As is the case with most anything to do with Kanye West, this is not about Kanye West.
The importance of who and what Kanye “represents” has always surpassed the importance of who he actually is. The College Dropout was a legitimate classic that, among other things, contained one of the best five song-stretches on any album, ever. (“All Falls Down” followed by “Spaceship” followed by “Jesus Walks” followed by “Never Let Me Down” followed by “Get Em High.”) But, what really, really, really mattered when it dropped was that Kanye was talking about middle-class angst. And college. And Jesus. And having a shitty boss at the Gap. And he liked blazers and Stacey Dash. Proving there was a place in hip-hop for middle-class angst and college and Jesus and shitty bosses at the Gap and people who liked blazers and Stacey Dash. We do not all know former drug kingpins and people from Compton and people who looked like L.L. and people cool enough to call themselves “GZA.” But we all know people like Kanye West. Some of us were people like Kanye West. He wasn’t just a producer turned performer. He was a proxy. Kanye West really, really, really mattered because we really, really, really wanted to matter.
Kanye West matters more now. But for different reasons. He is one of the three or four most important people in music today. His My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the most critically revered rap album of the 21st century. He’s engaged to one of the few American women his age who’s just as famous as he is. But, instead of representing “us”—and, in this sense, “us” is “anyone who happens to have been born on Earth”—Kanye now represents abstract nouns like “Celebrity” and “Genius” and “Excess” and “Volatility” and “Creativity” and “Zoolander” and “Eccentricity” and “Selling Out” and “Paris” and whatever else we think of when we think of Kanye West. Oh, and “Narcissism.” We can’t forget Narcissism. If you looked up the definition of narcissist in the dictionary, you’d likely find...a collection of words defining "narcissist." But, if you were asked to name a celebrity who best personified that definition, you’d likely name Kanye West.
We think we lost Kanye. To himself. But we’re wrong. Kanye West never stopped representing us. He’s just representing a part of us we don’t want represented.
Of all his questionable behavior—his consistently disturbing lyrics about women, his co-opting the Confederate flag, his introducing us to Big Sean, etc.—the narcissism seems to bother most of us the most. Everything he now does—the interviews he allows, the woman he proposes to, the clothes he wears, the music he creates, even the child he produces—is seen through this lens. This obsession with himself and his image is our most concrete evidence that Kanye West no longer represents anybody, and this bothers us. We think we lost Kanye. To himself. But we’re wrong. Kanye West never stopped representing us. He’s just representing a part of us we don’t necessarily want represented.
I have a little under 1400 Facebook friends. Of these, I’ve met (maybe) 30 percent in person. And (maybe) 30 percent of that 30 percent are people I’d actually consider friends. I also have over 13,000 Facebook fans I’ll never meet, and 11,000 Twitter followers I wouldn’t know if they were sitting on my living room couch. Yet, I seem to care very much about what these anonymous people think of me. It’s not uncommon for me to spend three minutes editing a tweet it only took three seconds to type, and 30 more minutes thinking I should have typed something else. I feel good when even my most mundane status messages are liked by people I’ve never met, and even better if those people happen to be people I consider “cool.” I try very hard to say the type of “witty” and “insightful” things that make it seem like I’m not trying very hard, with the hope that people I don’t know appreciate it so much that they share it with people they don’t know.
What is remarkable about what I’m saying is the fact that nothing I’m saying is remarkable. I may have more friends, fans, and followers than most (I certainly have fewer than some!) but my behavior is not abnormal. We’re all A&Rs of our own personal brands now, and part of maintaining that brand is soliciting acknowledgement from strangers. And part of soliciting acknowledgement from strangers is being hyperconscious of your image. We know which angles give us the most flattering pictures, and we’re annoyed when we get tagged in a photo without our permission because we can’t fathom letting people know what we really look like. We’re more meticulous about the image we want to project than we are about actually wanting our person to match our persona.
We are undeniably and unambiguously narcissistic.
I’m far from the first person to notice any of this. The editors of Oxford University Press just chose "selfie" as 2013's "word of the year." If that's not a sure sign of humanity-wide narcissism, I don't know what is. In fact, some psychologists believe we are living through a full-fledged narcissism epidemic. In “Narcissism: The Malady of Me” the New York Times’ Benedict Carey writes that narcissism has become so common that behavioral scientists are reconsidering the definition—and this was published three years ago. Before Twitter became ubiquitous. And before the Pope got on Instagram.
With our generally accepted narcissism comes an implied code of conduct. This code of conduct has one rule. It is okay to be narcissistic. Necessary even. The only condition is that you just can’t admit that you care about your image as much as you care about your image. Kanye West has no such pretense. He has no rules. He is exceedingly, almost maddeningly transparent about how much he cares about how he is perceived. And about the importance of acknowledgement. And about his image. The only difference between his narcissism and our narcissism is that he doesn’t pretend it doesn’t exist. He acknowledges it. Embraces it. Swims in it. Fucks it. He’s too [insert adjective here] to be as self-conscious as we are about admitting to it. Naturally, he fell in love with the only woman who matches his translucence.
So, why does Kanye’s narcissism bother us so much? Well, as is the case with most anything to do with Kanye West, this is not about Kanye West. We think his narcissism is off-putting. Obnoxious. Vapid. Ugly. And it is all of those things. It’s also pure. And human. And us. It bothers us so much because we say we can’t relate to him anymore. But, we can’t relate to him anymore because he’s relating to a part of us that we’ve agreed to pretend doesn’t exist.
We still really, really, really want to matter. We just really, really, really don’t want to admit it.