Kanye Being Kanye

| 43 comments

So Kanye pulled another boner at the VMAs.

If you've been living under a rock, he borrowed the mic from Taylor Swift during her VMA acceptance speech and offered an impromptu tribute to Beyonce.

I think a lot of people from outside the hip-hop world see Kanye West as an impudent superstar. A bratty kid who's had everything handed to him and just wants everything to go his way. And I think there's truth in that. He certainly seems like he has a hard time putting the significance of MTV awards in their relative place, to begin with.

I don't want to defend what Kanye did. It was a real dick move. And it was made worse by the fact that Taylor Swift is a very legit artist and a very young woman. And she's dead right that she was striking a remarkable blow for country music, which clearly means nothing to Kanye West. Awful, I agree.

That said, there's something in the tone of the anti-Kanye sentiment that always strikes me as wrong-headed.

Kanye West really is a groundbreaking artist, and he has had as hard a road to the top of the music industry as anyone in hip-hop. This is a guy who literally spent ten years trying to get signed as a rapper -- in an industry where you're pretty much done if you haven't been signed by 21. He learned how to make beats, and became one of the top five producers in hip-hop, producing monstrous hits for Jay-Z and others, and he still couldn't get a record deal. Even Jay-Z admits that when he and Dame Dash signed Kanye to Roc-a-Fella, it was because they knew that he would take his beats elsewhere if they didn't. It was like that time the Rangers let Jose Canseco pitch.

Only when Jose Canseco pitched, he hurt his arm and looked like an asshole. When Kanye rapped, he changed the industry.

Kanye was an artist on Roc-A-Fella, a label that had its finger on the pulse of hip-hop music, and was signing (great) MCs like Freeway and Beanie Siegel and Camron and even M.O.P. who were grittier than gritty. Meanwhile, Kanye is wearing Polo and a backpack and writing lyrics that sound more like De La Soul than Kool G Rap. The odds were not on Kanye's side.

In fact, even after Roc-A-Fella signed Kanye as an MC, they figured they could let his career die on the vine from benign neglect. Kanye talked Talib Kweli into giving him an opening spot on Kweli's tour, and then West put out a mixtape on his own dime. Then Kanye got in a car accident and nearly died. When he was in recovery, he recorded a song about the accident while his jaw was wired shut. The Roc didn't want to give him any support, so he made his own video, with his own money, for a song that he didn't have the money to clear the sample for, and that song became a hit.

Since his first album blew up (on merit), Kanye has been absolutely dogged in his pursuit of the next artistic plateau. Some of his efforts have been more successful than others (I wasn't that into "808s and Heartbreak"), but he's never rested on his laurels. And he's also always regarded video as not just a compliment to his work, but an essential part of it. He's hired people with singular visions like Michel Gondry and Zach Galifianakis to make videos with and for him, and he's himself conceived of some of the most artistically ambitious videos ever made by a hip-hop artist. Before Kanye, this was essentially not done by a mainstream rapper.

Throughout all of this, West has occasionally had a bizarre and unpalatable outburst like this. But what's fascinating to me about his outbursts is that they're always about merit. Wrong or right, he seems to care so passionately about popular art that he can't help but speak out. There were times when it was about him thinking he should have won, but there was also this time -- when he thought Beyonce deserved credit. Or the time Kanye won and promptly handed his award to one of the few hip-hop artists who've matched his creativity and fearlessness, Outkast. Not as a tribute, but because he thought they had earned it more than him.

After I wrote a few notes about the events on twitter, I got a lot of feedback. Mostly negative. And largely reasonable. So I want to clarify.

It was a horrible thing to do to steal attention from Taylor Swift. It was f*cked up, even. Seems like Kanye knows that.

I think these outbursts are manifestations of the same pig-headed passion that drove Kanye to insist he could rap for all those years. The same passion that made him abandon the soul samples after they made him the hottest producer in hip-hop. The same passion that led him to let Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham dress up in weird farmer outfits and make him a video on a farm.

My friend Tom Scharpling wrote on twitter "I love him, but at this point the guy is a bully who needs to get punched in the stomach by a nerd high school-style."

And I don't know if I disagree.

But I think Kanye's flaw isn't his enormous ego. He's never been afraid to give credit to others, and he's never claimed, for example, to be the greatest MC (he's not), despite a hip-hop culture that encourages such claims (and a broader culture that takes them too literally).

I think this is the problem: Kanye doesn't understand that despite the fact that he is still the same guy, the same passionate, music-loving, speak-until-someone-listens scrapper, the change in the context in which he lives has changed who he is in a very real way. He's confusing signifier and signified. He's not the nerd anymore, he's the bully. When he stands up for what he believes in, he's not sticking it to the man, he's stepping on the little guy.

So I agree with Amy Malkoff, who tweeted to me that he seems to lack foresight or understanding of what his antics do to others. And I agree with Tom Scharpling when he writes, "Then he should start his own awards show. Oh, and WHY DO I CARE ABOUT THIS? THE MTV AWARDS ARE NOT REAL AWARDS!"

I hope Kanye can grow as a man, and think about who he is now, and what he means now. For himself, and for all the people who he inspired to be themselves and create art that expresses their experience rather than to play a role someone else wrote for them.

And I hope he never stops caring. Because his art is too important.

Also: that Beyonce video was amazing.

Also also: "Pyoo! Pyoo! Pyoo!" = line of the year

Also also also: I wrote this in one go without even re-reading it, so my apologies. Now that you made the mistake of reading it.

Comments

Have you seen the racist

Have you seen the racist twitter responses to this?

http://harryallen.info/?p=5154

I read that today, and it made me remember your post.

comment

that was good. this little post was well written and hit on the salient point: MERIT and Ye's fight to the top.

even if i'm not an ardent follower of pop culture, pop art, or even kanye west, i know what he is and represents in comparison to the status quo. i know what kind of access he is giving to people whom would never normally even think about what he's exposing them to. i know that the only thing that surpasses his actual artistic talent is his ability to strategize his resources to maximize impact on his audience. i know that he, with his specialized network of creatives, has galvanized a generation of independents to bootstrap their own things, by their own rules.

i did not know about the Outkast thing, and I respect him for that now. but yeah, like Obama says: " jackass!" dick move, no doubt about it.

he is going to have to figure out what he is now because he and the public perception of him are a lot different from the times of pre-Golddigger, pre-Hypebeast.

I will be more interested to hear his next work simply because i have a sense he is a man that takes things into consideration and grows, a real person. Just look at how he looked when Leno asked him what he thought his momma would say. Broke my heart a little bit man, I could feel his inner tears welling up. It was real.

Through him, I think we might witness mainstream hip hop's first serious self-effacing re-evaluation of EARNED celebrity.

w

thoughtful right-on post, Mr.

thoughtful right-on post, Mr. Thorn....this is the most balanced reading of the situation that I have come across yet....you and Jay Smooth are twin forces of measured accurate backstory responses...cheers

Intellectual Honesty FTW.

For more of Jesse's opinions on the legitimacy of Taylor Swift's artistry (and a pretty accurate impression), please revisit the New Year's episode of Jordan, Jesse, Go! (Ep. 85: The Penguin Thief, 24 minutes in).

Yes, but...

Very thoughtful commentary. I appreciate the perspective that went into this.

That being said, Kanye's passion does not give him a right to be rude.

Keep up the writing and reminding us that there are two (or more) sides to every story.

Punishment

There's only one fitting punishment for Kanye: Bruno's balls on his face.

Good job.

I thought this was a really thoughtful take on the situation. Thanks for sharing, Jesse.

--Lindsay Katai

Can we also acknowledge

Can we also acknowledge Beyonce for being a total class act?

http://www.mtv.com/videos/misc/436021/beyonce-wins-video-of-the-year.jht...

Keep it up, Beyonce.

Everybody (except Kanye)

was a total class act about it.

Completely

agreed.

Great post. Easily the best

Great post. Easily the best I've read about this situation.

Interesting...

Very interesting comments. I was 100% against Kanye before, now I'm maybe 20 or 30. I didn't know that he had given up his award previously; that definitely adds a good deal of legitimacy to his actions. However, the fact remains that he insulted a teenage girl at event that nobody should care about except teenage girls. It's similar to the Katrina thing: he made a valid point, but in doing so he hurt an event meant to benefit victims of Katrina. I think your point about his background leading to this behavior is very interesting and very true, but it still doesn't really excuse his actions.

The problem isn't that kanye cares so much about merit

The problem is that he cares so much about himself. Like someone up there said, he's a narcissist. And a whining, bitching sociopath who doesnt give a fuck about anyone else. He ran over that girl because he could, & because he knew she wasnt about to cold-cock him on that stage while he was making his insignificant ass-kissing 'declaration.' Who the fuck made him arbiter of the Truth? Beyonce's video was a rip-off of a Gwen Verdon dance number from the 60s (& the song was beyond annoying, in music & lyrics). Just like his flamingly stupid & cringeworthy, "Thru the Wire" video was just him stroking himself off to the original Rufus/Chaka Kahn song. Oooh! Poor fucking baby had an accident ! Poor fucking him, he had his jaw wired ! How did he EVER triumph to become the genius that he (& you prolaim him to be)??! This guy is made up of 100% bullshit, & you eat it for breatfast with a spoon.

To another someone, Marlon Brando declined *his OWN award* to make his own little political statement. He didnt run up & ruin anyone else's moment, & I doubt he would have done it to a kid. And had he done that back then, in a era before hip hop & the cult-of-me that has become so pervasive & blindly accepted in this culture, you wouldnt have had people pulling excuses out of their asses for him, like you have, Jesse.

Brando

My post was OBVIOUSLY not intended to make a direct equivocation between Kanye and Brando's specific award show antics but how their antics at award shows were manifestations of their tendencies to avoid the media handling machine, theatrically or otherwise.

As an aside, that was a pretty ugly post. You must be proud.

-Tony

someone kill the pity party for kanye

Boo fucking Hoo Tony. If people could even back up their story as much as the commenter said then people wouldn't be looking for this blog to somehow make sense of Kanye's actions. The matter that people still respect him after this is pretty ridiculous and no blog about how he has been should define why he had to do that.

He was seen around the awards with his gf AmberRose carrying a bottle of Hennesssy obviously this wasn't an act of political debate, it was him being a drunk.

-Cassie

??

Golly! I guess you put me in my place!

Happy trolling! Moving on now.

- Tony

Yikes.

This Cassie kid is being a real Kanye about all this.

See what I did there?

p.s.
Please swear at me too.

-Rob

Your argument proves...

Your argument proves that Kanye would have reason to be heard out if he spoke out about the award in a venue of his own. He undermines his own position and his message's worth when he jumps the turnstile and takes the mic and the stage from someone else during the 60-second window they are awarded as part of their prize.

Kanye thought he was passionately applauding an artist whose work he admired — he thought he was being sweet — we get it. But Taylor Swift was just saying how surprised and happy she was to be welcomed onto the stage, and then Kanye — who does have station and whose actions do carry weight — says she's not respected enough to get her one minute of stage time. One minute.

Let Kanye offer up a great toast to Beyonce if he wants to be sweet, but let him do it with his own beverage, not somebody else's.

(I say this not having seen either the Beyonce or the Swift videos, for whatever that's worth.)

"Important"?

Apart from his presentation of himself in fashion and videos and such, I don't really see the case for Kanye being an "important" rapper. He's an "important" hip-hop personality, but the music never lives up to the hype or his image.

...also

Is Kanye "important" because he did stuff that others have done before, but slightly worse, and got famous for it?

Fishsticks

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fishsticks_(South_Park)

A sincere question.

Alright, Jesse. I agree with you for the most part here, but I'm honestly curious about one line in your post. Just how has Kanye "Changed the industry"?

The hottest artist our right now is Drake.

And there's no Drake without Kanye.

So you can start with that.

More Importantly

Is it too late to text "E" for Asher Roth for best new artist presented by Pepsi?

Most Importantly

Where can I see this "pyoo pyoo pyoo" thing. And why is it not the thing everyone is talking about?

If This Was Reversed

If someone had shit all over Kanye's "Moment" you'd be pissed. Leaving aside who did it, because there are a thousand Kanye's out there just as good who never got the breaks he got/made, it was a giant asshole move. Period. You sound like the parent who turns a blind eye to their child beating up other kids because your child is brilliant and misunderstood. No, your kid is a fking bully.

I didn't think I could love you more.

Exactly.
Exactly.

He is who he is. Not to say that what he did was right, but I think if I was Taylor Swift I would have just rolled my eyes and thought *typical Kanye*.

He makes GREAT music. And he's a little crazy, and that's okay. If we didn't listen to the music of crazy people, we wouldn't have anything to listen to.

Thank you.

Thank you.

Agreed

I've been a Kanye defender for such a long time and you have said all the things I think but am not articulate enough to put into words. From this point on when people wonder why I defend the guy, I will just send them a link to this blog post.

umm, what?

Kanye, 32 year old multi-millionaire grown man, goes on stage and takes the spotlight from a 19 year old girl on the rise with Disney's spin on bubblegum "country" pop to show his support for a video that feature's his ex-boss' wife seductively dancing wearing a skimpy onesie.

What about this scenario inspired you to write this Jesse? Why does the fact that he asked Zach Galifianakis to do a video for him impress you so much? You are aware that Fiona Apple had Zach do the same thing for her the year previous, and the fact that Zach's version of "Can't Tell Me Nothing" was the web only alternative, are you not?

There's one thing to get on stage and bitch and moan that you were robbed. That's all part of the hip hop ego. And seeing how he doesn't have the verbal prowess to hang his cap on he has to start feuds with someone, god knows it can't be other rappers. Why not the companies that are constantly promoting his product? He's not the next Jay-Z. He's the next Howard Stern. Minus the loveable wack-pack.

Just like the "George W. Bush doesn't care about black people" moment, he looks scared and unsure of what he's doing. He has a moment of realization and then instantly backs off. There's no intelligent discourse to follow, no "viacom is a billion dollar company that does not to support true talent and only chooses to award flash in the pans with...". No, he blurts out something, "Hey! What's Kanye up to now??" and instantly runs off stage.

Jesse, I'm a fan of your show. I just find it hard to swallow that you actually care this much. "Because his art is too important"? Come on now! There's nothing revolutionary about a producer turned rapper who dresses in 2 year old skinny jean'd fashion trends with sunglasses on telling us that the pursuit of higher education is a foolish one. He's yet another artist who gets away with disgustingly misogynistic lyrics. He's yet another artist who thinks he's more important than he actually is.

My name is Tim. Feel free to send your thoughts. omnipotentchirp@gmail.com

PS I'm also a bit upset that you made no reference to another true influential hip hop act with incredible artistic music videos who were one of the very first to make use of soul samples that Kanye became so famous for. They too felt slighted one year at the VMAs and Nathaniel Hornblower had to stand up for what he believed in.

Kanye cares about videos.

I think Kanye West cares more about videos as a form than any artist since Michael Jackson. That's why I mention his collaborations with Michel Gondry and Zach Galifianakis (and Hype Williams and many others). Hip-hop as a form is usually about a very refined aesthetic. You could compare it to metal in that sense. Kanye has, over and over, defied that expectation.

Eminem, maybe the most talented MC in the world, wants to feud with pop stars, and it's pathetic. If Kanye was trying to start a feud, he wouldn't have apologized to Taylor Swift before he said that stuff. And remember, Kanye didn't talk mess because he felt slighted. He talked mess because he thought Beyonce was slighted. That's about his obsession with the form, not about feeling like he's better than he is. And I think that the video in question is absolutely amazing.

If you think the substance of what Kanye West has said is that "the pursuit of higher education is a foolish one," you don't even begin to understand what Kanye means to hip-hop.

"what about this scenario inspired you to write this"

...you know, I don't know Jesse, but this post probably exists in large part because his first contribution to KanyeGate was to go, "You know what I like about Kanye's antics? He's always right." on Twitter, and then pretty swiftly found out he was kind of the only person on Twitter who thought this was an appropriate thing to say right then.

So, as anyone who has gotten people really mad with a very short off-the-cuff statement knows, the natural impulse is to immediately want to come up with like 500 more words about it, and I think there are worse ways to satisfy that impulse than by writing a thoughtful, generous piece of pop-cultural criticism that also begins by using the word "boner" in its 1950s sense.

Not in favor of show biz folks being publicly uncivil but...

... this was a Marlon Brando moment. Kanye's antics AND artistic choices (and similar artists and performers) help fight the good fight against the obscenely self-serving and artistically destructive entertainment media industrial complex.

Please more entertainers and artists, stop caring about your "brand."

Also, "Marlon Brando moment": meant in a good way.

This is why Jesse Thorn is

This is why Jesse Thorn is the king of whatever odd sub-cultural niche I and many others inhabit.

well done.

jesse, this was one of the most well-written pieces about music that i've had the pleasure of reading in the past few years and given how much is written/blogged/tweeted regarding music on a daily basis, that's saying a lot. while the majority of people will either fall into Camp Kanye's An Asshole or Camp That's Just Kanye Being Kanye, you found a way to bridge the gap between the two and i commend you for it. his actions at tonight's "awards" show are nothing he should ever be proud of, but hopefully upon reflection, he will be able to use it as some sort of jumping off point for learning to keep some of his outbursts (however accurate they may be) to himself.

Very well said my friend, a

Very well said my friend, a great defense for a artist without having to defend his actions.

-pat

You're arguing a different point

Whether or not he's passionate or great or whatever, he's an asshole. He's sealed it. He did a mean thing to a young girl because he's to much of a narcissist to accept when things don't work out the way he wants. If you like his music, good, but don't conflate the two things. They're unrelated.

Great Angle

I really enjoyed your piece, but I'd like to offer a different view on the situation. I've seen enough professional wrestling storylines in my life to realize what happened at the VMAs.

Taylor Swift is about to become a big star, but just needs that nudge to become a household name. She's given an award, but Kanye West comes in and ruins her big moment. On paper it seems like he was just trying to show respect to Beyonce, while ignoring Swift. But really, Kanye subscribes to the any "publicity is good publicity" adage, and will do just about anything that's controversial, no matter what the outcome is as long as he gets people talking.

Then, Taylor Swift does an amazing performance on top of a taxi in front of Radio City, despite her big moment being ruined moments before.

Later in the night, gracious Beyonce remembers what a big moment it was for her when she was 17 at the VMA's and she brings Taylor out to say what she wanted to say. Taylor makes a triumphant entrance from backstage, and modestly thanks her fans.

MTV needed a big moment to make up for a few lackluster VMAs in the past, and this was it. Kanye gets the attention. Beyonce shows her modesty and graciously passes the torch. Taylor gets the "Beyonce boost" and is now the big star that everyone's talking about. Everybody wins. It's a story too good to be true.

Ehh... I don't think so.

I think MTV lets this stuff happen, certainly. But it wasn't planned. I think Taylor Swift and Beyonce are both refined, classy entertainers who, outside of the immediate aftermath of Kanye's bizarro behavior, know how to handle themselves. But that's different from it being planned.

Kanye seems to me to be

Kanye seems to me to be carefully reinforcing his public persona with actions like this. He's struck the l'enfant terrible character, and whether the antics reflect his true personality or not, the results are highly calculated. A guy so focused on his creative product and public presence elsewhere could probably get himself in check after the first few times of similar behavior. They guy appeared on saturday night live in a skit that mocked his penchant for doing this, making it really hard to believe that consequences aren't considered before he does something inappropriate.

So it's an angle, but not one anyone else seems to be in on. It's all very Andy Kaufman on Fridays. Compare this discussion to any about the badly coreographed Eminem/Bruno incident and I think Kanye knows a little bit about pulling fake outrage off in a way that gets real outrage from viewers. Beyonce and Taylor Swift get blindsided, but each get big net positives in the end simply by behaving like any normal person would; Kanye's using them, but its hard to come up with a scenario where his nonsense doesn't play out with him as the fool.

Maybe that's the way he really feels about merit of artistic work as Jesse suggests, but the way he chooses to express this opinion (real or hyped) is purely theatrical. He plays the villain in a manner that provides interesting character contrast to his artistic output, and thus creates talk about the contrasting feelings people have about him (or alternately, why their hatred of him has two disparate sources). So Kanye may or may not be an asshole, but the asshole we are seeing is a character, and giving that character too much emotional energy is like booing the guy with a cape and handlebar mustache as he ties the damsel to the railroad tracks. So I can't say I like Kanye as a person, but as an entertainer he's gifted beyond music.
-Josh

When you grow up as a fat kid

and lose weight as an adult, there's still always a part of you that sees yourself as that fat kid. When you go for years getting maligned for trying to make your art, even after you finally get your recognition, it's hard to shake the idea that people still don't give you your due. More to the point, even though Ye is a superstar, he still takes sh*t regularly when he tries to color too far outside of the lines because he's still part of the aggravatingly restrictive hip-hop community. All this doesn't mean that he gets a pass to do whatever he wants, but there's a reason for his frustration and a method to his madness.

Also, be it Madonna, Michael, Brando, John Lennon, Capote, Warhol or whoever else, all great artists are prone to doing and saying absurd things and while, again, that doesn't make those things any less absurd, it's kind of the price of doing business with a person who just doesn't think along the same lines as the rest of us. Kanye will say something crazy, GaGa will wear something crazy and Tarantino will make a crazy movie with Tyler Durden and Ryan the Temp trying to kill Hitler. Sometimes you'll like it, sometimes you won't, but if they were just like you and me, they'd be commenting on blogs by crazy smart people like Jesse Thorn instead of doing those things that keep us watching.

Besides, it's the VMAs, not a presidential address.

Lets talk about BEyonce and how she saved the day

First it seems that everybody is acting out of pocketthese days - congressman calling the Pres a liar and Kayne getting in the face of a young woman who can sing and saying that Be's tune/video was better. If i did that they would take me away. Kayne may be gods gift to pop but frankly it makes me tired when genius gets excused for bad behavior.

Bey did not break the bank on brains but I happen to find her both beautiful and very interesting and just as folks are dissing her for having eating issues or whatever (and we forgot what we did to MJ!) she does Put A Ring on it. In a world where folks spread HIV and dont have baby daddy , Marriage is much maligned in the culture-- but frankly its a hot tune and has the right message: Watch what you do with your business and be serious about it.

When Bey gets coolest woman in the world award, Our Heroine Bey comes out and says : I remember when I got my first one and it changed my life Let this woman have her moment too. Go BEy Bey that is all I have to say . Lets look at a woman who has some guts and grace . Let Kayne remember there is a difference between the president dont like black folks and dissing a young girl and trying to take the shine off her crown. Hang it up Kayne Thanks Bey for allowing someone else a moment in the sun.

Funny to say that...

"Besides, it's the VMAs, not a presidential address."

http://voices.washingtonpost.com/44/2009/09/14/kayne_interrupts_obama_th...