By Matt Gundrum —
What do Andy Warhol, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain, Walt Disney, Michelangelo, Pablo Picasso, Shakespeare, and God have in common? They’ve all been used as comparisons to hip-hop artist Kanye West. But which media outlets and news aggregates have been bold enough to make such comparisons?
Well, none of them.
West, himself, has likened his own cultural presence to all the aforementioned icons. And the comparisons don’t stop with living, breathing people either. Apparently, he’s Nike and Google as well.
At this level of arrogance and unfathomably deep narcissism, it’s quite easy to dislike Kanye West. But is this a surface-level observation? Aren’t there other elements of West’s persona to explore?
West began as a producer in Chicago, making beats for local artists in the mid-90s. He started to garner attention after working with Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter’s record label Roc-a-Fella records. Carter, a rap juggernaut at the time, received production help from West on his hugely successful The Blueprint album. West used this attention to jumpstart his rap career, a venture that was slow to start.
It wasn’t until a near-fatal car accident in 2002 that West’s passion for music was fully materialized. He left the crash with a shattered jaw and a determination to continue his career. So, with a jaw wired shut from reconstructive surgery, he proceeded to record “Through the Wire.” The song was a sure predictor for the rest of his career: constantly create ideas and push boundaries, no matter the circumstance. Every single one of his albums have been critically acclaimed as innovative and musically rich. This has cemented him as what New York Times music critic John Caramanica called “sui generis,” an entity of its own class.
But to deviate from this level of musical success is all too common for those who observe him. So much so that West’s identity seems to be not a singular concept, but a duality: artist and braggadocio.
This observation is by no means a surprise. His behavior throughout his career has sparked incredible amounts of controversy. Blatantly accusing President Bush of racism on live television? Check. Stealing the awards spotlight from a deserving, talented musician? Check. Attempting to do that exact same thing a second time? Check.
So which aspect of West resonates most with people?
“West’s ego is more prominent than his music,” said University of Wisconsin–Stout program student Alyssa Rupp. “His personal life trumps all of his creative abilities, or lack thereof, because that’s what he has chosen to exploit and show off to people.”
These sentiments were echoed by UW–Stout retail student Serena Coleman, who said she didn’t respect West as a person. “I can’t look up to anyone who is that into themselves,” she added.
But with West being the divisive figure that he is, his public opinion exists in a plane where there isn’t much between love and utter disrespect. While individuals like Rupp and Coleman possess feelings that closely resemble the latter, there are others like UW–Stout professional communications and emerging media student Jenna Oliver whose perception aligns with the former.
“It’s hard for some people to understand why I have become a fan of West because most people think he is just the rude and self-obsessed exterior he displays. I have always had the feeling that he is deeper than that and in many ways he is a step ahead of society,” said Oliver. “He has taught me that rap music is more than curse words, strippers, drugs, and violence. He has made hip-hop into a mixture of so many genres that represent a culture.”
For others, West’s artistic appeal goes beyond his music. Since the late-2000s, West has been involved in the high fashion scene and his involvement has, of course, sparked controversy. Jacob Doherty, a professional communications and emerging media student at UW–Stout, expressed his own feelings towards West’s unique take on fashion.
“When [his clothing line] dropped, there was so much meaning behind the tattered sweaters, the diversity of the models, and the standing in unity instead of walking alone down a runway,” said Doherty. “People are going to pay so much money for a sweater with holes in it, but is he doing it for the money or to raise questions about how we can raise minorities and impoverished people who don’t have a choice but to wear tattered clothing?”
Championing this form of expressive, conscious fashion and possessing one of the most celebrated discographies in hip-hop has left West with an inflated ego. It’s understandable, seeing as though this attitude is a byproduct of paramount success. Think about John Lennon who, in 1966, infamously claimed that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” prompting public burnings of their records and threats made to the band.
History repeats itself, right?
Today, West is back in the limelight. Barely a month into 2016 and he’s already made headlines by announcing his new album Swish (UPDATE 1/26/16: The album title has been changed to Waves) and releasing new music.
Interestingly enough, his new songs are a reflection of his inherent duality. On one hand, there’s the audacious “FACTS” in which West plays the braggadocio: a hyper-materialistic ode to self-revelry. In contrast, “Real Friends” and “No More Parties in LA” find West holding off on the bragging, and instead reflecting on the tribulations of celebrity life with his signature, artistic flair.
But to truly understand and accept West, however, is to embrace both sides. Some have already done this and others have not. Regardless of the debate surrounding his art versus his personality, he will be talked about for very long time.