"Yeezus," Kanye West's sixth studio solo album, doesn't hit stores until June 18, but the disc's title has already spawned enough internet comments to fill a haters' wing at the Library of Congress.
How dare West refer to himself as "Yeezus" and make a song called "I Am a God"? What a clown! He fathered a child with Kim Kardashian! They're so horrible they deserve each other! The Kanye Defamation League is as monolithic as it is prolific, a seething chorus of keyboard assassins ready to accuse anyone covering West -- one of music's biggest stars -- of accepting payola. (Quick side note: West doesn't even talk to the press, much less send us cash.) But the rage and derision that West's album name spawned smacks of an undeniable hypocrisy -- one that reveals more about the rapper's detractors than about his ego.
Let's leave aside the fact that "Yeezus" is actually a nickname bestowed upon West by fellow musican Malik Yusef and popularized by Kid Cudi and that "I Am a God" is a direct reference Psalm 82 and instead take a look at how other performers have fared.
Madonna -- who is named after the Virgin Mary herself -- has used Catholic imagery her whole career, most famously enraging the masses by kissing a black "Jesus" and using burning crosses in the video for her 1989 smash hit "Like a Prayer." She also "nailed" herself to a cross for her Confessions tour, but by 2006, even most Madonna fans met that performance with general bemusement (though some, like Katy Perry, continue to insist on taking offense).
Madonna took a lot of heat in the '80s and '90s and used her overt sexualization of Catholicism to break down a lot of barriers, but for some reason, all of the cultural freedom she fought for doesn't seem to apply to Kanye. See that crown of thorns she's wearing up there on that cross? Kanye wore one on the cover of Rolling Stone that same year, drawing outrage that dwarfed the reaction to Madonna actually hanging from a real life cross.
We were mad when she did it in 1989, but by 2006, we realized it's actually OK for performers to use religious imagery for artistic effect. Some artists.
The only possible justification for giving latter-day Madonna a pass but being outraged by Kanye (save for racism) would be the claim that Madonna's cultural value as a musician surpasses Kanye's and she is thus allowed more leeway when it comes to re-appropriating Christian imagery for her art. But that's a tenuous claim to make -- Kanye's impact on hip-hop, as both a producer and a rapper, easily places him in that genre's hall of fame, and the very outrage we're analyzing here is proof that he's indelibly a pop star. Also: "Jesus Walks," West's own "Like a Prayer" moment, launched his rapping career, and it was actually a song about society's relationship with religion. What's the point of appreciating Madonna's battles if newer artists have to start from scratch? After all, it's Kanye -- not Lady Gaga -- who currently comes closest to creating something new in a pop environment that's hopelessly stagnant and referential.
So if we allow that West is also an "important," if at times frustrating, musician (this should be easy for even his most ardent haters to admit), what's really to blame for the fact that Madonna (a performer whose personal life and career choices rival Kimye's tabloid fodder) gets away with things that are verboten for West?
If you thought I was going to say "racism," you're only half right. Sure, it would be easy to say that 2013 America is more accepting of a white female vocalist pushing certain boundaries than a black male rapper, but that's only partly accurate. There's one huge problem with that theory: Jay-Z.
Shawn Corey Carter is billed as Jay-Z, but even casual rap fans know that the "Jay" is half of his other nickname, Jay-Hova, a play on Jehova, which is the biblical word for "God of Israel" (it's also why he's called "Hov"). Jay-Z -- the former drug dealer who parties with the President, appears in Duracell ads and is married to the world's biggest pop star -- fashions himself a deity and trades on a nickname he earned when recording his earliest music. What gives?
The only daylight between Jay-Z and Kanye -- who are friends, have worked together for over a decade and released an entire album of duets -- is in the form of their demeanor. Jay has taken up the role of the Cool Company Man, a rapper who's as productive in the boardroom as the studio. When he's on stage, he gives sermons on ambition and tells audience members that they can do anything they want, earning him praise. West, on the other hand, foregoes interviews and offers interstitial social commentary while performing, breaking down various issues like the Grammys' race problem and our complicated relationship with celebrity, earning him articles about "rants."
Kanye haters will characterize that difference as the difference between a "jackass," as Barack Obama himself refers to Kanye and a charming urban godfather, as Jay-Z's perceived. As many have noted, America started viewing Kanye as a jackass after two incidents: In 2005, West accused George Bush of not caring about black people in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, and at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, he interrupted Taylor Swift to say that Beyonce, not Swift, should have won the award she was accepting. Let's set aside the first of these events, because it's complicated and perhaps still uncomfortable that our federal government so dramatically failed the good, predominantly African-American people of New Orleans and its surrounding areas. After West's rude interruption of Swift, he appeared on Jay Leno's non-"Tonight Show" program and endured the ratings-desperate host telling him that his recently deceased mother would be ashamed of him and then disappeared for over a year, living in Asia and Hawaii and atoning for his sins.
As for whether or not Jay-Z has "jackass" moments, let us not forget that over the past few months, he has boasted about "running through the White House like it's my house," going to the inauguration smelling like weed and called patrons of the new Barclays Center "fucking dweebs" for lining his pockets. (And on the wife front, because somehow people think that's relevant, let's remember that Beyonce made an entire movie about herself, pulling a page out of the "Keeping Up With the Kardashians" playbook.)
All of which is to say: If you're cool with Madonna and Jay-Z (or U-God from Wu-Tang Clan, Lord Finesse, etc.) playing holier-than-you but have Kanye issues serious enough to compel you to take to the internet and voice your concerns, it's time for a long, hard look in the mirror.