Kanye West has 9,976,044 followers on Twitter. He follows one person, Kim Kardashian. It’s the kind of dramatic gesture he’s prone to — one that suggests that nearly everything he does is an aggressive defense against some horde of people out to get him. He’s not exactly wrong. Everything he does comes under scrutiny, and his egotism often seems more interesting to the media than his music. So, last night, when he appeared on Jimmy Kimmel, everyone held their breath. What happened was depressingly predictable.
Recently, he went on a classic-Kanye Twitter rampage. It was right after a self-aggrandizing interview with the incredibly sycophantic Zane Lowe of the BBC during which Kanye claimed “I know how to make perfect,” compared his three-dimensional music to one of R2D2’s holograms (less egotistical than provocative, really), and referred to himself in the third-person (as in, “Kanye West will regret this interview”).
Jimmy Kimmel spoofed the interview in a sketch where both participants were portrayed by children. And Kanye let loose on Twitter.
His tweets are generally pretty hilarious, but some key ones from this debacle include:
On a pretty basic level, he’s right: Jimmy Kimmel’s face does look crazy, Kanye’s interview was painfully honest, and Sarah Silverman is arguably funnier than Jimmy Kimmel. And it’s not as if Kanye’s egotism is new — it’s just that it’s less entertaining now than it once was (College Dropout closed with “Last Call,” a 13 minute celebration of Kanye West featuring a pitch-shifted Jay-Z vocal, a Barbara Streisand beat, and an early instantiation of his arrogant defensiveness “Some say he arrogant / Can y’all blame him?” and “Now I can let these dream killers kill my self-esteem / Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams”). But that’s beside the point.
When he got on stage last night with Kimmel, he seemed nervous. His legs were jiggling, and he tensely endured the public reconciliation. Jimmy Kimmel and Kanye commiserated over feeling like “Zoo animals” due to media attention. There were funny moments, like when Kimmel gave Kanye a pair of leather jogging pants for Kanye's daughter, North (West), or when he played the clip of Josh Groban singing some hilarious Kanye tweets. And then slowly Kanye ramped up.
First, he explained, “For me, I’m a creative genius and there’s no other way to word it. I know you’re not supposed to say that about yourself. And I say things the wrong way a lot of times but my intention is always positive.”
Another key moment was his claim that “For me to say I wasn’t a genius, I’d just be lying to you and to myself,” and the climactic speech where he compared himself to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, David Stern, Michelangelo, da Vinci, and Jesus, stating “These are the people I look up to, this is the type of impact I want to make on the Earth.”
These weren’t actually such egregious moments — he’s right, he probably is a genius, whatever that may mean, false humility is unpleasant, and you could do worse than Jesus or da Vinci when picking role models. What was depressing is that he seems singularly incapable of admitting a mistake or coming down from the ego-maniacal heights he's recently scaled. He talked about the Twitter rampage, stating “I thought that was amazing just to crack media … I feel like media does everything they can to break peoples’ spirits and I do everything I can to break media.” A Twitter rampage is hardly breaking media — it’s just playing into unproductive assumptions about Kanye.
Kanye West’s public embarrassments used to be an integral part of his music. His raps are often intensely confessional, but their lyrical content wouldn’t pay off nearly as much if the entire country weren’t already privy to his meltdowns. When you’ve seen Kanye West stand on stage in front of a blushing Taylor Swift, make an ass of himself, and then endure weeks of backlash, a song like “Runaway” becomes immediately legible and doubly significant. For a while, every one of these strange public outbursts was in part justified by music that revealed the motivating insecurities and redemptive capacity for finding joy in catastrophe.
What’s sad about the Kimmel beef, is that Kanye seems to have lost the ability to generate the kind of narrative that redeemed the Taylor Swift incident in My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s themes of exposure (“All of the Lights”) and escape. Instead, we have Yeezus, which feels as impulsive as an egotistical comment in an ego-stroking interview. It’s fundamentally vain music — abrasive without any real intention, just because “challenging art” can sometimes sound like ugly art. Because Kanye started trying to “break media” when his earlier records were already as innovative as they come.
At one point in his career, Kanye was innovating with songs like the warm “Family Business,” the penultimate track on The College Dropout. The core of that song is the opening line of the second verse: “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind / A creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns / Keep your nose to the sky, keep your heart to God / And keep your face to the rising sun.” That whole album, and that song especially, resisted dominant trends in rap with its overt sincerity about religion and family-themes. Such open-hearted music could have gotten tired after awhile, but the total, self-unaware egotism of his recent music and public appearances is much worse. Then, “all that glitters is not gold” was a key lyric for a great album. Now, when Kanye talks about breaking media on TV, it seems as if the media has done more to break him than it once had.