Kanye West on the Meaning of Life

Existence is struggle, and only one celebrity won't let us forget it.
More
Gonzalo Fuentes/Reuters

"The point of life is getting shit done and being happy."

That's Kanye West talking to Zach Baron for a new GQ cover story. On its own, a sort of sweet sentiment, right?

But read the full context for the quote and you might have a different reaction. West had been praising his new wife's ability to thrive without any discernible talents: 

Kim [Kardashian] is the type of girl that, her entire life, if you were in school with her, most people would be studying and up late nights, but for some reason she would have the skill set to go and grab the one book, turn to the exact page, and just magically say, 'That's the exact answer.' Or she could wink at the person who had done all the work and get it done anyway. 

West doesn't give many interviews these days, and the GQ Q&A should only confirm opinions of the rapper who President Obama called "a jackass" and The Atlantic's David Samuels called "American Mozart." Like: If you think he's insufferable, his explication of his wedding decor ("The bathrooms—that usually would be a porta-potty—were wrapped in a fabric that was neutral to match the fort"), his persecution complex ("Celebrities [are] being treated like blacks were in the '60s, having no rights"), and his invocation of second-tier Will Ferrell comedies as cultural touchstones ("Like they said in Step Brothers: Never lose your dinosaur") will only offer more evidence that he's a buffoon.

But to people who remain fascinated by West, it crystalizes what makes him an interesting pop-cultural figure. He sees his life entirely in political terms. To hear him tell it, his every struggle, creatively and personally, stems from race and class. He defended his 45-minute wedding toast on the grounds that he was fighting "for the re-education of what celebrity is." He praised the guest list as a utopian vision of democratized creativity, not a tabloid-feeding hodgepodge of famous people. He said he got hitched so as to inspire people. And when asked what made him happy, he listed 12 Years a Slave's Oscar win before his own marriage. 

Quarrel with the validity of each of his causes if you'd like (I'm with him on most of the race stuff, skeptical on the supposed oppression of famous people, and against the elevation of Step Brothers). But the alignment of his own life with bigger, abstract narratives helps make his music awesomely, entertainingly grandiose—and fundamentally sets him apart from other celebrities.

Read that quote about Kardashian again. He's saying there's an artistry to her ability to float through life without seeming to try very much at anything. The Italian Renaissance author Baldassare Castiglione actually coined a term for this, sprezzatura, referring to courtesans who exhibited nonchalant excellence. (The old-Europe-fetishizing West would love this comparison.) Sprezzatura might be the most desirable celebrity trait there is, defining stars from James Dean to Jennifer Lawrence.

In rap, the ultimate sprezzatura figure may be West's friend Jay Z. West understands that fact, marveling to Baron at Jay Z's "ability to brush things off of his shoulder and just win at life." He continued:

He's the poster child of winning. And I think I was the poster child of, like, fighting and winning. But you always saw the fight. And with Jay, you always saw the win.

The obvious irony to anyone who knows their backstories is that Jay Z had to fight against more than West ever did. But Jay makes it look effortless. West makes it look the opposite. He wants you to know that every single thing he's accomplished, he has earned. And that's why, even as he boasts about his rehearsal dinner at Versailles and his shoe line for Adidas, he can still sometimes seem like the most relatable person in pop. Getting shit done and being happy is real work.

Jump to comments
Presented by

Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity


Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

CrossFit Versus Yoga: Choose a Side

How a workout becomes a social identity

Video

Is Technology Making Us Better Storytellers?

The minds behind House of Cards and The Moth weigh in.

Video

A Short Film That Skewers Hollywood

A studio executive concocts an animated blockbuster. Who cares about the story?

Video

In Online Dating, Everyone's a Little Bit Racist

The co-founder of OKCupid shares findings from his analysis of millions of users' data.

Video

What Is a Sandwich?

We're overthinking sandwiches, so you don't have to.

Video

Let's Talk About Not Smoking

Why does smoking maintain its allure? James Hamblin seeks the wisdom of a cool person.

Writers

Up
Down

More in Entertainment

Just In