Deciphering Kanye West: Method & Madness

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Humanity’s perception of Kanye West mirrors the age old yin-yang symbol. One would be hard pressed to find a more polarizing figure in the music industry — perhaps any industry. For those familiar with video games, I find West’s work similar that of Hideo Kojima; Kanye’s personality unabashedly devours every song/sentence/tweet he pieces together and his actions are a direct representation of him in the moment. I joke that his albums parallel Kojima’s Metal Gear series, where a consensus will never be reached as to which entry marks the zenith. Some prefer his gritty, down-to-earth stylings in Yeezus and earlier works; others lean towards his dystopian, futuristic soap opera sound found in 808s and Heartbreak and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Regardless of your musical preferences, Ye has made something for everyone at some point in his career. Trust me. Though his larger-than-life personality often ruffles the feathers of the uninitiated viewing into the wonderful world of West from the outside, honing the critical lens in with an alternate perspective reveals a much more complicated individual than the media would have you think.

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A vivid scene from the Power music video.

If there was such a thing as a “Most Wanted” list for celebrities, Kim Kardashian and Kanye West would be the 21st century Bonnie & Clyde. After Kanye’s infamous VMA incident in 2009, the perception that Kanye is a complete and utter ***hole has been unremittingly ingrained into society. One might say it’s equivalent to stating that water is wet. When I said society previously, that’s referring to worldwide, big picture society. Kanye has a chip on his shoulder and a bounty on his head wherever he goes. Take, for example,  the attempt to ban him from the United Kingdom’s Glastonbury Festival in 2015. The media exacerbates this one-sided perception to a boiling point. Why do they do that, you ask? Simple — it’s an easy narrative to produce. Really easy. Not only that, but people love to hate-watch Kanye. That became to apparent to me the day a co-worker decided to run off at the mouth saying “I hate that Kenny West”; despite him having the name hopelessly wrong, it didn’t take long for me to put 2 and 2 together. Others at the table began to chime in thereafter, criticizing his ego and lack of musical skill. I started to engage, but instead chose to hold my tongue. Without context (and even at times with context) West is an easy man to hate. Many things Kanye says and Kanye does would ostensibly make anyone think he’s crazy. This is undeniable — without context, that is.

More so than other paradigms of music, rap relies on the artist being an entertainer. It’s akin to wrestling in that regard. From the outside there exists a perception of it all being taken seriously, whereas everyone in the up-and-up knows to handle it with a grain of salt. That’s not a get-out-of-jail-free card for when Ye does cross the line, nor should it grant him immunity from criticism — Kanye says things he shouldn’t, quite often. That being said, the perception of his ego being over-inflated are highly exaggerated. Taking his career into consideration and what he sought to accomplish with it, Kanye West literally has every last right to see himself as a king. Factor him being a person of color on top of that and his accomplishments become exponentially more impressive. We’re talking about a man who came from nothing dropping his first album to being a multi-platinum artist married to one of the most successful celebrities ever in roughly the span of a decade! Kanye has essentially hit the metaphorical glass ceiling, yet pop culture dictates he should take a vow of silence on his life achievements — that he should be humble in his success. They’re trying to force his feet into the shoes of a role model… shoes he never asked for to begin with. That same culture also seeks to undo his merits and fame by devaluing rap, asserting it’s not “real” music.

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Kanye premiering All Day at the 2015 BRIT Awards.

A lot of people won’t like to hear this, but rap is undeniably one of the most complex genres of music. By it’s very nature, verses are incredibly flexible and versatile in length and structure; in fact, rap can parallel the work of Shakespeare and other renowned linguists. Comparisons have been done between contemporary rap and poets of yore on word count and style; while number of words doesn’t equate to depth, what we can ascertain from these studies is that rap demonstrably covers more than just money, drugs, and hoes. At one point, I used to be one of these very reductionists; luckily, my eyes opened after stumbling into the underground/indie scene. I found myself on Rap Genius (now known as genius.com) and other competing sites trying to decipher the messages hidden within the rhymes. Truth be told, even mainstream artists possess this lyrical depth. Those just aren’t the songs that make Top 40, sadly. Rap and hip-hop unquestionably cover a wider variety of topics than any other genre with a wide variety of distinct sounds. This begs the question: what sets Mr. West apart from other rappers in the game?

Kanye unforgivingly siphons inspiration for his music directly from his life experiences. The paparazzi, the detractors, the fans, his successes, his failures, his children, or his wife — each of these make up a bullet in his arsenal of rhymes. In terms of production, Kanye has consistently proven he’s not afraid of stepping (if not leaping) outside the box. As a departure, West’s Auto-Tuned 808s & Heartbreak make Taylor Swift’s 1989 seem like a meager diversion in comparison. The bold, robotic vocals paired with the melancholy theme of loss merge to form something magnificent. In fact, many claim that songs like Street Lights from 808s ended up being the birth of Canadian rapper Drake’s career. On the other end of the spectrum, the gritty sounds of Yeezus remind me of an electric razor being pressed against a pane of glass; highly unpleasant, yet it fits the thematic tone of what he’s going for perfectly. The general public listen to music to feel good. Ye has some of that. West, however, is a thinker who finds pleasure in challenging his audience to think critically about the art of his craft. That’s not to say that all of his music is self-serious… satire and hype are key elements in rap culture. Though an aura of egotism surrounds West, he’s actually very self-aware (if not outright self-deprecating) in a resounding portion of his works. His aptly named I Love Kanye (Skip to 2:30) intermission skit teases the perception of his narcissism and anger shown in the media, ostensibly stating that the people taking him too seriously are the ones who end angry ultimately. Regardless of his critics, Kanye is going to do Kanye. Going off of what he says on Twitter, the problem West often runs into is that his genius outperforms his articulation.

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Bet you remember this one…

Despite being a supporter, I hold inner reservations due to some of Kanye’s words and deeds. Even amongst fans, it seems nearly unanimous that his handling of interactions with Taylor Swift has been poor, if not downright abysmal. He could’ve easily let it go after the ’09 VMAs, yet instead he chooses to engage, engage, engage. It’s one of those situations where he’s trying to be the heel, but for whatever reason he perpetually ends up taking it a step too far. A number of West’s album have a track or two laced in misogyny which, unfortunately, remains rooted in some areas of rap culture. He’s certainly not the worst about it, but one hopes he eventually takes some of this criticism to heart as his career moves forward. His recent Twitter soirées on Bill Cosby’s innocence or that b**** being an endearing term in rap haven’t been helping his case at all; Ye’s outbursts have increased in frequency as of late, catching the web’s attention and raising concern about his current mental state. Kanye has always charmingly erratic, but his allusions to using Xanax in his most recent album paint a completely difference picture — not a pretty one either. While I don’t want to delve into speculation in this piece, take into consideration that he may not even be able to help some of his behavior. That’s not an excuse, nor should it condone his more offensive moments… It’s just a stroke of grey to mar the black & white conversations that continually happen over Mr. West as a human being.

Though his presidential run in 2020 is almost assuredly a farce (though I thought as much about Trump’s), Kanye has made a point to call out many important issues. People were quick to laugh at him for saying “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” after hurricane Katrina occurred. His statement is a gross oversimplification of the matter, but lo-and-behold the topic of the wealthy vs. minorities has become one of the greatest political issues in the 2016 presidential bid. He sought to start a conversation on the unwritten, symbolic caste system that binds this country to this very day. In one of his latest Twitter ramblings, West discusses how the price of text books are unattainably high and acts acts as a roadblock for education reform. People like to pretend that Kanye only sees Kanye in the mirror, but how much have they done to voice society’s woes? Though people know Kanye for claiming to be a god, he himself is a devout Christian subservient to capital ‘G’ God. West’s faith appears in tracks such as Jesus Walks, I am a God, and Ultralight Beam; though he might not show it overtly, it’s always at the forefront of his art. Many verses off his newest album, The Life of Pablo, convey his devotion to his wife and his family. FML (For My Lady) recounts his lifelong quest for finding that special someone and averting any distraction which might stop him from attaining that. Wolves, another track off the most recent album, details the difficulty of raising Nori (North) and Saint West when the paparazzi are hungry to rip their parents to shred at a moment’s notice for being human. West is human to a fault — all he really wants is for us to recognize that.

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Curiously you never see Kanye as a family man in the headlines.

A shade of Ye that doesn’t get much media spotlight is his moody side. Kanye’s mother, Donda West, passed away due to surgery complications in 2007. This was undoubtedly one of the most tumultuous times in West’s life, stating that he even contemplated suicide for some period. The man was devastated. His work slowly became darker and more heavily seeped in emotion. The shift unlocked another layer of his soul, and the end result (808s and Heartbreak) kindled a revolution in a sector mainstream rap. To this very day, the effects of Donna’s passing can be seen taking its toll on West. During his latest album premier, he announced a game starring his late mother and her ascent to heaven. As cliché as it may sound, Kanye loved that woman with every fiber of his being. This pain challenges West to create something new, something innovative, something so deeply personal that his audience has no choice but to feel his sorrows with him.

Deciphering Kanye West mirrors the struggle of unraveling a Rubik’s Cube. One side finally lines up after hours of toiling away, only to reveal that 5 other faces remain unsolved. Solving the riddle means throwing away the sector that once appeared complete. The different shades once again begin to mix and contrast, unearthing the true complexity and frustrations of the puzzle. Then again, once one is able to distance themselves away from the riddle, one learns to respect its bewildering nature and flawed beauty — all of this even when it’s unsolved. In a sense, that’s what makes it magical. Though the dissenting voices grow louder and reach wider, their actions are all for naught. In it’s conclusion, they’ll just make Kanye love Kanye even more.

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