It’s true, I used to hate Kanye West. Well, OK, “hate” is probably too strong a word — like many people, I had a sort of knee-jerk dislike for the man, a feeling that started to coalesce circa Graduation and didn’t really dissipate until, out of what I considered to be a professional obligation, I sat down and listened properly to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and found to my surprise that I loved it. Since then, my feelings on West have done a neat 180-degree turn, and I’ve also thought a great deal about why it is that I — like so many others — was so quick to greet him with cries of execration.
The easy answer is that it was a question of West’s public persona. I come from a culture (Australia) where self-aggrandizement and arrogance are looked upon with instant suspicion. This is not to say that I subscribe to these ideas — one of the things I rather like about the US is its disdain for false modesty — but it can be difficult to rid yourself completely of these sorts of values when they’re such a part of the environment in which you were raised. West is exactly the sort of person who’s guaranteed to get your back up if you’ve internalized those values: brash, obnoxious, prone to making foot-in-mouth public statements.
But then, one of my great heroes is Manic Street Preachers bassist and resident motormouth Nicky Wire, who is pretty much the same person as Kanye West: outspoken, passionate, full of braggadocio, and occasionally prone to engaging mouth while brain is still in neutral. Another is Jarvis Cocker, who famously interrupted Michael Jackson’s performance at an awards ceremony because he objected to it. You might argue that there’s a difference between an accused child abuser striking a Jesus Christ pose while surrounded by children and Taylor Swift winning an award that Kanye didn’t think she deserved, but that’s ultimately subjective. The point is that no one is entirely impartial about these things — we all have people whose bad behavior we’ll indulge to various extents because we like them. West can certainly be obnoxious, but whether you view his antics to be enraging or endearing is generally something that’s defined by your feelings about him, not vice versa.
I’d like to say that as much as anything, it was because I found him to be a pretty weak rapper, an assessment that with the benefit of hindsight I find depressingly superficial. West has definitely dropped some stinkers in his time, but shit, so did Lou Reed (even Kanye might hesitate at, “Just like poison in a vial/ She was often very vile”). Every lyricist has his off days. Still, it always seemed to me that West was a latter-day Dr. Dre, a man whose indisputable production talents were undermined by his insistence on proving that he was just as good at rapping on tracks as he was at producing them. To some extent, I stand by that, but these days I find Kanye’s lyrical idiosyncrasies more endearing than anything else. Again, this is something that can fluctuate with your opinion of the artist in question.
More fundamentally, he seemed to represent a lot about what I disliked (and, to some extent, continue to dislike) in contemporary hip hop: the materialism, the lack of political drive, the sneering at less cashed-up people from on high. This, clearly, was again more a gut feeling than anything supported by his lyrics: I’d already warmed to him by the time “New Slaves” was released, but listening to his songs on a less superficial level revealed that he’d always been ambivalent about consumerism. In this respect, as in any other, he’s a mass of contradictions — but then, that sums up how most of us relate to capitalism; we question the effect it has on society, we might go to an Occupy Wall Street march or speak earnestly in bars about capitalist oppression, but we all like to have nice things, too.
The great unspoken question here, of course, is one of race. I am white; Kanye West is black. I like to think that I’m a pretty enlightened person, but I’m also not naïve enough to argue that any person living in a country as racially divided as America can be entirely colorblind. (Nor should they be, because racism is very, very real, and pretending that it’s not doesn’t make it go away.) There was a piece in the New York Times last week that argued that what we call “white privilege” tends to manifest in being given the benefit of the doubt: being able to return a sweater without a receipt, being let into a store after closing time, etc. Privilege can also manifest in far more overt ways, obviously, but this is one that’s both pernicious and relevant here. Perhaps I, and many other people, might have given West the benefit of the doubt if he wasn’t black.
Would my feelings about Kanye West have been different if he were white, if he were a bratty rock star instead of a bratty rapper? Perhaps; perhaps not. It’s an entirely hypothetical question that can never be tested. I will say this, though — as a white person, it’s important to be constantly aware of internalized racism, and to question it. This is true of everyone, of course — it’s not just white people who have prejudices, conscious or otherwise. But to be white in America is to exist in a system that is set up for your benefit. As such, it’s especially important to be aware of how this legacy may be manifesting, and how it might be informing opinions you’d like to think are impartial.
Beyond that, I think there’s a reluctance in today’s society — and especially on the Internet — to give anyone the benefit of the doubt. There’s been a lot written about “outrage culture,” and while I feel like some of that is overblown, I do agree that it’s too easy to be hasty in both judgment and expression of opinion. This is heightened by the fact that the person on whom you’re passing judgment isn’t present; half of the things people say about Kanye West (and anyone else) on the Internet are things they’d never dare say to his face, or even in public. The Internet is also the world’s great monument to confirmation bias, a place where selective reading is pretty much a way of life; if you already dislike Kanye West, there’s plenty to reinforce that view at your fingertips.
Equally, though, if you make a conscious decision to put all that stuff aside, you might be pleasantly surprised. No one’s ever doubted West’s production talents — well, no one who knows anything about music, anyway — but the most pleasant surprise for me was that his lyrics were a) better than I’d given him credit for, and b) funny. “I’m like the fly Malcolm X/ Buy any jeans necessary”? Controversial, perhaps, but it still elicits a giggle every time I listen to Graduation. Even Yeezus has its throwaway moments — hurry up with my damn croissants, indeed.
They also reveal a man who’s very much at odds with the Kanye you see in the tabloids. The more you listen to his music, the more you see a three-dimensional, fascinating, and often confounding person — not the cardboard cutout paraded around in the press. He’s like that one friend you have who has a penchant for ridiculous antics, the one you forgive because they’re brilliant and always make for entertaining, stimulating company. He’s the shy, weird dude who covers up his vulnerability with braggadocio. And he knows this as well as you do: as he sang on “Power,” switching between the first and third person, “I embody every characteristic of the egotistic/ He knows, he’s so fucking gifted.”
West will no doubt remain a divisive figure for as long as he’s in the public eye, and I’m sure that’s how he likes it — after all, this is a man who proclaimed on his last record (in a song called “I Am a God,” no less) that, “As soon as they like you, make them unlike you/ ‘Cause kissing people’s ass is so unlike you.” None of this is to say that he hasn’t done some regrettable things. He has. But so have you. So have I. He’s a human being, and one who clearly has a lot of passionate opinions, which he’s expressed more effectively at some moments than at others. He’s also a hugely gifted producer, a decent rapper when he puts his mind to it, and someone who takes what he does very seriously. More power to him.