Kanye is probably the most misunderstood figure in modern culture. Almost every action he makes is accompanied by a backlash of public vitriol unequalled by almost anybody else outside of politics. Only Bieber and perhaps One Direction face an equivalent level of accusations regarding the degradation of the musical establishment and culture.
Fools who decry the state of modern music often see Kanye as one of their key targets: a narcissistic imbecile who ‘steals’ other people’s music for profit and personal gain. Well, for starters, he doesn’t ‘steal’ any of the music he samples, he pays for the rights to use them, and he uses them in exceptionally creative ways. The best example of this is when he turns Jamie Foxx’s rendition of ‘I Got a Woman’, a song with troubling intimations of male possessiveness, into the centrepiece of ‘Gold Digger’, a song which satirises the way in which all human beings exploit each other. In the context of the song’s twist ending, in which a suddenly rich man ditches his black girlfriend for a white girl, the choice of sample is revealed to be not just a catchy hook but also deeply ironic and, most importantly of all, very funny indeed.
His critics are right about one thing: Kanye most definitely is a narcissist. But he’s in fairly good company there: it’s a trait he shares with, well, everyone who’s ever recorded an album with their name on it. What’s fascinating about Kanye is that he not only acknowledges his own self-obsession, but he makes it one of the central themes of his art. ‘I love you like Kanye loves Kanye’ he jokes in a memorable moment from his latest album, and his ego has even led to claims of his being God, on a track from Yeezus titled, with great subtlety, ‘I Am a God’.
This, assuredly, is one of the reasons why he receives such a passionately hostile reaction from the general public: he is more honest than most about his feelings of self-worth, even within the typically boastful world of mainstream rap. There is, however, logic behind his narcissism: for Kanye, as with many great artists, the concept of truth, or at least personal honesty, is of greater importance to him than anything else – and that includes false modesty. He proclaims himself a genius because he damn well believes it, and he’s not going to lie to you about it just to satisfy your bourgeois distaste for arrogance.
What’s more, this arrogance is well-founded: musically, he is the supreme example of a simultaneously experimental and accessible artist since The Beatles; his monumental skills as a producer are denied by no one in the music industry outside of Noel Gallagher (a notorious old fart). His depth of knowledge with regards to musical history is displayed continually throughout his career in an astonishingly diverse use of samples from a variety of genres, rhythm tracks and, when the occasion suits him, even live instrumentation and orchestras to decorate his deeply felt music. But don’t take my word for it, here it is straight from the mouths of some of rock’s greatest musicians:
‘The guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.’ – Lou Reed
‘I love Kanye… People say he’s eccentric, which you’d have to agree with, but he’s a monster, yeah. He’s a crazy guy that comes up with great stuff. He inspires me.’ – Paul McCartney
‘There are so many musicians who I admire and look up to and get inspired by and just when I think all the good songs have been written already, someone goes and does something [new] – and Kanye has done that many times.’ – Beck
On Kanye’s arena tour: ‘That might have been the greatest show I’ve seen in my life. It was more punk, more in-your-face than anything I’ve seen.’ – Jack White
Lyrically, he also has one of the broadest ranges of anyone in recent years, covering such diverse topics as racial discrimination, the diamond trade in Sierra Leone, the death of his grandmother and the perceived betrayal of his own African-American roots – and that’s all on just one of his albums (the stunning, ambitious Late Registration). And then there is My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: his musical and lyrical culmination, and quite simply a masterpiece of self-examination from start to finish.
I cannot overstate this enough: Kanye is a brilliant, precociously gifted artist who has done more than enough to earn the right to label himself a genius. You might find his arrogance hard to bear, but if you start to examine his music you will quickly discover a complex human being underneath the surface: conflicted, self-doubting and troubled; desperate to enjoy life on his own terms, yet finding it eternally difficult to chase away his inner demons. ‘The devil is alive, I feel him breathing’ he gasps on the beautiful ‘Heard ‘em Say’ early on in his career, a theme which he would return to often and reiterate.
No other modern superstar has been so explicit about his own flaws and failings; in one particularly revealing moment from the classic ‘Runaway’ he says: ‘I sent this girl a picture of my dick/I don’t know what it is with females/But I’m not too good with that shit’. The macho boastings of Dr. Dre, 50 Cent and the like are noticeably absent from this verse: instead there is insecurity, doubt and feelings of regret at his own sexually provocative behaviour: ‘You been putting up with my shit just way too long’. In the chorus, however, Kanye turns this regret on its head by opting to raise a toast to all the ‘assholes’, ‘scumbags’ and ‘douchebags’ of the world – himself of course included. Therefore he is demonstrating both insecurity and arrogance within the same song, in the space of just a few seconds. This is because, despite displaying frequent feelings of remorse for some of his more questionable actions, he is ultimately unapologetic about himself as a person: he is rich, arrogant, promiscuous and, worst of all to a good many Americans, a ‘Black Skinhead’. A douchebag, a scumbag and an asshole, all wrapped up into one. What’s more, he’s proud of it. This self-awareness, as well as his blessed ability not to give a shit about what anyone else thinks about him, sets Kanye apart from the pack and is the key to his troubled genius.
We are all complex and flawed human beings, therefore it is encouraging when artists are brave enough to convey complex and flawed visions of themselves. Why is it that the general public are so much more in thrall to bland, inoffensive icons like Gary Barlow, who preach about how we should do right by one another and give our precious money to charities, whilst secretly dodging tax on the side? Whatever your thoughts are on Kanye, it’s impossible to conceive of his dodging tax without openly boasting about it on Twitter or via one of his songs. That is because he is deliberately, obstinately open and truthful, actively avoiding hypocrisy and refusing to hide behind a thin, fake veneer of respectability. This makes him endlessly fascinating, as all open and truthful human beings are.
Freely admit your flaws, and then decide to love yourself anyway: that is the way of Kanye and the lifestyle that he endorses to the world. If you can love a few other people along the way, people like God (or Kim) who will accept you just the way you are, well then, that’s just a bonus. If everyone could learn to love themselves like Kanye loves Kanye, the world might not be a better place, but it would certainly be a hell of a lot more interesting.