Earlier this year my brother-in-law asked me to explain Kanye West to him. Whether he meant it as a challenge or not I accepted it as one, with equal parts enthusiasm and calm resignation to the impossibility of succeeding. This was in February. The Life of Pablo, Kanye’s seventh solo album, had just started coming out—as I write this months later, it’s still hard to say whether it has finished coming out—and when Kanye wasn’t publicly changing his mind about the album’s nuances and audio levels he was publicly changing his mind about where and how it could be heard or bought, or publicly shirking responsibility for a lyric in poor taste about Taylor Swift, or publicly badgering Mark Zuckerberg for a billion-dollar investment in unspecified ideas to raise world dope-shit emissions levels. My brother-in-law said he wasn’t asking about Kanye’s music, which speaks for itself, but about his antics. My instinct was to explain that the music had long ago become indissociable from the antics, but the nicety felt like a fair one in that moment, when the antics were so actively drowning out the music that I hadn’t even heard from The Life of Pablo yet. It was only available on the streaming platform Tidal, and I didn’t have a Tidal account and didn’t want to have to sign up for one just to hear an album, even a Kanye West album. I had read that Pablo was available for purchase on kanyewest.com, but all I found there was a splash page that played an eleven minute voicemail declaration from Yasiin Bey, fka Mos Def, about his detainment in South Africa for travelling on an expired visa. As someone whose soul shrivels like a salted slug at the sound of Mos Def’s voice but who had very recently sat through eleven minutes of it in the hopes of being able to purchase a Kanye West album afterwards, I felt I ought to be able to tell my brother-in-law something.
But an explanation felt, and still feels, like a comically tall order. This is mostly because Kanye West’s entire body of work, including both his licensed creative output and the celebrity circus in which he is simultaneously ringmaster and maltreated elephant, scans as one sustained, piecemeal attempt to explain Kanye West. Even now, when it would be difficult to argue that he’s not one of the most talented, famous, and influential artists of our generation, his every proclamation seems addressed directly to the questions of who he is and why anyone should care. So how do you go about escaping Kanye’s ontological orbit? The problem with arguing that he is worth caring about because he is one of the most talented, famous, and influential artists of our generation, for instance, is that he routinely says this about himself already. The problem with arguing that he’s insecure or narcissistic or arrogant, or childish or unlikeable or just plain crazy, is that he says those things too. Kanye West is the contemporary embodiment of something I once saw someone on television say about David Lee Roth: “What can you say about Dave that hasn’t already been said about Dave by Dave?”
Naturally, two decades into this body of work, there is a rich array of lapidary Kanyeisms from which the would-be explicator, lured towards his ruin by the mirage of explicability, can choose an epigraph, an essay title, a point of departure. In response to my brother-in-law’s request I might have chosen Sorry for the realness, or Let’s have a toast for the assholes, or I been conflicted, bro, or Shut the fuck up and enjoy the greatness, or Fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on, all of which are things Kanye has written or said, in a song lyric or a spontaneous public decree, with a degree of sincerity and self-possession that—well, if anyone could confidently gauge that degree, there would be an order of magnitude fewer questions asked and answers bandied about Kanye West. No one man should have all that power. Name one genius that ain’t crazy.
In the end I felt my purposes would be served best by Fuck if I know, which is how Kanye concludes the following thought in a guest verse on a Drake song that came out in April:
They like, “Pablo,
Why are all the windows tinted in your Tahoe?
Why do you know every single bitch that I know?
Why can’t you just shut your mouth and take the high road?”
Fuck if I know.
The thing about Kanye’s single-serving self-encapsulations—in particular the ones that show up in his guest verses, which often read like refreshingly forthright postcards from a gap year spent backpacking around his own ego—is that each one appears to penetrate deeper than ever into the mystery of Kanye’s conception of Kanye, when in fact it only mirrors and complicates ours. I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny / And what I do? Act more stupidly. The well-tempered whiff of finality about them, the tenor of definitive revelation, makes it difficult to recognise these encapsulations as the momentary, provisional insights they are. Everyone has made mistakes. I just make them in public. That we would have no trouble recognising them as momentary and provisional if they came from a friend or loved one, and not from Kanye West, is just another effect of the cognitive dissonance surrounding him, another view of the reflective mask he wears.
People talk so much shit about me in barbershops
They forget to get they hair cut.
It’s because he’s so generous with and gifted at these encapsulations that we continue to believe in the possibility of an explanation that will Kanye-proof Kanye once and for all; it’s because each of them is so slyly ambivalent to moral interpretation, so suitable as evidence for any thesis whether it vilifies or glorifies him, that we keep failing to find it. Hard to be humble when you’re stuntin’ on a Jumbotron. When you look closely, these introspective accountings mostly turn out to be statements of perfectly shallow causality, plain-sight tautologies on the order of I was late because the bell rang before I arrived, or for that matter of Kanye West is worth caring about because he is famous and influential. As I said, mirages. We would-be explicators continue to fall for them, I suspect, because we’d hate to have to settle for the most plausible and least satisfying explanation of all: that Kanye is just being exuberantly, incorrigibly himself. Which is of course another way of saying he’s a smart and talented guy who sometimes acts like an asshole.
This piece appears in full in The Lifted Brow #32. Get your copy here.
Daniel Levin Becker is literary editor of The Believer and a member of the Oulipo.