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Kanye Being Kanye

Posted by Maximum Fun on 13th September 2009

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So Kanye pulled another boner at the VMAs.

If you’ve been living under a rock, he borrowed the mic from Taylor Swift during her VMA acceptance speech and offered an impromptu tribute to Beyonce.

I think a lot of people from outside the hip-hop world see Kanye West as an impudent superstar. A bratty kid who’s had everything handed to him and just wants everything to go his way. And I think there’s truth in that. He certainly seems like he has a hard time putting the significance of MTV awards in their relative place, to begin with.

I don’t want to defend what Kanye did. It was a real dick move. And it was made worse by the fact that Taylor Swift is a very legit artist and a very young woman. And she’s dead right that she was striking a remarkable blow for country music, which clearly means nothing to Kanye West. Awful, I agree.

That said, there’s something in the tone of the anti-Kanye sentiment that always strikes me as wrong-headed.

Kanye West really is a groundbreaking artist, and he has had as hard a road to the top of the music industry as anyone in hip-hop. This is a guy who literally spent ten years trying to get signed as a rapper — in an industry where you’re pretty much done if you haven’t been signed by 21. He learned how to make beats, and became one of the top five producers in hip-hop, producing monstrous hits for Jay-Z and others, and he still couldn’t get a record deal. Even Jay-Z admits that when he and Dame Dash signed Kanye to Roc-a-Fella, it was because they knew that he would take his beats elsewhere if they didn’t. It was like that time the Rangers let Jose Canseco pitch.

Only when Jose Canseco pitched, he hurt his arm and looked like an asshole. When Kanye rapped, he changed the industry.

Kanye was an artist on Roc-A-Fella, a label that had its finger on the pulse of hip-hop music, and was signing (great) MCs like Freeway and Beanie Siegel and Camron and even M.O.P. who were grittier than gritty. Meanwhile, Kanye is wearing Polo and a backpack and writing lyrics that sound more like De La Soul than Kool G Rap. The odds were not on Kanye’s side.

In fact, even after Roc-A-Fella signed Kanye as an MC, they figured they could let his career die on the vine from benign neglect. Kanye talked Talib Kweli into giving him an opening spot on Kweli’s tour, and then West put out a mixtape on his own dime. Then Kanye got in a car accident and nearly died. When he was in recovery, he recorded a song about the accident while his jaw was wired shut. The Roc didn’t want to give him any support, so he made his own video, with his own money, for a song that he didn’t have the money to clear the sample for, and that song became a hit.

Since his first album blew up (on merit), Kanye has been absolutely dogged in his pursuit of the next artistic plateau. Some of his efforts have been more successful than others (I wasn’t that into “808s and Heartbreak”), but he’s never rested on his laurels. And he’s also always regarded video as not just a compliment to his work, but an essential part of it. He’s hired people with singular visions like Michel Gondry and Zach Galifianakis to make videos with and for him, and he’s himself conceived of some of the most artistically ambitious videos ever made by a hip-hop artist. Before Kanye, this was essentially not done by a mainstream rapper.

Throughout all of this, West has occasionally had a bizarre and unpalatable outburst like this. But what’s fascinating to me about his outbursts is that they’re always about merit. Wrong or right, he seems to care so passionately about popular art that he can’t help but speak out. There were times when it was about him thinking he should have won, but there was also this time — when he thought Beyonce deserved credit. Or the time Kanye won and promptly handed his award to one of the few hip-hop artists who’ve matched his creativity and fearlessness, Outkast. Not as a tribute, but because he thought they had earned it more than him.

After I wrote a few notes about the events on twitter, I got a lot of feedback. Mostly negative. And largely reasonable. So I want to clarify.

It was a horrible thing to do to steal attention from Taylor Swift. It was f*cked up, even. Seems like Kanye knows that.

I think these outbursts are manifestations of the same pig-headed passion that drove Kanye to insist he could rap for all those years. The same passion that made him abandon the soul samples after they made him the hottest producer in hip-hop. The same passion that led him to let Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham dress up in weird farmer outfits and make him a video on a farm.

My friend Tom Scharpling wrote on twitter “I love him, but at this point the guy is a bully who needs to get punched in the stomach by a nerd high school-style.”

And I don’t know if I disagree.

But I think Kanye’s flaw isn’t his enormous ego. He’s never been afraid to give credit to others, and he’s never claimed, for example, to be the greatest MC (he’s not), despite a hip-hop culture that encourages such claims (and a broader culture that takes them too literally).

I think this is the problem: Kanye doesn’t understand that despite the fact that he is still the same guy, the same passionate, music-loving, speak-until-someone-listens scrapper, the change in the context in which he lives has changed who he is in a very real way. He’s confusing signifier and signified. He’s not the nerd anymore, he’s the bully. When he stands up for what he believes in, he’s not sticking it to the man, he’s stepping on the little guy.

So I agree with Amy Malkoff, who tweeted to me that he seems to lack foresight or understanding of what his antics do to others. And I agree with Tom Scharpling when he writes, “Then he should start his own awards show. Oh, and WHY DO I CARE ABOUT THIS? THE MTV AWARDS ARE NOT REAL AWARDS!”

I hope Kanye can grow as a man, and think about who he is now, and what he means now. For himself, and for all the people who he inspired to be themselves and create art that expresses their experience rather than to play a role someone else wrote for them.

And I hope he never stops caring. Because his art is too important.

Also: that Beyonce video was amazing.

Also also: “Pyoo! Pyoo! Pyoo!” = line of the year

Also also also: I wrote this in one go without even re-reading it, so my apologies. Now that you made the mistake of reading it.