I Am A God: Kanye West and Commercial Culture

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In the summer of 2013, rapper Kanye West was preparing to release Yeezus, his 6th solo album in only 9 years. He rolled out the release slowly: in May, he organized surprise projections of the music video for the lead single, “New Slaves,” on the facades of buildings in major cities around the world. Shortly before that, he had played a secret show at Roseland Ballroom in New York City; shortly afterwards, he performed “New Slaves,” as well as the album’s second single, “Black Skinhead,” on Saturday Night Live. He played a set at the Governor’s Ball Music Festival, also in New York, at which he performed those two singles as well as a couple of other new songs from the album. In June, he held an impromptu listening party for the album at the Art Basel international art show in Basel, Switzerland. He talked for a few minutes about his past in fine arts, why he dropped out of art school, his love for designers like Rick Owens and Le Corbusier as well as pop artists like Andy Warhol, and how he uses the training and mindset he developed in art school, and the inspiration he draws from the aforementioned artists, in his own music. He ruminated a bit on how he perceives American culture today, and how in his position of cultural power, as a household name with 21 Grammy awards and a net worth of $130 million, and, as he half-jokingly pointed out, “a very commercial celebrity boyfriend” (referring to his high-profile relationship with Kim Kardashian), he tries to influence American culture to incorporate the values that he finds and so appreciates in fine art, architecture, design, and high fashion. He played the entire Yeezus album from a laptop while the room listened, stopping to perform a couple of the songs at the audience’s request. After the album ended, he shook everyone’s hand as they left the room.

I dropped out [of the American Academy of Art] because…I just felt that I would never be one of the great visual artists of the world. I just felt like I would end up like—and this is no knock to anybody that does this—but I felt like I would end up working at an ad agency or something like that. I wanted to make something of impact… Right now it’s a fight against the separation and constant dumbing down of culture, and I’m standing in the middle of it. So if you know what people say are my lowest moments, those moments where I sat and saw them try to dumb down culture, and I would not allow it to happen on my clock.

—   Kanye West, Art Basel, 2013

The following day, the Internet was flooded with news of the surprise event, and of Kanye’s speech. However, almost all of the coverage took a very particular tone: The Hollywood Reporter, for example, wrote that the art schools to which West discussed having been admitted were “admittedly prestigious.” After West made a similar appearance a few months later at Art Basel’s Miami incarnation, Vanity Fair published an article entitled “The Best Kanye West Quotes from Art Basel” which sarcastically refers to West’s contribution to a Jacques Herzog event as “an infinitely wise lecture on art” that included “an extended rant about a Le Corbusier lamp.” A decade after West’s career began with the 2004 release of his first album College Dropout, this type of media coverage is not unusual for him. He is well-known for his “rants,” his “arrogance,” his “ridiculous beefs,” and his “over-the-top wedding.” Popular lifestyle website Refinery29 states: “In 2014, Kanye West went from rapper to adjective. He’s been A-list for quite some time, but this year we saw a sharp transition in the way people talk about him. Comments went from ‘Look what Kanye said’ to ‘How Kanye is that?’ Now, Kanye is a lifestyle. He’s the tortured artist to a point of self-parody. He is larger than life.” Refinery29 is not wrong—but what, exactly, is happening here? Why, despite being one of the most commercially and critically successful artists hip-hop, and American music in general, has ever seen, is West regularly belittled and ridiculed by mainstream media and the larger American public—and what does media portrayal of West say about American commercial culture on a larger scale?

One of West’s “New Slaves” public projections, May 2013. http://pitchfork.com/news/50579-kanye-west-unveils-album-details-via-projections-around-the-world/

One of West’s “New Slaves” public projections, May 2013. http://pitchfork.com/news/50579-kanye-west-unveils-album-details-via-projections-around-the-world/

A Google search for “Kanye West rant” turns up 3,400,000 results. The resulting articles have titles like “The 17 Best Kanye Rants of 2013,” “The 7 Greatest Kanye West Rants of All Time,” and “Kanye West Surprisingly Tones Down Onstage Rant.” While some of these headlines are from celebrity tabloids, others are from reputable music industry websites. Though the use of the word “rant” is not used uniquely with regards to West, it is used often enough with him to be noticeable. The Huffington Post has an entire established category on its website called “Kanye West Rant,” which includes 29 articles from the last two and a half years. Although it may not be unique to West, it is used with increasingly disproportionate frequency in American popular media with regards to black men, in a subtle (even, often, unconscious on behalf of any particular author) attempt to write off their words and thoughts as simultaneously crazy and laughable, at once dangerous and unimportant. By designating something West says as a “rant,” journalists imply that the actual content and context of West’s words are unimportant and not worth even reading, while their own version of whatever West said demands your time and attention instead. West can certainly be an easy target; he does often punctuate his live shows with sections of long spoken banter in the middle of the set. However, as writer Danielle Cadet states:

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not saying everything that comes out of Kanye West’s mouth is comprehensible, but I bet you’ve missed a few great points he has made because you’ve written it off as “just another rant.” And I know many of you will think that I’m inserting race into something where it didn’t exist, but that’s the thing about modern-day racism, it’s usually a psychological and subconscious perpetration of pejorative language and ideas.

One of the clearest examples of West’s larger point being obscured by its media portrayal occurred in 2005, during an NBC telecast to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. West is standing side-by-side with actor Mike Myers, and the two have the following exchange (Myers is clearly reciting memorized lines or reading from a cue card, whereas West is clearly improvising):

Myers: With the breach of three levees protecting New Orleans, the landscape of the city has changed dramatically, tragically, and perhaps irreversibly. There is now over twenty-five feet of water where there was once city streets and thriving neighborhoods.

West: I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting; if you see a white family, it says they’re looking for food. And you know, it’s been five days [without help since the hurricane hit New Orleans] because most of the people are black, and even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite, because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch. I’ve even been shopping before I’ve given a donation, so now I’m calling my business manager right now to see what is the biggest amount I can give and, and, just to imagine if I was down there, if those were my people down there, so anybody out there that wants to do anything that we can help, with the setup—the way America is set up [is] to help the, um, the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible. I mean, this is, the Red Cross is doing everything they can, we already realize a lot of the people that could help are at war right now fighting another way, and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.

Myers: And subtle but in many ways even more profoundly devastating is the lasting damage to the survivors’ will to rebuild and remain in the area. The destruction of the spirit of the people in southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the tragic loss of all.

West: George Bush doesn’t care about black people.

West became well known for that last line; Bush even cited the quote’s utterance as the “low point of his presidency.” The quote appears, even today (nearly a decade later) on many of the aforementioned lists of West’s “best” or “greatest” “rants.” This item’s inclusion in such articles is reflective of the media’s treatment of West as a whole and of the racist (as well as larger cultural) implications of such treatment. The first part of the exchange—the lengthy part, in which he lambasts racist media treatment of black so-called “looters,” discusses his own complicity and his guilt about “turning away from the TV,” and criticizes the U.S.’s corrupt federal aid system—is universally left out of these articles. Most, if not all of them, only include the second statement, making West’s comment seem like a casually dropped one-liner, rather than something that he arrived at through the thought process he clearly demonstrated in the first statement. This portrayal, as well as its very inclusion in articles that refer to it as a “rant” or a similar term, can be easily refuted upon viewing the video. West’s body language and tone of voice is far from casual (so it’s not an off-the-cuff remark), nor is it particularly tense (so it’s not some kind of crazy tirade). Rather, West seems nervous and even vulnerable; he cares deeply about what he’s saying, and it shows. Yet, none of the articles about West’s break from the script mention any of this. The image of the crazy, “rant”-ready rapper fits much more readily into the American public’s perception of a black man who makes such an accusation against the President, and the American media was and still remains only too happy to support this stereotype, rather than grant his criticisms of George Bush and of the United States the weight that they deserved.

West goes off-script during a NBC Hurricane Katrina telecast, 2005. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIUzLpO1kxI

West goes off-script during a NBC Hurricane Katrina telecast, 2005. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zIUzLpO1kxI

West has never really been considered a “conscious rapper” in mainstream discourse. Conscious hip-hop is commonly defined as “a subgenre of hip-hop that challenges the dominant cultural, political, philosophical, and economic consensus;” however, it is important to note that the term was “originally coined by audiences and music critics rather than the actual artists themselves.” White (and straight) rapper Macklemore, for example, was lauded as a conscious rapper following the release and subsequent popularity of his 2012 single “Same Love,” where he expressed his support of gay marriage. However, West, who has consistently addressed “socially conscious” issues such as racism and gang violence throughout his entire musical career, does not get lauded in the same way for doing so. In her generally favorable review of Yeezus (the focal point of her criticism, which is deserved, is of the album’s misogynistic lyrics), Slate’s Abby Johnston states that the album provides an “articulate commentary on race, [which is] a subject that [West] first tackled in College Dropout’s ‘All Falls Down.’” Here, Johnston is vastly oversimplifying the content of West’s career: unlike Macklemore’s single, West’s “articulate commentary on race” spans entire albums. In “Same Love,” Macklemore very clearly and concisely tackles a hot-button issue from which he can detach himself (he literally opens the song with the line “when I was in the third grade I thought that I was gay,” and then proceeds to spend the rest of the song talking about how even though he’s not actually gay, he supports gay people), whereas the “issue” of race to which West’s music speaks are inextricably linked to his lived experiences. It is this element of racism that leads to a privileged artist like Macklemore getting praised for bringing attention to a “social issue”, while black artists like West (who are making art of a genre created as a response to their historical oppression) do not earn the same kind of credit for speaking to the “social issues” that comprise their lives.

There is also an element of elitism in West’s inability to be commonly acknowledged as a conscious rapper. Hip-hop artists commonly accepted as falling into the category of conscious hip-hop include KRS-One, Mos Def, Public Enemy, Grandmaster Flash, and Common, all of whom are certainly well-known in their own right and are widely considered to be classic artists of the hip-hop genre, but none of whom remotely approach the commercial success or ubiquitous media presence of West. This pattern is significant: artists who are critically and commercially successful enough to be considered “mainstream,” like West, are almost never also universally accepted as conscious hip-hop artists. It is almost as though West’s mainstream success disqualifies him from being taken seriously in this regard; this speaks to a kind of elitism within the hip-hop community, a disdain for commercial success and the idea of “selling out.” However, American popular media is just as culpable in West’s de facto exclusion from this category of hip-hop. Though many of West’s most popular singles, especially in the latter half of the 2000’s, have focused on seemingly simpler subject matter (see 2007’s “Good Life,” 2008’s “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless”), critics like Slate’s Abby Johnston simply overlook West’s non-single discography, as well as fail to critically examine the lyrical content of more recent singles like 2010’s “Power” and 2011’s Jay-Z collaboration “N*ggas in Paris.” West’s “mainstream” status serves to dilute the intellectual and lyrical substance of his music, the content of which is oversimplified and ignored in popular media portrayal of his work, much like popular media portrayal of his non-musical cultural contributions, as discussed earlier. Other conscious rappers who have not achieved the mainstream status that comes with critical and commercial success such as West’s do not pique the interest of mainstream media, thereby avoiding the West problem altogether.

April 2014 Vogue magazine cover featuring West and his wife, Kim Kardashian. http://www.vogue.com/865144/kim-kardashian-kanye-west-cover/

April 2014 Vogue magazine cover featuring West and his wife, Kim Kardashian.
http://www.vogue.com/865144/kim-kardashian-kanye-west-cover/

In the last few years of his career, elitism has come to affect West in another way as well. He is now a regular at art and design shows such as Art Basel, he has designed two capsule collections for pricey French clothing brand A.P.C. (including a $120 plain white t-shirt), he and wife Kim Kardashian recently appeared on the cover of Vogue magazine, and he performed most of the Yeezus tour while wearing custom-designed, jewel-encrusted Maison Martin Margiela masks. He regularly lists Rick Owens and Le Corbusier among his largest influences for Yeezus and, as is easy to see from media coverage of his two main Art Basel appearances, it is perhaps this seemingly newfound interest in fine art and design for which he is most often and most relentlessly ridiculed. This ridicule comes at West from all sides. Elite members of American society (like the average Art Basel patron or Vanity Fair reader) ridicule him for daring to be a black rapper interested in artists like these. From this perspective, hip-hop is not real art, and West cannot possibly have a serious interest in what they consider to be real art (see the aforementioned Vanity Fair article’s begrudging note that West’s art school acceptances were “admittedly prestigious”). Conversely, he gets ridiculed by the American public for being elitist himself, as a result of mentioning influences like Owens and Le Corbusier.

Good morning, on this day we become legendary

Everything we dreamed of

I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary

                                         Detroit Red cleaned up

— Kanye West, “Good Morning,” 2007

As a result of this instantaneous disdain from both sides, West’s ideas are reduced and diminished by American popular media until they become what eventually reaches the American public: little nuggets of craziness, the inconsequential ramblings of a black hip-hop artist delusional enough either to think he can fit in with a fine art crowd, or to believe that his work, and by extension his lived experiences, have value and deserve to be taken seriously. It’s a vicious cycle: as a public, our attention span has become so short that we no longer even possess a desire to listen to an entire album, watch an entire video clip, or read an entire interview, and analyze any of it for ourselves. Media outlets pick up on that lack of impulse, so they only give us the most distilled and oversimplified versions of culture—lists of “epic rants” are what get page views, and page views are what make money. This cultural state, combined with the racism and elitism that have been active in American society since the country’s birth, means that artists like West get mocked for asserting their own importance. There was much controversy about a track on Yeezus entitled “I Am A God,” but none when white rapper Eminem released a track a few months later called “Rap God,” in which he constantly refers to himself as God; it’s not hard to figure out the reason for the disparate reactions from the American public. Socially toxic aspects of American culture combine to create an environment in which West, one of the most commercially and critically successful artists in the world, gets ridiculed for acknowledging his success, for loving himself, and for asserting—a sure fact, given his place in American popular culture—that he is legendary.

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