Polarizing musician Kanye West may be one of the most intriguing public figures in American life today. Now often tagged as a “mogul,” Kanye West has come quite a long way since he burst onto the popular scene with The College Dropout album in 2004. But, if Kanye West has changed, what kind of figure has he become?
A Changed Reputation
Although Kanye West continues to make music and tour, his public persona is increasingly divorced from his profession. He has very nearly become someone who is famous for being famous. Married to a high-profile reality television star (Kim Kardashian), Kanye West is in the news more often for his gossip-fodder relationship and than he is for his new LPs.
Case in point: A recent story in The Daily Mail bears the headline, “‘They want nothing to do with Kim’: Kanye West pleads with Hollywood insiders to grant fiancée access to inner-circle events.” You can say that Mr. West is doing a great job of keeping his name in the public eye with reports like this one, but you could just as easily say that Kanye West is letting himself be defined by his “antics” as much as by his genius. And let’s not forget that it was the genius of The College Dropout that made most of us care about Kanye West.
The prodigy has been replaced by a business savvy, politically-charged celebrity. In a speech given at Harvard University and quoted in The Daily Beast, Kanye had this to say: “I believe that utopia is actually possible-but we’re led by the least noble, the least dignified, the least tasteful, the dumbest, and the most political. So in no way am I a politician-I’m usually at my best politically incorrect and very direct.” This quote points to part of what is so fascinating about Kanye West – he is like the Walt Whitman of hip-hop. His persona is so expansive that everything he says is self-referential and, somehow, universal too. He is a star with something to say about our culture. And he is saying it.
Yet, for all the brio and the panache, the style and the sound-bites, Kanye leaves us wondering who he is trying to be and who our culture will let him be.
At this point, we might pose a simple question. Is Kanye West more like a late-career James Brown or more like a fledgling Jay-Z?
The career arc that James Brown followed seems like an interesting and maybe prohibitive example of what may happen to Kanye West. While Brown remained a revered stage-performer, he made headlines in the wrong sections of the newspaper with relationship troubles (to put things a bit euphemistically) and substance abuse issues. Scandal ended up defining Brown’s public image more than his political views or his musical genius.
Kanye West has not had a scandalous career, not really, but he does love to stir the pot. His face is pasted on the cover of magazines every week, but not always Rolling Stone. Outspoken with his opinions and brazen with his attitude, Kanye is a refreshingly candid celebrity. Yet it is hard not to wonder if he can emulate Jay-Z in the world of business with a persona that he lets get so far out in front of him. Who knows? Maybe, when all is said and done, Kanye West’s career will look more like Frank Sinatra’s than anyone else’s. Whatever else you can say about Kanye West, you have to admit (and admire) that he is doing things his own way.
- The Daily Mail
- The Daily Beast