Spending most of my childhood in the mid-to-late aughts, Kanye West was perpetually a figure within my peripheral understanding of pop culture. I couldn’t tell you who sang the song “Gold Digger” when it burned up the charts in 2005, but a VHS tape somewhere in my mom’s closet plays to reveal a six-year-old me popping and locking to it at my then 16-year-old cousin’s birthday party. Fast forward to the 2009 VMAs, and I could identify him as the guy who stormed onto the stage and said: “Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’ll let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time.” From the beginning, I knew people loved him for his music and people hated him for his actions.
By the time the internet became an integral part of my daily teen life, West fascinated me not in his creative potential as a musical artist, but in his contributions to meme culture. My brothers and I laughed ourselves to tears, spilling hot popcorn on the floor when he infamously announced his decision to run for president in 2020 at the 2015 VMAS. When he broke into a monologue on The Ellen Show in 2016, justifying his appeal to Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion in funding for creative enterprises by proclaiming “Picasso is dead. Steve Jobs is dead. Walt Disney is dead.” I used the phrase for comical effect in my high school speech class. These events were parallel to my first encounters with rap music on a less-than-radio-single level, as artists like Kendrick Lamar and Travis Scott began to pique my interest — in no way could I have envisioned West as these rappers on an artistic level when his antics spoke louder than his music to the public.
My relationship with Kanye West has changed since high school. After a semester’s worth of Shazam-ing my roommate’s playlists during my freshman year, I caved in and downloaded The Life of Pablo, “Highlights” and “Fade” making frequent appearances on my playlists. I then downloaded The College Dropout, and Late Registration, and Graduation and — well, you get the picture. The point is, I saw Kanye for the artist he is for the first time, with his bold storytelling, profound skits and dynamic and influential sound. It is near impossible to find a popular hip-hop artist that has risen after Yeezy who is uninspired by him.
It’s for this reason I consider 2018 more the polarizing year for Kanye West than the year of his downfall. His outbursts were unhinged enough for my mother to call me two weeks ago and ask, “Diana, what is wrong with Kone-yee West?” But his three main music projects of 2018 — Daytona, Kids See Ghosts and ye — rank amongst my top 20 albums of the year.
I couldn’t care less about what celebrities have to say, even when they are about the president. However, I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think Kanye being Kanye was a bit too Kanye this time around. His claim that 400 years of slavery “sounds like a choice” is reprehensible, especially given the platform he used to speak on behalf of Black rights in the past. His recent conversation with and in support of President Trump was haphazard and chaotic, to say the least — it struck me that he had a lot to say, but couldn’t coherently communicate it. It’s also eerie how an SNL parody got away with borrowing lines directly from this conversation in their recent skit.
Kanye West’s visit to the White House, ostensibly to discuss criminal justice reform, was a hot mess and further defaced his already polarizing image in the media. Several people have spoken out on the meeting, calling it West’s betrayal of a Black community that looked up to him as an artist and does not feel supported by the policies of our 45th. He has faced severe backlash and repercussions: Charlamagne Tha God canceled a discussion he was meant to have with West on mental illness and its intersection with race. To many people, these antics are perceived as departures from an “Old Kanye” that famously declared “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” following mismanaged relief efforts after Katrina wiped out much of New Orleans. A Kanye that was proud and Black. This was not the same Kanye that rapped “racism is still alive, we just be concealing it” on The College Dropout.
Perhaps there is some validity to these claims: Even West says that his opinions have changed over the years. But he perceives it as something more fluid, his thoughts evolving rather than him losing touch with his past. After all, this isn’t Yeezy’s first time flirting with alt-right imagery; in 2013, he unsuccessfully attempted to re-appropriate the Confederate flag by selling it on his Yeezus tour merch. This also isn’t his first time showing support for Trump: In 2016, West announced he would’ve voted for Trump in the presidential election at the tour for an album in which he raps “Hands up we just doing what the cops taught us / Hands up, hands up then the cops shot us.”
As ostensible and brash as he may be, Kanye West is more complex than we give him credit for. He shows this in his response to criticism, claiming that the divisive power of political parties doesn’t help to solve racism, hence his acknowledgment of praise for Trump — it’s worth noting his non-album single “Ye vs. The People” explores the same idea. Though far-fetched, the rapper’s ideas by no means stray from nobility to the roots that shaped him. Perhaps things stand out more now than before because they come from a time where we listen to what Kanye says because he’s Kanye, not because The College Dropout is performing well. At a time where his personality earns more critique than his music, it’s not hard to misunderstand the musician.