Kanye The Rapper and Kanye The Person: The Road Map to Madness
  • TUESDAY, DECEMBER 20, 2016

  • Posted by: Gabe Paoletti

Kanye West is insane. He is schizophrenic, bipolar, and generally unstable. Whether or not any of these things are true about Kanye the person, they are definitely all true about his public persona, and they are true because Kanye is a celebrity defined by contradiction, a status anathema to the very role of celebrities. Kanye, the icon, is a tough nerd, a pop rapper, a Trump supporting anti-government leftist, a sensitive bully, and a religious hedonist.

In The Life Of Pablo, Kanye attempts to marry these different aspects of his identity, and in doing so displayed the contradictory nature of these parts. The Life Of Pablo has been criticized for being disjointed and lacking cohesion, but that is the result of the in-cohesive public image that Kanye represents. Throughout the songs on the album, he delves into his emotional, sensitive and family oriented side that dominated his early releases ("Real Friends," "No More Parties In LA"), his spirituality and religious side ("Ultralight Beam," "Waves"), and his abrasive celebrity persona ("Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1," "Facts," "Famous"). The album feels like a failed attempt to reconcile these various parts of himself that lead him to act the way he does. From early on in his career Kanye has talked about his competing impulses of materialism and spirituality, most blatantly on the song "Can't Tell Me Nothing," where he raps "I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace." Although he has been discussing these contradictions since then, what has changed is the exaggeration of his personality that has occurred since he took on the role of celebrity pop star.



Perhaps no other pop star has ever been defined as much by his personal contradictions, as well as his conflict with his context. Kanye, as portrayed in his early albums, was a nerd in Southside Chicago, and then a Southside guy in college. He has been defined by his inability to fit in with whatever crowd he was in. He pits himself against himself, inevitably resulting in failure. He draws in audiences with the promise of one version of himself, and alienates them with the revelation of his other, contradictory persona. Unlike other artists who portrayed themselves as outsiders, Kanye never found himself or his place in the world, he just became famous. Kanye drew in an audience seeking down to earth stories about ordinary life on albums like The College Dropout and Late Registration, and alienated them with the fame and celebrity obsessed albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he drew in fans of accessible pop-influenced Hip Hop with Graduation and drove them away with Yeezus. This same pattern emerges when looking at his celebrity actions. He defined himself as a conscious, leftist artist with his "Bush doesn't care about black people" remark, and alienated the crowd that message appealed to with his lack of focus on important civil rights issues and his friendship with Donald Trump.



One of the keys to understanding Kanye, the artist and the icon, is that there is no single Kanye. This is most apparent in his authorship of his work, that has from the beginning been a creation of a collaborative process, rather than simply one individual. Kanye has always relied on both credited and ghost writers throughout his career, including artists like Consequence and Rhymefest, and in more recent years has relied more and more on other producers to achieve his vision. These contradictions already existed in Kanye West, the same way every person is built out of contradictory ideas, but by working with artists who compliment different elements of his personality, Ye has exaggerated those elements beyond himself. It makes sense that a collaborative art would result in contradictions, what makes less sense is why those contradictions arise in Kanye the celebrity.

To understand why Kanye embodies the same contradiction in his public image as in his music, one has to understand the role of the rapper in Hip Hop. Unlike many other artists and musicians that are able to separate their music from themselves, rappers are supposed to be a walking, talking extension of that music. The belief among fans is that rappers should be "real," conveying in their music the same personality and experiences they possess in life. For this reason, to be accepted as real, Kanye is required to embody the various incongruous elements of his music. Although all these aspects of the musical and pop culture Kanye seem present in him, they have been exaggerated through his collaborative music, resulting in a feedback loop, where his personality must match his music, and his music his personality, driving him to more and more cartoonish lengths. From his earliest music, Kanye had a confidence that was brash and unsure. As his braggadocious music has become more exaggerated by this process, coupled with the adoration of his fans, he has has been pushed to the further and further inflation of his ego, and this has led to his statements of comparison to renaissance artists and gods. As his music has become more collaborative, it has also become less defined by his personal experiences, and instead by more universal ideas.

The other necessary concept to understand the contradictions of Kanye West, is the role of the pop star celebrity. Along with being a rapper, Kanye is one of the few Hip Hop artists to reach this echelon of true mainstream cultural icon. The pop star is intended to represent a specific ideal or character. Everyone can tell you what Madonna represents, or David Bowie. That's not to say they or their music was not deeply complex, just that their personas were fairly codified and fixed. They evolved, but in a through line that represented a narrative in their understanding of their art and themselves. The same is true for pop stars and celebrities of today: Taylor Swift represents the girl next door, Snoop Dogg is the weed guy, Jay Z the calculating hustler, Katy Perry the California party girl. Even Kanye West's wife, Kim Kardashian, is easily defined as the beautiful but vapid fame-hungry celebrity. Artists do this by mythologizing their role, by embodying this image through their songs, through their backstory and through their actions as celebrities. Whether or not you accept that they embody these ideals correctly, or that it's who they are as real people, it's clear that it is the role that they have been defined as by the public at large. These definitions are important, because by embodying these tropes, celebrities allow us to express elements of ourselves through our appreciation and investment in them. They become avatars for aspects of ourselves that we use to express these parts of ourself. We, as consumers, can then mix and match these different celebrities we like in order to define ourselves as more complex conglomerates of tropes and ideas. We understand that we are not reducible to a single symbol, but we expect celebrities to embody these symbols so they can be of use to us. Kanye resists any simple definition, because he is defined by his contradictions. Like all celebrities, he mythologizes these aspects of himself through interviews and controversies, but because they are disjointed narratives he is trying to construct, they war with each other.



The result of all of this, is that Kanye is a celebrity and pop star resisting the confines of the role. He is drawn to the role of the celebrity for the fame and fortune he desires, but he cannot come to terms with defining himself as a celebrity, and the limitations it holds. This creates something of a madness in the pop culture icon that is "Kanye." I can't comment on the person that is Kanye West, and what factors have lead to his mental health issues, which could just as easily be an ongoing battle for him rather than arising out of any major factors, but these contradictions do lead to a schizophrenic nature in his public image. His outrageous rapper persona leads him to say controversial things, but his more sensitive side is hurt by the backlash to these remarks. He recognizes that his religion condemns him for it, but his materialism and greed drives him to immorality. None of these contradictions are new for artists, but the number of them present in a cultural icon of the level of Kanye is unique. Kanye's current problems are not due to a personal failing, or whatever mental health issues he has, they are due to the fundamental incongruity between the various personas and roles that he holds. Kanye is a rapper and a pop star, a celebrity and an artist, a sensitive nerd and an abrasive millionaire. These roles and personas are fundamentally in conflict, and as he exaggerates these various aspects of his celebrity, he threatens to alienate anyone who identifies with any one of these aspects, and becomes an icon that appears insane, at war with itself and all others. On The Life Of Pablo, Kanye uses these contradictory songs to attempt to display this internal war, and prays for salvation from the struggle of it all. Most likely, at some point either in Kanye's life or after, the mainstream culture will find a way to fit him into the mold of celebrity, either by forming a through-line in his life that explains his actions, or by reducing him to a single idea, but in the meantime, while Kanye still exists and resists definition, he can give us insight on the nature of celebrity, and how it fails to represent actual people, and the truth of the human condition. That, seemingly, is what draws people to Kanye the icon so greatly, his rejection of the lie of celebrity, that any person is one thing, but as his personas become more cartoonish, and come into conflict more and more, it becomes likely that people will abandon their support for him when he comes into direct conflict with the very reasons they began to like him.

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