The gospel according to Kanye
The controversial rapper teaches us to embrace narcissism
Kanye West is a creative genius. Just ask him, he'll tell you. "If I were to write my title," the Atlanta-born rap artist and attention magnet recently told Bret Easton Ellis during the latter's inaugural podcast, "like going through the airport and you have to put down what you do? I would literally write, 'Creative Genius,' except for two reasons: Sometimes it takes too long to write that, and sometimes I spell the word 'genius' wrong."
While he may not be able to spell it correctly, West's genius was on full display the week before Thanksgiving, when he seemed to be everywhere at once: discussing his beef with President Barack Obama (who famously called him a "jackass" after West bum-rushed Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2009) on Philadelphia radio station Hot 107.9; sharing his thoughts on architecture with students at Harvard's Graduate School of Design; and riding a motorcycle while straddled by his topless fiancée Kim Kardashian in the video for "Bound 2."
Part of West's genius is that, in less than 10 years, he's gone from a producer known only to the people who read the credits on rap CDs to the most polarizing artist in popular music. We know he's polarizing because he does polarizing things, like posing for a Rolling Stone photo shoot wearing a crown of thorns, and calling himself a god, and fathering a child with a woman who once consented to be taped having sex with R&B singer Ray J.
We also know it because, despite the multiple Grammy awards and gold and platinum albums and arenas full of fans, people will fall over themselves to tell you how much they hate him. They hate him for his egotism, for his childish outbursts, and most of all for his uncanny ability to generate press coverage.
Kanye West does possess an uncanny ability to stay entrenched in the headlines, thanks to a nonstop barrage of self-aggrandizing quotes and petulant theatrics. But again, that's only part of his genius. To dismiss him as merely a glory hound at best diminishes the importance of his ubiquity, and at worst commits the unforgivable (for West) sin of overlooking or ignoring his real brilliance, which is this: Every aspect of his persona, from his albums to his public behavior, is a component of his true life's work — self-determination as an ongoing, 24/7 piece of performance art.
It's there in his music, an often-arresting mélange of maximum-overdrive production that piles one sonic element atop another until the whole construct threatens to collapse. Even when he strips down or takes detours (see the head-scratching Auto-Tune oddities of 808s and Heartbreak and the jarringly stark bombast of this year's ambitiously messy Yeezus), West demands even more of your attention.
It's also there in his lyrics, from captivating examinations of faith ("Jesus Walks") to social commentary ("Diamonds from Sierra Leone") to head-spinning bursts of stream-of-consciousness narcissism (just about everything else).
Most significantly, it's there in his often peevish declarations of his own greatness, and his temper tantrums explaining and defending that greatness: Stalking out of the American Music Awards after losing a trophy to Gretchen Wilson, or engaging in a one-sided, all-caps Twitter feud with Jimmy Kimmel.
But what most of us fail to realize, our mortal senses too unrefined to tune in to West's frequency, is that he isn't attempting to convince us of his majesty, but to teach us to embrace our own.
Like Jesus, to whom he can't seem to stop comparing himself, West lives his life as an example to others, spreading his own gospel of self-reliance and self-worship. Believe in your own godhood, West's gospel says. And then shout it from every mountaintop, every DJ booth, every car speaker, magazine cover, and celebrity news blog, until everyone else believes in it, too.
"That's what other people need to realize about themselves," West told Vibe's Sean Fennessey in a 2009 interview. "They're not at the mercy of other people's opinions. It's all what you believe in yourself. Your attitude determines your latitude."
It's a doctrine that resonates more than ever in the social media age, when we trumpet our every opinion, menial errand, and coffee order across multiple platforms and impatiently wait for the likes to come streaming in. Demand the validation you deserve, he evangelizes, and you will deserve the validation you receive.
It's no surprise that this message has encountered resistance. This has been the lot of visionaries throughout history, from Jesus and Martin Luther to colleagues like Bono and Dr. Phil, great men who, like West, coax us along the path to enlightenment through the gratification of their own egos. It's also no surprise that, after almost a decade, West grows weary of enduring these constant trials.
"What I do at this point is a gift," he told Vibe in that same interview. "And I think people are complaining about their gift. And they've got a choice: They can either play with it or not! But don't complain to me about the gift."
After all, Kanye West is simply teaching by example, trying to show us how to better our lives by accepting our own inner Kanyes. "[http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/yeezus-resurrected-as-kanye-west-resumes-tour-in-philadelphia-20131117|Anybody that's a fan of me is a fan of themselves]," he told the audience during a recent tour stop, as recounted by Rolling Stone. Can I get an amen?