In Defense of the New Kanye
I was on my way to high school in Jason's silver Kia Sephia when a voice, calm and authoritative, took over the car. "We at war." It stated, simply. "We at war with terrorism, we at war with racism, but most of all, we at war with ourselves."
There was a sound of escalating machine guns, followed by a haunting chorus of children's voices that could've been recorded at my dad's church on any Sunday morning. They sang in cadence, and their voices echoed. "Jesus walks. Jesus walks with me."
Jason and I stopped talking abruptly, putting aside our typical morning repartee of who was getting laid by who and where. We turned to each other as the song went on, both of us listening intently to the lyrics. Two youth group kids, about to drive past the hole in the sky where the World Trade Center was supposed to stand, going to schools in an area of our city where gunshots and gang fights were things not even worth remarking upon. I'd begun to feel like I was living in a different country, one the twang-voiced singers that crooned about "The 9/11 Stairway to Heaven" had never visited, a place I couldn't explain even to my own parents, who supposedly lived here, too.
But here was a song -- a voice -- a rapper -- that was speaking already a brand new language. A language for the new country that we lived in. "Getting choked by detectives" (this was twelve years prior to Eric Garner's death, which would take place blocks from where I first heard the song), and "the valley of Chi where death is" (way before Chicago's homicide rates became the subject of a helpless, hopeless, political blame game) struck us even then as real, the spoken word poetry of a studio production prophet. The samples, the rhythm, the conversational tone, all of it felt like it had been written just for us, just for that moment, in that car. "Mama used to say, only Jesus could save us." I nodded furiously, because in my world, that's what moms say.
And that was my introduction to Kanye West.
Albums The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation came rapid-fire in the three years following that anthemic first single. In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, Kanye gave the first insinuation to his manic, unquelled tendency to speak his mind when he declared that the president didn't care about black people. A blog (it looked like a Blogspot, guys) about expensive things with the odd rant or two thrown in IN ALL CAPS, a song with John Mayer (it exists, click here), and a string of singles that seemed to both humbly, brokenly cry out for redemption while simultaneously touting the glory and genius of what it meant to be Kanye -- all of it left a huge swath of audience scratching their heads about what kind of game this guy might be playing at.
I was not among those confused audience members. Here was a man that transcended the boundaries of rap, hip-hop, race and post-modern poetry to create something unbound. Classifications like "gentleman," "thug," "activist," "fashion designer" -- he could be them all, live them all at once, in a life that was performance art without seeming to try at being performance art. A persona so ironic, so insistent, that self-awareness became irrelevant.
But then some bad things happened to Kanye West. His beloved mom, the one that said only Jesus could save us, died during an elective surgery. His long-term relationship with the polarizing, flamboyant, don't-Google-her-trust-me Amber Rose seemed to take a turn for the twisted. The woman he'd had in his sights since he saw her sex tape (what 2000s love story doesn't begin with a sex tape?) was marrying somebody else. And in what many would term a "manic episode", he was mean to Taylor Swift at the VMAs in an attempt to be chivalrous (!) to Beyonce.
It was his hazily enacted, sunglassed-eyed "meltdown" over Swift that would haunt Kanye's career from 2012 forward. Descriptors like "ahead of his time" and "misunderstood" were thrown out in favor of a new narrative, one of a "bully" and a "hothead." The image of square shouldered, 5'8" West set against the shocked and waifish Swift fit the story perfectly. As a performer with a legendary need for affirmation, Kanye descended to the occasion and began to fully inhabit this role. The blog was replaced by a Twitter, from which rants that seemed equal parts plotted and impulsive began to issue.
Kanye had told us who he was in his very first radio single. "We rappers is role models -- we rap, we don't think." Despite this warning, the public backlash against Kanye has never quite subsided since Swiftgate. The legend of his arrogance, his possessiveness, his insecurity has continued to grow. Kanye's professional success refuses to diminish. He even achieved his lifelong dream of marrying a meme come true, Kim Kardashian, and merging their DNA to form two beautiful humans. But the ultimate, insatiable need that Kanye has for public adulation has continued to elude him since that fateful interruption. And for that, it has become clear that Kanye blames one person alone: Taylor Swift.
There's a lot of reasons for a guy like Kanye West to have serious problems with a person like Taylor Swift getting the unadulterated fawning she gets in the American press -- the thing he so longs for himself -- but I'll spare you my theories on his psyche. Kanye has now attempted to turn Taylor herself into a vehicle for his own reinvention. A muse, even. A symptom of a broken music industry. A manifestation of creative limitations he resents. A privileged blonde girl from Pennsylvania that floats above the media fray like a wide-eyed alien. And the weirdest part of all is that it seems, at long last, to be working.
We want Kanye to be a figment of our fantasy. A rapper that fulfills a role our minds have cast. A myth like the ones we tell about our constellations. Kanye agrees, he wants to be a figment of fantasy, too -- just not the one he's been assigned in our collective narrative. He doesn't want us to think he is mean or bad. He wants to be the hero of "Jesus Walks", the jester of "Gold Digger," the protest singer of "Diamonds of Sierra Leone." He wants to get back to that place. And lucky for Kanye West, the game that is "celebs on social media" seems to have caught up to the rules he plays by. By believing Taylor to be a victim, and casting him aside, he insists as he peeks behind the curtain, we only played ourselves.
Kanye somewhat botched the release of his new studio album, Life of Pablo, which is why it hasn't gotten much radio airplay. It's worth a listen though, if only to hear how he draws a parallel from himself directly to the Apostle Peter. Peter, though he longed for a faith he could trot out and demonstrate for the crowds, could never quite seem to muster that up. What he did do, time and time again, was try his hardest. Oftentimes, with disastrous results. This spiritual metaphor is surprisingly prescient for a supposedly self-absorbed fameball blinded by the strength of his own reflection. "Ultralight Beam," a song which could be read as the tired and battered sequel to "Jesus Walks," is some of Kanye's best songwriting in years. And the short and punchy "I Miss the Old Kanye" gives insight, so much insight, into a man struggling to decide what to keep of himself after being savaged by years in the public eye.
Kanye West is the ultimate example of someone that is both seriously living as an artistic example, and ironically performing his life, at the same time. He's personifying the term "metaphysical" in a crazy, Internet-infected way. While we cast him as a villain, he turned around and cast his own. He predicted that his brashness, his samples on a loop, his grimly sexual and politically charged way of rapping would be the language of our generation. And #hereweare.
We're still at war with terrorism and racism. Now probably more than ever. We're still at war with ourselves, and we let that war rage on in public spheres we invented for that very purpose. We blame our victims, recasting them as our oppressors. We feel entitled, we feel unmoored, but we just keep talking. Kanye didn't need to teach us how, he just knew how to be this way before we did. Maybe Kanye's kind of an asshole. But whatever he is, we are, too.
As the tide of public kindness turns once more to the new Kanye, perhaps we can take this as a promising sign. If we can accept Kanye back into the fold, interruption antics and all, it means we have come to a new place of self-acceptance. Whether we're one step closer to governing our tongues or deleting our accounts or just deciding which parts of us to keep, that's still inching us toward who we were built to be.