Will we, as a nation, ever be able to measure the sheer destructive power of Kanye West? Oh, sure, it seems like a silly question. He's a talented rapper with a weird personal aesthetic and a habit of blurting things out inconveniently. He seems odd sometimes, but not dangerous. And yet, we must not underestimate the importance of Kanye to national security. He has, as of this writing, been condemned by two US Presidents. President Obama famously called him a "jackass," in an off-the-record comment, for interrupting Taylor Swift at an awards show. And last week, George W. Bush said that the "an all-time low" of his presidency was when West went off-script on a televised fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina, saying, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Yes: For those keeping track at home, Bush did in fact imply that Kanye West sharing his opinion was more upsetting than the fall of the Twin Towers. More disturbing still, Kanye West seems to at least partially concur.
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Bush's complaint was a perfect moment for Kanye: A chance to point out the hysteria with which people have often reacted to his statements. "Kanye West: I'm Occasionally Inappropriate, Still Not Worse Than Drowning Or Losing Your Home," the headlines might have read. He would have had back-up. Matt Lauer, who interviewed Bush, pointed out the obvious: "You're not saying that the worst moment in your presidency was watching the misery in Louisiana," Lauer said. "You're saying it was when someone insulted you because of that." Amanda Marcotte defended West, calling him "the Cassandra of our Troy." Plenty of other blogs and news outlets weighed in over the next few days to call Bush short-sighted, self-centered, and thin-skinned. And, riding this wave of exposure, sympathy, and support, Kanye West showed up to... apologize. Wait, what?
"I definitely can understand the way he feels to be accused of being a racist in any way because the same thing happened to me. I got accused of being a racist," West said. He added: "With him, it was a lack of compassion with him not rushing, him not taking the time to rush down to New Orleans. With me, it was a lack of compassion of cutting someone off in their moment [at the VMAs]."
Cutting someone off in the middle of a speech and failing to provide timely and desperately needed aid in the event of a major natural disaster are now morally equivalent, apparently. And thus continues the self-flagellation of Kanye West. It's nice to see that he cares about hurting people's feelings. But his atonement is getting more depressing by the day.
In the past year, Kanye has spent hours on Twitter apologizing. He's released tracks like "Monster" ("everybody know I'm a motherfucking monster"), or "Power," on which West raps lines like, "goodnight, cruel world," and fantasizes about "a beautiful death." He's released a short film in which he contemplates a luminous bust of Michael Jackson, apparently drawing parallels between himself and a man accused—and then cleared—of being a child molester. He's commissioned a painting of a black king's severed head with a sword through it, and put it to use both as a cover for his forthcoming album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and as his Twitter avatar, just to drive home the point that he's not feeling too good about himself. His gift for melodrama and self-mythology has turned on itself; he used to tell stories about Kanye the Incomparable Genius, and now he tells stories about Kanye the Most Reviled and Depressed Man Alive. He's dragged us all into the depths of his paranoid, mood-swinging personal hell, just because he made one bad decision and got turned into an Internet meme.
Other people in West's industry have faced nasty blowback, but they've kept their fighting spirits intact. M.I.A. responded to a mean profile in the New York Times—which seemed to imply that her politics were an elaborately staged put-on conducted solely so that she could eat truffle fries—by releasing portions of the interview tapes online (turns out she's not the one who ordered the fries) and Tweeting the offending journalist's phone number. Eminem will never apologize if he can arrange a public humiliation of his opponent; it took him years to admit that he regretted making his bodyguards protect him from a hand puppet. Tipper Gore was so incensed by Body Count's "Cop Killer" that she attempted to draw a connection between the existence of rap music and the existence of rape. The song was denounced by George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle and Charlton Heston, who called Body Count's lyrics "brimming with racist filth," and Time Warner was faced with boycotts. Ice-T pulled the song from the album. He left Time Warner. And then he released songs with lines like, "that's censorship, dumb bitch."
Put simply, lots of artists have been more vilified than Kanye, and they've gotten through it. They've owned it. They've even taken pride in ruffling feathers. It's hard to understand why Kanye can't do likewise.
Sure, Kanye has some things to regret. He's sensitive, he's impulsive, and he has the ability to share his thoughts with a wide audience as soon as they occur. It's a lethal combination. Inevitably, such a man will find himself, in the words of an infamous West-authored blog post, "typing so fucking hard I might break my fucking Mac book Air!!!!!!!!" And what he is typing might contain the phrase "SQUID BRAINS." Or, "fuck you and the whole fucking staff!!!" Which was his response to his 2008 Glow in the Dark tour being given a grade of B+ by Entertainment Weekly.
But Kanye West's willingness to run off at the mouth, take chances, and follow his brain wherever it takes him is what makes him a distinctive performer. Sometimes, you get stage rushes and incoherent Tweets from Kanye; sometimes, you get a song as weird and risky and beautiful as "Love Lockdown." And sometimes, you get the sublime comedy of Mike Meyers' face going pasty and panicked and bug-eyed as Kanye calls the President racist.
But if he weren't willing to risk embarrassing himself, you'd get none of it. This isn't to say that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy won't be good; the leaked tracks are exciting. But I, for one, am still waiting for the album that comes out when Kanye's gotten all this self-recrimination out of his system. You know: The album about how America dragged a black man through the mud, called him names, and destroyed his ability to like himself, all because he wasn't humble or careful enough about speaking his mind. That's a story the old, incautious Kanye was born to tell.