Kanye West Is a True Genius in Every Way but One
In 2006, Brandon Flowers, the lead singer of The Killers, said rapper Kanye West "makes me ill." Nine years later, he feels the same.
"Everyone's afraid to say anything contrary to him being a genius," Flowers told Rolling Stone in a recent interview. "It's crazy, man! And it's frustrating. That's my stance on it. A lot of people might agree with me now. I may have been a little bit ahead of my time."
It does appear that hating West is a trendier lifestyle choice now than it was in 2006. The strongest period of hate began in 2013 in a series of exchanges with BBC's Zane Lowe and talk show host Jimmy Kimmel. People were especially offended after the Kimmel appearance when West declared, as is his wont, "I'm a creative genius." Since then, the hate has barely stemmed. Angry fans made a 133,000-plus signature-strong petition demanding Glastonbury Festival replace Kanye with a rock band. Loser.com still redirects to West's Wikipedia page. And, as Radio.com reported in March, there are 34 "Ban Kanye" public groups on Facebook. Some of it may actually be getting to Kanye, finally: After the 2015 Grammys, he took Twitter to apologize to Beck, following comments he made about the musician's apparent lack of "respect" for "artistry."
At this vital crossroads in West's legacy, it seems like it's finally time to ask: Is he really a genius? Based on most definitions, there's a strong case that he is.
The G-word. We begin by defining genius. It initially meant something like "father" — it's related to the word "genitals," after all. In the Renaissance, the Daily Beast reports in an article on Darrin McMahon's recent book Divine Fury: the History of Genius, the word came to have the meaning that we now recognize: highly developed talent or ability.
But many people mistake genius as specifically representing superior intellectual ability. Mensa, the most prominent high-IQ society, only accepts those in the top 2% of a population's IQ, though many Mensans would not consider themselves "geniuses."
"I don't think being a Mensan makes you a genius, as I prove on a weekly basis on a Saturday night," journalist and Mensan Jack Williams told Nautilus last October. "I think there is a creative, innovative element there as well. Genius pushes the boundaries."
One thing that West's fans and haters can unanimously agree is that West pushes boundaries. Elon Musk titled his recent entry for Kanye in the Time 100 Most Influential People list as "Boundary Breaker." That's how he sees himself, too.
"[W]hen you get something that has the name Kanye West on it, it's supposed to be pushing the furthest possibilities," West told the New York Times in 2013. He rarely disappoints on that front, for better or for worse.
The unexpected genius. Genius is more about thinking in unexpected patterns that the straightforward mind doesn't see — even if they're relatively simple.
"The principal mark of a genius is not perfection but originality, the opening of new frontiers," wrote journalist Arthur Koestler in his 1964 book The Act of Creation. West's most recent album, Yeezus, illustrates that perfectly. It's an album that feels almost purposefully flawed and unfinished — but it opened entirely new artistic boundaries for the kinds of emotion and sound allowed in hip-hop.
"Kanye is there," rock visionary Lou Reed wrote in a Yeezus review for Talkhouse. "It's like his video for 'Runaway,' with the ballet dancers — it was like, look out, this guy is making connections. You could bring one into the other — ballet into hip-hop — they're not actually contradictory, and he knew that, he could see it immediately. He obviously can hear that all styles are the same, somewhere deep in their heart, there's a connection."
According to Dr. Albert Rothenberg, the author of The Emerging Goddess: The Creative Process in Art, Science and Other Fields, this ability to relate in one's mind contradictory concepts — like opposed genres — is a telltale sign of genius.
Michael Michalko, author of several of several books on creativity, claims another sign of genius is the ability to reformulate established concepts into novel ones — another project the rapper has owned. West's development of the "chipmunk soul" technique satisfies this definition. He coined his signature sound by taking existing soul records and speeding them up to make them sound more like high-pitched melodic instruments rather than voices. With songs like "Through The Wire" and "Slow Jamz," he turned a technique previously implemented by the RZA and Just Blaze into a style that could redefine early aughts hip-hop radio.
And he isn't a fluke — West has redefined his sound repeatedly, charting paths for whole genres in unexpected new ways. He revolutionized radio again with 808 & Heartbreak, developing the confessional, minimalist and melodic hip-hop that helped pave the way for artists like Drake, The Weeknd and James Blake.
His recent collaborations with Paul McCartney are doing it again. On "Only One" and "FourFiveSeconds," West remixed the singer-songwriter ballad with modern hip-hop swagger and modern R&B autotune to create something entirely new. McCartney recently told the Sun he saw similarities between West's songwriting style's and John Lennon's — an artist most would deem genius.
He's a genius — except one thing. Kanye West checks most of the boxes for genius — his claims are not unfounded. But there's one place he doesn't line up: ego. "No really great man ever thought himself so," wrote critic William Hazlitt in an 1826 essay. "He who comes up to his own idea of greatness, must always have had a very low standard of it in his mind."
West is basically the opposite of this description. He has compared himself to nearly every culturally established genius in the book — including Walt Disney, Pablo Picasso and Steve Jobs. Nevertheless, West bears many of the marks of genius. The true revelation, though, will only come with time — not in a Brandon Flowers interview. Part of genius is the work's ability to stand the test of time. Shakespeare's and Mozart's works are proven to be genius because they can resonate with audiences far removed from the time and condition of their creation. One cannot understand the history of music without looking at Mozart or the history of English language without looking at Shakespeare. We'll have to wait to see if Kanye West's discography becomes as vital. But there's a good chance it might.