Features | Articles

Heard 'Em Say: A Defense of an Asshole

By Colin McGowan | 10 September 2010

Kanye West has grown too immense for mere parody. Sure, he careens across the zeitgeist like a rapidly-deflating zeppelin, and the comedic potential of an incredibly famous 33 year old man who has been known, literally and metaphorically, to writhe on the floor like a toddler and whose coiffures are downright Ron Artestian is too rich a well not to tap. Satisfying as those exercises may be, they serve only to reify the whole Yeezy-as-asshole narrative that’s been gaining credence since at least 2006 and became a near-universally accepted fact when Kanye interrupted the first of Taylor Swift’s many “You Really Like Me!” moments at the VMAs in 2009. Satire of Kanye West often is not commentary so much as exaggerated mimicry. Many examples are as disposable as any internet meme; they highlight the dearth of intelligent voices in a conversation surrounding one of the more fascinating musicians to pass through American popular culture in the last twenty years.

The conversation of which I speak is virtually non-existent, or it at least resembles a lot of people agreeing with each other. There has been a lot of ink, hot air, and racks of servers at Twitter and Facebook devoted to a singular sentiment. Let’s all say it in unison so as to purge ourselves: Kanye West is an asshole. In fact, let’s go further for those still unable to hurdle this notion and arrive at the next thought: Kanye West is a colossal asshole, intermittently exhibiting the loathsome variety of solipsism we normally associate with sociopathic dictators and reality show degenerates. The important distinction to be made is that he, um, isn’t either of those things.

He is definitely not M.I.A., who has always engaged the public with coy, incendiary sound bites and the espousal of a vague worldview that seemed to revolve more around buzzwords like “revolution” and “terrorism” than it ever did around substantive ideas. Kanye has been outlandish: he is the alpha and the omega, the genius of all geniuses. M.I.A. is a construction of Maya Arulpragasm, a manipulative jerk whose persona’s mystique revolves around a facile concept of the exotic and radical politics that never coagulates into anything solid because it has no actual core around which to revolve. Kanye’s a certified narcissist, like a star that has contracted to the size of a pinhead, physically unable to cleave. M.I.A. seems like the type of person who would steal shit at a house party and blame it on someone she didn’t like. Kanye might hit on your sister, puke all over the kitchen, and feel really bad about it in the morning. He’s a bad, conscience-stricken drunk, not a monster.

Because outside of his now-revelatory flow—one that’s gestated through the decade and matured into something remarkably liquid and forceful—there’s very little about Kanye that’s not clumsy. His sincerest assertions are often misguided hyperbole; his contradictions are not minor gaps in logic, but outright negations of his previous claims; he’s fond of puns that alternate between the painfully obvious and virtual non sequitur. Even his recent attempts at introspection—most prominently, the short film he did with Spike Jonze last year—have been burdened by a thick martyr complex; they trip over themselves with cinderblock feet. He’s of the personality type that’s equally tiresome and endearing, and, let’s be frank, he oscillates between the two based on the sonorousness of his beats.

Which: have they ever been, of late. After sketching the every fracture of his decimated heart by posing such pregnant rhetorical questions as “How could you be so Dr. Evil?”, his voice drenched in the opposite of studio magic, he has returned to rapping with a palpable hunger; viscous saliva drips from his bars these days. Chronicling the past year and a half or so of Kanye verses is a separate article entirely, but going back to Clipse’s “Kinda Like a Big Deal,” Ye’s best attributes as a rapper have risen to the forefront: he’s packing verses with his specific brand of innuendos, fly talk, and bizarre linguistic gymnastics in a manner that’s unprecedented.

This is pure futon psychoanalysis, but one wonders if Kanye’s recent game elevation is akin to Kobe Bryant’s spectacular 2003-04 campaign, during which he frequently flew back and forth between Eagle, CO, where he was on trial for the alleged sexual assault of a nineteen-year-old hotel employee. Bryant would occasionally arrive to Lakers games an hour or two before tip-off, having been in Colorado the entire afternoon protesting his innocence. In those games, he often played to the highest level, as if maximizing his brief respite from a troubling reality. It’s not hard to imagine Kanye is currently finding the same variety of solace in his vocation, content to live in his studio for days at a time, attacking tracks with boundless alacrity, committing to tape some of his best work in the process.

Though his recent work makes infrequent allusions to his pariah status, it was his (possibly drug-fueled) conversation with America via his Twitter account on Labor Day weekend that reveals Ye’s most human trait. He cares what people think of him. Surely, not all the time. His infantile outbursts are myopic moments of “fuck this,” but the stream of laments he posted on Twitter on an early Saturday morning confirm that his self-awareness has transformed into an anthropomorphic hangover, threatening to engulf him at any moment. The layperson cannot fathom the process that celebrities undergo in order to bulletproof their souls, but at some point, A-listers like Clooney and Hova have learned to turn a deaf ear to whatever takedown a journalist or embittered detractor can muster. It seems every criticism rolls around Kanye’s ears like marbles around a basin. In reference to the Taylor Swift/VMA fiasco, he offers this: “I am not a bad person. Even in that moment I was only trying to do good but people don’t always need my help.” He further explains that he wishes the anti-West crowd understood how much he cares about “music and pop culture and art and peoples [sic] feelings.”

To draw upon a previous metaphor: sounds like a guy who got too drunk last night and whose rapidly sobering brain is beginning to process the shame. Speaking as someone who has walked through the fire of not being able to hold his liquor, I realize learning how to hold one’s, err, fame might just be a process as well. Ye’s insecurities are well documented, both in his own work and in various journalistic takes on West and his oeuvre. But what affect can this wicked cocktail of fame, success, and personal insecurity have on his actions? It’s reasonable to think that such a situation can make someone’s self-esteem go haywire. A person like Kanye, cursed with sensitive ears and a fragile sense of self, might feel compelled to believe in his own greatness to a gratuitous degree, creating a false reality in which his thoughts and feeling are indisputably true, creating some delusional encasement to protect his sense of self. It’s also reasonable to think that he might impose those feelings on other people’s art—Beyonce’s video, to look at the most notable example. Being a personal friend of Knowles and a fan of her music, Yeezy probably saw the amount of passion and hard work that went into the song and video for which she was nominated (“Single Ladies”), and, in a moment of self-righteous indignation, felt his opinion held sway.

I keep referring to the Taylor Swift incident because it was his most notable transgression and the one for which he sincerely apologized over this past weekend, but Youtube is a landfill of uncomfortable Kanye moments. If he’s going to take the reformed alcoholic approach and apologize to each individual he’s wronged, he has a lot of egotistical assholery for which to atone. And if that makes for more 7 AM Fireside Chats with Yeezy, I’m all for it. It seems he has taken a different route, though. After posting “Devil in a New Dress” to his website as his weekly G.O.O.D. Friday track, he posted this: “Take in a movie. Have a nice lunch. Smile. Take your kids to the park. Walk your dogs. #LIFEISTHEEVENT ...I’ll provide the soundtrack.” This falls in line with many of his sentiments on G.O.O.D. Fridays; he’s combating demonization with largesse, which seems uncharacteristic of the Kanye with which we have grown to groan at through the years. And so asymptomatic of the conceited villain we perceive him to be.

In what seems like epochs ago (actually, 2004), Sasha Frere-Jones anointed Kanye West savior of a genre that had stagnated and was beginning to choke on its own corniness. Frere-Jones posited that this corniness emanated largely from the oversized egos of its principle artists; by not being so self-obsessed, the young producer-turned-rapper was poised to take the genre in a fresh direction. While that is somewhat true (I’m of the belief that Ye is the integral figure in the sea change we have seen in mainstream rap over the past half decade; Kid Cudi and Lupe owe him dinner), the irony of that statement is so thick you could drizzle it over waffles. But Frere-Jones also wasn’t wrong to believe that Kanye might transcend the me-first rapper archetype that has dominated hip-hop for decades. One of the most secretly amazing moments of Kanye’s career comes at the end of College Dropout (2004), in which he supplies a captivating account of his experience as an impoverished beatmaker in Chicago during his late teens and early 20s. He narrates being too broke to pay the rent, buying Pele Pele shirts and Jordans on layaway, and the handful of singular moments that led to his being acquired by Roc-A-Fella. It’s an engaging yarn, one that follows a gleeful tribute to the label, which encompasses both humility and glee; he adopts the tone of an orphaned child truly enthralled to finally have a family.

The present-day listener, left to delineate a chronology that leads from this poignant five minute oration to the one-note conversation that currently encircles Kanye, would have a great deal of trouble connecting the dots. It seems at some point, we decided the cartoonish guy with the stupid sunglasses and the brash attitude was, in fact, just a cartoon. We gave the man with a martyr complex a cross and told him to go fuck himself. Whatever his next album is titled and whatever its release date, it will be inescapably huge, and all within earshot might be forced to ponder how a Kanye West album emanates such humanity.