We're worried about Kanye West, but it might already be too late
Kanye West has two new albums coming out in June. Will he have alienated his entire audience by then?
Never mind the Kardashians: Keeping up with Kanye West is an exhausting enterprise in and of itself.
And not in a good way. Oh how I long for those good old days before April 14, when West reactivated his Twitter feed which had been dormant since last May.
Back then — long before West went on TMZ Live on Tuesday and provoked outrage with the detestable suggestion that slavery was "a choice" — we were living in a world in which the rapper-producer was mercifully maintaining a low profile.
Seemingly healing in the aftermath of the 2016 breakdown that led to the cancellation of the Saint Pablo tour and his hospitalization, we knew that West was making new music, hunkered down in relative seclusion in snowy Wyoming, plotting his return amid herds of bison and elk.
It seemed like a plan. Hopefully, with his self-destructive tendencies held in check, the mad genius could get back the missing mojo that was last fully displayed in all its aggravating glory on 2013's grandiose and mostly great Yeezus.
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Then West returned to Twitter, and all hell broke loose.
At first, everybody was happy as he announced that he has two new albums due on June 1 (one of which is a collaboration with rapper Kid Cudi) and dispensed self-help cliches as if they were nuggets of hard-earned wisdom such as: "It's not where you take things from. It's where you take them to." Sometimes he was even funny: "Truth is my goal. Controversy is my gym. I'll do a hundred reps of controversy for a 6 pack of truth."
No one is laughing now, however, particularly after West's comments on slavery, for which he was excoriated on air by TMZ reporter Van Lathan: "You're entitled to believe whatever you want. But… frankly, I'm disappointed, I'm appalled and, brother, I am unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something, to me, that's not real."
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Lathan spoke for a large portion of West's fan base who have been increasingly perplexed, concerned, and outraged by the rapper's comments, that first to send off alarms when he praised conservative commentator Candace Owens, who has been outspoken in her criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement. "I love the way Candace Owens thinks," he tweeted.
Then he really got grinding in the controversy gym. As far as narcissistic attention seekers who take up so much cultural space that it feels like, as much as you would like to, you simply cannot make them go away. West has few rivals.
But the one guy who's got West beat in that regard happens to be the President of the United States. The idea that West is a free thinker who can't be controlled by small-minded conformists is a big theme of his recent ramblings, and key to understanding his attraction to Trump. Love him or hate him, Trump's triumphant run to the presidency was anything but unorthodox. Very few people took him seriously as a candidate, and he has refused to play by the rules both on the campaign trail and in the Oval Office.
With his new albums less than a month away, West hasn't released much music in advance yet, though he did seemingly intentionally troll his fans last week a song called "Lift Yourself," which some lyrics that might have been written by his four-year-old daughter North, including: "Poopy-di scoop, scoop-diddy-woop."
But he also released "Ye. vs the People," a collaboration with rapper T.I. in which he debates his stance regarding Trump, a discussion that is continued in a video that the two released last weekend, that's part of the unending stream of content that West has let loose. (There's also a two-hour interview with radio host Charlamagne Tha God that was posted this week, if you're a glutton for even more West talk.)
"Ye vs. the People" rides a repurposed Motown beat from the Four Tops, and it opens with West explaining the narcissistic reason that West is enamored with him. "I know that Obama was heaven sent," he raps. "But ever since Trump won, it proves that I could be President."
In other words, it doesn't matter what Trump stands for, all that counts is the idea that his success represents the potential for the further apotheosis of West. When T.I. responds, "Yeah, you can, at what cost though?" West comes back with "I hear your side and everybody talk though / But ain't goin' against the grain everything I fought for?"
That concept that West is maverick putting forth new ideas is behind his thinking and his defense for his remarks on slavery on TMZ. "Once again I am being attacked for presenting new ideas," he Tweeted on Tuesday night, not backing down in the face of criticism that has been swift and damning. Actor Wendell Pierce wrote: "It is clear that Kanye West is being sensational for the sake of publicity… But for [him] to use the murder and holocaust of slavery for your own self aggrandizement is at the core of your vile appeasement of white supremacists."
Is Kanye really doing this all for publicity reasons? Armchair mental health experts and would-be diagnosticians are all too willing to suggest that West is behaving in an erratic manner due to being off his medications, or because going through some sort of manic episode.
Those would-be experts have then been dutifully scolded by many for presuming that West is not in full possession of his faculties, including his wife Kim Kardashian West. The guesswork interpretation that there must be something wrong with West, however, is not, for the most part out, of malice. It born out of love of West and his past work, and a sad sense that his recent actions are both a betrayal of his audience and his former self.
And if West is orchestrating this chaos to sell records, metaphorically speaking, he's doing a pretty terrible job at it. In a perceptive analysis in the New Yorker last week, Doreen St. Felix wrote that West's love for Trump "however much he wants to divorce it from the President's appalling xenophobia, will warp his artistic legacy in a way that could prove irreversible."
It well could, and that was written before West real-time meltdown continued apace with his "when you hear about slavery for 400 years, for 400 years? That sounds like a choice" on Tuesday. At this point, it seems like it's too late. If a hip-hop star coming out for Trump is potentially career damaging, what's the wreckage likely to be like when he suggests black people were willing victims in the heinous institution of slavery? It's bound to be ugly.