Even When Kanye’s Screwing Up, He’s Still a Savvy Social Critic


Another week, another manufactured “controversy” surrounding Kanye West. Yeezus’ recent tour stop in Sydney, Australia garnered a fresh round of publicity — read: media coverage with ugly subtext — when a standard order for the audience to stand up left West momentarily frustrated with a couple of disabled fans. After a few minutes, West got the message and the show went on, but not before Kanye-“yells”-at-innocent-wheelchair-bound-fan became the latest piece of micro-evidence in the “crazed/egomaniacal/[insert loaded descriptor here]” narrative that’s been a part of West’s image from Hurricane Katrina through Yeezus. I won’t link to any of the write-ups, but if you’d like to watch a decent performance of “The Good Life,” the footage is available here.

Though the story of a fairly routine crowd-psyching tactic gone slightly awry doesn’t deserve much attention, Kanye’s response, delivered last night at his Brisbane performance, does. Yes, it’s already been given cringe-inducing labels like “epic rant” and “bizarre rant” and other euphemisms for “Kanye West raised his voice and said multiple sentences,” but as with most reflexively dismissed Kanye dispatches, it’s worth a listen. Here’s the video:

Kanye begins with a fairly standard critique of The Media:

We’ve got Americans getting killed on TV, kids getting killed every weekend in Chicago, unarmed people getting killed by police officers. It makes you just want to reflect on what are the things that are a little bit more sensationalized than others… They’ve got this thing where they want the masses — people who’ve never heard my albums — to somehow read a headline that reads negative, and think that I’m a bad person or something.

Usually, I’m not on board with blanket critiques of the media; being a part of it certainly plays a role, as does the simple fact that generalizations about a diverse and fragmented collection of outlets tend to simply not be true. But Kanye manages to avoid that last pitfall by naming names — Matt Lauer, The View — and as the immediate dismissals of his public statements (this one included) prove, Kanye’s absolutely right to call out the suspiciously high ratio of outrage over a minor screw-up compared with the outrage over, say, Darren Wilson killing Michael Brown. Pointing out that disparity is certainly a smarter critique of public discourse than said discourse’s own critique of Kanye.

It’s West’s takedown of soundbite culture, though, that rings especially true: “What I’m saying is, you’ve got like 12 years that we put in positive music… You know, an artist’s career doesn’t happen in one cycle of news — an artist’s career happens in a lifetime.” That’s an on-point call-out of substituting relatively minor flubs and decontextualized moments for rigorous, substantive criticism, and if we wanted to get really overanalyze-y here, we could apply West’s reasoning to what the dual needs to stand out in an overcrowded media landscape and churn out stories 24/7 have done to the coverage of all news, not just high-profile musicians.

For now, Kanye’s forest-for-the-trees accusation works as an accurate diagnosis of what’s wrong with removing a few incriminating moments of iPhone footage and using them to judge an artist’s entire persona. Better yet, it’s a case study in how those judgments are increasingly powerless in defining a public figure’s image. Kanye notes that he could easily have responded the old-school way, through a publicist, but opted to “take this platform [and]…talk directly to you, my fans.” Like his fellow superstar Beyoncé, Kanye has the power to cut out the middleman and communicate directly with his ultra-dedicated base. A response to Matt Lauer — to whom the whole speech is addressed — isn’t as high-profile as an entire secret album, but Kanye has similar faith that whatever he puts out into the world will get attention, whether it’s through established channels or not. And judging by the immediately uploaded fan video and subsequent coverage, he’s right.

There’s even a final flourish of populism in the form of Kanye’s faith in his audience’s bullshit-detection skills: “You come at me, I’m going to take my platform and break this shit down for real, intelligent people every night.” Thus concludes the latest sermon from Kanye’s Holy Mountain. It may not include an apology, but since when has Kanye West ever been known to apologize?