It’s rare for the President of the United States to call someone a jackass -- twice. The first time, in 2009, Barack Obama didn’t know he was being recorded. He made the label official in 2012, when David Samuels, of The Atlantic, asked him about it. “He is a jackass. But he’s talented.”
Pigeonholing the 37-year-old West as a jackass does not paint the man with anywhere near the color and flair he deserves. His own words do that far more vividly than I ever could hope to. Kanye West on modesty: “I am God’s vessel. But my greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live.” Kanye West on his legacy: “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things.” Kanye West on reading: “Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and self-absorbed. I am not a fan of books. I would never want a book’s autograph. I am a proud non-reader of books.” Kanye West on history: “I feel like I’m too busy writing history to read it.”
West’s mother was not only a Professor of English, but the Chair of the English Department at Chicago State University, where West was in the midst of earning a degree in English when he dropped out to pursue a career peddling his own awesomeness to an unworthy global audience. As a human being, Kanye West has about as much appeal as a fatal stabbing.
The thing is, his work is special.
Lyrically, West is ham-fisted. He wields the English language with appallingly little competence or grace, and has previously stated that he aspires to equal or better Pablo Picasso in terms of pure art. That’s apropos. Like much of Picasso’s catalog of work, it’s difficult to hear how “Keeping it 300 like the Romans” -- presumably referencing the Battle of Thermopylae, between the ancient Greeks and the Persians -- or “Look like a fat booty Celine Dion / Sex is on fire, I’m the King of Leona Lewis,” will be embraced by the masses as a flight of genius. If anything, it strikes me as a firm argument against the first amendment’s protection of free speech.
Musically, however, Kanye is marvelous. I don’t usually equate popular success with quality of art, but the numbers are astonishing. He’s sold over 21 million albums and 66 million downloads. All seven of his albums have been certified platinum in the United States. He has won 21 Grammys. Billboard listed him as No.3 on their list of “Top 10 Producers of the Decade.” And in 2012, Rolling Stone included three of his albums on their list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time.” His last album, Yeezus, which I reviewed here, I described as “befuddlingly good.” And My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is pretty delightful, too. All of this, despite the fact that West possesses the verbal eloquence of a drunken fraternity pledge.
His success has catapulted Kanye into the modern zeitgeist. That and the fact that he married a daughter of O.J. Simpson defense attorney Robert Kardashian, Kim Kardashian, whose emergence from irrelevance can be traced back to a sex tape with a B-list rapper named Ray J. Not exactly the public résumé I’d want for myself, but there you are. Normally, I’d have zero interest in following the extramusical exploits of someone as absurd as West. But my mind was turned by a recent interview he had with the BBC DJ Zane Lowe, who, interestingly, is now an Apple employee.
Lowe’s first interview with West, in 2013, was akin to an hour-long car crash replete with eminently quotable one-liners demonstrating West’s intrinsic fire and determination and his woeful lack of knowledge. Hinting at the grand philosophical implications of his current and future work, he comes across as a teenager who sees the world in black and white; meanwhile, the rest of us drown in interminable shades of gray. Unbridled conviction can be a scary thing, and in this interview West bursts at the seams with it. He speaks with certainty about his musical, cultural, and fashion legacies. Friedrich Nietzsche once wrote with similar prescience about his own lasting influence. Nietzsche was largely panned by his contemporaries; his work germinated decades later, and he became part of the groundwork for existentialist and postmodern thought.
When Lowe interviewed Kanye again, in February 2015, I expected more of the same. I couldn’t have been more surprised. Composed, even dignified, West seemed transformed. Rather than get carried away with his own impulsive exuberance, he spoke with quiet confidence. At one point, mourning the loss of a friend, he wept. Most impressively, West was thoughtful and ruminative. Fresh after making yet another scene at the Grammy Awards -- taking the stage unannounced after Beck had been named as the creator of the Album of the Year -- he acknowledged that he might have been wrong to do so. “You win or you learn,” he laughed.
By the sound of it, West has learned a great deal. “I’m super-hypocritical,” he admits. Gone is the stratospheric hubris of Wests past, replaced with a more metered and mature temperament. Pressed about his past behavior, he acknowledges that he was so swept up in his eagerness to contribute something great to the world that he likened himself to “the 40-year-old virgin of dealing with corporations . . . I did not know how to communicate at all.”
In this interview, West communicates comfortably and well. He seems relaxed in expressing himself, instead of trying to say the right thing for the camera. He’s almost gracious in his proclamation that Drake is currently the best rapper around. He speaks of Jonathan Ive, senior vice president of design at Apple; of Elon Musk, founder of Tesla; and of Ralph Lauren, Walt Disney, and Paul McCartney (with whom Kanye recently collaborated) as being iconic leaders in their respective disciplines.
West’s vision is one of collaboration, in terms of both musical contributions and his desire to be a “product guy” running the world’s first trillion-dollar company. West told Lowe that his goal is not exclusive, high-priced products for the upper crust, but egalitarian pursuits that almost anyone can afford. He advocates for change and repeatable innovation, at the expense of an established elite that places too much emphasis on “what they drive, where they live,” as if such things somehow elevate the individual’s societal worth. “Class is the new racism,” he says matter-of-factly. “All lives matter . . . my doorman is more important to me than the head of any company. He keeps [my family] safe!”
The above quotes are only the broadest of verbal brushstrokes, but I’m a believer. Puff Daddy, Dr. Dre, and Jay-Z are also entrepreneurs who rose through the ranks of rap and popular culture -- each now has a net worth north of $500 million -- but so far, Kanye West is the only one who has voiced a desire to do good, to make the world a fundamentally better place. While he enjoys the lifestyle that his music’s success has made possible, he has more or less acknowledged that it’s paying the bills, giving him the freedom to pursue what he feels to be his calling, his duty: “I didn’t come here to be liked; I came here to make a difference,” he says. Respect, man. Respect.
. . . Hans Wetzel