For the internet, few things are as reliably entertaining as the Kanye West show. Recently, the musician followed up last month’s hour-long endlessly-quotable (“my Truman Show boat has hit the painting!”) interview with Radio 1′s Zane Lowe with an appearance on the Breakfast Club show on Power 105.1—edited and truncated into the viral “Watch Kanye West Repeatedly Get His Ass Handed To Him”—and the “controversial” video for new single “Bound 2.” The “Ass Handed” video made front pages on multiple sites, provoking streams of comments celebrating such a “narcissist,” “egotistical dick,” and “piece of shit” getting “put in his place.” The “Bound 2” video was roundly mocked for its trashiness, “lousy” green screen and “cringeworthy” inclusion of topless fiancée Kim Kardashian, and was almost immediately satirized in James Franco and Seth Rogen’s “Bound 3.” Whatever one’s opinion of Kanye West, or his music, it is clear that the internet has a considerable amount of stock invested in the idea that he’s a crazy, self-centered twat who deserves some strikeback. What is less clear is why.
I don’t feel qualified to comment on Kanye’s artistic strengths and deficits. I don’t really know how to think about music and I don’t really know how to write about it. I’ve listened to Yeezus a few times and it seems to swerve between powerful, boring, creative and confusing. My impression of Kanye is that of a brilliant and troubled musician, powered by twin locomotives of self-belief and insecurity. I sense, though, that the animosity he provokes online is only tangentially related to the art he produces, and springs chiefly from something more emotional, more instinctual.
Let’s start with the “crazy, nonsensical rants” in the radio interviews. A quick Google search for them produces articles with titles like “Top 10 Most Bizarre Kanye West Self-Comparisons” or “Kanye West’s 10 Craziest Radio Interview Quotes.” The Reddit thread for his most recent one is filled with random quotes, transcriptions and sour impersonations, and comments along the lines of “what is this guy on about?” You would get the impression from this reaction fog that Kanye turned up, snorted blow, and started babbling in backwards alien Latin. He’s fond of wild metaphors and imagery, but if you skip the commentary and watch the full interviews, a more complicated, human—and interesting—picture emerges.
Kanye comes across primarily as a manic, defensive creative frustrated with attempts by external forces to control his aesthetic output, both real and projected. He doesn’t always make sense, and drops clangers about futurism and post-modernism like an over-enthusiastic humanities undergraduate, but the ideas he’s trying to express are intelligible enough. He’s trying desperately to break into fashion design, but feels pigeonholed by preconceptions about what a black or “urban” designer can do. He views himself as an artist first, and a rapper second, and resents the rap community’s insistence that he stick to doing the things they like. He’s rich but he doesn’t have the resources to implement his creative ambitions on an industrial level. None of this is that ridiculous. Like countless artists, past and present, he feels burdened by internal creative vision and struggles to realize it in-the-world. You can argue about the level of sympathy a millionaire rapper’s creative struggle deserves from the public, but he’s still feeling it, and I’m not sure that scorn should be our default response. Indeed, I find sentiments like ‘I’m living inside a dream world’ sort of beautiful and resonant and sad.
The internet works well as a space for the sharing of high-value information, but it is spades better at producing waves of arbitrary, emotionally-charged group-think. The ability of the online media machine to implement and police orthodoxy is especially evident when it comes to celebrity personae. You’ve never met either of them, but you know Kristen Stewart’s a sour-faced bitch, and Jennifer Lawrence is a down-to-earth sweetheart. The machine was unanimous that Tom Cruise was a frenzied loon whose career was dead, all because he jumped on a sofa to declare his love for a women. You run through airport security broadcasting your megaphone affection and rom-com audiences applaud. But get on some furniture and suddenly you’re beyond the pale. Now the collective wisdom of the machine has nominated Kanye as the punching bag du jour. We should be careful about outsourcing our opinion-making faculties to an algorithm-shark dedicated to the resentment-fueled pursuit of page views.
The online commentariat trades primarily in snark, discourse’s least valuable commodity. Ostensibly, they like to feel like they’re contributing to “the conversation,” but really, they just want to feel good about themselves by putting others down. To come up with that perfect wisecrack and get off on the warm, comforting sensation of “I sure showed him.” A bulk of the Reddit comments to Kanye’s Breakfast Show interview ran with DJ Charlemagne Tha God’s criticism of Kanye as a “walking contradiction” and rushed to catalogue his various hypocrisies and inconsistencies. He denounces corporations, but designs for Nike! He wrote a song called “Blood Diamonds” but has diamonds in his teeth! Etc. etc. As if everything we ever say has to correlate with itself, or else it’s worthless. The older I get the more convinced I am that professional hypocrisy hunters work not in service of the common good, but rather of a personal sense of aggrievement against those perceived as more successful, wealthy or famous than themselves.
Look, I get it. Kanye says some weird shit sometimes, and maybe his music doesn’t always back him up. We’ve always had talented, troubled artists who behave strangely and speak in mixed tongues of nonsense and insight (wouldn’t it be boring if everyone spoke the same way we do?). Except now we have that strangeness delivered to our screens in ready-made, digestible parcels for regular, immediate reaction. Like. Dislike. LOL. WTF?