American Mozart

Intense, emotional, and frequently out of control, the hip-hop superstar Kanye West allowed his antics to turn him into a national joke and to earn him the criticism of two American presidents. Would a massive concert tour with his friend and rival Jay-Z offer the troubled rapper a taste of redemption—or disaster?
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So here is the president of the United States, enjoying canapés and small talk at Daniel, chef Daniel Boulud’s gourmet restaurant just off Park Avenue, with the right touch of upscale-whorehouse decor and enough Alice Waters in the kitchen to make it the place where every Wall Street guy takes his wife on bonus night. The drill for tonight is two fund-raisers at Daniel, to be followed by an even more intimate sit-down dinner at Spike Lee’s house, before the motorcade heads uptown to the Apollo, in Harlem, where Barack Obama once lived in a ratty student apartment, less than 50 blocks but light-years away from the perfumed dining room where he is answering questions and posing for pictures and name-checking Ralph Ellison and Saul Bellow. I get my chance to ask him the question of the moment, the question that everyone who has bought the album or spent $150 on a concert ticket wants answered. “I have a question I want to ask you, Mr. President,” I venture, once I catch his attention.

“Sure,” the president says.

“Kanye or Jay-Z?”

The president smiles. “Jay-Z,” he says, as if the answer should be obvious. When it comes to the most meaningful pop-cultural divide of the moment, the question of whether you prefer Kanye West or Jay-Z—the top two hip-hop artists in the world, who recently joined forces for a national mega-tour called Watch the Throne—Barack Obama is clearly a Jay-Z guy. Jay-Z is about control. Jay-Z is about success. He’s a natural-born leader. He is married to Beyoncé Knowles, the gorgeous, sugar-spun R&B star who recently joined with Michelle Obama in a public campaign against the epidemic of childhood obesity. Together, Jay and Beyoncé are worth something close to $1 billion. Jay-Z fills arenas and enunciates clearly—unlike Kanye West, who jumps onstage and interrupts during award ceremonies, cries on talk shows, and jets off to Rome to apprentice with the House of Fendi. Besides, the president’s smile says, we are at a fund-raiser in New York, which is Jay-Z’s hometown.

“Although I like Kanye,” Obama continues, with an easy smile. “He’s a Chicago guy. Smart. He’s very talented.” He is displaying his larger awareness of the question, looking relaxed, cerebral but friendly, alive to the moment, waiting for me to get to the heart of the matter.

“Even though you called him a jackass?,” I ask.

“He is a jackass,” Obama says, in his likable and perfectly balanced modern-professorial voice. “But he’s talented.” The president gives a wink, poses for a few more pictures, and then glides away to meet with the rich Manhattan lawyers in the other room, leaving behind a verdict that he intended to be funny, and also entirely deliberate: even before an audience of one, the leader of the free world is still not letting Kanye West off the hook.

Whatever you think of the many controversies he has ignited, you must admit that Kanye West is at least some kind of musical genius, ranking among the top five producers and the top five rappers of the past decade. (His singing, by contrast, is kind of a joke.) Every one of his five solo albums has gone platinum, and he has sold 30 million digital downloads of his songs, to become one of the most downloaded musical artists of all time. He has won 18 Grammys—the most of any artist in the past 10 years—while serving as a backpack-wearing icon of black nerd chic. Kanye’s power resides in his wild creativity and expressiveness, his mastery of form, and his deep and uncompromising attachment to a self-made aesthetic that he expresses through means that are entirely of the moment: rap music, digital downloads, fashion, Twitter, blogs, live streaming video. He is the first true genius of the iPhone era, the Mozart of contemporary American music, intent on using his creative and emotional gifts to express the heartbreaks and fantasies of his audience.

In addition, though, Kanye West is, according to the president of the United States—the first black president of the United States—a “jackass,” a narcissistic monster who tore a massive hole of self-regard in the American cultural quilt.

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Worse even than the president’s epithet, which he first offered on September 14, 2009, is the near-universality of his verdict, which has been echoed for years on talk shows and gossip sites across America. Most painful of all, perhaps, was the classic “Fish Sticks” episode of South Park, which portrayed Kanye as a designer shades–wearing egomaniac who is so humorless and devoid of self-awareness that he can’t comprehend a simple joke about fish sticks. Being represented as the most humor-impaired man in America by the South Park creators Matt Stone and Trey Parker may have actually hurt more than what the president said.

What did Kanye West do to deserve all this?

I’ll tell you. Assuming, that is, you don’t follow the news or watch the talk shows, and don’t have kids, and have never heard about the Taylor Swift incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, where Kanye brusquely interrupted the young country-music queen’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video to announce that the award should have gone to Beyoncé, who, like everyone else in the room, was flabbergasted by Kanye’s horrifying breach of etiquette. It was a surreal moment: the eruption of the black man from the audience just as the blond white singer said, “I always dreamed about what it would be like to maybe win one of these someday, but I never actually thought it would happen.” His muscular arms bulging from a short-sleeved leather shirt he designed himself, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses that made him look like some futuristic cartoon bug, Kanye grabbed the mic and humiliated Swift—and himself, though for the first few seconds the true victim of his actions wasn’t clear.

“Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ma let you finish,” he said. “But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” He repeated: “One of the best videos of all time.” Then he gave a shrug—not an Oh, no, what have I done? shrug but a defiant Someonehad to say it shrug—and handed the mic back to Swift, at which point any thinking person had to feel sorry for the pretty young woman in the pretty white dress staring mutely at the piece of gilded hardware she had just won.

The fallout was global. Pop stars shunned Kanye. Bloggers ridiculed him. Talk-show hosts mocked him. The president of the United States called him a jackass. It was the kind of moment that could wreck even the hottest career, and Kanye went on Jay Leno’s prime-time show to apologize. “It was rude, period, and I would like to apologize to her in person,” he said. When Leno asked him what his mother, Donda West, an English professor at Chicago State University who died in a plastic surgery–related accident in 2007, would have said to him about the incident, West couldn’t answer. “Would she be disappointed in this? Would she give you a lecture?,” Leno pressed. It was a thoroughly humiliating thing for Leno to do to an artist—yet also a highly compassionate form of damage control: the host was offering up his own credibility with his audience as bail money for his guest. “Yeah,” West answered, looking utterly defeated. Then he skipped town for Japan, then on to Rome, where he spent four months as an intern for Fendi, and then on to Hawaii, where he recorded an entirely brilliant solo album called My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.

Kanye also decided on a new public-outreach strategy—the kind that Michael Jackson might have adopted if he had lived to see the age of Twitter. In July 2010, Kanye visited the offices of Facebook, Twitter, and Rolling Stone, in a white shirt, black tie, and shades, looking like an early-period Miles Davis, to demonstrate that he could and would henceforth communicate with his massive global audience directly, instead of through media interviews. He created a Twitter account and began using it compulsively. He addressed his fans live from South Korea by talking through his MacBook using a protocol called Ustream. “That’s a fur I wanna get,” he said, holding one laptop up to the camera of another and flipping through his album of thousands of images. “That’s a unicorn. That’s a naked girl walking down the street with wings.” His aesthetic, he explained, was made up of “things that I dream and I see and I felt since I was a child, from reading comic books to being in love with paintings to going to art school.”

Nothing helped, in part because both the Taylor Swift outburst and the presidential condemnation were already part of Kanye’s well-established reputation for script-breaking moments of petulance and hurt, the most memorable of which was the time he looked into the camera during a 2005 telethon to aid Hurricane Katrina victims and cast halting, racially loaded aspersions at whatever targets came to mind—George W. Bush, the federal government, the news media. “If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food,” he said, before suggesting that the government was shooting black people in the streets of New Orleans because “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” Bush took this outburst as a personal affront—an affront so severe, in fact, that it overshadowed other, seemingly more notable and troubling aspects of his presidency. “It was a disgusting moment,” Bush told Matt Lauer in a televised interview promoting his 2010 memoir, Decision Points, claiming that Kanye’s comments ranked in his mind as the lowest moment of his presidency, worse even than the criticism he took for his handling of the Iraq War.

So it is worth noting, then, that while Kanye West is a next-level producer and rapper, a high-impact tweeter, a public consumer of chicken fettuccine, and whatever else he might be, he is also something different from a political leader or celebrity pitchman. Kanye’s emotional landscape may be troubled, but it is also a unified whole, which is the mark of any great artist. He is a petulant, adolescent, blanked-out, pained emotional mess who toggles between songs about walking with Jesus and songs about luxury brands and porn stars. Raised by his college-professor mother in Chicago, and spending summers in Atlanta with his father, a former Black Panther turned newspaper photographer turned Christian marriage counselor, Kanye united hard-core rap and the more self-aware and sophisticated inward style that had evolved in the early 1990s.

Kanye West is an artist, but this made little difference when he tried to explain himself, as he did in a first-person apologia he wrote for the rap magazine XXL, in the hopes of convincing his fans that his weird behavior was not simply a symptom of terminal egomania. Yes, he’d behaved badly, but he did so because he cared too much. “When I did things like [the Taylor Swift episode] or the ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people’ moment, it wasn’t a matter of being selfish,” he wrote. “It’s more like I was being selfless—that I would risk everything to express what I felt was the truth.” And still, President Obama calls him a jackass.

Watch the Throne—the album and the tour—was an effort to repair the damage. His stage partner, Jay-Z (né Shawn Carter), makes the star-generating machinery work for him financially, emotionally, and artistically by projecting a highly controlled persona. Kanye’s gifts lie in the opposite direction, and it was hard not to worry that he would emerge from the tour having learned to imitate some of Jay-Z’s gifts but having crippled or abandoned his own.

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David Samuels is a regular contributor to The Atlantic.

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