It seems as though just as we get used to the current form of Ye, the producer / rapper / artist / designer / celebrity / political candidate throws something else into the mix. There’s been plenty said and written about Mr. West, what drives him, his battles with mental health and his propensity to say things to offend and alienate both his fans and the general public alike. It’s created a tension in public and critical discourse centring around whether his personality and behaviour take away from his artistic creations.
This is, in part, an issue with the way of things now, in a world where the news cycle moves faster than ever, as does the public fallout which plays across social media feeds in real time, before re-entering the news cycle as a piece of reporting on viral conversations taking place. As a result, however, the real risk is to view the ‘now’ as of greater importance and meaning than the past. Because for all his erratic behaviour and apparent drop in quality of his musical output, Kanye West is fundamentally still someone who is easy to understand when viewed through the right lens: that of defiance.
There’s no need to repeat Kanye’s genesis as producer, nor his rise to the heights of the rap game providing beats for some of the biggest names in the game, from Common to Jay Z. And then there’s the oft-repeated account of the moment Kanye declared his intention to become a rapper. The story goes he played an early cut of Jesus Walks for a room of A&Rs, DJ Clue, Fabolous and others, enthusiastically rapping along and performing to his audience of four while proclaiming to be the saviour of Chicago. As it’s told, once Kanye left the room his peers burst into laughter, although in hindsight it would be fair to say it was West who had the last laugh on that occasion.
This story is perhaps the first famous example of his penchant for defiance, coming some years before the release of his debut album. Despite his quality as a producer, nobody really believed he would be able to cross the divide from behind the scenes to centre stage. Yet cross it he did, and for a while there, it did indeed seem he might fulfil his destiny to save his city, with lyrics waxing on the plight of black society in America and its ability to rise above it. Of course, Kanye was far from the first to cover topics like this, but arguably he was one of the most successful artists to combine radio-friendly hits with a conscious approach to lyrics. Taking Jesus Walks as a prime example, West muses on police brutality (Getting choked by detectives yeah, yeah, now check the method / They be asking us questions, harass, and arrest us), the seeming futility of life as a black person in America (We ain’t goin’ nowhere, but got suits and cases), before showcasing his trademark defiance in the face of the accepted status quo: (They said you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, video tape / But if I talk about God my record won’t get played / Huh? Well if this take away from my spins / Which’ll probably take away from my ends / Then I hope this take away from my sins).
This defiant trait can be seen continuing through his discography. While freely admitting his lack of singing talent in interviews, in ‘808s and Heartbreak’ Kanye released an piece of work not only almost entirely sung by him (albeit with heavy use of auto-tune), but an album heralded by many critics as one of the era’s most influential. The 2008 release of his fourth album also marked the beginning of a shift, both in Kanye’s music and public persona. While always being self-conscious and aware of his flaws, these elements of reflection increasingly began to come to fore.
As so expertly covered in the incredible Dissect podcast, after 2009’s VMAs outburst at the expense of Taylor Swift, Kanye was written off by many and went into a period of introspection. Again, however, his defiance powered him through the challenging times, with his comeback — 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ — widely heralded as not only a return to form, but as a career best and album for the ages.
More recently, while many understandably took issue with Kanye’s controversial public statements on slavery and the benefits of wearing a MAGA hat, the one thing that permeates his behaviour remains his steadfast commitment to defy those who seek to control or limit his freedoms. When questioned about his apparent willingness to meet and endorse Trump and his approach, West’s retort was to point out how anyone telling him, as a black man, that he’s ‘not allowed’ to meet with people with opposing or racist worldviews and opinions, was simply yet another form of control that white people don’t have to put up with. Realistically, it remains difficult to fully back his methods, but as a demonstration of defiance and self-actualisation, it has merit.
Kanye’s political evolution is well-documented, but again, as with so much in his life and career, defiance is the river than runs through it. When asked why he wore clothes sporting the Confederate flag he responded: “You know the Confederate flag represented slavery in a way — that’s my abstract take on what I know about it… So I took the Confederate flag and made it my flag. It’s my flag. Now what are you going to do?”
When others have repeatedly sought to pigeonhole him, or reign in his dreams or goals, his defiance has struck back. It’s prevalent in his 2018 offering ‘Ye’, where he revels in the defiance of saying that which would normally remain unsaid (I Thought About Killing You), again in his more recent gospel albums, and ultimately culminating in this year’s recently announced (and even more recently, possibly rescinded) run for the presidency.
When taking Kanye as a whole, it could reasonably be argued that living his life as an act of defiance has been both his greatest blessing and most damaging curse. In relation to his career, this may indeed be true as the things Kanye does might have inadvertently taken his artistic vision beyond the point of no return (only time will tell). However, it’s crucial to remember that the career and the man are not one and the same. Kanye, for all his shortcomings, is evidently on a voyage of self-discovery, self-expression and, at times, self-destruction. But so are we all, and few of us would have the courage to be defiant in the face of so much opposition and criticism. If looking for a way to sum up Kanye’s journey one might be inclined to look to Shakespeare who eloquently put it: “This above all, to thine own self be true.” But why quote another when Kanye himself said it better than anyone else could: “I feel so free just being me /I didn’t take all this time to become me to listen to you / So I’mma do what I wanna do.”