Listen, I don’t have to explain anything to you. I’m not getting defensive, here. I’m not. I’m just saying that if I want to write about Kanye West for no reason, that’s what I’ll do.
The fly Malcolm X
Kanye West is an absurd person. I mean that literally. Kayne West’s persona has no rational or orderly relationship to human life. This is a guy who writes rap songs about how stylish he is and believes this would qualify him for inclusion in the Bible, were it written today. That obviously is ridiculous, but it is also central to who Kanye West believes he is.
This is why he is absurd.
In his song, “Good Morning” off his album, “Graduation” he raps, “I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary.”
A clever play on Malcolm X’s famous 1964 “by any means necessary,” speech, this line (probably) is the best existing definition of Kanye West. This is a man who does not consider himself meaningful, yet considers himself important, anyway. He believes he has a surplus of coolness, and believes this coolness gives him gravity, which is probably true, even if it is the kind of rationale that causes people to elect the pretty girl STUCO president and care what Rosie O’Donnell thinks about the Iraq War.
This is why Kanye West is the new media.
He has figured out that what is important (read: sells) in the modern media climate is not expertise and credibility, but fame. He understands that famous people are allowed to skip the credibility step and go straight to the “speaking to massive audiences” step, which unfamous people don’t get to do.
More importantly, he has figured out that making rhetorical music is a great way to remain unfamous. U2, Tupac and (recently and hilariously) Green Day are exceptions that prove this rule. The quickest path to the podium is fame, and the quickest path to fame (for a musician) is making catchy pop music and branding yourself.
This is the way of popular culture in our generation. Why do statements by Elizabeth Hasselbeck make news? Why do some people want Tiger Woods politicized? Does it matter what Bill Maher thinks of the economy? There are scores of much more qualified people available to inform our opinions on current events, but we don’t listen to those people. Qualifications are secondary to fame.
Here is how this relates to Kanye West:
Kanye, see, is the son of a former Black Panther from Atlanta, who happened to be one of the first black photographers at the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. His mother was an English professor. They lived a comfortable life in Chicago.
While he certainly isn’t far removed from the civil rights movement, his experience of it is only vicarious. And while he certainly wasn’t far removed from the crime and poverty that provide the anecdotes for most mainstream rap music, his experience of that is only vicarious. He senses a perception that he is inauthentic. This seems reflexive.
He is insecure about all of this, which is why he addresses this situation constantly in his music.
It comes across most explicitly in “Everything I am,” the chorus to which includes the line, “everything I’m not made me everything I am.”
People talk so much shit about me in barber shops, they forget to get their hair cut.
Ok, fair enough. The streets is flaring up,
because they want gun talk, or I don’t wear enough
Baggy clothes, Reeboks or Adidas
Can I add that he do spazz out at his shows?
So say goodbye to the NAACP award
say goodbye to the India Arie award.
They’d rather give me that ‘nigga please’ award,
but I’ll just take the ‘I got a lot of cheese’ award.
— “Everything I am,” Graduation (2007)
What makes Kanye a star is the dichotomy of a man who possesses 1) a cartoonishly overinflated sense of his own importance, and 2) a cache of self-awareness and candor that distinguishes his music from the bulk of the genre.
Kanye can’t be Jay-Z or Lil Wayne, because you have to write about what you know. So Kayne just writes about how he can’t be Jay-Z or Lil Wayne. This seems circular and silly, but it has to be addressed and is probably the second or third main reason he is famous. In this way, Kanye West is not unlike Eminem, who has always expended a lot of musical energy in reminding us what he is not (namely, black, attractive, sober or able to avoid bullies).
The music is almost totally unpolitical and his persona is almost totally unthreatening, which is why it appeals to a mass audience, which is why Kanye West can stand next to Mike Meyers on live TV and say “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” in one of the most hilarious live TV moments of this or any generation.
There’s no way they’re putting Lil Wayne next to Mike Meyers on a Red Cross pledge drive, because Lil Wayne wears enough baggy clothes*.
*And has tears tattooed on his face.
Yet it’s because of this broad appeal that Kanye’s words splashed down like Shaq slipping in his bathtub. Kanye has found a middleground between Will Smith and Tupac that has allowed him to be a) superfamous and b) ideologically offensive. This is a rare position to attain.
This is why he is a genius.