A Qualified (And Ridiculously Long) Defense of Kanye West

21 Apr

Image used under a Creative Commons license from flickr user Tara L. Conley

So unlike the rest of the world, I don’t think Kanye West is all that bad. Before you start listing his many offenses, let me just say–I know he’s an insufferable egoist and that he hurt Taylor Swift’s feelings, something which seems to be on par with dog-fighting and insulting Ronald Reagan in the litany of “unforgivable sins in America.”

In any case, while I don’t listen to his music as much as I used to for a number of reasons, I still think that Kanye is the rare compelling figure in American pop music, someone whose work and persona say something important about the culture that they are a product of. And quite simply, that is why we need to keep him around, in spite of all of his transgressions.

Like most people, I first became aware of Kanye after The College Dropout debuted and everyone rushed to hail him the new Savior of Hip-Hop (Nas was probably like, “hey, that’s my job!”).  Darryl McDaniels from RUN D.M.C claimed that  he hadn’t even bothered to listen to hip hop in the ten years before Kanye’s album came out, and in a typical review, Renee Graham of the Boston Globe wrote that The College Dropout “[gave] listeners an irrefutable reason to believe the hype.” Critics consistently praised his music for its emotional intelligence and wit, all of which  West had managed to convey without relying on the gangster persona as a crutch.

Back in those days, I recall reading a profile of West in Time which heightened my admiration of him. I particularly loved that piece because it focused on his relationship with his parents, which just came of as really lovely and normal. Despite the fact that his parents had divorced when he was younger, it still seemed like they had figured out how to be genial and create a healthy environment for their kid, the importance of which can never be overstated. I also loved that Kanye had some fabulous pedigree–his dad was a former Black Panther who had become a Christian marriage counselor, and his mom was an English professor.  It was especially interesting that these two arguably bougie people had produced a kid who had become a rapper, a notable fact only because lower-class roots (or the pretense of such) are almost required for rappers. In the piece,  his parents acknowledged their initial disappointment with Kanye after he dropped out of college, a feeling which ebbed after their eventual realization that their kid was immensely talented, and that he would figure out how to make it even if he didn’t get an education. All of this–Kanye’s disillusionment with the education system, the struggle between his earthly desires and his contemplation of Christianity, and his wry take on the politics of blackness in America–informed and enriched The College Dropout. Simply put: after years of mimicry and caricature in hip hop, Kanye was interesting because he was just so palpably human.

Which brings us to the uncomfortable segment of this essay, the part where we dissect Kanye’s humanity, which must include an acknowledgment of his flaws. You already know them; he’s arrogant, he often speaks without regard for others–in general, the dude acts like he’s all id. It’s pointless to list where these flaws have led him, there are so many undoubtedly egregious things that Kanye has said and done that even President Obama had to call the brother out.

But, if I may intervene on his behalf, Kanye’s egoism has always been part of his charm, and  he is keenly aware of that.  In the Time article, his mom described Kanye’s rhymes as a Whitmanesque reflection on the self, arguing that like Whitman, West asks,  “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself. I am large, I contain multitudes.” This “largeness” is what allows him to rap about religion, drugs, school, women and class all on one album. Unlike other rappers, he doesn’t limit himself to talking about the trappings of the high life; if anything, his work is about the insecurity inherent in chasing and achieving the high life. Of course, like Whitman, Kanye can be exceedingly self-indulgent, which is when he gets into trouble.

But I maintain that oftentimes, what we perceive as Kanye being inconsiderate or inappropriate is really Kanye pushing our buttons and exploring what it means to be famous, black, and male in a culture that is capriciously hostile to all of those things. One thing that always struck me about him is that he’s very aware of the necessity of performing celebrity well, and of the fact that his own persona is a useful construct.  As he says about himself, “I’m pretty calculating, I take stuff that I know appeals to people’s bad sides and match it up with stuff that appeals to their good sides.” That’s why I’ve never understood all the universal outrage which inevitably follows a Kanye incident.  Everyone acts as if Kanye is this out of control maniac who needs to be muzzled instead of what he really is, a sophisticated critic of celebrity culture who enjoys playing with our expectations of rappers and black men in general. Take the Taylor Swift incident, which perfectly illustrates how awesomely meta Kanye’s performance of celebrity is. If you’re not an avid consumer of pop culture, (or maybe you were not a member of the mortal world for a few months) “Swiftgate” occurred at the 2009 Video Music Awards, after Taylor Swift beat  Beyonce for Best Female Video.  Kanye decided to interrupt Swift while she was giving her acceptance speech, and uttered the now immortal words: “Yo Taylor I’m really happy for you and imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time!”

I have two thoughts about this: One, is anyone going to really argue that Taylor Swift’s prosaic “You Belong With Me” was better than the global  phenomenon that is “Single Ladies?” Two, this incident arguably  helped Taylor Swift’s career A LOT.

How exactly did it help Swift to be humiliated in front of millions of people you ask ? It all makes sense when you look at Swift’s own persona, and the narrative she uses to sell herself. At this point, Swift has been all but crowned America’s official princess by marketing herself as a shy, naive girl who was a loser during middle school and just loves country music.  This is despite the fact that Swift has been in show biz since she was very young,  and if her many accomplishments are any indication, is probably more of a seasoned pro than the  neophyte she would have us believe she is. But I understand that she has to sell records, and vulnerable naif has more mass appeal than ambitious, uncompromising young woman (lest she be condemned to exclusively playing gigs at Lillith Fair).  Which is why whenever she gets awards, she acts hyper surprised and tells  some variation of the story of how she was always a dork who never imagined that anyone would listen to her music and that she would be on t.v.  A rather disingenuous thing for a classically beautiful woman who just released her third studio album to say, but that’s a whole ‘nother post.

Anyway, Swift was in the middle of a typically saccharine speech when Kanye rudely interrupted her, creating a clash between two American archetypes; the pretty, innocent blond girl who just wants to sing her heart out, and the threatening black guy with a distinguished career in incivility. It doesn’t take too long to figure out who America decided to root for. Swift was defended by every person with a blog, twitter account, and the title Commander in Chief,  while West was rightly condemned for his vulgar behavior. All of which perfectly fulfilled the requirements of the Taylor Swift narrative, that she always be the underdog and damsel-in-distress. It felt good to come to the defense of this poor little helpless girl who was being attacked by this nasty rapper, and because this is a patriarchal world, we rewarded Swift for being the passive damsel by caring about her music and elevating her career. Similarly, it made us all feel good to be unified in the belief that Kanye West was a ridiculous person, someone our otherwise divided country could collectively dislike. It’s the same reason why reality t.v. is so great; it makes us feel superior to watch people who are completely oblivious to the fact that the world finds their values and actions completely abhorrent.

But here’s the thing, Kanye West consistently demonstrates that he’s keenly aware of his public image, and is especially adept at manipulating it. He’s not a reality tv idiot who thinks everyone will be impressed by his bad behavior. After all, it wasn’t even the first time he’d had a public outburst at an awards show. He’d done almost the exact same thing in 2006 when he didn’t win at the MTV Europe Music Awards, and walked on stage then to interrupt the winners. Since then, he has purposefully cultivated this image of himself as a loose cannon, speaking out at the most inappropriate times. Each time, he disappears for a while and then reemerges, contrite and charming as ever. Readers, if that’s not an intentionally scripted performance, I don’t know what is. I’m almost convinced that Kanye is doing us a favor with each outburst by giving us all an opportunity to bond over our shared disgust. And he doesn’t seem to mind playing that role, if only because he knows that his next album is still going to easily be the best hip hop record released that year, and that we all value him too much to completely desert him. It’s a mutually agreeable relationship we’ve entered into with Mr. West, one which satisfies our need for public enemies, and one which sates his perpetual need for attention. Win win.

I should end by saying that while I think Kanye is an interesting  figure, I’m not uncritically in awe of him. Performance or not, many of the stunts he pulls affect real people who probably don’t enjoy being bit players in  the Kanye West Show. And I think Kanye could rein it in a little, and be the guy he was when The College Dropout came out–the genius with a huge ego who still had enough of a sense of humor to let us all know that he was in on the ridiculousness of his own behavior. In 2004, West did another interview with Time, and when the reporter asked him how big he thought his career was going to get, West answered:

“Probably like Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably. I’m not going to say definitely I’ll be as big as Michael Jackson. I’m just saying probably.”

It’s quintessential Kanye: arrogant and yet aware that he’s also a bit of a joke.  That guy needs to show up more often, like he did two years ago to be in this hilarious video with Farnsworth Bentley and Andre 3000.

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