Kanye West’s Secret Weapon Is His Versatility

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Late last year, in what seemed like a lost bet with his label Def Jam, Kanye West did a nationwide commercial radio tour. I’m not talking about the next-level Zane Lowe BBC interview everyone raved over, I’m talking about Kanye going to pop and “urban”-format radio stations with cheesy DJs in nearly every major market where his Yeezus Tour stopped. Some of these interviews made headlines, but mostly the DJs were intimidated by Kanye and let him ramble on about whatever he damn well pleased, be it Adidas or Kardashians.

At the time I was working for one of the largest radio companies in America, submitting real questions to on-air talent for consideration in these interviews, and ultimately being sort of disappointed when they wouldn’t ask them. I listened to a lot of these interviews, in which Kanye started sounding like a broken record over the months, and what I took away from it was not that Kanye West likes to “rant.” It’s that Kanye West understands who he’s talking to at all times.

While his spirited and at times erratic speaking style is well known by now, Kanye is 100 percent in control of his narrative — and he tailors it to his congregation on any given day. Last year, clownish DJs got sneaker beef and excitement over his nuptials to Kim, while the New York Times got Steve Jobs talk. The rapper who shows at Fashion Week or did a couture makeover on his then-new reality star girlfriend still garners respect in the streets for his MC dominance. He cracks jokes about prematurely ejaculating on mink coats on the same album where he calls out racism with a “Strange Fruit” sample. Kanye can do both well, and this is why he has — and will continue to — slightly shift the cultural worldview with his agenda.

You may be wondering why I’m talking about this now, when we’ve gone months without a high-profile Kanye quote, instead reveling in cuddly photos of him sleeping with his baby daughter. But on Tuesday at the Cannes Lions festival, West was a surprise speaker at a seminar titled, “Technology, Culture, and Consumer Adoption: Learning to Read the Cultural Landscape.” The latter part of the panel’s title is exactly what Kanye West does best, and his contributions to the conversation did not seem to disappoint.

“When people think celebrity, which is the highest form of communication — we’re like walking networks or TV shows or brands in ourselves — you don’t think good taste,” West told the crowd of powerful creative professionals, reports AdWeek. “And I believe that bad taste is vulgar. It’s like cursing. I think the world can be saved through design. Because what is the most distasteful thing someone can do? Kill someone. So, good taste is the opposite of that.”

He also spoke about Steve Jobs, who was apparently, “as everyone knows, … my biggest influence. Just seeing the way he fought to make things easier for people. After he passed, I made it my life’s mission to do what he did inside of that company. I dream to help raise the palette and raise the taste level of a generation and also be involved with the production and distribution and advertising of that thing everyone’s begging for.”

Despite his modest uniform, Jobs was not necessarily an everyman. But he created with the whole world in mind — because he was egotistical enough to think his work was that important, and because it actually was. In a scaled way, Kanye West works with the same dynamic in mind. So it’s productive to hear him say that he wants to be involved in the unsexy back-end details of creativity reaching the masses, the way he did when he first teased his creative house Donda in 2011.

“People are less about the brand and more about self-confidence and how the brands can assist them, similar to what Steve was doing with tech,” he said. “This is my goal in lifestyle, in everyday life — to change the idea of what luxury is. Because time is the only luxury. It’s not all these brands that we just drove by that are somehow selling our esteem back to us through association.”

Do I think Kanye West can save the world? Not quite. But his ability to translate his message to virtually any audience while coming off as “uncensored” means he may just end up with the most widely coveted luxury brand in the world — if he ever finds the time to launch it to the masses.