"Don't do no press/but I get the most press." - Kanye West, 2012
"Soon as they like you/make 'em unlike you." - Kanye West, 2013
1. By now we know: When we're dealing with Kanye, we're dealing with a different stripe of press offensives.
See, it's the kind of thing that cuts both ways: On some days, Kanye West seems absolutely full of shit. And on other days, Kanye West exhibits the kind of nuance as a celebrity—tinged with real honesty and truth—that's been all but extinguished from our culture by overbearing publicists, record labels, movie studios, brand endorsement deals, and so on.
Take, for example, that first quote from "Mercy": Kanye rapped it around a time that he had legitimately shrugged off the press, given them the cold shoulder. In Spring 2012, still sore from the harsh questioning he faced on national television in the wake of the Taylor Swift incident the summer before, he wasn't doing interviews. But still, yes, everything he was doing was getting tons of press.
But "Mercy" also came at a moment when all of the people duking it out for top dog status in rap right now were still on either side of the wider cultural parabola. When "Mercy" dropped, Wayne, Jay, Em, and Drake were, publicly, pretty quiet. Meanwhile, newcomers like Kendrick Lamar, Mac Miller, Macklemore, Earl Sweatshirt, J. Cole, and Wale were just beginning to make noise.
Compare that period of time to when Yeezus dropped in June: Jay had an album on the way, and was making headlines for going to Cuba. Mac Miller was all over MTV. Cole and Macklemore were all over the radio. But most importantly: Yeezus was not going to be on the radio. Regardless of whether or not you or Kanye hear "radio singles" on that album that the radio programmers did not, the music on the album doesn't share much in common with the kind of things broadcast conglomorates are playing right now. If Kanye wanted to stay at the center of conversations about music, and the people making it, for the first time since the rollout of 808s and Heartbreak he was going to have do some press. And for the first time since the Taylor Swift incident, he decided to do two of the four major interviews he did for Yeezus on camera.
2. Those two interviews now stand as two of the most intense—and maybe even "important"—interviews of his career. Both were often as opaque as they were revealing, and one was just as surprising for the form it took: On a daytime television talk show, which is the former realm of Oprah, and now, Oprah-aspirants. And it was with reality show star/maven Kris Jenner. Who happens to be the grandmother of Kanye's child, his mother-in-law in waiting, and the owner of the house he's currently living in.
For one of the biggest music stars on the planet, this isn't exactly Charlie Rose. Especially when it's one of only four interviews, which are the first interviews he's sat down for in nearly four years.
If you take one thing away from algebra classes, it's that every equation has to be equal on both sides in order to function. The more we see of the Zane Lowe Kanye West, the less we can think of Yeezus as just a character Kanye made up.
3. The interview on Kris, which aired in August, was jaw-dropping in none of the ways we expected. Kanye's voice was up a few octaves, and had an uncharacteristically soft lilt. This was not the Angry Black Man of "New Slaves." Anything but. He was friendly. Humble. Cuddly, and conservative, even. He talked about his Christian values, and wondered if that was okay to say on television.
In very few ways did this person resemble the guy who put out an album only weeks prior on which he raps about putting his fist in a woman "like a civil rights sign," having conversations with Jesus about counting stacks of money, and asking his girl ("your bitch")—the daughter of his interviewer—for group sex ("other bitches").
If, at this point, you thought Yeezus was simply a character made up to tell the story of an album—despite everything else you knew about Kanye—you couldn't be blamed. This Kanye looked like he was in a haze, that he'd been put into place by circumstance, something he's almost never allowed himself to be. Even stranger? He looked like he was enjoying it.
4. This week, we watched an interview between Kanye and Zane Lowe of BBC Radio 1. It was the opposite of everything the Kris interview was. Kanye was shaking, angry, pissed, cursing the establishment, naming names, and burning bridges of the highest order. This was Kanye fully and completely unhinged, out of pocket, and lacking anything remotely resembling self-consciousness (or, in some cases, even self-awareness). It wasn't just that the Kanye West who made Yeezus had stepped up to the plate, it was that he'd doubled-down on that persona. Multiple times.
Kanye put some of the biggest names in the world on blast. He fired shots at Nike, who didn't call him the morning after the Air Yeezys posted record sales numbers. He fired shots at superagent Ari Emmanuel—one of the most powerful men in Hollywood—who'd tried to make Kanye a marketing conduit for other brands. He fired shots at Lady Gaga, one of those celebrities who Emmanuel had made a conduit, for Poloroid ("What the fuck does [Gaga] know about cameras?"). He compared his non-musical ambitions to a civil rights movement. He called himself the biggest rock star in the world. He took credit for the trend of leather jogging pants. He said that George Lucas and Steven Spielberg were behind the curve of the cinematic innovations he pioneered with his seven-screen Cannes screening of his movie, Cruel Summer. And bemoaned the fact that the world has not taken proper notice.
5. How different could these two Kanyes be?
On Kris: "It's sometimes difficult for me to deal with the press."
On BBC 1: "There’s the 10%ers, the media. For the most part, the 85%ers don't really know what it is. And the 5%ers that know what it is can't get it past the 10%ers, so this is a jump past—this gon’ get taken off the internet quick. 'Send the paparazzi at him, get him locked up.' That's what's gon' happen. Somebody's trying to set me up. Somebody's trying to shut me up."
Moments of Humility
On Kris: "I'm supposed to be a musical genius, but I can't work the car seat that well."
On BBC 1: "When someone comes up and says something like, 'I am a God,' everybody says, Who does he think he is? I JUST TOLD YOU WHO I THOUGHT I WAS: A GOD. Would it have been better if I had song that said, 'I am a gangster' or 'I am a pimp'? All those colors fit better on a person like me, right? But to say you are a God, especially when you got shipped over to the country that you’re in, and you're last name is a slave-owner's, how could you say that? How could you have that mentality?"
On Being Blessed
On Kris: "I feel that I'm very blessed. But with great blessings come great responsiblity."
On BBC 1: "I'm blessed and cursed by my level of education. To be a visionary, all you have to do is make decisions based off of your eyes instead of your ears and your memory."
On Kris: "The only thing I want to do in life is help people."
On BBC 1: "What people don’t realize is, I want to make uniforms for my high school basketball team through brand Yeezy. I want to make that one step, and then make another step, and then eventually do uniforms for an entire city. Then I want them uniforms to be hot and make money. Then I eventually want to be the anchor and the force behind a billion-dollar company. And after I make that billion dollar step, then I can go in and say, Hey, I’ve got an opinion on this. And that can be a 10 billion-dollar step. And I eventually want to be the anchor of the first trillion-dollar company."
On Taylor Swift
On Kris: "The last thing I'd want to happen to my daughter is for some crazy drunk black guy in a leather shirt to cut her off at an awards show. That’s the last thing I would ever want."
On BBC 1: "So at the moment of the MTV awards, I made that decision based off of my eyes: I was like, that's not correct, that is invalid, completely invalid. Everybody else don't move, that's off they ears. 'Oh, he gon' get in trouble.' That’s off they memory. They don't move. They're enslaved."
6. Needless to say, one of these Kanyes is a sweet family man who cares deeply about how he's percieved and is worried that he doesn't have all the answers in the world. The other one is a megalomaniacal, power-hungry egotist who is convinced he is the sole monolith standing in opposition to the evil status quo. But is Kanye West hiding inside of Yeezus, or Yeezus hiding inside Kanye West?
However messy, ugly, weird, and crazy it all may appear, Kanye's eccentricity continues to set him apart in culture. His own comparisons of himself to Michael Jackson are beginning to appear less and less hyperbolic.
7. If you take one thing away from algebra classes, it's that every equation has to be equal on both sides in order to function. The more we see of the Zane Lowe Kanye West, the less we can think of Yeezus as just a character Kanye made up. But the more we see of Kris Jenner's Kanye West, the less we can think he doesn't know what he's doing as Yeezus, in full-on Yeezus-mode. Remember what he says on Yeezus's "I Am a God": "Soon as they like you/make 'em unlike you/because kissin' people's ass is so unlike you." It's the tear-em-down-build-em-up style of management, applied to projecting one's public image. Kanye seems to be in complete control, even when he's completely unhinged.
8. That doesn't mean he's right about everything, or in-over-his-head in his bullshit. Did Kanye bring leather jogging pants to the world? Sure. Does that make Kanye a visionary? Kind of, in the same way the guy who brought the Sham-Wow into the world is a visionary. But in Kanye's world, everything—including the resistence he gets when he brings leather pants to the world years before they catch on—is interconnected. And this is correct, and it isn't, to a certain extent.
9. Kanye in the Zane Lowe interview saying Nike won't give him a full fashion line because the system wants to limit him could be true. But it could also be true that it's because he has no sense of economic porportion or margins, something he more-or-less admits to when talking about the lighting setup and costs for his tour during the same interview.
It's just like Kanye saying he hears radio singles that radio won't play off of Yeezus. That's kind of correct, too. The album's sound is too extreme to fall into the homogenous blend of music made for airplay on the radio—the ultimate promotional tool of pop music, run by corporate entities, the kind he tells "Fuck you...you can't control me" on these ostensible radio singles. But these aren't the sole reasons that "New Slaves" or "Black Skinheads" aren't in heavy rotation. They're not on radio because they're not the sound of rap right now.
Which, if you're Kanye, you blame on systematic oppression and censorship. And, even worse, the resultant self-loathing, among the rap community, that acts as a self-limiting mechanism. In other words, rappers won't make anything other than traditional radio rap because they were taught to hate themselves and make mediocre music, just like the people who were taught to hate themselves that listen to it. It's totally insane, reductive, slippery-slope logic. And at its core, it's not just mean, but inherently offensive to pretty much everyone making or listening to rap who isn't Kanye.
That said: in a certain light, it's also a crystalline moment of clarity, with real, scary, dangerous truth at its core.
And thus, the takeaway from these two interviews:
10. By compartmentalizing his mania, Kanye is showing that he's learned how to self-regulate in ways that allow for the most extreme iterations of his persona to co-exist in ways that are still shocking, surprising, compelling, and smart. By releasing and restricting, confirming and negating. He's still doing the same thing he's been doing since College Dropout. The rapper with the backpack and the polo, the rapper with the leather sweatpants, the rapper who wants to design water bottles, the rapper who raps about inequality and then compares that inequality to getting snubbed at fashion shows. A series of contradictions that don't cancel each other out, but instead, add up to something more. Something that is, ultimately, the product that Kanye aspires to be: A global superstar with nuance and complication. However messy, ugly, weird, and crazy it all may appear, Kanye's eccentricity continues to set him apart in culture. His own comparisons of himself to Michael Jackson are beginning to appear less and less hyperbolic: He's often as magnetic as he is alienating, both to himself and others, and his stratospheric ambitions are beginning to collide with the reality of having had so many of them already come to fruition. Or as Elton John once sang, about someone who took a similar type of ride: It's lonely out in space.