In the age of the 24/7 news cycle, the value of cultural icons is defined as those that generate the most headlines, and amongst celebrity culture there exists one man who understands this better than anyone else. Kanye West.
Kanye knows that in order to keep being “relevant” in the eyes of the media, there always needs to be a story linked to him, whether that be his fashion work, a new single, or some fluff piece with his wife, he has to keep his face in the media.
But Kanye is more than that, Kanye is more than just a celebrity, he is also one of the most influential rapper/producers since Puff Daddy, with artists like Childish Gambino and Chance the Rapper citing Kanye as the biggest reason they’re doing what they do. The Children of Kanye are the growing musical underground, offering an artistic counterpoint to years of materialism in hip-hop.
It’s easy to discount Kanye. He’s one of the most bankable recording artists on the planet, but his music holds more in common with what we look for in the underground than his peers in the Billboard charts. Kanye has sold 21 million albums, won 21 Grammy’s and THREE of his albums sit on Rolling Stone’s top 500 albums of all time, and this is not by chance. This is not through sheer record label power, this is through art!
Kanye is one of the few figureheads in the charts who can truly be called an artist, and he fought his way from what could have been successful obscurity to become the juggernaut he is today. Initially Kanye served as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records creating tracks for Janet Jackson, Alicia Keys and Jay-Z. He could have stayed there, made money and been respected by his peers, but Kanye wanted more than that. Kanye wanted to say something, and fought against constant rejections from record labels until Roc-A-Fella relented and allowed him to create “College Dropout”, a gem that few can deny, mixing introspection and hunger with the polished production we expect from Kanye.
It’s an often quoted part of the Kanye mythos that he recorded his first single “Through the Wire” literally through a wire, suffering a broken jaw in a car accident. How many artists have delayed an album due to injury? Kanye faced death in that accident, being taken to the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died, and came out stronger, more determined. College Dropout was postponed three times, as he added more complex arrangements and after the album’s release he even paid for the video out of his own pocket, filled with fire to prove everyone wrong, he could accomplish his dreams. Hip-hop at the time was laden with the rebirth of gangsta rap, the likes of 50 Cent and his multiple gunshot wounds occupying the charts, and yet here was Kanye, rapping about having bills he couldn’t afford to pay.
But Kanye is not just a talented musician, indeed he has had crossover success in the worlds of fashion and directing several acclaimed short films, and his renaissance talents began much longer ago. At the age of 13, Kanye managed to convince his mother to spend $25 an hour so he could learn production, as a high school student he received A’s and B’s and earned a scholarship to the America Academy of Art, as a painter, before transferring to Chicago State University to study English.
This educational experience is clearly reflected in Kanye’s work, drawing on multiple genres, breaking down pop culture for inspiration and utilising wordplay that far outstrips many of his peers. See his recent track with rising Chicago star Vic Mensa, specifically when Kanye claims “I feel like MJ, I’m in his showe” referring to both the popular Air Jordan trainers associated with basketball legend Michael Jordan, and Michael Jordan, perhaps being the heir-apparent to the vacated “King of Pop” throne.
Consider his live performances next. In a world where many artists in the mainstream are content just to mime over a backing track, Kanye stands in defiance, his sound is so similar to the album, yet with the tell-tale heart of live audio. Indeed, Yeezus has even gone as far as to perform with a full orchestra, the phenomenal “Late Orchestration” concerts.
Even those that appreciate Kanye’s work will cite his public persona as a reason for disdain. Kanye has never been one to hide his feeling, remaining refreshingly outspoken and never playing the politically correct, middle-ground that many other artists in his position would.
Perhaps the first instance of mass Kanye-controversy dates back to September 2, 2005 “Concert for Hurricane Relief”. Hurricane Katrina had decimated the city of New Orleans, widespread flooding had ended many lives and most of the cities remaining residents were holed up in the cities football stadium. Government aid was slow coming, then-President George W. Bush took four days to sign the relief order for a disaster those in power knew would be coming. Many believed that the delay was due to the high number of black people affected by the disaster, including Kanye. Live on air, presenting with comedian Mike Myers, Kanye deviated from the script to express his frustrations with the way the media had reported differently on images of black and white families, before delivering a line many agreed with: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.
In 2009, Kanye reached the pinnacle of public disdain, as media darling Taylor Swift accepted her award for “Best Female Video” a disgruntled Kanye took to the stage then Swift’s mic exclaiming “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!” We won’t debate if that was the right course of action. in 2015, again at the VMAs, Kanye expressed his regret for the way he handled the event. But I have a challenge, describe the video for Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me”…it’s hard, but now contemplate Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”. That video has entered the pop lexicon, the hand motion, the “If you like it, then you should’ve put a ring on it” refrain. It’s hard to deny Kanye may have had a point.
A year later, September 201, the public opinion of Kanye had not changed, and despite previous public apologies that may not have felt as sincere as they could, Kanye tweeted directly to Swift, “Beyoncé didn’t need that. MTV didn’t need that and Taylor and her family friends and fans definitely didn’t want or need that” and concluding with “I’m sorry Taylor.” He also revealed he had written a song for Swift, if she would accept it. As genuine a gift as two musicians might exchange.
The two did in fact reconcile, in May 2011, Swift and West came face-to-face at a red carpet event, with West holding a hand out, and the two exchanging a low-five, quite a friendly, and jovial action between the two.
At the 2015 Grammy, Kanye half-parodied the event, appearing onstage as Beck accepted his award for best album, beating Beyoncé and her self-titled fifth album, before appearing to change his mind and head back to his seat. IN post show interviews, Kayne did in fact express the opinion that Beyoncé should have won, and that Beck should “respect artistry” and give his award to Beyoncé. Later Kanye would apologise, and claim he was “inaccurate with the concept of a gentleman who plays 14 instruments not respecting artistry”, and sending flowers to Beck as a way of apologising.
Both times Kanye has stood by his initial view, but admitted he was wrong to act the way he had. He has not been humble, but he has been bold, and not towed the line when he disagrees, even if it paints him in a bad light. We have celebrities that we thank for their outspoken views and challenging of institutions, but because Kanye is a celebrity we forget he is also an artist and prone to emotional outbursts.
Outside of the media, Kanye has founded the Kanye West Foundation, later renamed after his mother, as a method of trying to discourage student dropping out, and combat illiteracy. The charity itself is controversial, with little money ending up in direct charitable action, however, this seems to be the fault of sloppy accounting, not Kanye, with the rapper frequently donating thousands to the foundation. It seems more a case of him being taken advantage of, but he has tried to make a difference. The rapper has also assisted with World Water Day, and made a major impact in the lives of several Iraq war veterans who suffered from PTSD.
The veterans present a particular heart-warming account of Kanye, during an MTV special, he travelled to the homes of the recently returned veterans, presenting them each with a gift, paying their rent or tuition costs. The cynics might claim this as damage control, but this happened in 2008, a year before his VMA outbursts, before he became music’s most hated man.
The problem with Kanye lies in how self-assured he is, he is under no pretence that he is not an important cultural icon, or a good person. Kanye says the things about himself that we’d be saying, if he just gave us the time, and about others he says the same things he does. He doesn’t act fake, he is always himself, and he is a person. A busy man, a passionate artist and a man fuelled by the same drive that the heroes of the alternative have been, but when our Alt-heroes rebel we embrace them. Kanye, as a figure in the mainstream does not get that same treatment solely by virtue of his status.
Even during what many would consider a complicated family issue Kanye remained a decent human being. His wife, Kim Kardashian came to him for advice regarding the sex change of her stepfather Bruce/Caitlyn Jenner, to which Kanye came out with what I hold to be a true pearl: “I can be married to the most beautiful woman in the world, and I am. I can have the most beautiful little daughter in the room, I have that. But I’m nothing if I can’t be me. If I can’t be true to myself, they don’t mean anything.”
The Kardashian clan might also explain Kanye’s poor media persona. The Kardashians are the most constant media personalities on the planet, a day doesn’t go by without another story, or at least tabloid inches dedicated to their lives. They are not actors, musicians, politicians or spokespeople, they are famous because the media can wring them for a story, this leads to many people disliking them, and Kanye, or Mr Kim Kardashian, can be attached to that hate. Additionally, the media loves a villain, and when someone is left in front of the camera for so long, it’s only a matter of time before anyone slips up, especially an artist. Kanye has never been trained to be in the media, he grew into fame, he wasn’t born into it. Instead Kanye trained himself in how to express emotions, which he does in public. If his media profile was quieter, like the rest of his peers, Kanye might be held differently, but instead we expect “The Kardashian Media Mill” from him. Kanye has admitted to getting nervous in interviews, and it shows, he can rise to the defensive these days, understandable when he has been vilified for being honest. In his interview with Sway Calloway, he rises to defend himself as an artist when questioned about his fashion work, leading him to trip over his tongue and proclaim himself “Shakespeare in the flesh”. The public don’t take that story though, instead of flustered artist, we see deranged and delusional man thinks he’s on Shakespeare’s level.
At the recent VMA awards, a nervous Kanye ascended the stage, echoing his most dramatic fall in 2009, for Taylor Swift to hand him the Michael Jackson Video vanguard Award, celebrating his career and music videos. Swift even took the time to proclaim “Yo, other winners. I’m real happy for you, and I’mma let you finish, but Kanye has had one of the best careers of all time”. Noticeably sweating, he begins reflecting on his misdeeds, questioning if the man he is today would act in the same way, lambasting MTV for exploiting his faux pas to gain more attention, before confessing “I just wanted people to like me more”. He explained his approach to creativity, the truth and life before sensationally announcing “I have decided in 2020 to run for president”. The move might be influenced by Donald Trump’s current run, a once vilified figure now winning people over by being honest and non-PC. Perhaps giving him contextually appropriate moments for him to explain his philosophies, maybe he will win people over, maybe he will win, but at the very least I think people will see all Kanye wants to do is make the world a little bit better.
Just like any artist.
Praise Yeezus.

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