It’s hard to imagine a world where the name Kanye West bears no meaning. No matter where you go today, whether it be the streets of New York City, or the dense jungles of South America, saying the name Kanye West—even just Kanye—produces one of two reactions; the spilling of praise or the rolling of eyeballs. But that’s the consequence of being Kanye West.
West’s Orpheus-like descent into hell began over a year ago at the MTV Video Music Awards when he hijacked the microphone from Taylor Swift, who was receiving the award for Female Video of the Year. “I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish,” he told her, “but Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.” Swift stood there silently, with no response. Then West, without an offer of apology, ran off the stage and into a firestorm of invective.
From critics, to fans of both West and Swift, to other celebrities, including Pink and Kelly Clarkson, to President Obama (who was quoted off the record as referring to West as a “jackass”), the anger was unanimous—a testament to the power of social networking. And while the rest of the nation simmered, the parodists took their turns, particularly Saturday Night Live, who spoofed the ordeal when Swift hosted the show a month later. West attempted to temper the flames with numerous public apologies and a personal phone call to Swift to apologize, but it was for naught, which must have been startling. Because in the past, his ego-inspired stunts had resulted in an almost immediate universal amnesia, brought on by the concussive effects of hit-making talent. For West, the stark contrast between what happened at the VMAs and events in the past wasn’t in the arrogance, but the response to the arrogance. For the first time the world as a whole was fed up.
Look at anyone who is famous, has enraged society, and has a publicist, and you’ll find they do one thing: disappear. And that’s exactly what West did. He dropped off the radar for some time, trying to escape the backlash, the paparazzi, and personal demons that had yet to be exorcized. In an interview with Hot 97 DJ, Angie Martinez, he admitted that he fled to Japan and remained there for several months, then continued on to Rome where he interned with high-end fashion house, Fendi.
“I interned just like Daniel Day-Lewis when he's not acting; he's working on shoes or something, just super normal, everyday things,” West commented.
Being in Rome also allowed him to have some much-needed time to himself. This didn’t necessarily mean he was working on music—he later admitted separating himself from recording for six months—but that he finally had time to deal with the loss of his mother in 2007.
“On one hand, I never really dealt with the loss, but in not dealing with the loss, I also didn’t completely deal with the responsibilities that my mother used to take,” he told Vanity Fair in a recent interview. “She was an amazing, well-rounded person, and I was a spoiled brat…She was a teacher, and to be a teacher, you have to care about people—you can’t just care about yourself. I just cared about myself. I thought the fact that so many people in the world—a million in the first week [of a record release]—cared about me, that that was enough, but it’s not enough.”
West re-emerged in early March of 2010 with a new blog, dedicated to promoting art, fashion, interior design, and music. The blog was a monument to minimalism, borrowing from the Apple model of beauty in pure whitenes, with links that only showed up if you moved the cursor over them. The only thing visible on the page was the newest post, which could have ranged from a picture of someone’s newborn, to an 18th-century ottoman, to photographs of bare-breasted women from Playboy Europe. West has since replaced the blog with promotion for his upcoming album, but it certainly was a statement. His past vanities were no reflection of an artistic shallowness.
Then came his return to the music world—really, his return to the world stage as a whole. In June, the first single off his upcoming album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (slated for release November 22), was leaked; a King Crimson-sampled track simply titled “POWER,” in which West turns the tables on his critics, criticizing them for granting power to those who shouldn’t have it—ie, celebrities who pull stunts like interrupting acceptance speeches—and eventually resolving, “You have the power to let power go.”
What followed was a music video that evidenced West’s continued efforts to raise his work to an art form. Seeking the aid of Italian artist Marco Brambilla, they created a contemporary perspective of the fall from immortality to mortality, something that Brambilla felt the lyrics of “POWER” reflected. He asked the questions “What does power and access look like?” and “How delicate is it to preserve that moment of time?” The result was a 90-second video of West representing power as the central figure in a Michaelangelo piece from the Sistine Chapel, while women dressed as Egyptians perform a visual ballet around him.
Perhaps the most delicate moment of West’s career came at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, one year after the Taylor Swift debacle. Viewers wondered whether or not there was still animosity between the two stars, and whether or not another incident was imminent. Quickly though, the fears were quelled. Swift performed a new song from her upcoming album, Speak Now, titled “Innocent,” in which she sings, “It’s ok, life is a tough crowd; 32 and still growin’ up now; who you are is not what you did; you’re still an innocent.” Poignant and wise, it was the olive branch the world needed to hear.
West also provided commentary on the situation through a performance of his self-deprecating single, “Runaway.” “Yeah, I always find something wrong; you’ve been puttin’ up with my shit just way to long,” West sings in the pre-chorus. He continues by reaming himself for being a scumbag and other harsh insults. It was also revealed that West and Swift met in private before the show to discuss what happened the year before and resolve any enmity that remained. Whatever transpired, West was redeemed.
Now he’s set to release his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which has been described by iTunes as his attempt to “disrupt pop’s molecular structure with its ambitious themes of abnormality and rebirth.” West collaborated with French artist George Condo to design five images for the cover, the first of which was so graphic, it was banned by most retailers in the US. He reacted by lambasting the companies through his Twitter account. “So Nirvana can have a naked human being on their cover but I can’t have a PAINTING of a monster with no arms and a polka dot tail and wings,” West tweeted. “In all honesty…I really don’t be thinking about Wal-Mart when I make my music or album covers. I wanna sell albums but not at the expense of my true creativity.”
Disputes aside, West has also wowed critics with his 35-minute music video for “Runaway”. The short film features West finding a winged woman (supermodel Selita Ebanks) in the middle of a road. Supposedly, she represents his “phoenix” or the true art that resides within him. Although a little overdone at times, particularly with the dialogue, the video is visually beautiful and accompanied by most of the songs on his album. It’s the culmination—at least to this point—of West’s evolution as an artist.
“The other two things I’ve learned since [the 2009 MTV VMAs] are humility and empathy,” West commented to Vanity Fair, “to be empathetic to other people’s feelings. To care about how much this must mean to someone else, and not to think that my ideals or my righteousness are more important than someone else’s feelings. My responsibility is to make music that’s progressive, that makes me happy, that makes everyone happy. My job in society isn’t to be mad. My job is to present good music.”
Perhaps this is all a big publicity stunt in itself—this changing of attitudes. West has already shown through the years that he is a great master of public image. Unfortunately we won’t truly know until a situation like Taylor Swift winning an award over Beyonce, or who knows what stresser, arises. Until then, it’s all conjecture. Because the new Kanye West appears to be a changed man; a man who has been to the brink of obscurity and returned from it with a renewed faith in art. Like Beethoven, who nearly gave up composition due to his loss of hearing, it’s about understanding the responsibility of genius. True art is a thing belittled by ego, for ego is the Cain to the Abel that is humility—both the progeny of self-aware talent. And West seems to understand this now. Which is good for him.