The Grammys were this past weekend, and Kanye made another splash when he insisted that Beck surrender his award for Best Album to Beyonce. I’m a massive Kanye fan. In the days of QuizUp, I was No. 1 in Kanye West trivia in Arkansas. I am often asked how I can be a fan of such an egotistical jerk, and the answer is simple.
The public image of Kanye West — the man we associate with interrupting award shows and fish sticks — is a fictional character that he has intentionally cultivated since 2009.
I don’t believe Kanye is as arrogant as he acts. I believe he has layered his reputation with outlandish actions and comments, in part for publicity, but primarily to create a shield for his personal life. The progression of his music mirrors the development of this character.
Kanye’s first album, “College Dropout,” dropped in 2004. Critics praised its refreshing honesty that examined education, religion and both sides of race issues. A.V. Club cited the album for its “substance, social commentary, (and) ornery humanism.” With this debut album, Kanye challenged hip-hop to a new level of authenticity and intentionality. “Late Registration,” released in 2005, continued the trend of socio-political commentary, examining issues ranging from healthcare to drug trafficking and blood diamonds. The album was another success, and was named Album of the Year by multiple publications. With 2007’s “Graduation,” Kanye continued his dedication to intentional music while shifting his focus from societal to personal. He rapped about the strain of fame and publicity, his tense relationships with his father and with Jay-Z, and his refusal to fit the mold expected of rappers. The album was another success, selling nearly 1 million records in the first week.
In 2008, Kanye released “808s & Heartbreak.” Inspired by the departure of his fiance, the loss of his mother and misguided publicity, the album is emotionally exhaustive, exploring an existential crisis marked by loss, loneliness, depression and failure. While the album was his most emotional and transparent, it was his least successful. The album was consistently given lower scores than his previous albums, and the New York Times described it as a “rough sketch for a great album” that was “clumsy and underfed.”
It was, I believe, at this point that Kanye began to create a character. After baring all to critics and fans and being harshly denied, he decided to withdraw his personality from the public, presenting a dramatic and fictional personality in its place. His 2010 “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” propelled this effort, as he abandoned introspective commentary to create an imaginative, symphonic narrative of fame and excess framed together by layered beats. He provided a visual for this narrative and his character, directing a short fantasy film that starred himself and debuted many of the songs from the album as its soundtrack. The effort at fantasy is presented immediately, as the album and film begin with a reading of Roald Dahl’s poetic rewrite of “Cinderella.”
Kanye took the emotional absence to another extreme with 2013’s “Yeezus.” Instead of creating a lyrical project, he basically didn’t write lyrics. He wrote and recorded lyrics for half of the album as freestyles in just two hours. It gave a new meaning to the “Blades of Glory” quote he sampled: “No one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” Kanye has given up on communicating through his lyrics, deciding instead to focus only on the beats people want from him.
There are exceptions to my theory. Kanye is certainly arrogant and probably neurotic. Occasionally he’ll release a song that reflects his personality. But overall, if you view the personality Kanye has shown over the last few years as a character, I think it will make more sense. His outbursts allow his character to maintain a presence, and the rare moments in which he resembles the “College Dropout” serve as a reminder that a real person is there, he’s just hiding.