The only time I saw Kanye West perform, he came onstage very, very late. I was covered in dirt and sweat, as most Bonnaroo Music Festival attendees are, but I was determined to hear my favorite album of the past few years, “Graduation,” performed IRL.
Kanye’s show was slated to begin at 2 a.m., so my friend and I straggled near the stage around 1:30, debating whether or not “Stronger” would make for a better opener or encore. This was good enough fodder to last us through about 2:30, and by 3 we were irked. The fans around us were more than annoyed -- rightfully so -- and by the time Kanye finally showed after 4 a.m., his lethargic performance was the tipping point for the groggy, pissed off crowd. Muffled boos escalated into a swell of enraged chants, as the artist’s fans yelled in unison, “F**k Kanye!”
It didn’t go over well.
“This is the most offended I’ve ever been,” Kanye wrote on his blog, where he blamed the earlier Pearl Jam set and the intricate design involved in his own rocket ship-fueled performance for his lateness. Professing his devotion to his fans, he aired his disappointment in typical hyperbolic fashion, writing, “This is the maddest I ever will be.”
Which, of course, turned out not to be true. In the years since the 2008 Bonnaroo fiasco, his reputation for rage-fueled rants has escalated, beginning with a mic-stealing stunt at the MTV Video Music Awards -- the interjection that launched 1,000 memes -- and an explosive radio interview with Sway Calloway. If you were on the Internet last month, you saw his feud with Wiz Khalifa over the alleged title of his forthcoming album
As fans or decriers, we’ve witnessed enough of Kanye’s unadulterated anger to notice a few recurring patterns: he’s been known to make liberal use of the caps locks key (and its verbal equivalent), his insults often reflect insecurity about fashion and other commercial forms of self-expression, and he tends to rant from the heart, speaking before his arguments are fully formed.
Although we scorn him -- or, more recently, laugh dismissively -- when his public behavior exhibits these traits, they’re the exact qualities we admire in his music.
When he released “Yeezus,” West’s angriest album to date was praised by Pitchfork, dubbed a valiant and successful “maximalist” effort. “For Kanye, there's purpose in repulsion,” the review reads. “And on 'Yeezus,' he trades out smooth soul and anthemic choruses for jarring electro, acid house, and industrial grind while delivering some of his most lewd and heart-crushing tales yet.” Translation, sans genre jargon: baring his soul sans-filter made for a listening experience that was both complex and immediate.
The album was given a 9.5, for its treatment of the “human voice.” Another choice quote: “discomfort is essential to his enduring appeal.” Reviewers elsewhere agreed.
It’s true. Listening to ‘Ye lay his discomfort -- or, let’s call it what it is, his anger -- to bare resulted in an honest listening experience, even on tracks occasionally graced with the sheen of clubby beats. If Jay Z’s epithet is “the Confident,” and Drake’s “the Sentimental,” “Yeezus” showed that Kanye’s pithy descriptor is “angry.” And yet, when his personal brand and online presence align with that, fans are mystified, if not mocking.
This is especially frustrating when compared with the perception of similarly pissed-off rock musicians, who articulate their frustrations in terms that are framed as praiseworthy. Probably the most notable example is fans’ reaction to a short, newly electric set performed by Bob Dylan in 1966 -- the one where waves of booing climaxed when an audience member yelled, “Judas!”
Dylan -- who we admire for his bold, and yes, angry criticisms of societal and governmental wrongs -- did not take the insult in stride. “I don’t believe you,” he jeered back. “You’re a liar! You’re a f**king liar!”
It’s an incoherent retort, to be sure, but one that’s typically discussed as a keen defense of his own artistic choices, not arrogant blather. That’s the gamble when we commit to hot-headed, off-the-cuff artists; they may, on occasion, speak with the same unfiltered vigor with which they sing or perform. This payoff is typically deemed worth it -- Jeff Tweedy’s brooding lyrics, for example, justify the fact that he punched a dude who tried to come onstage, and once left mid-show in a huff.
Kanye’s outbursts, on the other hand, are the butts of jokes and the subject of memes. His emotional, uncontrolled self-defenses are characteristic of musicians, but are honed in on as an example of major self-awareness deficits.
But for every knee-jerk reaction, packed with insight into his values and insecurities, Kanye has a compact, reflective lyric to his name. “Everything I’m not made me everything I am,” he crooned nonchalantly in an ode to his own shortcomings, one that’s curiously left out of discussions of his discography.
So rant away, Kanye. This fan will continue to listen in earnest.
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