“When shit hits the fan, are you still a fan?”
We need to shift the discussion about Kanye West.
Louis Wain was a 20th Century painter rumored to have suffered schizophrenia. They say he painted a series of cats while navigating through the growing severity of his illness and that series became a road map of his mind state. If Kanye’s now infamous TMZ breakdown is any indicator, he too is subject to an internal struggle and not unlike Louis Wain with his paintings, Kanye made this visible through art. I was just as hurt as anyone by his recent antics and am just as confused about where to definitively place my feelings. But in an industry known to catch bodies, I don’t feel we talk enough about the man’s environment. If we want to understand ‘Ye, we need to understand his state of mind and if we want to understand his state of mind, we need to understand Hollywood, the concept of celebrity, and the way in which American media functions. And let’s be clear, our media is an anomaly wholy emblematic of America: one that affects our everyday lives and one that ‘Ye threw himself into, documenting album by album.
“Maybe the environment’s a little sick.”
We need to talk celebrity. American media cultivates a love ‘em/hate ‘em dynamic with public figures and Dave Chappelle spoke on that environment while on the hate ‘em swing of the pendulum. Rumors circulated that he lost his mind and went into hiding. After dismissing those claims in an interview, he explained how people in the industry lose themselves. “What is happening in Hollywood?” he asked. What is happening that otherwise “strong people” are so consistently broken?
Toward the end of the 20th century this country invented celebrity: someone part human and part brand. Their function in the machine is like any other corporation or product made to create, facilitate, and grow profit; no different from McDonalds or Pepsi. It is taking Michael Jordan the basketball player and making Michael Jordan the shoe, Michael Jordan the lover of Gatorade, or Michael Jordan the denouncer of drugs. Now greatness in one field is made a commodity used to circulate money and influence buyers. Simultaneously the 24 hour news cycle came into play, which bred the need for constant story, drama, and sensationalism; functions that would only intensify in the Internet era. It birthed tabloids, paparazzi and a national call to invest our attention into the lives of others: not unlike the attention required for a product for sale. What I mean to say is these performers, or rather these human beings, ceased to be just that. And from this came a storied struggle between person and persona; the human being and the product. We are all familiar with people under the spotlight cracking to the point that it’s a pattern. This is Michael Jackson’s “Wacko Jacko” headlines, Britney Spears’ shaved head, Whitney Houston’s drug addiction, Tupac’s bullet wounds, Lindsay Lohan’s mug shots. This is Hollywood. And I would argue that if we talk about the Kanye West story, we need to recognize it isn’t wholly his.
I was a teenager watching MTV when Through the Wire debuted. I burned .mp3’s of Jesus Walks onto CD-R’s for my friends and family. The All Falls Down video came out my last summer before high school. My coming of age ran parallel to his career; all of my personal growths and discoveries of the world lived to a score by Kanye West. He is one of the premiere figures of 21st Century pop culture. He is something to take note of specifically because the common theme of his art is fame and celebrity. From the get go it was his obsession and his penetration and critique of it was his mission statement. The way I see it he deep-sea dove into superstardom, an often times sick facet of American culture, and allowed his work to reflect this journey: this monster. I watched the whole thing in slow motion. He was a college dropout with his head in the clouds, working 9 to 5’s and impatiently waiting for a chance to get out his dreams. He waxed poetic about wanting the good life all while being strangely candid about his own insecurities pertaining to material values: vying for acceptance, success, and the spoils of fame. When he got that fame he so dreamt of, he surrounded himself with it and, in storybook fashion, that dream slowly tinged into nightmare.
He was the college dropout. A former art school student working a graveshift just waiting on a spaceship to take him where it seemed only he knew he deserved to be. From the get go he set the stage for what was to come. Born to a Christian family in the young and restless Midwest, his relationship with God and the church became a fast established theme bordering on struggle; he wanted to talk to God but was afraid because they ain’t spoke in so long. His sense of conflict extended to his own materialism as he talked about being so self conscious that you always see him with at least one of his watches, commenting on the things we buy to cover up what’s inside. And perhaps the very foundation of Kanye West was his loved ones and his ties to where he came from. He was still the guy that promised to Mr. Randy he was gonna marry his daughter. His cousins, his aunts, and most importantly his mom were constants in his story and something that humanized him. By the end of the album he talks about them over a sample chop declaring all that glitters is not gold, and all gold is not reality. The closing song after that is a conversation with his idol and newfound partner Jay-Z as they trade stories about this guy that finally found his spaceship. He arrived.
Louis Wain’s first painting of a cat simply looked like a cat.
The second painting shifts slightly, just like Kanye’s second album. Late Registration features a Kanye backed by much more boastful and larger than life orchestration to match his newfound position. It is a Kanye now confronted with the life and the celebrity he so pined for. He made a mil himself and took pride in the fact that he was still himself despite the forces around him so adamant on bringing him down. His idol Jay-Z’s empire began splitting and Kanye was called on to be his right hand. And he took up the challenge. He remembered when he couldn’t afford a Ford Escort or a four track recorder. But now he let the top drop on the drop top porsche as he viewed the spoils of his success through Yves St. Laurent glasses; acknowledging that life was moving too fast and he needed to slow down. His father told him he needed Jesus, took him to church and let the water wash over his Caesar. Probably because at this point everything that was supposed to be bad made him feel so good and everything that they told him not to was exactly what he would. The story of Kanye West is characterized by this internal struggle of materialism and growing ego offset against the church boy with close ties to his family roots in Chicago. He spoke poetry over drums about his aunt’s deathbed and how important the family around him was. And ever the mama’s boy, he wasted no time serenading the woman who told him to go to school and get his doctorate, something to fall back on that he could profit with. But who still supported him when he did the opposite. And with her blessings he delved deeper into this world, though the struggle hadn’t come to a head yet.
“That that don’t kill me can only make me stronger”
Haters were saying he changed. Now he was doing his thing. He was truly living the good life and they couldn’t tell him nothing. By the numbers this was Kanye at peak popularity. He transitioned from being beat-maker that also made raps, to certified rap star, to bonafide pop star. He was not only in the building, he owned the building. Surging with an energy defiant of anyone and anything, and perhaps still rightfully so, this is when ‘Ye started to not only reflect on his ascension but also critique it. The man that first craved the life, then embraced the life, now had everything the life had to offer and he started to dawn on him that it wasn’t all that he thought it was. The flashing lights started to blind him. Paparazzi became a main source of hatred. He got noticed and now the attention felt drowning. His idol Jay-Z was no longer his idol, but a big brother and all of the very humanizing dynamics that come with that. Perhaps one of the most important sections of the album has him writing a love letter to the city of Chicago. Essentially talking to his family, his roots, and everything he associated with his life pre-fame, he regretfully exclaims that if he ever cared for Chicago then he wouldn’t have ever hit the airport to follow his dreams. It’s a thought that resonates especially because not long after, the same Mr. Randy’s daughter that he planned to marry left him. And then things took the steepest of turns when his mother died in Hollywood.
Maybe the environment’s a little sick.
This is why I even thought to write this piece. To talk about the person, we can’t exclude the eroding effects of the persona. His mother died after a botched cosmetic surgery. She was the one who suggested he live a simple more traditional life and stay in school and he pushed to drop out of college and chase these Hollywood dreams. With it came everything he wanted but the culture of it all started to warp his reality. He was supremely heartbroken and being the artist he is, he didn’t stop documenting this journey for anything. It shouldn’t surprise any of us what present day Kanye looks like, it was all always in his lyrics. The beginning of this album almost picks up where he left off. Returning back to his family with his world and identity thoroughly impacted, this was the album where he acknowledged the poison of it all. His dad cracked a joke and all the kids laughed but he couldn’t hear them all the way in first class. His friend showed him pictures of his kids and all he could show him was pictures of his crib. His god sister got married by the lake but he didn’t know who he wanted to take, plus he had to leave before they even cut the cake. He chased the good life all his life long then looked back on his life and his life was gone. What I hear at this point in his story is a man reflective of the turning point he’s reached and the chill washing over him of what’s to come. He’s on stage looking over his audience thinking both about how amazing it is and about the monster he’s become. He’s clinging to women he knows won’t be around for long and mourning what was. The last song is the most telling: an audio recording of a live performance wherein he sings about his story likened to Pinocchio’s. The audience cheers and applauds as he cries about wanting to be a real boy.
There is no Gucci I can buy
There is no Louis Vuitton to put on
There is no YSL that they could sell
To get my heart out of this hell
And my mind out of this jail
There is no clothes that I could buy
That could turn back the time
There is no vacation spot I could fly
That could bring back a piece of real life
Real life, what does it feel like?
Not unlike what Dave Chappelle spoke on, Kanye felt the love ‘em side of the media’s pendulum swing into hatred. Public outburst after public outburst had the masses hating the person no different from the persona. This was a human being whose struggle, triumph, success, joy, pain, and great torment was made to be our entertainment all the way through. And what’s especially cold is that the great musical return to form that his fans, his contemporaries, and critics went on to applaud him for were still stories of great personal pain. He told us he’s a monster. He told us to run away. He told us that no one man should have all this power. He told us he was lost in the world. And by the end of this he very overtly posed for us the question who will survive in America?
And we cheered. And we applauded.
And he went mad.
I couldn’t tell you what is performance and what is reality. That is part of the allure of Kanye. Personally, my best guest is that it is the most intimate of performance art. And running parallel to his experiences within the media machine is an artwork that embodies it as opposed to simply speaking on it. What was a chill that washed over him thinking about things to come came to a head. The church boy from Chicago wasn’t flying back. The struggle between his roots and fame was no longer a struggle. He jumped into it full force. There wasn’t a struggle with God, he was a God. He was Yeezus. He was what celebrity made him and he took a full dive in. Debauchery, darkness, ego, drugs, sex, and rock n roll became the man. He woke up on Mr. Randy’s daughter’s couch hungover making a point to say that with just one more hit he could own her. What was a reflection of a crossroads at one point became a stark decision to embrace what this thing made him.
He became fragmented. He became indecisive. He lost all form and lost himself. Did he belong to the church and God’s dream? Did he belong to this convoluted title of being famous? Was he this ugliness he embraced? Was he the old Kanye? Which one?
The phrase “which one?” is scattered all over his album cover: a photo of his parents getting married on one end, and perhaps the embodiment of Hollywood on the other. The man whose mama passed in Hollywood due to cosmetic surgery now aligned himself with a family even more submerged in that same Hollywood culture. By the next album he had not only lost two loved ones, but also broke ties with a lot of the people he came into the industry with; even his big brother Jay-Z. It’s all right there in front of our faces and always has been. And he sang:
If mama knew now how you turned out
You too wild, you too wild
So what are we supposed to make of ‘Ye?
I’m as confused as you are. I’m as hurt as you are. I’m as livid, as insulted, as disappointed, as saddened, and as concerned. But as we continue the conversation about this childhood hero of mine, this man that scored my coming of age and whose growth ran parallel with mine and an entire generation, I don’t think we should omit the toxicity of our media. We’ve seen our media destroy artists we love. We’ve seen our media depict our communities in the most unflattering and dangerous ways. We’ve seen our media egg on and spotlight men that wouldn’t have risen to power without it. We’ve seen television morph into reality television and most recently morph into reality itself all with the help of this…thing. And when we talk about Kanye West we need to talk about a man who threw himself into it all, told us about it every step of the way, and perhaps let it destroy him on the world stage. I miss the old Kanye too. And I’m praying for the person behind the persona.
Who will survive in America, really?