The Kanye West show has been on mute for all of 2021.
The music icon has been a master of spectacle for most of his career, saying and doing things that dominate the news cycle. Rick Ross once rapped that he’s the “timeline strangler,” but in reality, the title goes to Kanye.
Kanye has told us “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” live on NBC. He’s interrupted Taylor Swift’s big VMA moment. He’s used the radio airwaves to wage war against European fashion houses. He’s tried to coax a meeting (and a billion) from Mark Zuckerberg via Twitter. And yes, he’s surmised “slavery was a choice” on TMZ.
Some of his actions may be partially attributable to his battles with bipolar disorder, which led many to question how much his comments reflect his “true” feelings. But while dealing with mental health issues, mending the grief of losing his mother, and benefitting from a stanbase who feeds his idolatry, it’s difficult to know what level-headedness looks like for him in 2021. Even with that caveat, the masses can’t turn away, and he knows it. He even told us his M.O. on 2016’s “Father Stretch My Hands,” when he rapped, “Everybody’s gonna say something, I’ll be worried if they said nothing.”
Kanye’s album rollouts generally consist of him taking over the news cycle to promote his product, then disappearing to let the smoke clear. But this time, that radio silence is baked into his Donda promotion. Everything we know about the album has been relayed from longtime friends like Consequence, Malik Yusef, and the likes of Justin LaBoy. The official announcement for his first Donda listening session was made by Pusha-T. The news about the second session was first broken by a fan page. Kanye didn’t say a word throughout the entire first session in Atlanta’s Mercedes-Benz stadium. He hasn’t said a word publicly since 2020. For years, he’s been a relentlessly emitting ray of genius, audacity, frailty, and id. But now, he’s mastered the spectacle of restraint. It is a relieving departure from his norm.
Instead of using Twitter as his megaphone, he’s put the ball in our court, and allowed us to think what we want about him.
During points of the Donda listening session, everyone in attendance (and those viewing the livestream at home) attentively watched his every move. But he was just standing there. And we were just watching and listening. “There has to be a catch to this all?” some of us were thinking. Perhaps his thought is that if he’s silent about his recent past, we will be too. But his alignment with Trump and other conservatives has catapulted his antics from a pop culture pastime to complicity in a fascist administration that’s claimed and ruined millions of lives. There are still families being victimized at ICE detention centers from a movement he once advocated for. Silence alone can’t bring one back from that. Even when he’s hushed, and opts to make it just about the music, it can’t be. His conservative alliance has placed him too close to the oppression of others, and until he clarifies where he stands, we can only assume that he wants the people’s money, but not their freedom.
Kanye has historically sought to siphon hysteria into sales. His George Bush comments came two days after the release of Late Registration, and Graduation was promoted with a historic 9/11/07 first-week sales challenge against 50 Cent’s Curtis. But the attention-seeking tactics seemed to shift around 2013 while promoting his Yeezus album and tour. He spent most of the year railing against the fashion industry for not giving him an opportunity as a designer. His tone in interviews was coarse, and his abrupt Breakfast Club demand for people to boycott the Atlanta Louis Vuitton store didn’t do anything to soothe his relationship with the brand, but he had valid qualms about the industry’s racism—European fashion houses have long used Black culture as a muse without giving Black people power.
After a steady rise in stardom from 2004, he had hit a wall. He realized that as a Black person, no matter how big he was, and no matter how much he thought he had the world, the world had him in some ways. Our society is designed to extract from Black entertainers, not give them institutional power. That frustration radiated in angry tweetstorms and fiery interviews with Sway and The Breakfast Club. The chaos fit the mood of Yeezus, a rabid rockstar turn that was laden by the racial commentary of songs like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinheads.” It was as if his antics were live performance art pieces for the tone and themes of the project.
Things were a bit more chaotic during the The Life of Pablo album cycle, which was typified by self-affirming tweets about him being “the greatest living artist and greatest artist of all time.” His boundless ambition was still brushing up against the confines of whiteness. He admitted that he was $53 million in debt, and sought for a wealthy person (like Mark Zuckerberg) to invest a billion dollars into his ideas. Again, the tumult reflected the music, as the album offered us a glimpse into his constantly churning brain with beat switches, clashing moods, and continuous post-release edits. He rapped about how people “ain’t never seen nothing crazier than / this nigga when he off his Lexapro” on “FML.” The album’s honesty about his mental health struggles shifted Kanye-gawking from a harmless pastime into something more unsettling—something people should be discerning about engaging with. He spent much of the 2010s upset that his cultural power hadn’t turned into the industrial power that he sought, and then he devolved into a hardcore “if you can’t beat ’em, join ’em” mode.
Kanye had previously said he was “on his Donald Trump shit” during an infamous 2016 Saint Pablo Tour stop in Sacramento, California, and he met with the controversial president at New York’s Trump Tower a month later. But then he took a year away from music, seemingly to recharge. He came back with a MAGA cap, saying that Trump’s presence “made him feel like a man” and met with him again in the Oval Office. He aligned with conservative grifters like Candace Owens, pushing for “free thought” via a restrictive conservative agenda. For many, his antics passed the point of no return when he went on TMZ and surmised “slavery was a choice” in convoluted advocacy for “free thinking.” His antics pushed past the culture beat and became a national trainwreck with tangible consequences. Trump had galvanized and aligned white nationalists in a way that no one has done in decades. Kanye helped normalize Trump and get Black voters onboard with his agenda in the midst of 2018 midterms. It didn’t matter that Ye was one of his lowest-regarded albums—many people weren’t listening anyway.
He’s since apologized and divulged that he was suffering from a manic episode during parts of 2018, including the TMZ appearance. But the contrition didn’t negate the harm his words caused. His bombast had crossed a line. His 2019 Jesus Is King album cycle was much quieter, but the damage was done with many people.
His 2020 “presidential campaign” and anti-Joe Biden advocacy, apparently spurred by another manic episode, became another rubbernecking moment for the public. His June 2020 campaign stop in Charleston, South Carolina was particularly disturbing for fans, as he got uncomfortably candid about his family situation in the midst of a tearful pro-life effusion. In September 2020, he railed at the Grammy committee and filmed himself peeing on one of his trophies. Through the years, his public outbursts were based on two things: calculated ploys for attention and concerning manic episodes. But where do the scales lay for each action? There’s no way to know. It would be dismissive to not consider his mental health struggles, but it would be ableist to simply link his conservatism to being bipolar.
Whatever the case is, the circus had become too exhausting and infuriating for many to tap into. And we haven’t heard much from Kanye since then, as he’s been dealing with creative ventures, and the fallout of a fracturing marriage with Kim Kardashian. The last time we heard from him was a tweet announcing a Kanye 2024 run for president. Maybe he’s been busy planning for that, because for all of 2021, he’s been completely silent while donning a full face mask in public.
The Donda album cycle has been defined by the deafening silence. It feels like he’s on a public hiatus, except it’s taking place in front of the entire world. The silence is relieving compared to the noise of his usual “marketing.” Those who can’t stand him must be happy that he’s had enough mercy to not (yet) go on any headline-grabbing tweetstorms about Kanye 2024 or why Trump should still be in office. And the loyal fans who’ve always loved his music but find themselves exhausted of defending and explaining his antics are probably breathing a sigh of relief. This time around, he’s doing both his fans and detractors a solid and allowing the music to sell itself.
The silence has won him a reset with many fans. His album listening session was streamed by a record-breaking 3.3 million people, and giddily live-tweeted to the extent that there had to be overlap with those who had tuned him out over the past couple years. Hordes of people sought to listen to Donda at 12 a.m. that Friday, and are still eager to hear the project on its new Aug. 6 release date.
Perhaps he’s resolved to not sully an album dedicated to his mother with theatrics, which would be a smart decision. His silence leaves room for his mother’s legacy to re-enter the forefront of people’s consciousness when they think of him, which inevitably leads to consideration of the immense grief he must still be feeling, how the trauma of her loss (and his impending divorce) affects his mental health, and how all the pain plays into his actions. People’s natural inclination to give second (and third, and fourth) chances have allowed them to contextualize everything enough to give a curious listen to an artist that they’ve loved since their childhood.
But more than a relief, or a quiet olive branch, or a tribute to the wrestler Sting, the only current gleanable takeaway is that Kanye’s spectacle of silence is confirmation bias that serves everyone and no one. Instead of using Twitter as his megaphone, he’s put the ball in our court, and allowed us to think what we want about him.
If his old fans want to believe his silence is remorse, they can. If conservatives want to continue to appeal to Black voters through him, they can. If people want to think he’s currently too grief-stricken to be a fully public figure, they can. If people think he’s an egomaniac enjoying our fascination with his silence, they can. He’s given us leeway to apply whatever narrative we want to his album cycle. After years of exhausting attention-seeking, he’s offered a chance for people to overlook all of his nonsense and keep it about the music, and some fans are taking it.
Some people are allowing him the space to get “back” into their good graces. He’s separated from Kim Kardashian and he’s reacquainted with his “big brother” Jay-Z, who told him to “stop the red cappin’, we goin’ home” on the final song of the listening session. The verse stoked intrigue about a Watch the Throne redux. But do we have any evidence that his politics or beliefs are any different than they were in 2018, when many people couldn’t stand him? Sure, he hasn’t said anything corrosive lately, but that’s because he hasn’t said anything at all.
Jay-Z’s new verse stoked 2011 nostalgia. But conservative pundit Meghan McCain’s since-deleted post-listening session lauding of Kanye as a “fucking genius” harkened to 2018 and 2020 memories which aren’t so sweet. Until he actually says otherwise, conservatives can still consider him what Tucker Carlson deemed “the most effective core conservative in decades.” Kanye’s said that he doesn’t agree with everything Trump does, but most people would agree that Trump’s restrictive policies and galvanizing of domestic terrorists render him undeserving of any kind of praise. Last summer he told Forbes he was “done with Trump,” but that was while running an anti-Biden “presidential campaign” reportedly assisted by six Republicans, including one person with links to Trump. For too many people, the hysteria of “Yeezy Season,” and even a Grammy-winning album, will never overshadow those actions. If he’s legitimately trying to turn over a new leaf, he should stiff-arm conservative opportunism by being as loud about breaking ties with them as he was about his alliance.
He’s never apologized for his election season actions. Can anyone say, with full certainty, that he won’t pop up in 2024 advocating for Trump or whoever the next conservative candidate is? Does the right melody and a star-studded album overshadow that possibility for people? The people deserve full clarity. But he hasn’t given it to us. For now, the reality is that he’s still a conservative multi-billionaire who amplified a fascist movement and ascended a system dependent on his poor, marginalized fans’ destitution. Now, he’s just being more discerning about acknowledging it.
His silence offers the freedom to pretend. A silent ’Ye standing in the middle of Mercedes-Benz is a visage that speaks a thousand words about simpler times. We all want things to be the way they once were. His classics are the soundtrack of great memories for many of us. We seek the illusion of the “Old Kanye” because those thick synths and soulful croons shroud us in a nostalgic dream where everything’s OK again. But it’s not. His music can’t exist as solace from our real-world problems when his presence is a reminder of them. We may enjoy the escapism of spectating Kanye’s life and times, but our own existence is in peril.
The Biden administration is predictably conservative, which is enough to rile liberals and leftists, but not enough to placate the white nationalists who Trump galvanized. Progressives want seismic reform, if not abolition. Conservatives want the status quo, if not more constraining policies. Neither side is budging, and both feel compelled to more uprisings—whatever that looks like. COVID-19 is still killing people and stifling the economy. The wrong instance of police brutality will incite another season of uprising and fiery protest. Anyone who’s really paying attention can see that we’re heading toward something, and it’s not good. Trump is still looming. And if he doesn’t run again in 2024, someone else will come along to corral his base. Will Kanye be a part of the circus? No one can know for sure—that’s a problem. People are so often urged to be forgiving or graceful to those who make mistakes, but we rarely consider whether the harm-causer has even taken accountability.
Kanye’s given no indication that he has. That’s why he’s still such a confounding figure. No matter how much we want that to have changed, his silence doesn’t make it so. Music fans have to reckon with artists committing a variety of transgressions that they can’t separate from their art. Kanye, by aligning with Trump and conservatives, has lost goodwill and support that’s irretrievable with many fans. But still, he has devotees demonstrating that there may be no limits to what someone can do to their people and still get their unwavering support.
Americans’ varied response to COVID-19 has demonstrated the chaos that occurs when our collective individualism runs rampant. We may want to revel in this moment with Kanye, but we can’t be selfish enough to project redemption or look the other way on the reality that for Kanye West, silence isn’t just spectacle, it’s complicity in harmdoing. By staying mute, he’s still allowing conservatives to claim him, which means he’s linked with a deadly agenda. The longer that remains the case, the more that many former supporters won’t care to hear what he has to say on Donda or any other song.