With 2010 fading fast in the rear-view mirror, it’d be easy to call the year a coup for Kanye West: his latest album is getting buckets of acclaim — including here at Rhombus — and everyone pretty much agrees the guy is a one-of-a-kind maestro. But while we all rap his praises, it’s worth keeping in mind that West was, not so long ago, in serious PR trouble.
Consider: In 2006, West stated on national TV that President Bush didn’t care about black people. Though many probably privately agreed, the moment brought West a lot of negative press. And because he didn’t subsequently present any cohesive political message, the moment seemed more like an impulsive rant than anything else.
2006 was also the year West began using awards shows to torpedo his public image. When that year’s Grammys were announced, West forwent normal celebrity psuedo-humility by declaring that he should win Album of the Year. West also rushed the stage at the 2006 MTV Europe Music Awards, and hinted that racism was a reason he didn’t headline at the 2007 MTV Video Music Awards.
And of course, there was his infamous and unforgettable stage-rush during Taylor Swift’s speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
It’s easy to call West a spoiled celebrity. And it’s not much harder to point out that West’s tantrums and troubles only fuel his fame. After all, Kanye is rich and could definitely be a nicer guy some of the time.
But it’s equally important to recognize that these moments of chaos also make his triumphs even more salient. They’re like flip-sides to the artist’s considerable victories in multiple media. They bind West’s persona to an archetype: he’s a tortured artist, a man with demons, the scrappy fighter.
In essence, each time West falters he sets the stage for a comeback, an atonement. West isn’t just a person, he’s a character and an emergent icon. And unlike other train wreck celebrities, West has thus far actually managed to redeem himself with his music and the life story he constructs with his Twitter feed, television appearances and videos. While we eventually all lose interest and empathy with people like Britney Spears or Lindsey Lohan, West successfully shows how pleasurable it is to watch someone come back from the dark side again and again.
In this way West is truly an epic hero. Like Odysseus bound to the ship mast, West is fallen and tempted, but through determination and genius eventually passes safely on to victory. Or, West is the reluctant superhero (think Spider Man). He toys with giving up or going bad, before finally making the right decision.
I’m not sure there is another pop star with as complex a public persona. West is like the Severus Snape of the avant hip-hop world. Is he good or evil? Brilliant or unhinged? Duplicitous or singularly committed? Other stars toy with this kind of self-reflexive celebrity, but no one pairs genuine moments of unrestrained personal catastrophe with such fantastic work the way Kanye does. By comparison, the life and accomplishments of runners up like Lady Gaga just seem… pedestrian.
The result, of course, is that West’s life and work aren’t really two different things. They are one and the same, a great saga living up to the wildest ambitions of Andy Warhol, Damien Hirst and P. T. Barnum. West’s story afflicts and attracts. It soars and crashes. And in the end, perhaps the only remaining question is if it will be a comedy or a tragedy.
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