What could we possibly not know about Kanye West? He has rapped, tweeted, blogged, and ranted about his feelings for years. His wife’s television show is dedicated to “keeping up” with her life. And yet the sweeping constellation of facts about Kanye contributes more to obscurity than to clarity. What had been missing, before 2013, was a specific piece of rhetoric, some overarching ethos to help contextualize the albums, videos, apparel, and media frenzies he creates. What’s still missing is comprehension. With every appearance, Kanye makes an appeal for us to understand something about him. It seems that he needs us to, desperately.
In 2013, West sat for a handful of long interviews with radio and television outlets, ostensibly in support of his album Yeezus. In 2015, he again agreed to do interviews, this time to promote his new shoe and clothing lines. Outside of his music, these conversations granted us the most access to West’s thoughts during those years. (There was also, of course, the occasional Twitter proclamation and the grainy footage of him haranguing audiences while wearing a designer mask.) Video clips from the interviews went viral, spawning scores of “Kanye rant” memes and speculations about his mental health. Some of his fans created YouTube compilations of the most fortifying quotes delivered therein. “This is just an educational video to show the true inspirational words that Kanye West has for the world,” one fan explains. Such is the dichotomy of West as a public figure: The same remarks that spurred the president to call him a jackass may have inspired at least one young black woman to follow her dreams.
The interviews amount to West’s attempt at sustained exposition. They’re worth analyzing, in the same way one might examine a writer’s essays searching for common themes, literary or rhetorical flourishes, and lessons to be gleaned. West, despite being one of the most celebrated stars of our time, still has dreams of his own, and an agenda when speaking with the press. He presents different versions of himself, performs in order to steer the conversation. He is, depending on his aims, the bullied, misunderstood artist; the righteous activist; the calm and collected populist; or the ranting eccentric. In the case of these particular interviews, West’s conversation centers around art, money, and independence: He is compelled to create the first and wants more of the second to garner the third. As a result, the performance that West most frequently enacts is less in line with the ravings of a man unhinged—never mind the resulting memes—and more akin to the calculated solicitation of a brand unsponsored.
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“I’m speaking to everybody,” West announced in an October 2013 interview with Zane Lowe for BBC Radio 1. “But I’m also speaking and sending cues to the right people to say, ‘Come and help me help everybody else. You will win with me. You will win.’” “It’s important for me to simplify and repeat,” he told the hosts of Power 105.1’s The Breakfast Club in November 2013. “I’m like Marina Abramovic. This is like performance art. The thing is: I ain’t got a problem with looking stupid.”
West spent considerable time in these interviews making a case for himself as a fashion designer and singling out those in the industry who’d snubbed him. In some interviews, it takes less than five minutes for West to steer the conversation to his obstacles in the fashion industry. In reference to the set production for the Yeezus tour, The Breakfast Club’s DJ Envy asks, “Why did you want to take so much pride into the show?” In the beginning, West sounds game to answer the question: “I’m just a creative; I’m more like a Walt Disney or something. Like, rap is just a chamber of my thoughts.” Before long, he pivots to feeling “marginalized and held back,” which shifts the conversation to one about his clothing line. West prefers long, multipronged answers, the type of responses that make it difficult for the interviewer to get a word in edgewise. They also give him the opportunity to move from the actual question to what he intends to communicate. This repeated co-opting of the conversation is both fascinating and frustrating to watch. But because he is Kanye West, his hosts play along, likely hoping for a viral clip.
When those moments take flight across the Internet, it becomes easier to ridicule West, further obscuring his message. In November 2013, Sway Calloway, host of the nationally syndicated Wake-Up Show, responded to West’s appeal for someone to be the “Medici family and stand up and let me create more” by asking: “Well, why don’t you empower yourself—[you] don’t need them—and do it yourself?” Kanye’s two mercurial responses became prime material for jokes among friends: “How, Sway?” and “You ain’t got the answers!” The full interview has nearly 7 million views, and several popular clips have been edited to show only Kanye’s responses. I saw the memes well before I watched the interview and steeled myself for footage of what I assumed would be a meltdown. Instead, I saw a classic failure to communicate: West was unable to articulate the finer points of his argument to an old friend who’d asked for more detail than he had the patience to provide.
What does it mean that one of the biggest stars of popular music in the last decade uses interviews to solicit financing—or at least public support—for his pet projects? It may be indicative of a moment in our culture when everyone, including your neighbor who posts Instagram photos of her yoga poses, seizes every opportunity to gain visibility for their “brand,” sometimes before they quite know what they’re selling. Intentionally or not, anytime artists post online or sit for interviews, they are displaying themselves—their likability, their charm, their capacity to influence—to corporations in search of ambassadors. For West, keeping the conversation focused on his own abilities and desires is part of leveraging his power as a popular artist.
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In 1959, Norman Mailer published a strange book that foreshadowed this moment and West’s brand of grandiose artist-celebrity. A collection of essays, stories, and novel excerpts, Advertisements for Myself is sprinkled with Mailer’s commentary on his own writing, including whether it’s worth reading, and whether he is indeed as great a writer as others think he is. The overarching pitch made in Advertisements is no less transactional than West’s: Mailer wants to be seen as a superior thinker, and he requires an adoring, book-buying public to achieve that goal. Advertisements is at once a critique of the way that commerce influences art and an unabashedly commercialized art object. And like West, Mailer is acutely aware of his own critical and commercial standing. He openly discusses how he might alter his public persona in order to gain status and sell books:
Truman Capote did it bravely when he began, and my hat is off to him. James Jones did it and did it well.… I, in my turn, would love to be one of the colorful old-young men of American letters, but I have a changeable personality, a sullen disposition, and a calculating mind. I never have good nor accurate interviews since I always seem to be in disagreeable situations with reporters—they sense that no matter how pleasant I try to be, that I do not like them.… So I do not care to approach the public as a lover, nor could I succeed for that matter.
Mailer, who was fond of writing off his contemporaries as cowards and queers, had license to be as chauvinistic, homophobic, and competitive as he was by virtue of his era and his skin color. For many readers, Mailer’s artistic output still outweighs his arrogance and bad politics. Though West approaches the media with similar wariness, he has created a considerably more likable persona than Mailer did. West is rarely preoccupied with denigrating his contemporaries, often taking an amiably competitive stance if he mentions them at all. (Taylor Swift is the obvious exception, but that dispute seems to exist more in the media’s imagination than in reality.) He acknowledges his influences and collaborators, both in the music world (Jay Z and the producer No ID, among others) and in visual art (he says a lamp designed by the architect Le Corbusier inspired Yeezus).
Still, West is arrogant, impulsive, and possesses terrible ideas about women, too. In his 2015 Breakfast Club interview, West asserted: “I had to take 30 showers before I got with Kim,” referring to his two-year relationship with Amber Rose, the former stripper turned entrepreneur—as if Rose’s sexual history had left an indelible stain. This statement is hardly beyond the pale in hip-hop, where the lyrics are often laden with braggadocio and crude gender politics. The intensity of some people’s hatred for West, though, exists because a black man’s arrogance rankles many observers in a way that a white man’s does not. This, and his own big mouth, aren’t the only challenges West faces: It is West’s insistence on his right as an artist to redefine himself, to slip out of one self and into another, that confounds his critics the most.
During a nearly two-hour-long interview with Lou Stoppard broadcast on the fashion website SHOWstudio in 2015, West agreed to take questions from people writing in to the show. According to Stoppard, many viewers wanted to know why he feels such a need to call himself a genius. West’s response:
All of my aspirations are things that currently only 60-year-old white people do, so I have to redefine and let people know exactly who I am. And it’s not letting them know by, you know, wearing a suit, or letting them know by wearing a Rolex, or letting them know by bragging about how much money a sponsorship made on top of a rap. It’s letting them know by saying, “Let’s start with this: I’m a creative genius.”
West smiles and chuckles, and Stoppard laughs awkwardly in response.
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West challenges his listeners to follow him as he explores his preoccupations and finds his way out of the boxes that others create for him—and the PR disasters he creates for himself. In the last decade, West has been a producer, a backpack rapper, a pop-rap champion, an Auto-Tune crooner, an ornate maximalist, a gritty minimalist, and—on his latest project, The Life of Pablo, released in February—a benevolent choir director. For the most part, fans accept each new iteration, though his post-2013 versions (what people collectively call “New Kanye”) strain some people’s love, patience, and understanding. Even so, that strain is useful to an artist like West. When he likens himself to Walt Disney, or Steve Jobs, or Andy Warhol, or Michelangelo, he’s hoping that his audience pushes back, that the idea creates some dissonance. When we write him off as delusional, more cognitive and imaginative space opens up for him to one day become someone else.
West’s father Ray, a former Black Panther and photographer, was a salesman for a time. “My dad would say, ‘Yo, sir, pick your head up and explain to me what you want to say and what you want to sell,’ ” West recalled for SHOWstudio’s Stoppard. Perhaps as a result, he identifies the ability to make and sell products as integral to self-determination, particularly black self-determination. “I had so many interviews where I’m trying to express that I can create outside of just the music box, and I’m giving examples of work that I did that was really successful, and I’m just getting completely shut down,” he recounted to the BBC’s Lowe in 2015. “No one wanted to allow me to think or be involved in the product.” This thinking about art, compensation, and black labor is as old as the recording industry itself, and the issue of economic independence and the limits of it for black men has been a recognizable theme in West’s music since his debut album, The College Dropout, from 2004. (“Even if you in a Benz / You still a nigga in a coupe,” he raps on “All Falls Down.”)
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I saw West perform Dropout back in 2004 at the House of Blues on Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles. I was sweaty by the end of the show, with the crowd behind me pressing my body against the barriers in front of the stage. To close, Kanye played “Last Call,” a song about his days as an outsider, as “The Rudolph, the red-nosed reindeer of the Roc,” when he fought to be seen as more than a producer. West was also sweaty, and his hype man—these were the days before the slick, stylized live productions we’ve come to expect from him—handed him a glass of champagne and a towel to wipe his face. “Last Call” is part monologue and part rap, and as West took us through the phone calls and meetings and near successes on his way to landing a recording deal, I saw a fatigued grin on his face. It looked like a smile of relief at having that particular battle behind him.
Just after the release of his debut album, West founded his own record label, G.O.O.D. (Getting Out Our Dreams) Music— a nod to the importance he places on bringing his and others’ ideas to fruition. Perhaps the name was also an early indication of the pitching that was to come.
It’s difficult to reconcile West’s collaborative, entrepreneurial spirit with his seemingly insatiable desire for attention from major financiers. “Fuck you and your corporations,” West raps on Yeezus’s “New Slaves,” yet he spends entire interviews wishing out loud that the right corporation would be interested in his ideas. For West, the way to avoid becoming a slave to big business is not to boycott it altogether, but to align himself with a company that lets him be involved in the creative process. “You see it’s leaders and it’s followers / But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” he raps on the song’s chorus, as though those are the only options.
The desire to be an artist capable of creating in multiple arenas, not a celebrity who leverages his fame into moneymaking ventures, is at odds with what we expect of our pop stars, particularly our rappers. They should be their “authentic” selves, the same ones they were when we first encountered them. “I’m not really a rapper,” West insists in response, because he knows that to be authentic in one area hamstrings him in others.
Ultimately, a corporation bit. In 2015, West secured a deal with Adidas that the company extended this June, calling it “the most significant partnership ever created between a non-athlete and an athletic brand.” Soon after their partnership started, West became more amiable in interviews and exhibited a greater willingness to respond to questions. But the pitching hasn’t stopped. Disparate rants have synthesized into a more cohesive vision of the world, giving us a glimpse into what may be behind his desire for support in the fashion industry and beyond. (In an August interview with BBC Radio 1, he said: “Yo, Ikea, allow Kanye to create. Allow him to make this thing because, you know what, I want a bed that he makes. I want a chair that he makes.”) He has branched out into pitching himself as he’d like us to see him: as an artist, a visionary, an “ideas guy” worthy of billion-dollar backing.
The question remains: To what extent can West continue to foreground the commercial components that make his art possible before we no longer consider him an artist at all? This is a question that West himself toys with openly these days. In late July, he released the music video for “Wolves,” a fan-favorite track from The Life of Pablo, featuring pop singer Sia and rapper Vic Mensa. The video, starring West and Kim Kardashian clad in the custom Balmain outfits they wore to last spring’s Met Gala, is dark and minimalist. (West also sported ice-blue contact lenses at that event, a provocative nod to becoming someone else.) Kendall Jenner and other popular models, including Joan Smalls and Jourdan Dunn, stalk around a black set in their own metallic Balmain getups, while Olivier Rousteing, the label’s creative director, is shown dancing for the camera at a party scene. The video is a seven-minute Balmain commercial, yes, but like the video for “Famous” that West released in June, it is also an exploration of fame, excess, and, in a tiny way, gender expectations. The first scene with West focuses on his tear-streaked face; as he raps, “What if Mary was in the club / ’Fore she met Joseph around hella thugs?,” several pairs of hands smear a clear, greasy, unpleasant-looking substance over Kim’s face. Both husband and wife appear at once vulnerable and untouchable, giving us a glimpse of how their world works, but not revealing much we couldn’t have guessed. Despite watching it several times, I haven’t considered the song “Wolves” anew, as the best music videos encourage us to do. I do, however, have a newfound appreciation for thigh-high Balmain boots.