Arthur Miller's seminal play Death of a Salesman addresses loss of identity and a man's inability to accept change within himself and society. We are watching this happen in real time with the troubling and dangerous radicalization of the artist formerly known as Kanye West. Over the past month, West has centered a fashion show on white supremacist rhetoric by wearing a White Lives Matter sweatshirt, unleashed a series of anti-Semitic tweets, Instagram posts, and conducted a myriad of disjointed often rambling and incoherent interviews positing his empathy for straight white men, doubling down on hateful rhetoric, and positioning himself as a future presidential candidate (again). This article will attempt to reconcile the various iterations of a man who no longer represents anything but his own ego, insecurity, and pain.
Through the Wire
It wasn't supposed to happen like this. After having grinded his way from his mother's home, relocated to Newark, NJ, and infiltrated Rocafella Records as a principle hit maker for their most valuable artist - JAY Z, he should have been on the fast track to super stardom as an artist in his own right. Falling asleep at the wheel and crashing into another vehicle after a late-night recording session for his debut album, The College Dropout, nearly ended his dreams of super stardom before they ever got started. His jaw was shattered in three places and had to be wired shut. And it is from this most humbling of scenarios that the legend of Kanye West begins.
He famously decided to write and record a song, "Through the Wire", literally rapping with his jaw wired shut. And this song, plus the accompanying visuals became a viral sensation that lifted him from relative obscurity to well-deserved notoriety. Having toiled behind the scenes as "just" a producer, finally he was being seen for the limitless talent he believed himself to be. He had transformed his pain into art and using this conduit was able to elevate both himself and his talent into the mainstream consciousness. But it wouldn't be the only time.
Just as his sympatico amigo Donald J. Trump has spun a decades long-tale of being smarter than all his contemporaries and the most talented businessperson walking the earth - so has Kanye West continued to leverage his pain into a prophesy of being the next anointed creative genius crafted in the same mold as Walt Disney and Steve Jobs. It's unsurprising in this light to understand why Kanye's original signature brand of production centered on sped up (chipmunk sounding) soul samples. He has continued to recycle old hits as new, as he first sought to invent himself and then reinvent himself after painful incidents. For someone claiming to be the ultimate "free-thinker", his rhetoric over the years has been dramatically devoid of innovation - with a few notable exceptions.
Touching the Sky
In terms of musical output and cultural impact, Mr. West's dramatic rise, precipitous fall, and subsequent rebirth during the 2000's was an amalgamation of the fables of Icarus and the mystical Phoenix. His star quickly rose on the back of a trilogy of albums (The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation) which conquered the zeitgeist while he continued to produce hit songs for the top stars in pop, R&B, and hip-hop. After his mother, Donda West passed away in 2007 due to complications from cosmetic surgery, Kanye once again recycled pain into art with the melancholy 808's and Heartbreak. From being a perpetual bug in the bonnet of industry awards planners and making other broad-based public declarations - no one had to debate in which esteem Mr. West held himself - and most of his legion of fans agreed.
Never one to shy away from freedom of speech, two such events during the touch the sky years are now emblazoned into the public's psyche - the first his blunt declaration in 2005 that, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" in reference to the terrible tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the second his drunken hijacking of the MTV Music Awards with his infamous and cruel “I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time!” indicating that Taylor Swift had been wrongly awarded the Best Female Video award over Beyonce's Single Ladies. These outbursts were seen as emblematic of an individual whose self-regard and apparent narcissism would be his downfall - capped off with Barack Obama famously calling him a jackass.
He still had people in his corner trying to save him from himself, though. A roster of fellow superstars joined him for his Good Friday's mixtape and his magnum opus album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010. His "big brother" JAY Z took the allegiance a step further and recorded a collaborative album, Watch the Throne with him in 2011. Still, a series of choices linked to his need for greater notoriety than being one of the most famous and beloved musical artists on earth would take him face to face with his self-proclaimed superpower - bipolar disorder and the related emotional fallout.
I am a God
"No one man should have so much power," Kanye West raps on the song Power from MBDTF. This statement has proven prophetic as leading to the eventual desolation of the person who wrote and rapped the line. Having survived the Taylor Swift debacle and conducted one of the most lucrative world tours in music history with Watch the Throne - he had superseded the previous dizzying heights of his early-stage career. And once he cemented his newfound fame by marrying into the Kardashian empire, an era of unchecked ego, hubris, and mental illness commenced.
Having dominated music for over a decade, he was ready to indulge his other artistic endeavors - principally fashion. He felt that his hard-won experience from conquering the music industry would inform his takeover of apparel as well. But this was far from the case. The powers that controlled this (new-to-him) industry were not just going to open their coffers and write him a blank check as a cultural curator.
Having to fight for respect once again in a new domain damaged Mr. West's delicate ego and put him on tilt. His outbursts (rants) made famous during his tours and awards shows became fodder for Youtube and even the evening news. He humbled himself and interned with Fendi in Italy with Virgil Abloh to demonstrate how serious he was about this new passion. Sensing that the industry gatekeepers had no intention of letting him in - Kanye did what Kanye does best - be a disruptor willing to say anything to anyone until he got his way.
He sought the answers to creating in his own image and demanded the keys to this new kingdom all the while suffering from continued bouts of depression, self-doubt, and bipolar episodes. One of which led to him going on TMZ and declaring that "slavery was a choice". Soon after, he was hospitalized for a psychiatric emergency.
Eventually though, his efforts would manifest brand Yeezy and high-profile collaborations (and dissolutions) with Nike, gap, and Adidas. While he was establishing his unique fashion persona, the music did not stop, even though the accolades certainly did. Yeezus and The Life of Pablo underwhelmed mostly due to the sharpened edge of the artist's narcissism and ubiquity due to his ultra-famous coupling. And his greatest creations during this period - his four children have had to suffer from their father's extended absences, sojourns, and creative distractions.
His ego pain of having to continuously fight to maintain and augment his name and fame during this period has manifested in the beginnings of his radicalization by Trump and the alt-right. At some point, Mr. West figured that if the people who should be listening to him were tuning out - he would turn to an audience dying to hear platitudes from someone of his stature and race. In a single stroke he donned a red Make America Great Again hat and erased two decades of good will, excuse making, and fan ship in the process.
I Miss the Old Kanye