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.”