In an interview last week with Zane Lowe of BBC Radio, Kanye West declared himself to be the biggest rock star in the world. What’s clear looking at the aftermath of that hour-long segment is that West deserves a different grandiose title: the paradigm villain in contemporary pop culture.
What does it take nowadays for a 36-year-old black artist from Chicago to incur such infamy? It’s contained in the title of the third track on “Yeezus,” West’s sixth studio album: “I Am a God.”
As the BBC interview demonstrates, West has an uncanny ability to touch a nerve in mainstream America. Oddly, he seems like one of the least-likely candidates in hip-hop to play that position, at least on the surface. West has never been associated with gang activity or violence, never associated himself with drugs or lawlessness, never been cited for abuse or disloyalty to women and never taken part in a rap feud. He is college-educated, socially active, artistically inclined and devoted to his faith and family.
The issue is not with the quality of his music, either. West is one of the most critically acclaimed artists in any genre from this era. His 21 Grammy awards place him eighth all time and above any other rapper or musician under the age of 50. Peers call him a creative genius, and there’s no question that his core is broad and devoted. Critics note how influential his body of work has been – they say songs like “Stronger” and “Heartless” or albums like “The College Dropout” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” have shaped the progression of contemporary music.
Yet even with such a resume, Kanye West provokes resentment virtually every time he opens his mouth and rap lyrics don’t come out. The BBC interview is as rich in commentary as anything you’re likely to hear from a mainstream entertainer, but responses to it are all too familiar. The overwhelming critique of West is that he is too arrogant, that he thinks too much of himself, his abilities and his potential.
It’s clear that, at times, West seems to make a caricature of his own self-esteem. But when did it become so shameful to exhibit an abundance of confidence? Sure, ego is unflattering in excess, but how many professional athletes are the self-proclaimed best in the game? How many politicians say they’re the best candidate for elected office? The criticism of West’s arrogance – merited or not – has reached a point where it must stem from an underlying cause of contempt.
Here’s what West told Lowe regarding the aforementioned song title:
“When someone comes up and says something like, ‘I am a god,’ everybody says, ‘Who does he think he is?’ I just told you who I thought I was: a god. Would it have been better if I had a song that said, ‘I am a n—–‘? Or if I had a song that said, ‘I’m a gangsta’? Or if I had a song that said ‘I am a pimp’? All those colors and patinas fit better on a person like me, right?”
Many of us cringe when race is brought into the equation — not because we deny the pervasive racial prejudice in today’s society but because it’s so difficult to substantiate a discussion on that topic. Who can confirm if what West says is true: that people in the corporate world have no interest in seeing someone of his complexity and complexion succeed in their field? West’s evidence resonates with some; others are reluctant to take him at his word.
And yet there’s something intriguing in West’s observation. During the development of rap’s cross-cultural popularity, so-called “gangster rap” was seen as threatening, and groups like N.W.A. and Public Enemy stirred fear in middle America. What changed so dramatically that Kanye West is loathed for “I Am a God” while Jay-Z gets $5 million to promote Samsung through “Magna Carta … Holy Grail?” (It’s not because of blasphemy. Jay-Z’s nickname “Jay-Hova” is a play on the Hebrew name of God. And Rakim, considered to be among the great rap lyricists, is often known simply as the “God MC.”)
A separate issue from race appears to be at play. Kanye West is fighting against a society that can’t seem to take anything, including itself, seriously. Anytime he sounds off on race, class, the music or fashion industries, etc., the media label it a “rant.” Anytime he releases a song like “New Slaves” or “Black Skinhead” instead of “Gold Digger” or “Good Life,” radio stations don’t play it. Anytime he breaks his no-interviews rule to sit down with someone for an hour, a show like “Jimmy Kimmel Live!” comes out with a 30-second parody. Today’s society is satiated by consuming culture, not engaging with it.
“This is what frustration sounds like,” West tells Lowe. “I have reached the glass ceiling-as a creative person, as a celebrity.” Artists have routinely run into resistance when they try to deepen their message. John Lennon expressed disenchantment when so many fans and critics turned on him as he went from “It’s been a hard days night” to “Give peace a chance.” Dave Chappelle is virtually blackballed from the entertainment industry for calling out racial undertones in television studios.
Celebrities seem to thrive when they stay in their lane. West is beloved when he makes music that listeners can bob their head to, not when he makes them think. He’s an icon in music but viewed skeptically anywhere else, despite remarkable success in limited ventures in fashion and film.
In a society jaded by greed and artistic dishonesty, West falls victim to our unyielding cynicism. It would be easy to assume that his arrogance fuels selfishness – “to the contrary, completely,” as he put it. The two most infamous moments of his career — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and “Taylor, I’m going to let you finish, but…” — were both done, however misguided, on others’ behalf (eight and six years ago, respectively). Even his fashion pursuits, which some might consider superficial, are certainly not the best way in which someone who hasn’t done a solo tour in five years could be profiting. After all, West interned at the height of his fame in Italy, getting coffee for designers and living in a small studio apartment. That’s not a man driven by money.
At a time when lackluster music quality, corporate influence and waning interest in the arts are so prevalent, it’s disheartening that someone like Kanye West is dismissed, not celebrated. Those who say he should be content with fame miss the direction of his motives; those who say he’s an egomaniac miss the purpose of his passion.
West’s ambition won’t be stymied by those who doubt him. It never has. “I have so much I want to give,” he said in the interview, “and I’ve got a million people telling me why I can’t do it.” Maybe when it seems like so many forces are working against you, some self-confidence goes a long way, even if it means calling yourself a god.
I’m reminded of a line from “Last Call” off “The College Dropout” in 2004:
“Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/ Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams.”