Outside of the actual quality of his music, and oftentimes in place of it, Kanye West is frequently criticised on the basis of what is perceived and exaggerated as extreme egotism.
This occurs despite the fact that his six albums span an incredible range of musicality and feature some of the most creative and important lyrics in music today. This occurs despite that fact that Kanye’s ear for production allows him to craft a perfect song in any style or genre, as well as bend and break the very rules of those styles and genres to blaze new horizons and craft boundary-pushing music.
Yet when Kanye discusses rap’s status as the new rock ‘n’ roll, naming himself as the world’s biggest rockstar, he is mocked without any regard for the veracity of his analysis. When Kanye says that he’s a genius, or a god, he is ridiculed as delusional.
Because the media’s defamation of Kanye as an egomaniac has taken on a life of its own completely independent of the reality of his music, words, and actions, few bother to read beyond the soundbites. It is far easier to laugh at an out of context quote by someone widely accepted as deranged than discuss and dissect his intelligent and genuine examinations of cultural phenomena.
But Kanye is right. Rap is the new rock ‘n’ roll. He is a genius. And nothing proves his points more than the past year of pop culture.
Across art and private life, elements of African American culture have been increasingly integrated, appropriated, and profited from as rap makes its transition to the new rock ‘n’ roll. A similar phenomenon occurred when African American blues and jazz were adapted into early rock ‘n’ roll by artists like Bill Haley and Jerry Lee Lewis. At that time, artists like Elvis would replicate the experience of black music while enjoying the sole credit and profits. Nowadays, black artists are able to enjoy the same success as white artists, but both remain controlled by music manufacturing corporations.
But in the same way that rock ‘n’ roll affected far more than the music scene of the past sixty years, rap’s influence across culture is taking hold. Rock-influenced songs no longer top the mainstream charts and everything from black vernacular to fashion is co-opted by mainstream culture for either entertainment or as a means of establishing trendy credibility. This is problematic when such aspects of a culture are not widely seen as acceptable in schools and workplaces. Their use by a historically oppressing group then takes on a farcical air; their privilege allows them to take or leave aspects of black culture as they choose without fully understanding or appreciating its significance.
In an interview with Vice, Professor Akil Houston of Ohio University’s African American Studies Department describes the phenomenon as
…continu[ing] a long tradition of what bell hooks might refer to as “eating the other.” Hooks noted that within commodity culture, ethnicity becomes like spice seasoning. It is used to liven up the dull dish that is mainstream/white culture. Yet the spectre of race still haunts these images then and now. It says something about a society that cannot face the real thing but enjoys the pleasure of spectacle involved in mockery, even if it’s assumed to be in jest.
Rap is the new rock ‘n’ roll in the way rock’s black origins were co-opted by white mainstream music. It has been watered down and commodified. Rap is the new rock ‘n’ roll in the way any references to hip hop culture provide immediate cool credibility, as evidenced by much of Miley Cyrus’s public presentation of the past year. It has been distilled to replicable bits of pop culture.
In May of 2013, Kanye gave the below performance of Black Skinhead on Saturday Night Live. In addition to sociologically significant lyrics like “Enter the kingdom but watch who you bring home/ They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor they gon’ come to kill King Kong,” Kanye’s performance showcased new styles of both vocality and lighting design.
In December of 2013, Justin Timberlake gave a shockingly derivative, nearly plagiaristic, performance of Only When I Walk Away on the very same program.
Justin Timberlake also spent the past year participating in a succession of collaborations with hip hop icon Jay Z.
While many (rightly) criticised Miley’s blatant cultural appropriation and use of black dancers as accessories, Justin’s reputation has only been bolstered by the associations. But what makes Justin’s actions any different than Miley’s? Certainly Justin didn’t consciously use Jay Z simply to look cool, but it had that effect regardless. Both are using black culture as a means of establishing credibility. One culture’s heritage becomes another’s currency of cool.
Kanye is right: rap is the new rock ‘n’ roll. It is the most influencing and polarising influence in pop culture. His ability to see and articulate that, combined with astounding artistic output, certainly qualify his genius. Yet Kanye is still easily dismissed.
Why is society comfortable taking what it wants from black culture without being willing to accept everything it has to offer? Why can everyone from Miley to Madonna wear grills, but Kanye can’t be a genius?
This dichotomy of acceptability is rampant across pop culture.
What makes someone’s expression of frustration in an interview a vent versus a rant, as Kanye rightfully points out people “class [his] motivation of speeches”?
When does an emotional reaction to a specific inciting incident, like black NFL player Richard Sherman’s expression of exasperation after Michael Crabtree shoved him in the face and refused to shake his hand post-game, go from a one-off occurrence to a revelation of the truth of someone’s character?
When you think you knew their character all along. When someone finally behaves in a way that comfortably conforms to the preconceived notion you’ve always had of them. When their behaviour conveniently confirms what you’ve believed all along. The angry black man.
Kanye West and Richard Sherman are incredibly intelligent, vastly successful people who have gone out of their way to use their wealth and status for good.
Yet society is only comfortable with them as public figures to the extent that their behaviour can be predicted. The human desire to categorise, define, and pigeonhole is the basis of profiling.
When someone’s behaviour can’t be predicted based on things like skin colour, socioeconomic status, speech patterns, and clothing, those individuals become dangerous. They’ve slipped through the cracks of what is deemed acceptable by society.
In the song Gorgeous, Kanye raps,
As long as I’m in polos smilin’ they think they got me
But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me
He spoke to a San Francisco radio show about using his “white voice” to assimilate in unfamiliar or uncomfortable situations in an effort to put people at ease and provide tangible evidence of a common ground. Somehow, being a fellow human being is not enough. Being a fellow artist, a fellow successful individual is not enough.
Yet even in that context of self-doubt, Kanye is widely perceived as an egomaniacal loose-cannon. But if Kanye didn’t bolster himself, who would? And, more importantly, what if he’s right, and no one’s paying attention?
In his much-lampooned BBC Radio 1 interview, Kanye addressed the public’s discomfort with his self-confidence, saying:
We got this other thing that’s also been working for a long time where you don’t have to be racist anymore. It’s called self-hate. It works on itself. It’s like real estate of racism. Where, just like that, when someone comes up and says something like: “I am a god” everybody says, “Who does he think he is?”
I just told you who I thought I was: a god. I just told you. That’s who I think I am. Would it be better if I had a song that said “I am a n***a”? Or if I had a song that said I am a gangster. Or if I had a song that said I am a pimp. All those colours and patinas fit better on a person like me, right? But to say you are a god, especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in and your last name is a slave owner’s. How could you say that? How could you have that mentality?
While media is abuzz with out-of-context soundbites, the grit of Kanye’s message is completely missed. It is much easier to dismiss him as an angry black man than listen to what he’s actually saying, or consider what he might actually have to be frustrated about.
Of his latest album Yeezus, Kanye said, “This is what frustration fucking sounds like.”
And like Richard Sherman’s reaction to Michael Crabtree’s abuse, frustration is exactly the appropriate response.
Pigeonholing performers and cultures alike only serves to limit the potential for artistic, social, and communal experiences. Kanye says he’s a genius, and he’s right. Dismissing that fact because it doesn’t fit within an accepted notion of what he should be would be the greatest disservice.