By Martyn Jones
Here’s a confession: I love Kanye West. What began as a smirking fascination has grown into card-carrying fanboyishness, which I’ve sheepishly owned up to in the presence of more than a few Kanye-knockers—many of them other Christians.
I’ve found that people generally fall into one of a few categories vis-a-vis Kanye. Apart from other fanboys, there are both the indignant and the emphatically indifferent. The indignant seem somehow capable of a sense of personal affront on behalf of President Bush, Taylor Swift, and other victims of Kanye’s antics, while the indifferent put a point on their disdain for Kanye with an eye-rolling dismissal.
I don’t exactly intend to turn you into a Kanye fan if you’re not one. I would, however, like to suggest to his detractors that you might share more with the emcee than you’d like to think you do. In fact, we all do, because Kanye West is an everyman for the Millennial Generation.
By this I mean that Kanye shows this generation an image of its unique promise as well as its unique pathologies, the spectrum between these blown into a wide caricature by celebrity’s unnatural strain. It’s a status I believe Kanye has earned by way of obsession and monomaniacal artistry. I also believe that it’s the reason we find him so easy to hate: he shows us an exaggerated version of ourselves, including the parts of us we’d rather keep hidden out of shame and fear.
To start, consider Kanye’s sensuality. Many evangelicals are disgusted by the cavalierly pornographic elements of songs like “I’m In It;” misogyny plagues his lyrics; his sexual misadventures outside the recording studio are well known. While all this is true, his outrageous sexual mores reflect more than a few skeletons in our generation’s closet. Anyone who grew up in a house with a modem was likely subjected to an unpredictable onslaught of Internet pornography, and it probably began at an age where a sexualized body had yet to make sense. Kanye is a child of Internet porn as much as any man or woman in the information age, Christian or not. Perhaps we’d just rather not be as open about our own dark, twisted fantasies.
Kanye’s notorious ego presents another picture of ourselves we’d rather not be confronted with, although in a different way than you might expect. More insidious than any outright display of egotism are his solipsistic sampling tendencies. Yeezus appropriates musical loops and phrases that have deep cultural resonances—many from the Civil Rights movement—and presses them into the service of Kanye’s self-aggrandizement. It happens so brazenly in several places that it’s practically one of the album’s motifs. The universally recognizable gesture of black power transmogrified into a sex act? Really, Mr. West?
That something is wrong with this sort of sampling is obvious with Kanye—but it should be more obvious with ourselves. Social media has turned the Internet into an enormous petri dish for a culture of solipsism. We’re asked to curate our lives for an imagined audience, and to offer the things we care about as coordinates useful for triangulating our very selves. Tumblr in particular has this effect: gifs, photos, and quotations slowly cascade down the screen as though offering a ticker-tape readout of the account-owner’s deepest psychic strata. We identify with artists and ideas more than we love them, and we offer them to others to communicate something about ourselves rather than something about the world. Social and moral causes have the quality of accessories when pushed through the social media sieve by the same process that allows Kanye’s a-historical sampling to make a Civil Rights slogan into a jokey, crass lyric. His transparency about his addiction to himself is one of the only meaningful differences between the artist and his critics in this regard.
There’s no avoiding the sexual disfigurement and narcissism with which the Internet has afflicted the Millennial generation. Part of Kanye West’s achievement is that he’s offered us a shameless, near-complete picture of a personality that manifests these pathologies.
That’s not all, though, because Kanye has another Millennial quality in spades: self-awareness. Yeezus is dark; it’s probably the most aggressive and angry album he has ever released, but it ends on a note of something approaching downright optimism. “Bound 2” sounds like a love song, like an earlier, bouncier Kanye, like a recapitulation of the carefree tracks of bygone days. After laying everything out for his audience over the course of 40 brutal, obscene, and thrilling minutes, Kanye closes Yeezus and “Bound 2” with a sample from the opening of a Brenda Lee song: “uh-huh, honey,” Lee intones, like a mother to a child with an end-of-the-world knee scrape. For however bad a man Kanye is, he’s not beyond saving, and he knows it. And for all our acquaintance with the pathologies he embodies, we aren’t either.
Martyn Jones is a Chicago-area writer with abiding interests in phenomenology, reformed theology, and contemporary fiction. Since graduating from Wheaton College in 2010, he has worked for Apple, written for Groupon, and received his M.A. in philosophy from the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium. Marty writes sporadically for supercurriculum.blogspot.com, and you can follow him on Twitter: @martynwendell.