The Tragic Self-Image of Kanye West in Jeen-yuhs

I’ve been watching the new documentary on Kanye West, Jeen-yuhs, over the last few weeks. For someone who may only know Kanye for his recent output, his controversies and media persona, this documentary purports to show the opposite. It humanizes someone who has long passed the point where Kanye West the celebrity became a virus that invaded the soul of Kanye West the musician. While the documentary hints at the controversies to come and to his later career, it focuses on the early stages of his career: the first episode with moving to New York trying to get a record deal; the second episode dealing with his near-fatal car crash and his ascension with the release of his first album The College Dropout; and the third will come out next week. It is not just a documentary on this early period of Kanye’s career. It is a documentary on that period made with the hindsight of the rest of his hitherto career. Knowing this context of what comes after all this, it puts this documentary into a complicated light. 

In our mind we juxtapose the Kanye we see in Jeen-yuhs and the one we know from social media. It can be difficult to reconcile these two portraits of Kanye West. There are a few moments where Kanye shows some brashful arrogance and inflated posturing; but those moments come between scenes showing him at work and giving himself confidence-boosting pep talks. We also see him vulnerable and relatable, which his public persona hasn’t allowed in the last decade: smiling and laughing while getting dinner with his friends, sharing tender moments with his mother Donda, going to the doctor to get his jaw wire removed. He also sulks and sits quietly in situations where he isn’t the center of attention. Jeen-yuhs makes clear that Kanye’s self-worth has in part been centered around seeking attention. Even from the start he was constantly asking people to listen to him because he believed so much in himself, or at least wanted to appear as such. 

But even there, there is a bit of an act. Even before the shooting began, Kanye West was playing a character. He wanted the camera on him during this period as an up-and-coming producer in Chicago, even before he was somebody most people knew or cared about. He knew that when he made it in the music industry, this period would be vital for understanding him in the future, almost like a premonition that such a document was necessary. He was already formulating his own mythos, a central part of which was his near-fatal car crash. It showed Kanye his mortality in a way that reframed the entire rest of his self-image. For all of his talk of his vision, what that vision actually is gets rarely discussed, by him, his fans, his critics or the media. Perhaps it is because we as Americans assume anyone with a vision is either a huckster trying to sell you on their own bullshit (a Confidence Man, if you will), or an out-of-touch intellectual aesthete. And sure, we have plenty of both of those, and they aren’t mutually exclusive by any means. There are also the rare few men with a vision who we do like, men whose self-delusions and stubbornness in pursuit of their totalizing vision become assets in tech, finance and industry––exactly the sort of men Kanye West admires, like Steve Jobs or Elon Musk.

Jeen-yuhs also shows that Kanye West’s major obstacle to be overcome is his need for approval by his superiors. Once he reached a certain echelon, however, there was no one left to be his superior. The internal struggle continues, and he has to find some other source of self-worth, especially with his mother gone. He can turn to God and seek his approval (as with his album Jesus is King, widely accepted as his worst studio album), or to the great men of the past and present, to the titans in other industries and sectors of culture. 

Even before the shooting began, Kanye West was playing a character.

I have never met Kanye West the man in my life, and I probably never will. I have met someone who met him––collaborated with him, in fact––and I wasn’t able to ride the Indiana Jones ride on a teenage trip to Disneyland because allegedly Kanye and his family were there that day. To me Kanye West is a phantom, a mental image, a character. He is a ghost with only the faintest impressions of a real person. And yet, I feel like I know him so well. I understand him as a character in the way I understand any other tragic anti-hero of literature.

As long as cameras have been on him Kanye West has been playing a character based on himself, a simultaneous human self and a persona of his own design. And this internal tension can only tear him apart.

The last decade seems like a long, protracted mental breakdown within him from the cognitive dissonance of these two opposing forces: Kanye the man, who wants stability, family and faith, and Kanye the artist and visionary, who seeks absolution, success and transcendence. I don’t want to speculate too much about his mental state, as if some diagnosis will excuse or explain his erratic behavior. But it should be at least clear that he isn’t merely “an asshole” or “a narcissist” as his most credulous critics say he is. (And even then, saying they are “critics” is generous––some of it borders on flat-out racism towards a talented and outspoken black man.)

Every album of his since 808s and Heartbreak handle this cognitive dissonance in various ways, embedded into the very fabric of his music, from his beats to his rhymes, his choice of samples and collaborators, and even how he releases his music. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye accepts what has been foisted upon him by a world he sees as hostile to his vision, reveling in the excesses of fame with extravagant production, way too many big-name features and a lack of restraint. On Yeezus, he gives into his darkest impulses, becoming more confrontational and uncompromising, with a few glimmers of hope. On The Life of Pablo, this fracturing becomes embedded into the chaotic structure of the album, which ends up being fascinatingly sloppy. On Ye he leans into his depression and his fragile mental state, while on Jesus is King he unconvincingly tries to exorcise the demons from himself, seeking approval from the highest authority there is, the only person he can look up to after his mother passed.

Is Kanye a tragic figure? He certainly sees himself that way; but in a strange sense we also believe it too. Social media, celebrity gossip and the twenty-four hour news cycle create their own narratives, grafted upon our own reality by the culture industry. In this space we have characters with storylines that are constantly evolving. 

In this context, it makes sense how he would see himself in Jesus. A man with a positive message who is constantly scorned, rejected and crucified? That sounds a lot like how Kanye saw himself at this time. His endorsement of Donald Trump also makes sense. The simultaneity of his personal fascination with men of power and success and his contrarianism, his desire to reject anyone who tries to pin him down pushed him towards Trump. One would expect a wealthy black man in entertainment to be a Democrat; but Kanye West doesn’t want to do what is expected of him by the media he hates so much. 

One thing has stuck out to me from watching Jeen-yuhs: the first song it seems Kanye shopped around to show off his perspective and his potential as a rapper was “All Falls Down.” This was the song he performed for Roc-A-Fella records to get a record deal, and he performed excerpts from it on Def Poetry. “All Falls Down” is indicative of Kanye’s intentions with his music and his political message, and it also shows off what made him such an interesting artist for his time: he was conscious without being preachy, funny without being corny, creative without being pretentious, confident without being narcissistic. 

“All Falls Down” has some funny, quotable lines: “couldn’t afford a car, so she named her daughter Alexis,” “Rollies and Pashas done drove me crazy/I can’t even pronounce nothing, pass that Ver-say-see!” “But I ain’t even gonna act holier than thou/’cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou.” But the overall meaning of the song reflects on the connection between materialism in black culture and the long history of racism and oppression in America. When black people have gone for so long without owning anything real, the first instinct is to celebrate one’s wealth and status, show off to others that you made it and rub it in the faces of white Americans. Get a chain, a fancy car, some nice watches, anything to prove to others that you are successful, that you made it against all odds. This economy is still fragile and ultimately to the benefit of the wealthiest white people in America, who have little self-regard and thus need even more wealth and power to prove themselves and assert their dominance over the rabble. “Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack/and the white man get paid off of all of that.” Notably, unlike other quote-unquote “conscious” rappers, Kanye doesn’t exclude himself from this issue. He is just as culpable as anyone else in this system, and he is not sure how to escape it, so he plays along. 

He was conscious without being preachy, funny without being corny, creative without being pretentious, confident without being narcissistic.

This is a far more nuanced message than anything his detractors will give him credit for. Similar themes show up on “Wesley’s Theory,” the opening track on Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly. What’s funny is that these political statements appear throughout his music: you can find indictments on racism in his verses on “Gorgeous” or “New Slaves,” for instance. There are surely criticisms of his music to be made––just because he is ambitious doesn’t mean he can always execute his ideas perfectly––but there is much more to his artistry than his media antics.

I plan to do a more in-depth analysis of Kanye’s oeuvre as I continue re-listening to his catalog. I suspect that many of these themes will recur throughout. The conversation surrounding Kanye West’s music seems so much more interested in his extra-musical persona that it overshadows discussion of the details and moments of brilliance. At the very least, Jeen-yuhs will help put some much-needed sympathetic context to his music.

Addendum: I’ve tried to avoid conversation around this doc and most Kanye discourse in general for my own sake. The one thing I revisited and would recommend as a great breakdown of Kanye West’s media persona comes from this episode of the And Introducing podcast, hosted by Molly O’Brien and Chris Wade.

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