Loving Kanye, Losing Kanye
Like a lot of people, I did not just enjoy Kanye West’s early music: I also identified deeply with West as a human being as well as an artist. I related to so much about him: the breathless ambition, disarming self-deprecation combined with gleeful self-aggrandizement, goofy humor, vulnerability and scruffy soul. I loved what he had to say but I also loved how he sounded.
When I was trying to make the leap from pop culture writer to author, West’s 2004 debut The College Dropout was my eternal soundtrack and inspiration. Kanye became my good luck charm. For a number of years, I followed a superstitious ritual where I would make sure to play West’s “Touch the Sky” before I sent out important emails.
That’s the crazy thing about Kanye: at the beginning, so much of his crossover appeal was rooted in being relatable, grounded, a big-hearted dreamer so feverishly excited about life that he maintained the live-wire spontaneity and joy of childhood deep into adulthood. I felt like I knew Kanye through his music, that it was an honest, powerful and important reflection of who he was and how he saw the world. I didn't just love Kanye: I believed in him.
I’m not sure if Kanye changed or if the past fifteen years have been a matter of him becoming ever more what he always already was underneath but the lovable, plucky underdog desperate to realize his dreams morphed steadily into a monster of id and ego incapable of self-restraint or self-awareness, a rampaging narcissist whose life and career increasingly resembles some combination of elaborate performance art piece and mental breakdown.
The more famous and extreme Kanye became, the less I identified with him. Yet when he traveled to Trump Tower to meet with Donald Trump after making a series of alarming and semi-coherent statements in support of the former reality-show host I felt like I understood where West was coming from, that in some weird way I had experienced the same strange feverish delusions during the most intense and apocalyptic and megalomaniacal moments of my life and career.
I was so inspired that I wrote a novella about what I imagined Trump and Kanye’s meeting was like called Kanye & Trump that came out on Amazon last year and has sold almost zero copies. I’m pretty okay with that. I wrote Kanye & Trump to prove to myself that I could write fiction and to realize some ideas that were kicking around in my head about these two quintessentially American egotists, one a preeminent creative genius, the other easily one of the worst things to ever happened to our intermittently okay nation.
The novella ends with Kanye getting close enough to Donald Trump to see through him. I, like many others, imagined that West’s infatuation with Trump would be short-lived but the controversial pop star has been making headlines lately for taking to Twitter to praise Trump, Conservative pundit Chelsea Owens and Dilbert schlock merchant turned insufferable Alt-Right troll Scott Adams.
Some of the worst people in the world, and Twitter, were heaping praise on West for the rapper tweeting the following: “You don't have to agree with trump but the mob can't make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don't agree with everything anyone does. That's what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.”
That just made me sad. It bummed me out. I felt like I did not know Kanye anymore, that the passionate, politically engaged young artist I fell in love with fifteen years ago had been replaced by a glassy-eyed lookalike.
I take some small measure of comfort from West’s embrace of Trump being almost exclusively a matter of style, showmanship and personality rather than anything actually related to politics. West isn’t praising Trump’s individual policies so much as his swagger, his dragon energy, his all-important brotherhood with Kanye.
Kanye is an inveterate provocateur. He loves getting intense responses, positive or negative and in 2018 nothing promises to get a big response quite like a rich, powerful, respected black artist praising Donald Trump. If West hosts a fundraiser for Corey Booker nobody cares. It’s not news. If he tweets about loving Trump, however, that’s screaming headline news, for more than just one day.
Besides, Obama called West a “jackass” and just as Trump’s political ambitions seemed to kick into high gear when Obama made lots of jokes about him during the 2011 White House Correspondents Association Dinner, it doesn’t seem crazy to assume that being called a jackass by the first black President of the United States must have made an indelible and lasting impact on West’s psyche.
It deeply worries me that an artist of West’s stature is using his enormous power to advocate on behalf of Donald Trump and Scott Adams but I would like to imagine that there is a furious battle going on right now inside Kanye’s soul and that good still has a fighting chance. Kanye seems lost but I deeply, deeply hope he eventually finds himself in a healthy and productive place.
Kanye’s flirtation with Trump reminds me of my disgust with Morrissey, another musician I once upon a time not only adored but identified with strongly. Morrissey has always been problematic but lately he’s been flat-out racist and hateful in a way that makes it difficult, if not impossible to continue to support him.
Time and age have revealed Morrissey to be the racist, Islamophobic hate monger he probably already was underneath. This sad, hateful old man seems to be Morrissey’s final, curdled form but I like to think there’s hope for Kanye yet, if only because he’s not quite as ossified in his ways as the Manchester misanthrope.
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