a celebration in 148 theses of genius, originality, art, truth, life, death, and the future, with an epigraph from the artist himself
You have to protect your ability to create at all cost
— KANYE WEST
1. the premise of this essay is that it’s impossible to overstate the genius of kanye west.
2. this premise is actually the conclusion of my failed attempts to do exactly that (overstate his genius).
3. but why speak of premises here? there are no arguments. only thoughts. impressions.
4. and why, for that matter, only? thoughts, impressions, what else would you have? what else would i want?
5. who are the great american philosophers? the great american poets? emerson. whitman. dickinson. dylan. kanye. who am i forgetting?
6. kanye is a cultural figure of world-historical significance — the best rapper ever, the most important artist of our era. that’s bold. can i be bolder? i can be bolder: to find a cultural force of similar measure i think we have to go back to dylan, back to picasso; and if you want the blueprint for kanye’s greatness, try nietzsche.
7. lemme finish.
8. what’s common to these artists is they shaped the culture from out front. while everyone else was following them they changed course. they invented entire movements and left them for others to fill in. they were destroyers, their styles laid siege time and again to the received idea.
9. we might say swagger, we might say attitude, we might say j’ne se quoi . . . but one of the things that makes kanye great is his refusal to apologize for his greatness: his willingness to change the world — his overflowingness — his willingness to be a fool — his refusal to be who you/i/we want him to be — his defiance of what he covets — his self-sabotage — the artistic struggle he lives out in his life — the degree to which he cares — his earnestness — his . . .
10. the kanye paradox: while many rappers are better at rapping, none is a better rapper.
11. what is this art? the whole thing — everything that comes together in the work (all of the factors count).
12. the guy who made college dropout is the guy who made graduation is the guy who made yeezus. it’s downright dylanesque in its variety, plus so far too no self-portrait no under the red sky.
13. my idiosyncratic taste: 1) cd; 2) lr; 3) g; 3) tlop; 5) 808s; 6) y.
14. my objective report: the bar for genius somewhere way off to the right of that line.
15. and plus of course my beautiful dark twisted fantasy, whatever it is — not a rap album — more like a painting — no, a movie — or a symphony — what would happen if pink floyd and lauryn hill conceived a child in egypt and that child appeared in a picasso imagined by basquiat a hundred years in the future —
16. whoever — or we might even say whatever — is responsible for my beautiful dark twisted fantasy is the poet as emerson imagined him.
17. so let’s see then: goethe. nietzsche. dylan. john cage. miles davis. these are the names that come to mind. michelangelo. leonardo. picasso. right? homer. plato. shakespeare. too much? is there more?
18. steve jobs? henry ford? walt disney? phil knight? kanye is far too humble when he names names like these. he sells himself short. he insults his own taste.
19. this generation’s version of einstein — that’s more like it.
20. i will happily grant kanye’s most outrageous boasts — happily double down on them!
21. what do i have to lose? i have already lost the shame of saying what i mean, what is obviously the case.
22. is it any coincidence that nietzsche is the philosopher kanye turns into a pop star? that which does not kill me . . . kanye knows suffering is not to be avoided but overcome.
23. how did kanye get to be the the kanye we know?
24. his mom said he was someone god had chosen to do something very special in the world. my mom never said anything like that to me. did yours? and even that the passion of christ is in him.
25. people who talked to kanye’s dad on the phone back in the day thought he was white. the implications of that must be, if unclear, also significant. and he, the father, an artist, too.
26. kanye once made a video game about his mom’s journey to heaven. and he wasn’t embarrassed about it. if you’ve seen the game, you know that’s saying something. in what world does anything about kanye make sense? easy: this one.
27. on the lucky side of death lies freedom. evidence: car accident.
28. on the unlucky side of death lies freedom of a different kind. evidence: the taylor swift thing.
29. because of who she is, i am able to be who i am, he said of his mother, donda. and so what about when she was, who or what is kanye able to be then?
30. donda thought, in so many words, that kanye was a god. and she got him to think it too.
31. imagine if you felt (even partially) responsible for the death of the woman you wrote “hey, mama” about. imagine that you will never forgive yourself. what would you do with that rage? what would that rage do with you?
32. pattern? car accident: recovery; taylor swift thing: recovery; psychic breakdown: recovery?
33. ta-nehisi coates & black twitter think kanye isn’t black enough anymore. some of taylor swift’s fans think he’s a big-mouthed nigger who deserves to be hanged. obama, inarguably the most dignified american politician of any living person’s memory, called him a jackass.
34. what does it do to a person to be called a “jackass” by obama? and if you already consider yourself a monster? what kind of art would you make then?
35. kanye gets compared to trump a lot for hanging onto slights and perceived slights. but there are key differences: kanye has been unfairly slighted (again and again); kanye is a genius (duh); kanye overcomes opposition by raising himself to a higher level.
36. he might turn suffering into gold, but that doesn’t mean he doesn’t suffer. again, how much did he suffer when obama (destiny, hero, idol, world-historical figure) called him a jackass?
37. by kanye’s assessment, 808s and yeezus are his best most inspired visionary albums. my beautiful dark twisted fantasy is actually an insult to his listener. if kanye is ever arrogant it is here where he hates his listeners enough to give them perfection, to bend them to his will, to force them to appreciate his genius. there’s nothing generous in the album, no empathy extended. it’s pure force. no one man should have that much power. but kanye does. and he knows it. and every second of the album is crammed with self-hatred. the taylor swift thing. . . . his mother’s death . . . he is a monster who deserves the scorn he receives and he proves it and he embraces it.
38. my beautiful dark twisted fantasy deserves the glowing reviews it receives. here he gives us what we want: a masterpiece.
39. he becomes our worst projection of him as he becomes ever more himself.
40. joke’s on us, he never died.
41. when kanye is born and born and born, what in him changes? he becomes in his many deaths and rebirths what he already was. the more he changes the more kanye he becomes.
42. is there any chance that his breakdown during the pablo tour was or will have been a breakthrough? anything is possible for the artist in his art.
43. who knew that kanye west would become kanye west? apparently he did, said donda.
44. it matters that he failed and failed and failed before he didn’t. fail better = art. it matters that he wasn’t lebron or durant, he wasn’t anointed. he was like steve nash or steph curry, the one no one put stock in but who changed the game regardless.
45. the truly confident person has very little to prove. the chip is on the shoulder of the one who has doubt inside. in this respect, jay-z is lebron and kanye is kobe.
46. what matters most for kanye? his talent? his ambition? his love? his destiny? the chip on his shoulder? is it meaningful to talk of any of these in isolation?
47. kanye quit art school because he couldn’t turn the drawings up loud enough. music hits us differently/harder/closer to the soul than do most things — it creates our moods therefore our moments therefore our selves . . . it is the most emotional of arts . . . and kanye the most emotional artist . . .
48. kanye makes music because he won’t not be heard.
49. & once you’ve heard kanye there’s no unhearing him. he has known this from the beginning.
50. an artist like kanye who speaks for his times does so by he creating his times — he doesn’t say what we know we want to hear, he says what we don’t know we want to hear, what as soon as he has said it seems inevitable.
51. of course what rap always wanted to be explicitly about was insecurity, of course a person makes himself outwardly arrogant to compensate, of course rap was always meant for nerds and misfits and the suburbs and pink polos, of course george bush didn’t care about black people, of course rap has a problem with homophobia, of course, etc., of course . . .
52. he invents himself, to be sure. he also invents the world. we know: we live in it.
53. one thing an artist does is invent the possibilities we inhabit.
54. when the history of our culture is written, kanye will have been the one no one could not respond to. there is nothing right now he hasn’t touched. he is a force. the ground is still shaking. if he tweets in the next hour it will break this essay wide open. and if he doesn’t i will spend the hour managing my anticipation.
55. kanye makes reality a malleable concept.
56. genius writes its own rules.
57. when he was a boy kanye told ducks they were quacking the wrong way. kanye told ducks he knew how to quack better than they did.
58. it matters if you’re right. right? it is a factor. so what if kanye is right? what if george bush doesn’t care about black people? what if beyonce did have one of the best videos of all time? what do we do with the rightness? what does he do with it?
59. call him a jerk and make him apologize — so we feel safer —
60. it’s kanye’s greatness that threatens. it’s what’s mediocre in an artist that comforts. kanye can’t sell someone else’s shoes. nike can’t trust him to stay on message and dance for them. of course kanye’s pissed off people won’t join him in the sun. wouldn’t you be if you were a god.
61. imagine how sad all this would be if he weren’t in fact a genius. but also consider the possibility that more of us are (or could be) geniuses too if we were not so afraid. but how many of these geniuses can an era accommodate?
62. if he were safe and mediocre, a cog in the consumerist machine, we could all sleep easier.
63. sleep is overrated.
64. what are we scared of if not what might come out of us?
65. i didn’t have a lot to say. i had a lot to learn. he said.
66. kanye = the only one; omari = wise man; west = ancestors were property.
67. this wise man knows he knows nothing. he fronts on feelings of inadequacy. it’s a confidence game for him every bit as much as it is for us all — the ratio between bluster and foundation inherently unstable.
68. once deception begins it never ends. honesty is power. embrace imperfection. embrace failure. love failure. perfection is always dishonest.
69. i’m gonna feel what i’m gonna feel. what does it mean to lead with feelings and to follow them?
70. when you have fans (when you have people who are fanatical about you) you have the power of a god. the problem isn’t with gods. the problem is with fanaticism.
71. to what extent is self-doubt a sign of self-awareness and to what extent a mental disease?
72. the underlying lesson of kanye’s music — of kanye’s career — of kanye’s being: be your own god.
73. maybe that’s a reasonable injunction, maybe it’s not. point is: i don’t remember any complaints when kanye said no one man should have all this power.
74. freedom to be imperfect, to be a damn mess, to put the process in the public eye — not just the masterpiece (fantasy) but the work in progress (pablo) — the beauty in the imperfection, the incompleteness, the process, the ongoingness, the creative spirit, the original impulse, the indefatigability of creation —
75. if kanye west is not sane, no one is.
76. and perhaps no one is, but at least one of us made late registration.
77. and if “sane” is a relative term, relative to a society that defines well-being by its citizens being scared and isolated and feeling inadequate so they will consume more resources more quickly so the planet becomes uninhabitable for humans sooner but a small fraction of a minority are wealthier in the short term, what does it mean again?
78. when you’re compelled by your passion there is very little you don’t have the energy for, very little you won’t destroy in the pursuit thereof.
79. family does compromise absolute artistic freedom/integrity — you have obligations to people — and if you love them you willingly restrain/limit yourself & your art. how this relates to kanye i have no idea. it is his art i love.
80. the man himself — i wish him well. i wish him the best.
81. art is art. life doesn’t always cohere the way art does. when it does it’s a kind of lie. a noble lie, often, but still a lie. life is a mess. it doesn’t always have a hook or punchline or epiphany or moral. maybe it will later, but later comes later.
82. kanye believes truth is its own justification.
83. the rants are kanye’s apogee — this is the highest form of art, completely honest, vulnerable, spontaneous, egotistic, unapologetic, not pleasing anyone —
84. are many of kanye’s claims and public statements ridiculous? of course. do i understand the logic of his rants? oftentimes not. does he have too many simple or otherwise wack rhymes? yes. are there a hundred criticisms you could make of him? a hundred times yes. is he the best rapper right now? depends what you mean by best. but is he the most important living artist? without question.
85. think how risky it is to make art, what you open yourself up to. the most important thing inside of you is subject to mockery, ridicule, extreme cruelty. what are the psychological reasons that a person would take such risks? what are the psychological consequences that taking such risks has on a person?
86. bravery is more important than perfection, feeling is more important than thought —
87. i had no empathy for people who lacked confidence, he said. but after the hospital he had no confidence (less confidence). he was in the simulation, he said. he was quiet/scared, he said. he would have to break free again. and again. and again. it is the same for you and me. as many times as we get free we are sucked back in.
88. streams of consciousness, streams of music, streams of water. ultralight stream. we’re all in the stream. it’s better when we swim.
89. let’s be like water, said kanye the taoist.
90. a rapper’s rap is his flow over around through the beat. life is flow when we’re in the stream of consciousness, the stream of time, when we are creating —
91. kanye is the artist all other artists love.
92. luxury is being able to have things (not not being able to have them) — another way to see this is as being able to do without (without shame) — to be in one’s own skin (either literally or close to it).
93. we all find ourselves in this world with whatever is available to us. who among us will draw from it to make something beautiful? to make something meaningful?
94. the job is to make meaning, and the tools are whatever is accessible.
95. the artist is the one who takes what everyone else has and makes something no one else can.
96. — all of the pieces — mixing, collaging, remixing, re-collaging into something new — originality is overrated — something more, more better —
97. let’s be less concerned with ownership of ideas. it is important that ideas see the light of day even if you don’t get the credit for them.
98. authenticity isn’t essential; it’s as invented as anything — that’s the point: it is invented. not everyone has it in them to invent.
99. kanye is a drug. he must be taken with caution. it is possible to overdose.
100. imagine a kanye who spoke as he speaks but only about things he knows.
101. we just want kanye to be what we want kanye to be.
102. what would i say if i were free in the way kanye is free? (seriously, what would i?) and would i want that freedom? (seriously, would i?) and what would i be willing to give up for it? would i die for it? that’s what it takes, isn’t it.
103. imagine a realistic painting of kanye — no, a photograph — but his eyes are cut out and behind the image is a mirror and so when you look into kanye what you see is yourself.
104. where would the internet be if it couldn’t rely on kanye but had to entertain itself? we want kanye to be arrogant, outrageous. we want him to snatch the trophy from taylor, we want him to wear the MAGA hat, we want him to tell us slavery was a choice — we demand it.
105. the stupid and stupid-making tone of the internet — the smug knowingness of salon or huffington post or a hundred lesser imitators — kanye is the antithesis of this small-mindedness.
106. and the professional opinioners opinioning away with their correct, always correct, always in the know, always smarter/better/woker than you, opinions — they are fine; nothing against them; i’m curious sometimes what they say and lean on them to help myself think — they can tinker and adjust and complain and criticize and on and on they go —
107. and the academics — brian leiter and daniel kaufman tripping over themselves to say things like talentless and nadir, desperate for approval from their audiences. but their audiences are silent out of embarrassment.
108. you might say he’s not a philosopher, but who was it who said take a walk outside. fresh air is healing. who was it, if not a philosopher? who said look at your phone as a tool not an obligation. would you walk around with a hammer in your pocket?
109. don’t we turn to kanye to find out how to live — isn’t that part of the hope anyway?
110. in an era of internet think pieces and listicles and sponsored content, what we are most dying for is the artist.
111. and the artist, kanye, is dying for us.
112. we kill our gods. every time. we are all grand inquisitors. they are threats and we will do anything to survive, anything to prevent disruption, anything to hang on to what we know.
113. how do you put a value on real genius? what is plato worth? it is impossible to imagine the world without sophocles, shakespeare, beethoven, van gogh — how do you put a price on the possibility of reality? we don’t owe these geniuses everything, but we do owe them everything we have. by definition. they are the sine quibus non of the world we inhabit.
114. how could we be anything but grateful — desperately grateful — for what he’s given us? how could we ask for more?
115. “kanye” means life in the language i’m inventing.
116. the ability to grow to overcome to become to be unbeholden to the past to the self to the witnesses to history.
117. to trim one’s own dead limbs so the living may thrive.
118. to thrive — what could matter more to a thing than to thrive; when a thing thrives, the universe itself is thriving.
119. a new religion: to celebrate what thrives; this religion has no god: it worships only thriving.
120. the goal is as it always has been: to stand there and tell the fucking truth whatever it takes.
121. was it emerson who said i shall essay myself to be? never mind who said it, kanye’s saying it now.
122. yeezus walks.
123. does it matter whether george bush really cared about black people? does it matter whether beyonce really had one of the best videos of all time? does it matter whether slavery was, in fact, a choice? it matters everything —
124. — and it doesn’t. kanye has as much right as anyone to be wrong. the character trait that allows someone in his position to tell the truth about bush or taylor might be the trait that under different circumstances . . .
125. if kanye had been wrong about bush it would have been easy to ignore him. he was not ignored because everyone could tell (whether bush himself realized it or not) that it was true. the low point of a presidency does not come when someone lies about you. how much sleep do you suppose obama lost fretting over trump telling fox news viewers the president was born in kenya?
126. but very little is true by necessity. mostly it’s true because it’s true. any artist who begins to speak for his time at some point ceases to.
127. like andré 3000 said, a rapper has a period of time when he’s in his groove. it’s not indefinite. kanye has had (or, i must acknowledge, possibly had) by far the longest run in rap. by far. not even jay-z, who has moved in and out of relevance over a longer period, has been able to maintain it.
128. one advantage dylan has over kanye is his luck to have had his accident after his immortality.
129. it was kanye, not george bush, who housed fifteen families who had survived katrina for a year.
130. yg and nipsey hussle are the rappers who really got to the point on trump (oh and also t.i., eminem, chance, and on and on — ) but you get it, right, we get it: what the attraction is. we can appreciate that and still sing along: fuck donald trump.
131. i’m not voting for kanye for president. i’m voting for him for greatest artistic genius of my lifetime.
132. creativity, not intelligence, is genius.
133. if i had — let’s even say, if i have — no significant intellectual life but were the kind of person who acts without much thought and adjusts actions accordingly based on the results they produce (to say another way, that i am metaphorically (or literally) an algorithm) maybe i would nevertheless become who i am or become better than i am or become kanye west. what does it matter if i can (or if i think i can) take responsibility for that fact? when in a basketball game you’re playing well does it matter if you told yourself to play well? and if it were that easy why wouldn’t you tell yourself to always play well? or, do you, and why don’t you listen to yourself? does kanye listen to kanye? or does kanye be kanye?
134. if life, for us, is about meaning, let’s have meaning, let’s make meaning, let’s celebrate those who make it for us.
135. our culture is a hodgepodge — but if there is a voice for all of us it is kanye’s voice. society talks to itself through his tweets. the only question to ask is what it is about our culture that demands kanye.
136. how do you get free? what is absolute freedom? it’s a terrifying thought. and most people want nothing to do with it. you have to give up and accept death. the letting go is absolute. let that sink in. it doesn’t. and/but where do you go from there? how do you not become a kind of nihilist (in some respects)? ask nietzsche. ask kanye. you must somehow give birth to yourself.
137. with writers, with all artists — with musicians — one falls for their style, their voice, the way they say or perform what they say or perform, not for what they say or perform. if we like what someone says we can merely agree or at best come to agree. but nothing — especially in the arts — is more boring than agreement.
138. nietzsche was sometimes misogynistic; dylan was a fundamentalist christian for a while; and kanye maybe has had his brains eaten by the alt-right. however: beyond good and evil; time out of mind; my beautiful dark twisted fantasy. or: ecce homo; blood on the tracks; the life of pablo. or: or: or: etc., etc.
139. does the shit bang? nothing else counts. nothing. kweli said it best here: i speak in school a lot cuz they say i’m intelligent / no, it’s cuz i’m dope. if i was wack i’d be irrelevant.
140. there was no possible way to bang in a pink polo. until there was. now, look around, anybody can do it.
141. however, certain things cannot be said well enough to redeem themselves: so much eminem, say, or a pro-trump song — no one is singing along to that.
142. but let’s follow this terrifying line a moment: every time that matters, when kanye has been told he was wrong, he was right and ultimately vindicated by history (bush, homophobia in hip-hop, taylor, the fact we all know his name, etc.). therefore why wouldn’t he think it’s at least possible that he’s right about trump? (or, even scarier, what if somehow he is right? what would that even mean? i, for one, cannot even entertain the possibility that trump’s presidency or character or humanity can ever be redeemed. but can i imagine here that this is a failing of my imagination?)
143. any idiot can mock the rants. many have. the greater listener hears in them kanye struggling against the edges of things that don’t yet exist, things that won’t come into being except if by a force like his own. what is the sound of something that’s never been said? if you knew that i’d be writing this essay about you. if i knew, i’d be writing about myself. if the process is at times ugly, remember that birth is a kind of trauma.
144. i’m not saying kanye doesn’t make mistakes. his willingness to make mistakes is one of the things that makes him a great artist. i’m not even saying kanye always knows what he’s doing. what i’m saying is he’s doing it. he’s doing something that’s never been done. and he’s doing it again. and he’s probably doing it right now.
145. the world will never be the same. there is b.k. and there is a.y.
146. what if you were reborn? what if you were responsible for the worst thing you can imagine? what if you went on? what if you found out nothing else mattered? what if being a god means something like freedom like letting go like love like constant change like growth like not apologizing what if it means not worrying if everyone looks at you like you’re crazy what if it means being willing to actually go crazy what if the risk is worth it what if the tradeoff is still positive what if you devote yourself to art to making things new and better and more visionary and more ambitious what if you take something like that seriously because you’re going to die if you aren’t already dead and all you have is what you create in the meantime how you love and who you love and what you give and there’s no place for shame just love whether or not it looks like love it feels like love what if, what if that, what if why not, what if yes, what if brilliance, what if light and love and the moment of creation, what if universes are born this way?
147. it’s possible. everything is possible. or nothing is.
148. in art we trust. amen.