Opinion: The Heartbreak of Kanye West
The New York Times | May 2018
It seems so long ago, but it has been only a week since Mr. West came out of the closet as the same-dragon-loving, Trump-supporting, slave-shaming, alt-fact fire breather. Last weekend’s “Saturday Night Live,” hosted by the actor and musician Donald Glover, turned Mr. West’s weeklong trolling into the horror film it felt like. But ending the week laughing at Mr. Glover’s sendup of Mr. West hasn’t made watching him unravel any less infuriating or heartbreaking.
Mr. West thought his recent return to Twitter after an almost yearlong hiatus, with relentless contrarian, stream-of consciousness tweets from the minuscule Negro corner of the alt-right world, would read like a takeover of Twitter. But that’s not how the platform works. Black Twitter runs Twitter, and Black Twitter swiftly handed Mr. West his lunch. Mr. West was reading the blowback and did exactly what a person does when he or she is losing — he dug in.
Black Twitter had seen that show before when Mr. West posed for camerasin the lobby of Trump Tower in December 2016 after being hospitalized. The anger at the rapper was because he has allowed himself to be a useful idiot for a useful idiot.
Like Mr. Trump, who also brags about not reading books, Mr. West is parroting the racist right-wing talking points he has learned from watching YouTube videos. The same white power wing nuts who trolled him for years as a way of defending Taylor Swift’s honor are now over the moon to hear the rapper blame President Barack Obama for not ameliorating gang violence in Chicago, to see Mr. West at the office of the gossip website TMZ blaming his own enslaved ancestors for their enslavement.
Because the trolls won the election, their dangerous drivel sometimes becomes policy, as the musician John Legend tried to tell Mr. West in a series of reasonable texts that Mr. West immediately published. Those talking points from Alex Jones and company perpetuate mass criminalization and incarceration, deportation and worse.
When a poll shows 20 percent of Trump supporters would have opposed the freeing of slaves, it’s more than a fun punctuation ending the night on cable news. Those talking points run in tandem with textbooks used in Texas schools that describe slaves as “workers” and their journey to America as “immigration.” The denial of the sadism and brutality of slavery is perpetuated when there’s “another side” arguing to keep statues and symbols of the Confederacy in public places, and when plantation tours explain the generosity with which slave owners cared for their chattel.
When Mr. Legend and Mr. West later demonstrated their lasting friendship by publishing pictures of themselves at a baby shower “despite their differences,” they advanced the fiction that theirs are two equal but divergent viewpoints. They are not. There is the same old white supremacy that denies black humanity, and there are people who struggle mightily against white supremacy and for black life.
It would be unfair to call Mr. West’s public outbursts mere stunts. He was right about the MTV Video Music Awards best female video of 2009. Beyoncé should have won. Mr. West was at his most profound in 2005 when he said George Bush doesn’t care about black people after that president did a flyby of the poor and black victims of New Orleans’s levee failure.
When Hurricane Katrina happened, Mr. West was a new artist and his “College Dropout” was an album that helped give millennials a clear sense of identity. He wrote about being insecure, about not being comfortable managing his new money and visibility. That honesty was refreshing. His self-reflection and self-diagnosis felt familiar to a generation that drafted dozens of confessionals a day on social media.
Kids who were in high school and younger when Mr. West made his debut connected with him more than they did with M.C.s like Jay-Z or even Tupac Shakur or Biggie Smalls, who deserve respect but belonged to another era. 50 Cent seemed a Neanderthal compared with the nerdy, backpack-wearing Mr. West.
Mr. West rose as the economy collapsed, and his open insecurity spoke to a generation whose struggle was the housing market collapse, not a crack epidemic. He is the son of a single mother, a professor who raised him abroad for a semester or two in China. His story was more like President Obama’s than 50 Cent’s.
This new generation didn’t necessarily believe in crowns, but Mr. West was their guy, and almost immediately after being chosen, he began to collapse from the pressure.
We’ve seen Mr. West melt down before. His 2013 radio interview with the journalist Sway was as unhinged as Mr. Trump’s recent call-in to “Fox & Friends.” Mr. Trump and Mr. West both seemed to want the same thing in those tirades — to be recognized as gods. Mr. Trump roared into the phone about the Breitbart calculator he uses to argue voter fraud cost him the popular vote. The rapper screamed at Sway, who seemed unwilling to concede that Mr. West is the greatest artist of his generation. Or maybe Mr. West was arguing he was the greatest artist of any generation. It’s hard to remember. We got a harmless new pop culture refrain from the interview — “How, Sway?” — and mostly moved on.
But unlike Mr. Trump’s call, Mr. West’s interview with Sway was videotaped. We were witnessing something more than his outsize ego doing battle with his mammoth insecurity. His refusal to make eye contact with Sway was particularly off-putting. He spent the hour talking to the heavens — not to the interviewer, not even to the audience. Absent was the wink and nod embedded in Muhammad Ali’s news conference performances, where he talked about himself in the third person and invented the kind of braggadocio that would become hip-hop’s bedrock. Watching Mr. West during that interview, some of us began to worry about his mental health.
Like most of his fans, I’m not qualified or interested in actually attempting to diagnose an illness in Mr. West. He has shared with us that he has been medicated and hospitalized. He has also told us that his recent Twitter rant is unconnected to his mental health, that he is fine. His performance at TMZ was similar to his interview with Sway. It wasn’t until Van Lathan, on the staff there, interrupted to take him on about slavery that Mr. West even seemed present in the room, and that was truly heartbreaking to watch.
But what was dangerous was the way Mr. West included Candace Owens, an alt-right darling, a black woman and puppet, on his broadcast from the TMZ office. Her participation was most likely arranged by alt-right operatives. A Black Lives Matter strategist hypothesized as much on his Facebook page when he noticed white power operatives taking credit for connecting the two.
With uncharacteristic generosity, Mr. West ceded the mic to Ms. Owens, who allows a racist, misogynist movement to hold her up as evidence that it is neither. Mr. Trump’s speechwriters made sure to include Mr. West in his recent speech to the National Rifle Association, thanking the rapper for “doubling” his approval numbers among black people. He was referring to a real poll, but he got it wrong. The doubling was only among black men, from 11 percent to 22 percent (with a margin of error of nine points).
Mr. West barely owned the entire week. R. Kelly had some karma delivered to his front door, and the fascist, feeble Rudy Giuliani had his moments, embarrassing himself. But Mr. West’s shrill missives from the monochromatic sunken place that is his mansion may be consequential in ways he can’t fathom.