The enigma of Kanye West – and how the world's biggest pop star ended up being its most reviled, too

Everything Kanye West does is an event, from the smallest interview to the biggest show. As he prepares to headline Glastonbury, one writer considers how West became the divisive figure he is

Hating Kanye West has long been an international pastime. At the Big Chill festival at Eastnor Castle in 2011 he complained that people looked at him “like I’m Hitler”. Footage of him walking with his wife, Kim Kardashian – head down to avoid paparazzi, and then smashing his head into a street sign – has more than 4m YouTube views. (“I hope the sign is OK,” wrote one commenter, a mild expression of the same disgust for West that prompted petitions in protest at him headlining Glastonbury this year.)

With Groundhog Day-like timing, West stuck his foot in his mouth earlier this year, decrying Beck’s album of the year Grammy award. As was the case with when he protested against Taylor Swift’s win in 2009, he again insisted Beyoncé was more deserving. Ironically, soon after this year’s Grammys, Swift and Kanye had dinner together at Manhattan restaurant the Spotted Pig, which just happened to be playing Beck’s winning album, Morning Phase. “I was like, this is kinda good,” Kanye admitted sheepishly in a radio interview, adding that he hadn’t previously heard the work.

Understanding why Kanye is Kanye first requires understanding what worldwide popularity does to people. To paraphrase an expression, fame crazies, absolute fame crazies absolutely. This is the Michael Jackson paradigm. When you’re rich and on top of the world, you start peeing on people, or molesting them, or killing them, or killing yourself.

But what’s truly crazy is that Kanye hasn’t done any of those things. In fact, on the eve of his appearance at Glastonbury, he’s arguably the most critically beloved pop artist of the 21st century so far. From the release of his debut, The College Dropout, in 2004 (which Rolling Stone called one of the 10 best albums of the decade, in any genre) to his most recent work, Yeezus (which the Guardian and many others called the best album of 2013), practically no one has been as beloved, by critics and fans alike, for so long.

So how has he simultaneously become a laughing stock? “The media takes the shit and blows it all out of proportion,” says Fetty Wap, the quickly emerging New Jersey rapper whom West has championed and performed with. He adds that West’s multitude of talents tend to be overlooked because of his antics. But West learned the rules of engagement a long time ago, and nonetheless continues to play the lamb to our slaughter. As a result, he occupies a bizarre place in the zeitgeist – absolutely beloved and absolutely reviled, simultaneously, sometimes by the same people. My wife, for example, adores much of his music but despises him as a person.

How did this come to pass? It all started at the very beginning of his career. That is, in his pink polo shirt days.

A world that is more than fair

West’s father was a Black Panther. His mother was arrested at an Oklahoma City lunch counter when she was six, as West explains on his song Never Let Me Down, from The College Dropout. “We grew up very aware of racism in this country,” Donda West told VH1, adding: “The political activity was all about making sure that whatever was not just became just.”

West, too, wants to create a world that is more fair. But his quest for social justice has long dueled with a virulent solipsism. At his worst, he’s concerned only that the world be fair to him. He believes himself to be the best, and won’t rest until everyone agrees.

That drive has taken him far. As a teenager, he barricaded himself in his room for weeks at a time to work on songs and rhymes. When he found out that producer No ID – the reigning champion Chicago beatmaker in the mid-90s – was the child of his mother’s friend, he began pestering him at all hours, even camping out in his driveway until he came home. “He wouldn’t ever take no [for an answer],” No ID told VH1. West dropped out of college to move to Newark, New Jersey, to be closer to New York’s music industry, and even after blowing up as a producer on Jay Z’s landmark 2001 album The Blueprint, remained unsatisfied. He wanted to be known as a rapper. But owing to his somewhat clunky delivery, and his penchant for unorthodox material (the label brass saw his early single Jesus Walks as too controversial for radio) he received constant rejection.

Collaborators … Jay Z and Kanye West.
Collaborators … Jay Z and Kanye West. Photograph: Startraks Photo/Rex Features

Another artist might have toned things down. But West not only needs to be cherished, he needs to be cherished on his own terms. Hence his trademark pink polo shirt and then later, on his Watch the Throne tour with Jay Z, his skirt (er, kilt). Just like his songs pushed barriers, so did his fashion, and his politics too. In 2005 he was one of the first famous rappers to speak out against homophobia, which had long run rampant in hip-hop but is now starting to fade. That’s largely owing to his influence; his close partner Jay Z, of all people, came out in favor of gay marriage in 2012.

When it’s not drowned out by his self-aggrandising, Kanye can actually be humble. The College Dropout is a grand, politically conscious mission statement that mixes politics, spirituality and existentialism. He champions the sinners (himself included) and the unfortunates who weren’t “supposed to make it past 25”. His characters work menial jobs, dream big dreams, suffer setbacks and find inspiration in the Lord. The College Dropout is a populist work, and that album and its follow-up, Late Registration, remain to many the ideal of what Kanye should be. Sure, he rapped controversial things – “I know the government administers Aids” – but he was voicing fears held by many. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” may have angered conservative viewers of the Katrina benefit A Concert for Hurricane Relief in 2005, but his admirers believed him to be speaking from the heart, using his platform to attack those without one.

But the self-focused, self-regarding Kanye always lurked in the background. He stormed out after losing the best new artist award to country singer Gretchen Wilson at the 2004 American Music awards, complaining that he was the best new artist. In hindsight, he was right, but he was convinced of it even before his debut was released. As he told the New York Times of his appearance on the 2003 hit Slow Jamz, with Twista and Jamie Foxx: “I knew when I wrote the line ‘light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson’ I was going to be a big star. At the time, they used to have the Virgin music [stores], and I would go there and just go up the escalator and say to myself, ‘I’m soaking in these last moments of anonymity.’”

Kanye West – Touch the Sky

By the middle of the last decade, he was indeed selling millions of records globally. Unfortunately, the powers that be weren’t recognising his genius swiftly enough. In 2006, upset about not winning best video at the MTV Europe Music awards in Copenhagen, he commandeered the stage to announce that his Touch the Sky should have been victorious because it “cost a million dollars. I had Pamela Anderson. I was jumping across canyons and shit. If I don’t win, the award show loses credibility.” Once again, he hadn’t actually seen the winning video, Justice vs Simian’s We Are Your Friends.

His personality was eclipsing his art, a trend that continued on his 2007 work Graduation. It’s a brilliant album, which anticipated electronic music’s infiltration of hip-hop and contained nearly top-to-bottom hits, including the best-selling single of his career, Stronger, which sampled Daft Punk. But that song also contained cringeworthy lines like: “How the hell could you front on me? / There’s a thousand yous, there’s only one of me.” The album is best remembered for its opening-week sales showdown with 50 Cent, then hip-hop’s biggest star. Kanye cockily believed himself capable of dethroning Fiddy – and he promptly did, forever banishing the Queens gangsta rapper to the realm of bodega drinks and self-help books.

The death of his mother in 2007 brought West back to Earth, along with his breakup with fiancee Alexis Phifer, whom his mother reportedly hoped he’d marry. These events inspired his 2008 album 808s & Heartbreak, which was a departure from his previous efforts but again sold gangbusters nonetheless. Largely sung – with extensive use of Auto-Tune – rather than rapped, the work is considered something of an aberration in his career. But it rewards repeated listens, and features West opening up and soberly contemplating his existence like never before. It represents a period of sincere self-reflection in West’s life. Tragedy often brings out the best in artists, and West sought to improve himself as a person and a performer. Shockingly, after being upstaged by Lil Wayne at the 2008 New Jersey Summer Jam concert, he promised the audience that he would go back to the drawing board and try harder next time.

Apparently he was satisfied with the results, because by 2009 he had once again placed himself at the centre of the universe. At the MTV Video Music awards that year, at Radio City Music Hall in New York, he interrupted Taylor Swift to announce that her best female video award winner You Belong With Me was, in fact, inferior to Beyoncé’s Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It). Beyoncé was horrified, Swift reportedly started bawling, and the internet began castigating and memeing Kanye relentlessly. Never mind if he had a point; after all, Single Ladies was kind of good. All the viewers at home saw was an egotistical man disrupting the biggest moment of a 19-year-old girl’s life.

Swiftgate utterly shamed Kanye. He apologised, and quickly sought to win back the public’s love the best way he knew how: by crafting an amazing album. In 2010 he released the crowdpleasing work My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which received perfect ratings from Pitchfork and many other outlets. It wasn’t entirely a mea culpa; on Monster he declared: “My presence is a present, kiss my ass.” But the album’s centrepiece, Runaway, saw him finally beginning to understand why so many detested him. “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags / Let’s have a toast for the assholes … Baby, I got a plan / Run away as fast as you can.” It was an extraordinary song and an extraordinary album. Admitting culpability is not something one often gets in hip-hop, let alone from its self-declared alpha and omega.

I Am a God

You know what happens next: West fell off the wagon once again. He was no longer just the “best living or dead, hands down” (as he called himself on Monster) or a king (2011’s Watch the Throne) but now a living, breathing, divine entity. On his 2012 collaborative album Cruel Summer, he spit a “new God flow” and deified himself entirely on 2013’s Yeezus. The man who put his faith above his personal ambition on Jesus Walks now declared I Am a God, a song most famous for the line: “Hurry up with my damn croissants.” He wrote the track after suffering a mild rebuke from fashion designer Hedi Slimane, who told him he could only attend one of his Paris fashion shows if he didn’t attend the others. (As for Kanye’s own foray into haute couture, he initially stumbled, but footwear designs like his Yeezy Boost boots have sold out quickly.)

Yeezus was experimental and dissonant, and folks attending its corresponding tour were subjected to long, rambling diatribes making his case as a cultural giant of epic proportions, akin to Steve Jobs or Walt Disney. “Nobody can tell me where I can and can’t go,” Kanye said to W magazine. “Man, I’m the No 1 living and breathing rock star. I am Axl Rose; I am Jim Morrison; I am Jimi Hendrix.”

Such boasts ran the gamut from preposterous to plausible, but even when Kanye is correct in proclaiming his greatness, nobody wants to hear him say it. Even the birth of his daughter and his marriage to Kim Kardashian have done little to improve his reputation. That’s likely due to his humourlessness. Though Kim is widely perceived as a beautiful airhead, he defends her as a brilliant business mind and entertainer who deserves a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. It’s great when a man sticks up for his wife, but one gets the feeling that such comments are really about Kanye himself. While playing him on Saturday Night Live, Jay Pharoah parodied him best: “I turned this woman into an artiste. A philosopher. A intergalactic icon of creativity.”

Responded Kim’s character: “I’m also blonde now!”

F Scott Fitzgerald said there are no second acts in American lives, but that’s not always true. When Kanye rushed the stage again at the Grammys this year – but then turned back, despite Beck’s invitation – Twitter momentarily erupted with a groundswell of support for #yeezy. He was laughing at himself! He’s learned his lesson! But no. In a post-awards interview he again declared himself the true arbiter of greatness, demanding Beck forfeit his album of the year statue to Beyoncé. Again, the public was disgusted and, again, Kanye is now scrambling to get himself back into our favour.

And that is fantastic news.

Expectations are through the roof for new album Swish, which doesn’t yet have a release date. It was originally titled So Help Me God.

After Yeezus’s abrasiveness, it will be more melodic, and has already borne fruit by way of a number of tracks released in the first months of the year. They have included collaborations with the king of melody himself, Paul McCartney. Recorded in a coastal Mexican house with no back wall, Only One is a sweet, stripped-down ode to his daughter sung from the perspective of his mother, while All Day is revved up and anthemic. Taylor Swift dances vampily in its live video, shot at this year’s Brit awards. Both are nearly perfect Kanye songs. They’re immediately memorable but sound like nothing else on the radio. He also debuted the powerful Wolves on Saturday Night Live’s 40th anniversary broadcast, while another strong Kanye/McCartney collaboration, FourFiveSeconds, with Rihanna, will appear on her next work.

Kanye West – Only One

“This album’s just embracing the music, embracing joy and being of service to the people,” Kanye told New York station Power 105.1 in February. “I just hope people like it and enjoy it.” Among the already converted is Los Angeles hip-hop singer Ty Dolla Sign, who contributed to the Mexico sessions and left positively inspired. “I learned to always do me, no matter what anyone says,” he reported. Certainly, West is an expert on this. That said, it’s clear that following his own vision – without regard to trends or naysayers – is Kanye’s great strength, and something few have the courage to see through.

Despite rumours that Kanye has cold feet following Kendrick Lamar’s politicised smash hit To Pimp a Butterfly, Swish is as close to a sure thing as one gets in music. (For one thing, Apple is reportedly interested in debuting it on its new streaming music service.) Yet one can also pretty much guarantee that Kanye will declare its (likely positive) reviews as insufficiently rapturous. And thus will continue the world’s bizarre cycle of Kanye West co-dependency. The more scorn we heap upon him, the harder he will try to please us. One gets the feeling that neither party would have it any other way.


Ben Westhoff

The GuardianTramp

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