THE BAD RAP: Kanye West

Celebrities and people in the public eye are often placed on a pedestal — whether they choose to be or not. With that spotlight comes glaring judgement and an intense examination of everything that they do. Some celebrities often get a bad rap for some of the choices they make, yet there are often good things about them that go unnoticed and deserve to be celebrated.

Like him or not, there is no denying that Kanye West is one of the most well-known and polarizing figures within music and popular culture. From the crazy Twitter sprees to the seemingly unhinged rants at live shows, West seems to have controversy following him constantly.

West does have a way of communicating that can be explained through a narcissistic lens and context. Blatantly stating “I Am a God” or calling himself “Shakespeare in the flesh” is ridiculous and incredibly egotistical. Kanye is no stranger to flirting with the fine line between confidence and narcissism — often landing on the wrong side. Combined with his odd connection to a certain egotistical and problematic US president, he seems to be further cementing his place as one of the messiest and most challenging figures within popular culture.

However, for all of his faults, West does have an incredibly gifted eye and ear for music and art. His work consistently, uniquely, and accessibly combines high art and fashion with popular culture. He has always been able to push hip hop forward in a manner that freshly paves the way for others to come up behind him.

From Chance the Rapper’s use of gospel music on his records to Drake’s incredibly powerful string sections on Take Care, West’s influence on hip hop has been felt for a long time. He has always focused on staying true to his artistic vision while pulling upon artistic excellence to inform his work.

As for those crazy rants of his, some may be unhinged, but at other times he’s actually able to bring attention to some bigger issues. The infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” statement, while absent of any sort of nuance, actually illuminates the fact that US government resources were not being sent to the predominately black and impoverished 3rd Ward in New Orleans following the devastation of Hurricane Katrina.

Yes, the method was a mess. But West still spoke a greater and deeper truth that needed to be said. This doesn’t mean that his comments should be taken straight as fact, but it does mean that we should pay a bit closer attention when he does speak.

Then, of course, there’s the fact that West has been very public about his struggle with mental health. In his song “FML” he explicitly references being off of Lexapro, which is a medication for forms of extreme depression, anxiety, and some manic behaviour. In addition to this, he’s also talked about seeing a psychiatrist in another song off of The Life of Pablo and was even recently hospitalized mid-tour in order to address his mental health.

The bigger picture here is the fact that discussions of mental health don’t happen often enough amongst black men. West’s very public and open struggle should be a point of engagement with issues of mental health and not something to simply write off or ignore.

In addition to his public mental health challenges, he’s also been very public in his grief. Following the sudden passing of his mother, Donda West, Kanye tried to cope and respond as best as he could. Some could argue that much of his public outbursts have been exacerbated by the grief of this loss.

The main support for this can again be found in his music. He’s written songs about wishing that his mother could meet his wife and children to wondering how his mother would respond to his crazed and wild antics. In many ways, this seems to reveal his humanity and reminds us that underneath the sensationalized mess is a human being who simply wants to be loved.

As of late, Mr. West has been very quiet, having recently celebrated his fortieth birthday. As a black man from the south side of Chicago — often considered to be one of the most marginalized, impoverished, and dangerous parts of the United States — this is no small feat. Hopefully, following some rest we’ll get a new artistic masterpiece. Time will only tell where he goes.