Somewhere Between ego and anxiousness lies Kanye West, the self-appointed rock star of modern hip-hop. His Yeezus Tour, stopping at San Jose’s SAP Center on Oct. 22, is his first solo tour in five years, and in a way this feels like the most appropriate time for him to revisit his favorite subject: himself.
For the last few years, Kanye has somehow become his own worst enemy. His energy and enthusiasm for both his industry and the general idea of creativity have been mistaken as the ramblings of a megalomaniac, bent on selling his own genius in a bid for attention, instead of what it is: a challenge to break the framework of what a “rapper” can and cannot do.
Kanye’s latest album, Yeezus, released with little advance promotion and minimalist album artwork is, in many ways, his most uniquely personal in the way that it is infused with a sense of urgency.
The energy that infuses so much of Yeezus is one of claustrophobia. The production is minimalist and foreboding; more bent on atmosphere and textures than it is hyped-up soul samples and anthemic choruses. As an artist, West’s work is invariably tied to his own identity, but now it’s less about how he sees himself and suddenly more about his perception of what his identity is to listeners.
With the racially potent singles “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves,” and the more symbolic sampling of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” in “Blood on the Leaves,” the pendulum sways away from luxury rap on Yeezus and highlights the adversity (some self-imposed, other born deep into the fabric of the culture) that Kanye faces in his quest to be more than just a rapper and cross over into fashion and other creative disciplines.
What also makes West compelling is that he simultaneously subverts and encapsulates our cantankerous relationship with the current idea of celebrity. He sometimes resists it—in a very physical way with recent paparazzi encounters—but he must know deep inside that the simple act of resistance is fodder for the very industry he laments. So much of the third wave of his narrative is informed by an abstract understanding of celebrity (fathering a child with Kim Kardashian borders on performance art), yet it seems what he really desires is the ability to utilize the privilege for something more.
So why won’t anyone take him seriously? When Kanye West, who is largely to thank for shifting rap culture’s post-gangsta self-boasting into something more vulnerable and introspective, says that he wants to tackle other creative challenges with the same sense of command and craft that he has music production, why is it met with something worse than criticism—closer to a snickering apathy?
So much of West’s struggle seems rooted in the most invisible of racial tensions in pop culture—one that allows an African American man to become a tastemaker and filthy rich, yet offers him limited vertical mobility when it comes to exploring other creative ventures.
Consider Justin Timberlake, who is free to shuttle between mediums and industries, or Tom Ford, who expanded beyond the fashion world and became an Academy Award-nominated director. West is largely reacting to what is, in fact, gold-plated shackles—a sense that his role as an artist has already been defined. As West put it in a recent interview: His Truman Show boat has hit the painting.
So much of what West has become known for is his general outrage. His comments, often dubbed “rants” by even his most ardent of supporters, aren’t always the most articulate responses to the ailments of present-day celebrity. His ramblings—lately focused most on his inability to break into the fashion industry despite hip-hop’s overwhelming influence on style —have prompted many to pin West’s sense of self as far too inflated for his own good.
Maybe it is. Or maybe he’s just that good. Or maybe it’s not actually about any of that. West’s ego is without a doubt more present than ever (“Jesus Walks” marks the beginning of West as we know him; the self-praising of “I Am a God” on Yeezus catches him at a remarkably different end of the same spectrum), but there is a sense that his ego is now being used more as evidence in his fight for “more” than it is an actual impulse to project his mythology back onto us.
His wealth and his power used to be enough; now, it’s more about reaching for a more fully defined sphere of being—a space in which he isn’t restricted by anything but the limits of his own impulses.
Kanye West performs with Kendrick Lamar at SAP Center on Oct. 22. More Info.