For the better part of a decade, Kanye West’s remarkable creative output has been largely overshadowed in popular culture by indictments of his personality and supposedly oversized ego. But Kanye is certainly not the first rock star with an ego, and it’s doubtful that any performer can reach such stratospheric levels of superstardom without stratospheric self-confidence. What sets Kanye apart is his identity as a black man. In a popular culture that produces images of blackness that are more violently negative than positive, Kanye’s so-called vanity has radically political implications.
That was West’s argument when he sat down for a rare, candid interview with BBC 1’s Zane Lowe on September 23rd. However, he first framed the question of self-esteem in less politically freighted terms. “I always feel like I can do anything,” Kanye told Lowe. “That’s the main thing people are controlled by. They’re slowed down by the perception of themselves. I was taught I could do everything. And I’m Kanye West at age 36.” It’s hard to argue with the rapper. He has released six game-changing solo albums and has produced some of his contemporaries’ best work.
Talking to Lowe, Kanye reframed his whole discography as a kind of self-help guide. “Go listen to all my music, it’s the codes of self-esteem,” he tells Lowe. “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe you can overcome the situation that you’re dealing with at the time.”
It’s actually quite an endearing way of looking at the rapper’s music. But the fact is that Kanye is wrong. Not everyone be Kanye West by age 36. Self-esteem—no matter how stratospheric—only goes so far in the face of abject poverty, police brutality, the school-to-prison pipeline, and countless other social injustices which combine to keep so many black men in a permanent underclass. But our country’s systematic attack on blackness is precisely why Kanye’s very public displays of self-love are actually significant. And they extend from a tradition that is embedded in hip-hop culture.
This theme of braggadocio has been inherent to hip-hop since its inception, a direct extension of “toasting” in Caribbean music. To the extent that rap lyricism is often thematically circular, rappers distinguish their work by finding new ways to elaborate common themes. So when it comes to rap as a competition, the better MC is not just the rapper with the nicest rhymes, or the tightest flow—it’s also the rapper who can think biggest, who can construct the most outsize version of himself, restyled as head hustler, as a king, and even as God.
Long before Kanye West dropped his most recent album, Yeezus, the rapper Nas named his sixth album “God’s Son” Rakim was often called the “God MC” for his virtuosic skill. And Jay Z has always laid a claim to godliness; his nickname HOVA derives from the Hebraic Jehovah. What emerges is a pantheon of rappers as earthly demi-gods, jockeying for dominance through album sales, swagger, and of course sheer lyrical skill.
But Kanye’s every move seems to incite more than its share of controversy, and Yeezus is no exception. When the album dropped this summer, the rapper’s blatant self-deification became a media event. In part, this is certainly because Kanye is a master of insta-memes. He doesn’t merely spit verses, he crafts powerful soundbytes that instantly embed themselves in American cultural consciousness.
Though Jay Z is arguably a better rapper and more complex lyricist than Kanye, his summer release Magna Carta Holy Grail doesn’t have anywhere near Yeezus’ punch. When Jay raps, “You’re in the presence of a King/scratch that you’re in the presence of a God,” the line falls with a thud. But on the track “I Am a God,” when Kanye snarls, “Hurry up with my damn croissants” the line reverberates outward in all its combined fury and humor.
Never before has a rapper’s claim to godliness been delivered with such force as these crudely powerful soundbytes, set against Yeezus’ dark and industrial soundscape. Kanye is baiting his critics with songs like “I Am a God.” But the rapper’s naysayers miss the point and simply see in Yeezus the delusions of a megalomaniac.
But no one called John Lennon crazy when he said that the Beatles were more popular than Jesus. The difference is that the Beatles were white and Kanye is black. And when he declares himself a God, Kanye is clearly thinking much bigger than the rap game pantheon. As an international celebrity with multiple hits, Kanye is declaring dominance over white popular culture as well. That’s why Yeezus is more controversial than an album like God’s Son.
“Would it have been better if I had a song that said I am a gangster? Or if I had a song that said I am a pimp?” he asked Lowe. “But to say you are a God—especially when you got shipped over to the country that you are in and your last name is a slave owner’s—how could you say that? How could you have that mentality?”
Kanye knows the mentality he is supposed to have. Four years after the fact, he is supposed to feel bad about interrupting Taylor Swift at the MTV Video Music Awards. He is supposed to be self-deprecating. And he is supposed to make his music and public persona palatable and comfortable for a white audience. But instead he’s doing something radical. In a culture that constantly depreciates the value of black men, he proclaims his value to the world, in the most extreme and powerful ways he can.
Even Kanye’s biggest fans have a tendency to laugh at his ego, treating it like an endearing idiosyncrasy. Certainly the rapper’s ire often feels misplaced—railing against designers like Hedi Slimane rather than the prison-industrial complex, for example. But the culture that mocks Kanye West for his confidence and ambition is the same culture which stereotypes black men as lazy and criminal.
Both thematically and musically, Yeezus is supposed to come at you like a punch in the gut. Kanye put it best when he told Lowe, “This is what frustration sounds like.” The album is an indictment of Kanye’s critics and his fans, and all of popular culture. Maybe we keep laughing to defend ourselves from Kanye’s fury. But I think it’s time we let ourselves take the punch.