Speaking truth to power has long been central to how Kanye West navigates his art and his business. He lambastes the executives who don’t grant him full creative and financial freedom. He calls into question the empathy of a president on live television. He lays bare his emotions in ways that disrupt tidy narratives about celebrity comity. He is a lit match in search of a fuse, setting fires that people (largely) cheer for.
But in the last couple of weeks, as West has begun his return to public life after a quiet year, the roles have switched: He is the power, and speaking truth to Kanye West has become the norm.
This has manifested in many forms. T.I. recorded a song with him directly challenging West’s embrace of President Donald Trump, including wearing a Make America Great Again hat. Radio personality Ebro Darden pushed back forcefully against West’s support of black conservative pundit Candace Owens. On “TMZ Live,” Van Lathan, one of TMZ’s producers, berated West full-throatedly for his recent behavior, including his statement on the show that slavery was “a choice.”
These are behaviors, statements and sentiments that potentially pose the largest existential threat ever to the Kanye West empire. And so what’s played out over the past two weeks is a kind of psychological tug of war, with West reinforcing his most unsettling positions while, all around him, what amounts to a collective global rescue effort for his mind and soul (and, in truth, his legacy) is playing out in real time.
The seeds of this moment are traceable to the final months of 2016, the last time West was so public, and one of the most troubled periods of his life. Within a period of weeks, his wife was robbed, his tour was canceled and he was hospitalized. On “TMZ,” he said that during those months he developed an addiction to prescription opioids.
That year concluded with his Trump Tower meeting with the president-elect, a vexing public position for someone who’d always agitated on behalf of the dispossessed.
But in Trump, West recognizes himself: a natural disrupter; a person so secure in his gifts that he doesn’t trouble himself with facts (or much believe in them); someone who sees generating passionate dissent as a sign of success, not as an indicator of a shaky premise.
“I can tell you that when he was running, it’s like I felt something,” West told Charlamagne Tha God in an interview posted Tuesday. “The fact that he won proves something. It proves that anything is possible in America.”
But that kinship mistakes cynicism for earnestness, volume for accuracy, popularity for morality. Not all disruption is the same.
In two interviews released on Tuesday, with Charlamagne and “TMZ,” West emphasized the importance of “free thought” and “free love,” trying to contextualize his acceptance of Trump as part of a broader philosophy.
But what really emerged throughout the day were other, more vulnerable notions: “unsettled pain” and “HSP,” which stands for highly sensitive person, a term he returned to several times with Charlamagne. West was defiant in defending his positions, but he also presented as someone fragile and in need of protection.
The interviews offered competing versions of lucidity. The conversation with Charlamagne, filmed two weeks ago, was an extended sit-down that showed West at his most reflective. He began by addressing the difficulties of 2016, including how his music failed to thrive on the radio. He spoke about feeling wounded by two elder figures, Jay-Z and Barack Obama, who he said had let him down.
The Charlamagne interview was visually tempered, filmed largely in a white room with a later part filmed out in nature, as the sun was setting, draping the pair in darkness. The overall effect was calm, earthen, soothing.
By contrast, the “TMZ” appearance was jolting, with West — unconcerned with camera angles, directing his conversation in multiple directions — smearing his reality atop the highly structured show’s foundation. In a way, it served as evidence of his argument — his free thought too liquid for the rigidity of the show. It was a kind of thrilling fourth-wall breaking, the physical manifestation of West’s trying to operate in an alternate reality of his making. Time and again, he referred to our society, our world, as a “simulation.” Lathan pushed back vehemently: “The life that I live is as a real person, an actual person.”
West contended that the artist’s responsibility is only to himself, not to any greater ideology or other people. One of the most dispiriting moments of his “TMZ” appearance came as Owens was being given room to espouse her controversial views on police violence and the Black Lives Matter movement. West sat next to her, head down, fiddling with his phone, seemingly uninterested in the minutiae. (He woke up when Owens insulted Chrissy Teigen, John Legend’s wife and a close friend, interrupting with, “I appreciate your free thought, but … .”)
It showed him as a vessel, not an agent, and also less interested when not the center of attention. This isn’t free thought so much a disengagement from thought. (West plans to release an album in June, he has said — perhaps it is titled “Gotta Hear Both Sides.”)
This passivity parallels what’s been happening on his Twitter feed, where he has been posting elementary misreadings of American political history, screen-grabbing text conversations that rebut the inaccuracies. Watching this play out in real time recalled reports about the early days of the Trump presidency, when competing factions would sneak provocative articles onto his desk in hopes of swaying his opinion and triggering his pugilist instincts.
Seeing West treated like a pinball, or a carrier pigeon, is uncomfortable. At one point during the “TMZ” conversation, when he was speaking about the importance of class (as opposed to race), Owens watched him and smiled, like a teacher enamored of a protégé.
West’s recent commentary, from the absurd notions about slavery to what feels like parroting other people’s talking points (“Obama was the opioid to our pain — he pacified us”), has left fans to parse what difference if any there is between aligning with hateful ideology and merely speaking without much forethought (or sometimes post-thought). In West’s telling, these provocations demonstrate a willingness to think and say something that others wouldn’t dare. As ever, he finds glee in believing he knows, and can say, a thing no one else does.
But for West, that untethered glee is jumbled up with untethered hurt. Earlier Tuesday, he posted on Twitter, “We need to have open discussions and ideas on unsettled pain.” West has always been an artist who deals with pain in primal fashion. It’s not a coincidence that, in the middle of his “TMZ” performance, he announced, “This is the most confident I’ve been since my mom passed.” (Donda West died in 2007, a day after multiple plastic surgery procedures. On Twitter, West announced that his forthcoming album cover would be a photo of her surgeon.)
Is this the manifestation of love or something more sinister? Only West knows. Though his methods may undo him, he is striving to bring people into conversation on terms of his own comfort.
At the end of Tuesday, he posted a photo on Twitter of several people seated around a table with the caption “energy meeting. Beings from all different backgrounds.” And he showed Charlamagne a 300-acre plot of land he bought with plans to build a community on it, a place where another reality might supplant the one he’s currently railing against. A place where he is the truth and also the power. A place into which he might disappear, by choice or otherwise.