and, you know, I don’t know why he mentioned suicide, but he could tell that I was very low,” West says over breakfast at the rustic modernist home here that he has been renting and making music in. “Really medicated, shoulders slumped down and my confidence was gone, which is a lot of the root of my superpower, because if you truly have self-confidence, no one can say anything to you.”
Robbins, who is known for his boisterous seminars that feature hot-coal walking, had been summoned by West’s wife, Kim Kardashian West, to stage something like an intervention.
And so Robbins looked West in the eyes and started issuing instructions. Made him stand up, get into a warrior pose and scream.
“I was so self-conscious about the nanny and the housekeeper that I didn’t want them to hear me screaming in the livingroom,” West says. “I think that that’s such a metaphor of something for the existence of so-called well-off people that they’re not really well-off – they won’t even scream in their own house.”
He was reluctant. But he screamed.
The fix wasn’t instantaneous. “I still felt self-conscious,” West says. “I didn’t have my confidence back.” But it was a start.
We need to be able to be in situations where you can be irresponsible. That’s one of the great privileges of an artist. An artist should be irresponsible in a way – a three -year-old
West’s last two years have included wild stretches of chaos, public trauma, divisive flirtations with partisan politics, and health struggles that played out both in public and in private. Depending on the moment, he has been the subject of empathy, enthusiasm or scorn. For many his embrace of President Donald Trump and his controversial conversation about slavery with TMZ in May have been too toxic.
Certainly, casual dismissal of West has always been a built-in feature of his fame, but in terms of public perception it’s possible he has never been more radioactive. The world is now more sceptical and less patient. Over the past decade and a half, objection has tended to roll off him; now it’s sticking.
But over two days of extended interviews in his rented Amangani Resorthome, on long walks through Jackson, and in lengthy car rides spanning eastern Idaho to Yellowstone National Park – edited excerpts from which are included below – Kanye is calm, measured, verging on beatific and also self-aware and willing to reckon with the challenges he created for himself.
Over the past few weeks he has worked on the release of five albums: his eighth LP, Ye, and his collaboration with Kid Cudi, Kids See Ghosts, as well as records by Pusha-T, Nas and Teyana Taylor that he produced.
Much of that music was made here. He has been coming to this area regularly since early 2017, a couple of months after his hospital stay. “We came here just for healing,” he says earlier in the day. “Getting my brain together.” He was medicated then – he’d recently received a diagnosis of bipolar disorder – but over time he began “learning how to not be on meds”, adding proudly, “I took one pill in the last seven days.”
Last night he hosted a listening party for Ye, flying in hundreds of fellow artists, coastal cool kids, and representatives of the press, radio and streaming services to eat barbecued food and dance around a bonfire. After everyone imported for the affair was exported back home – “We turned jumbo jets to Uber,” he says, grinning – West is taking a slow Friday. At Big Hole BBQ, the restaurant that catered the event, he has a half-slab of ribs, wings, fries, slaw and beans, and washes it down with a Mary’s nipple, a vodka-lemonade concoction.
And although it is more than 3km from the restaurant to the Movieworks Cinema 4, where he wants to see Solo: A Star Wars Story, he decides to walk.
The day is bright, crisp and a little cool, and his step is brisk. He is wearing a black-gray-and-white flannel shirt, black Patagonia fleece trousers, unreleased Adidas Yeezy 700s and an industrial-orange ski cap. His security is pacing him in a pair of black Chevrolet Suburbans, going slow in the fast lane, or slipping in and out of adjacent parking lots.
West barely acknowledges them, though. Instead he focuses on the kids. Dozens of them. They run out of restaurants and ask for photographs, or pull their cars over to the side of the road, some of them blasting Ye. The unplanned attention might have unnerved West in the past, but now he looks pleased to be interrupted. And he makes sure to ask what every single kid’s favourite song is.
The Wyoming listening session was up there with the golden-era Kanye West exploits: an absurdist stunt, an immense display of ego and a genuinely new contribution to the rich history of hip-hop excess.
If it was baptismal, it felt doubly so given the few weeks that preceded it. Beginning in mid-April, West returned to Twitter with gale force, posting a torrent of old photographs, self-help-speak, cult-leader aphorisms, clothing-line updates and, most disruptive, continued amplification of conservative voices and doubled-down support for Trump, citing their shared “dragon energy”.
“There were people who said Trump would never win,” West says. “I’m talking about the it-will-never-happens of the world, people in high school told you things would never happen.”
To his mind he was supporting a friend and kindred spirit, and also speaking up in a way others wouldn’t – as is his wont, generally.
“I felt that I knew people who voted for Trump that were celebrities that were scared to say that they liked him. But they told me, and I liked him, and I’m not scared to say what I like,” he said. “Let me come over here and get in this fight with you.”
The battle for West’s soul went into overdrive in the hours and days following his tweets. John Legend and J Cole urged him to reconsider his position. Kardashian instructed him to announce that he doesn’t agree with all of Trump’s policies. When his father came to visit Wyoming for a few days, West says, “He expressed that he felt that some of the policies were hurtful and that I’m a person that does not intend to hurt people, never hurts people with intention.” He adds, “I expressed the example that I have a cousin that’s locked up for doing something bad, and I still love him, so I don’t base my love for a person on if they doing something good or bad.”
Is there anything a person could do that is so beyond the pale that you would not support them, even if you liked them?
I wanted to make my album cover the doctor that performed my mom’s last surgery. I think that’s pretty big on the cancel-culture territory. I’m starting saying, “I’m not cancelling him,” ’cause the world cancelled him. I believe in the court of public opinion that that thought has to change.
Do you feel there is an expectation of you – because you’re a successful black man in the United States – to take on certain political or cultural positions?
Oh yeah, definitely. When I was in high school most of my opinions were, like, only me and a couple people who thought like me.
But now you feel the pressure to speak for a whole group of people?
Nah. It’s a rhetorical dumb-ass question – you could just say yes – but do you think there are a lot of husband-and-wife situations where the husband in the household liked Trump and voted on Trump and maybe the wife didn’t, or vice versa?
Man, I had my [expletive] [expletive] castrated: “You have to like Hillary. That’s got to be your choice.”
That’s what the family was telling you?
The family meaning the world – because you’re black, because you make very sensitive music, because you’re a very sensitive soul, it was like an arranged marriage or something. And I’m like, That’s not who I want to marry. I don’t feel that. I believe that I’m actually a better father because I got my [expletive] voice back, I’m a better artist because I got my voice back. I was living inside of some universe that was created by the mob-thought and I had lost who I was, so that’s when I was in the sunken place. You look in my eyes right now – you see no sunken place.
When did that change happen?
Getting out, learning how to not be highly medicated and, you know, just standing up saying I know I could lose a lot of things, but just standing up and saying what you feel, and not even doing a lot of research on it. Having a political opinion that’s overly informed, it’s like knowing how to dress, as opposed to being a child – “I like this.” I hear Trump talk and I’m like, I like the way it sounds, knowing that there’s people who like me that don’t like the way it sounds.
But if he says something like he doesn’t want to let Muslims into the country, do you like the way that sounds?
No, I don’t agree with all of his policies.
Ordinarily, public figures see microphones as natural enemies, designed to undo them. But this is not how West treats them. He speaks in long, jagged discursions, moving fluidly between subjects – saying he wished Bernie Sanders could have been Trump’s vice-president one moment, lamenting the awkwardness of a lyric about Tristan Thompson, the father of Khloé Kardashian’s daughter, the next. He is in a constant state of self-revision. More than any other famous person of his stature, he shares his rough drafts.
If he had come into the public eye via technology, not music – if he were white, not black – West might be viewed as a lovable, idiosyncratic futurist, not a perennial agitator.
“We need to be able to be in situations where you can be irresponsible,” he says. “That’s one of the great privileges of an artist. An artist should be irresponsible in a way – a three-year-old.”
Even though this is the sort of behaviour that gets West labelled inconsistent, it is perhaps his most enduringly consistent feature. He is congenitally honest, almost shockingly unguarded in his speech. You can almost watch him as he lobs a new thought into the public consciousness, then stands back and watches as it’s either embraced or swatted down.
Fully rendering his speech would require something akin to musical notation – markings to denote speed, spacing, emphasis, even the words’ seriousness or lack thereof, or the percent to which he is certain of what he is saying as opposed to just trying a thought out. (Twitter is in some ways the medium least well suited to his thought process. He isn’t gnomic, or pithy; he’s roundabout, elaborative.)
This is, generally speaking, an approach incompatible with a media environment that ruthlessly records, dissects and parses each moment, examining it hard for flaws.
That hasn’t changed West’s methodology, though. Not long after his April Trump tweetstorm, West posted a long-form video interview on his website with the acidic New York radio host Charlamagne Tha God. The set-up was tasteful, all neutral tones. It showed West at his most lucid and sharp, and suggested that perhaps smoother waters were ahead.
Or not. “I felt like it was something missing,” West says. “I just had a gut innate feeling to go to TMZ.”
Half the people that are listening to the album are supposed to not listen to the album right now. I’m cancelled
The West who appeared on TMZ’s daily TV show is much more familiar: loose-tongued, provocative, searching. There was also a vulnerability that was easy to overlook, as when he admitted to having had liposuction. (By way of elaboration about the procedure, he says, “As holy as I am and all that [expletive], I still do some rich [expletive phrase] sometimes.”)
But most crucially, and most alarmingly, he said that 400 years of slavery “sound like a choice.”
To West’s mind, what happened on TMZ was a failure of language, not ideas. “I said the idea of sitting in something for 400 years sounds . . . sounds . . . like a choice to me. I never said it’s a choice. I never said slavery itself – like being shackled in chains – was a choice,” he says. “That’s why I went from slave to 400 years to mental prison to this and that. If you look at the clip you see the way my mind works.”
He continues, delineating the path of many a Kanye West public conflagration. “I think an extreme thing; I adjust it, I adjust it, I adjust it,” he explains. “That’s the way I get to it, but I have to push to, you know, the furthest concept possible.”
The TMZ appearance essentially squandered all of the public goodwill West had accumulated earlier in the day – except in the view of West, who naturally saw the two media appearances as part of the same continuum.
“I think it was totally beautiful, both of them,” he says. “The Charlamagne one was like the most beautiful funeral you’ve ever been to, and you close the casket, and say this is done.”
And the TMZ one?
And the TMZ one was the [expletive], the casket like [makes opening motion and screams] and the people in church is like [mimes shock and horror and shrieks] “slave?!” Ahhh! Ahhh!
How does it make you feel when you know an experiment didn’t work?
Awesome. I learned so much. I learned about the context of the idea of the word slave. I didn’t take it in that context. I think that my personality and energy mirrors Nat Turner, or it had in the past, but that showed me that also that Nat Turner approach would land me in the same place Nat Turner landed and that I would be legendary but also just a martyr. But I guess we’re all martyrs eventually and we’re all guaranteed to die.
To clarify, do you believe that slavery in this country was a choice?
Well, I never said that.
If you could say it again how would you frame it?
I wouldn’t frame a one-liner or a headline. What I would say is actually it’s literally like I feel like I’m in court having to justify a robbery that I didn’t actually commit, where I’m having to somehow reframe something that I never said. I feel stupid to have to say out loud that I know that being put on the boat was – but also I’m not backing down, bro. What I will do is I’ll take responsibility for the fact that I allowed my voice to be used back to back in ways that were not protective of it when my voice means too much.
Back to back?
Wearing the [Trump] hat, because my voice is unprotected and I believe that the black community wants to protect my voice. By me saying slave in any way at TMZ left my voice unprotected. So it’s not a matter of the facts of if I said that exact line or not, it’s the fact that I put myself in a position to be unprotected by my tribe.
Do you feel that if black fans abandon you, that’s something that you could come back from? Do you think that is a death blow?
It’s not going to happen.
It’s just not going to happen?
Like I said, wouldn’t leave. Like yes, got a bunch of different opinions. You’re not always going to agree, but they’re not going to leave.
Earlier on Friday afternoon, West is in the back seat of the Suburban when he spies Victor Outdoor Seconds, a smallish purveyor of second-hand outdoor clothing in Victor, Idaho, a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it town about 40 minutes west of Jackson.
Within a minute he is fixated on the store’s offerings: well-worn ski jackets, fleeces, snow pants and more. Nothing fancy or luxury, just styles so mainstream as to be almost vernacular.
What West sees, though, is pure Yeezy. “I want to purchase a lot of stuff,” he says to the store’s owner. “I don’t know where I should put it, though.” He settles on the floor, starting with a molehill pile and, over the course of a half-hour, turning it into a mountain. Later the owner posts a photo on Facebook of 13 bursting-full white trash bags and a thank you to West: “Biggest sale EVER!!!!”
While selecting items he gets a call from Virgil Abloh, who was recently named the artistic director of menswear at Louis Vuitton. Abloh was West’s mentee for years, the chosen son who broke free to make his own way. They speak about the clothes West is finding, about Drake, about the colours of the Ye album cover. Abloh compliments West’s facility with earth tones – visual and aural – and gives West his assessment of the album.
West presses Abloh for more: “I’m not cancelled out the culture? People are listening to it?”
“You see me and Virgil’s relationship,” he says in the SUV on the ride back from the second-hand store. “I don’t know what might have been in your mind, but there might have been some place where you wonder if those dudes still talk like that. And you saw, we do.”
What did you have to cleanse to get to that place, to be back at that rhythm?
Jealousy and fear.
Fear of what?
Losing “ruler,” “king,” “crown”. And it was this thing where it’s like, okay, you’re not the number-one rapper, Drake’s the number-one rapper, but you’re the number one with shoes, or this or that. And it’s like, Yo, no more No. Ones. What’s the number-one tree over there? Just be one of them. All of them are beautiful. If you cut one of those trees down what would it be worth? Those look like $400,000 trees, just one of them, and look at how many of them are.
‘Ye’ is an album of deep vulnerability, West’s rawest since 808s & Heartbreak. It reckons with the internal chemistry that causes mental illness and with the real-life consequences of his public behaviour. It feels immediate, an in-the-moment emotional reckoning delivered with the alacrity of a mid-2000s mixtape. Perhaps it is not surprising to learn that eight days before its release, West says, he had none of the lyrics of Ye written. And he still went to see Deadpool 2. Twice.
At just seven songs Ye is less carefully constructed than the works from his most popular era. But it has familiar West hallmarks – the scars of 808s & Heartbreak and the soul-drenched production of Late Registration – even if the finished product has a far more unbuttoned feel than, say, the magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Perhaps the most consequential lyrics of this West era are about mental health. On Pusha-T’s What Would Meek Do? he declaims, “No more hidin’ the scars / I show ’em like Seal, right?” On Yikes, from Ye, he announced the bipolar-disorder diagnosis. “That’s my superpower,” he scream-rapped. “Ain’t no disability / I’m a superhero! I’m a superhero!”
And on the Ye opener, I Thought about Killing You, the clouds get darker: “Today I thought about killing you, premeditated murder / I think about killing myself / And I, I love myself way more than I love you.”
On I Thought about Killing You, to what degree is that literal and to what degree is that metaphor?
Oh yeah, I’ve thought about killing myself all the time. It’s always a option and [expletive]. Like Louis CK said: I flip through the manual. I weigh all the options.
Later, he adds: “I’m just having this epiphany now, ’cause I didn’t do it, but I did think it all the way through. But if I didn’t think it all the way through, then it’s actually maybe more of a chance of it happening.”
The following morning West arrives in the dining area for breakfast around 10am, wearing a red hoody over a long-sleeved gray Calabasas T-shirt. His personal chef brings him his plate, showing him a slip of paper with the meal’s nutritional information before he digs in.
“Did you see my tweet?” he asks. Overnight he has sent out a missive putting an end to the reignited feud between Pusha-T and Drake, in so much as someone who was not one of the primary participants can do that.
Friction between West and Drake has replaced friction between West and Jay-Z as hip-hop’s central Oedipal drama, even if at this point the two are, for all intents and purposes, peers. (At one point they were recording music for a possible collaborative album.)
But then Pusha-T and Drake got to quarrelling, and on Duppy Freestyle Drake took aim at West, saying he’d written for him and “let him repeat”. Yes, Drake had written on The Life of Pablo, which was not a secret. And as it happens he wrote for West on Ye as well – the hook for Yikes is his. (He also wrote a whole first verse, West says, although it didn’t make the final album.)
This acknowledgment is a shock for those who still see hip hop as one kind of auteur music, the sort in which the vocalist is relating true-life tales, unembellished and autobiographical, and not the other kind of auteur music, in which one figurehead orchestrates a creative enterprise, drawing on a wide and deep range of talent in search of completing a complex but coherent puzzle.
By this point in the day breakfast is far in the rear-view and West is back in the Suburban, enjoying another day of relative calm. He has directed his driver north on Route 191, into Grand Teton National Park, driving past the same mountains that appear in the iPhone photo he shot for the cover of Ye.
Jumping out of the car at a rest stop, he says, “I hope they got a fresh-ass T-shirt.” They don’t, but he buys some small toys for his children, and stocks up on Doritos and jerky for the road.
As the Suburban pushes onwards into Yellowstone National Park he tries to call Kardashian, but reception is bad and he can’t get through. “I’m just trying to tell my girl I’m going to Yellowstone, ’cause we never did it,” he says. A few minutes later he adds with a shrug, “I’m not going to lie, it looks the same as where we stay.”
If there has been a corrective force during this tumultuous period it has been Kardashian, whom West married in 2014. They now have three children: five-year-old North; two-year-old Saint and five-month-old Chicago. Their lives and businesses are symbiotic. She flew to Wyoming to celebrate at the ranch with West, and over the next two days they checked in regularly by phone. At one point she sent him a video of North singing the chorus of No Mistakes and he watched it dozens of times, ignoring everyone in the room.
One of the most affecting songs on Ye is Wouldn’t Leave, in which West suggests that his TMZ appearance put his marriage at risk.
“There was a moment where I felt like after TMZ, maybe a week after that, I felt like the energy levels were low, and I called different family members and was asking, you know, ‘Was Kim thinking about leaving me after TMZ?’ ” he says. “So that was a real conversation.”
Like many of the songs on Ye, this one functions as both personal and professional, micro and macro, individual and universal. West is serenading not just his wife but also the fans who stuck by him during this most trying period.
Or as he put it on No Mistakes: “For all my dogs that stayed down, we up again.”
Getting comfortable with the dissonance, that’s the thing. For someone who spent the whole of his early career in conquer mode, constantly questioning anyone who doubted him, accepting that you can’t always control your own narrative is a kind of growth. Along the way there will be missteps, setbacks, even upheavals. The healthiest choice, West has discovered, is to learn from them, accept them and absorb them into who he’s becoming.
“My existence is selvage denim at this point; it’s a vintage Hermès bag,” West says. “All the stains just make it better.” – New York Times