Whether by design or accident, there is something strange and new happening as John Legend, T.I., and others enter the conversation.
On Tuesday morning, Kanye West dropped footage of two conversations he’s had over the past month. The first, posted on his website is a short, edited video of the artist in his home, debating T.I. in what, ostensibly, was the conversation that led to the recording of “Ye vs. The People.” The second is an extended interview with Charlamagne Tha God, covering everything from mental health to politics, being forty, and more—a conversation in which the artist reflects on where he is now. In both, Kanye is quietly insightful and brashly ignorant, as wrongheaded as his critics have said and more lucid than he’s given credit for. Kanye West is at a crossroads, and so are we. But even as he sets his image on fire and burns his cred to the ground, Kanye West is doing something radical, unprecedented, and maybe even important.
When discussing Kanye West, it’s necessary to first acknowledge the truth of his celebrity. Kanye West is an artist who rose to fame thanks to escalating displays of provocation and gross narcissism coupled with consistently brilliant and commercially successful music. Kanye West has benefited from a culture of misogyny and succeeded despite never having to reckon with his attitudes towards women. Kanye West has, for years, been the benefactor of a cult of personality willing to overlook or redirect the blame for his every misstep and offense. (We’re as guilty as anyone.)
Since his return to Twitter, West has been flirting with conservative voices and ideas in a manner that comes across as definitively pro-Trump, inciting the ire of the public and sending his progressive peers running to try and course-correct their misguided friend.
Let’s put to bed the idea that Kanye means anything other than what he says. Whenever a celebrity of West’s stature expresses views that don’t line up with those of their fans, there’s always a tendency to suggest there’s some greater scheme at play. It’s the five-dimensional chess Trump supporters on Reddit invoke in favor of a more simple truth: That the man is an idiot. Similarly, it’s likely that Kanye’s publicly expressed views and privately held beliefs are, if not one and the same, then very closely aligned. Kanye West is not a man whose fame came from playing things close to the vest, and he is also a man who is clearly contemplating his vast power and influence and trying to achieve a form of enlightenment through which he can wield it. Unfortunately, as Damon Young writes at VSB, West is endorsing the sort of intellectualism of those who do not read.
“To [West], people like Trump or Candace Owens are free thinkers—mavericks unafraid to challenge the status quo,” writes Young. “But if he’d actually pick up a book (and not just any 48 Laws of Power-ass book, but the right books), he’d be aware of the danger of that type of contrarianism and aware that for people like Trump and Owens, their words aren’t about free thinking. They’re specifically and intentionally tethered to white resentment, which is also often tied to anti-intellectualism. They’re actually the antithesis of free thought. They don’t think. They incite. ”
There is a performative aspect to Kanye’s persona that’s also worth keeping in mind. West is and has always been a provocateur—despite his current good-vibes-and-open-dialog mindset, the man has never known how to wield his celebrity in any other way than carpet bombing the culture, expressing himself in as high-impact a manner as he can manage, because that’s the only way anyone’s ever listened to him, no matter how valid his arguments. Kanye is essentially doing what he always has done: court outrage to advance his career. That he has a new album on the horizon is no accident. Only this time, he’s doing it using his inside voice while stepping across the one line liberal America has drawn in the sand following the election of Trump.
“[West is] happy to play the foil as long as we react to him, whether it’s hate, love, loving the old Kanye, or finding him deeply problematic but mostly tolerable,” wrote our own Chris Gayomali last summer. “You can learn a lot about a person by how they feel about Kanye West.”
But Freethinking Kanye—whether by design or accident or hubris—is the conduit to something we’ve never really seen before, something radical that’s worth observing for what it is: We’re watching famous people of color publicly debate politics, advocate for themselves, and call each other out amongst themselves. He has forced his more progressive peers to articulate their politics explicitly in public forums, forcing them to draw lines around what’s acceptable and what’s not, to reject his galaxy-brain takes and call them out for the disingenuous bullshit that it is. He’s got John Legend on record texting and tweeting about the human cost of Trump’s policies. He has Janelle Monáe talking about how the narratives constructed by so-called freethinkers are used to justify oppression. And yes, T.I., of all people, at a loss for words in a video posted onto kanyewest.com, is saying that there’s “some shit you don’t align with, and some shit you don’t go against.” The staging and optics practically feel Kris Jenner-esque.
Kanye is an artist who taught a generation of marginalized people to find a wellspring of confidence long denied to them, to carry themselves as people with worthwhile things to say, to push against overwhelming cultural forces that would conspire to keep you benched in your own story. And now, in a stunning act of self-immolation, Kanye is teaching that same generation to rise up and speak against their idols, to leave them behind.
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