Anyone who has been online in the past month will know that Kanye West, who now legally passes by Ye, caused a lot of controversy. He’s had a whole year to himself, so much so that it’s become almost impossible to follow or predict what he’ll be trending for tomorrow. The public antics and rants on social media are often inexplicable, and it’s a shame that they seem to cloud his public perception.
When people to say “Man, I miss the old Kanye” begs the question, which Kanye are they referring to? The starving young producer whose musical aspirations no one took seriously? The wide-eyed kid from Chicago who raps about God, social conscience and internalized racism? The boy genius who brought soul back into hip-hop and served it to the masses?
These are things that Kanye is still doing in 2022, and hasn’t stopped doing in the past 20 years since he burst onto the scene. His dreams have always been larger than life. Although now he possesses a large amount of wealth, power and influence, and therefore the means to fulfill these dreams entirely on his own. People can poke fun at anything they want, but one thing they can’t downplay is his earnestness and willpower. He won’t rest until he proves all naysayers wrong. Plus, pretending he should go back to an earlier version of himself is a cheap dismissal of the artist he always was. Kanye didn’t achieve such prominence by being satisfied or comfortable. No matter how high his successes, he always strived to achieve more. Some call it greedy, others call it selfish, but prolific artists aren’t born out of complacency.
Kanye is arguably the only artist of his caliber with such an uncompromising vision that he’s willing to antagonize his audience in the process – sometimes to their detriment. Say what you will about some of the aesthetic choices he’s made over the past five years, some of which are certainly puzzling, but his sincerity and commitment to the vision is remarkable. We can go back and forth on the quality of some of his recent work, but at least he never gets complacent or lets obstacles deter him. His ideas sound so fantastic they sometimes border on the absurd, but logistics or corporate interests never seem to interfere with their execution.
While he may function more as a keeper these days than an underdog, he nonetheless remains at odds with the industry. He seems to be in a perpetual argument about something, whether he’s going after record labels and streaming platforms, or luxury fashion houses and political parties. It was noted that Kanye has become the very machine he’s always fought against, but he’s actually fighting the establishment from a machine he built himself.
Some might say his art has suffered because of his hubris, or since his involvement with the Kardashians, or because of his forays into other creative and political endeavors. However, it’s futile to constantly compare everything Kanye currently does artistically to the past version of himself that people seem to prefer. Since he was the “old Ye”, he had chances to overcome. Kanye’s entire career is both extraordinary and tragic. And yet, calamity fuels his creative work. Her first hit single, “Through the Wire”, came out of a near-fatal car accident it left his jaw broken and literally needs to be shut. What could have been a life-threatening circumstance for a rapper was actually a triumph, as he delivered his verses despite the metal gear keeping his jaw intact. Shortly after a meteoric rise to fame, her mother, Donda, tragically deceased during an elective cosmetic procedure that he financed. Although his personal life was plagued by immense pain and trauma, his art continued to mature and push the boundaries of popular music.
The mental gymnastics involved in supporting and defending Kanye can admittedly be tedious. In this cultural climate, it seems to have become difficult for many people to separate their emotions and feelings of betrayal from their assessments of the job itself. Kanye’s personality cult and his polarizing presence has made so many unable to judge the quality of his work fairly and in good faith. Perhaps we shouldn’t view Kanye as an informed or cautious spokesperson on important issues. On the contrary, we should look to him solely for his aesthetic instincts.
Kanye’s impact on culture cannot be overstated. Try to resist the urge to shake your head to the beat of “Jesus Walks” or deny the nostalgia for an album like “Graduation.” Look at the numbers he does on diffusion services or over a billion in revenue, his Yeezy sneaker empire is gaining every year, and there’s no denying it. He will always be a complex and contradictory figure, and will likely continue to inspire mixed feelings in fans and critics alike. It is possible to be frustrated with him, and at the same time show him both the respect and empathy he deserves. Behind the messiah complex, he is only human.
Melissa Newell is an Opinion Intern for the Winter 2022 term. She can be reached at [email protected].