Kanye West: Great American Novelist

The year is 2116, and my great-great granddaughter has just unearthed a 100-year-old iPod containing every Kanye West album. Let’s pretend the artist is dead, and isn’t the 138-year-old prime minister / couture spacesuit designer of Neptune he’s on pace to become. Let’s also pretend that my great-great granddaughter’s brain isn’t connected to the cloud, so when she presses play, she doesn’t also receive a torrent of archives from TMZ, the Source, Le Monde, Twitter, etc. explaining to her how each lyric directly relates to specific moments in Kanye’s life. She will be free of the internet — free to listen. And when she listens, she will hear what we hear today — an agile rapper, a first-rate producer, and the most exquisite sampler of other artist’s music. But she will also hear what most of us today prevent ourselves from hearing: Above all, Kanye West is a novelist.

If you forget everything you know about Kanye West, the person, you too will hear that he has unflinchingly devoted 53,000 words — 6,000 longer than The Great Gatsby — on seven albums to one story about and narrated by a fictional anti-hero who happens to be named Kanye West. It is one of the most comprehensive character studies since John Updike’s Rabbit Angstrom tetralogy, a shattering quest for faith, commitment, balance, escape, and immortality, set in a dystopia as hopeless as 1984.

Americans now spend just 19 minutes reading and more than four hours listening to music each day, meaning we get our stories in song a dozen times more often than we do in the printed word. Kanye wants us to know he’s trying to capitalize on this. When he posted photos of The Life Of Pablo’s ever-changing track-list and bracketed the album into three acts, he wasn’t just building hype; he was also inviting us to pay attention to the narrative structure.

But fans and critics alike like to pay more attention to his antics. Take my fiancé. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF) is her favorite album of all time.[1] But she’s barely listened to Kanye in the past five years because she can seldom dissociate his music from his persona, an egomaniacal and sometimes misogynistic clown. Take Sasha Frere-Jones. Reviewing The Life of Pablo in the Los Angeles Times, he writes:

One reason to set aside most of the album, not simply because it isn’t fair to assess unfinished work, is to take stock of what West wants us to do with him the rest of the time, when he’s designing clothes or making public statements. At the end of the Madison Square Garden show, he declared that he wanted to be the creative director of Hermès and tweeted the same. Will he do that? Will he run for president?

But why should knowing Kanye wants to design scarves have any effect on how we listen to his music? Would you read Moby-Dick differently if I told you Melville hated jellybeans? Would you disregard Beloved if Toni Morrison opened a taco stand?

Of course knowing an artist enriches your understanding of his or her art. And of course Kanye meditates on his public life through his art perhaps more often than any pop star in history. But does he really?

The Life of Pablo’s ever-changing track list.

If you believe the blogs, almost every other song Kanye has written since 2009 is about his VMA outburst. Yet he’s never explicitly mentioned the incident on any track. And of those 53,000 lyrics, these are the number of times he’s uttered the words he’s most often associated with: Katrina (one), George Bush (one), Twitter (zero), Kardashian (zero). This is no accident. He’s not just recording a diary. He deliberately strips key details, fictionalizes many others, and rearranges the chronology of his life to shape a story and create a new character on his albums.

And, importantly, he maintains that character. Kanye isn’t Bob Dylan or the Mountain Goats’ John Darnielle, who’ve written songs from the eyes of myriad people. One hundred seven and nine-tenths of the 108 songs on Kanye’s albums (we’ll get into that other tenth later) are told through one character’s perspective.[2]

Listen through Kanye’s oeuvre the way you would read a book. All of those skits on his first two albums, once buffers between songs, become charged with drama. Recurrent symbols pop up on every album: lights, heights, breathe, a backpack, watches, devils. Supporting characters present themselves in the form of cameo verses. The soul samples become a Greek chorus, providing exposition and sharing the deepest thoughts that Kanye, often an unreliable narrator, won’t share. If you allow yourself to be a little obtuse, “All of the Lights” isn’t just an allegory for fame, but a violent turn for the protagonist. A strong, patterned plot structure unfolds from album to album. The shift from MBDTF, a bath in vibrating caramel, to Yeezus, a punch in the throat, isn’t a metamorphosis, or a ploy to challenge the artist’s fanbase, it’s the logical next step in the narrative. And while Kanye doesn’t always write with the lyrical fortitude of Dylan or Morrison, he finds sumptuous and ghastly sounds to tell parts of the story and convey complex emotions that no literary genius could describe. Put together, seven (and counting) disjointed albums and 108 isolated songs become a great American novel of the 21st century.

When he coined the term in 1868, the writer John William DeForest defined the great American novel (GAN) as “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence,” a “painting [of] the American soul.” You won’t find a painting more vivid, written in a more authentic American tongue — brash, angelically harmonious at times and screeching at others, erudite and moronic, rhyming “sarcophagus” with “esophagus” and “shit” with “shit” — than in The Book of Kanye (not to be confused with the great new podcast on Kanye, The Book of Ye). You could also call it Slave to the American Dream or 99 Girl Problems or Sinsation. The main character embodies and is a victim of much of what we hate and love about American life — our enduring legacy of slavery, oppression and objectification of women, and obsession with fame, our chutzpah and cheesiness, our conflating greed with salvation, our ability to find strength in the Bible as readily as Happy Gilmore, our desires to “not give a fuck” and get high and invent and raise a family and our people, and our propensity to “talk so much shit” about each other at the proverbial barbershop that we forget to get our haircuts.

When I forget everything I know about Kanye West before I listen, this is the story I hear.


Part I

Chapter 1: The College Dropout, or Kanye West and the Escape from Hell

I n the beginning there was Kanye West, a self-professed “grown-ass kid” raised in a lower-middle-class dystopia called Chicago. He’s curiously proud to be a self-conscious mama’s boy with stratospheric ambitions, and wears a pink polo shirt and Louis Vuitton backpack that are as integral to his sense of self as his unwavering faith in God. He’s Holden Caulfield meets Ellison’s Invisible Man meets Peter Pan: disenfranchised with school, authority, and state-sponsored racism, yet ebulliently refusing to mature. Right away we know this character is bound to wrestle with the world.

In The Dream of the Great American Novel (2014), an encyclopedic review of 150 years of classics, Harvard literature professor Lawrence Buell makes the case for four types of GANs. From the start, Kanye combines two — the rags to riches, or “obscurity to prominence” narrative (à la Gatsby, The Adventures of Augie March, etc.), and the “romance of the divide,” dramatizing the racial gap (Huckleberry Finn, Uncle Tom’s Cabin).

We meet Kanye as he responds to a professor’s request that he sing “something uplifting” for his college classmates (track one, “Intro”). But Kanye elects to expose the horrifying conditions of the novel’s setting (2. “We Don’t Care”), a netherworld in which those who surpass the life expectancy of 25 (low in part because the government administers AIDS and police murder the innocent) are “forced to sell crack” “just to get by.” He’s accompanied by bouncing brass and children who gleefully chant along — feels so good to tell the truth. But the professor expels Kanye the day he’s supposed to graduate (3. “Graduation Day”).

How can a disgraced student survive in land of “no love, no breaks, low brow, high stakes”? Go to church (5. “I’ll Fly Away”)? Work at the Gap (6. “Spaceship”)? Not for long. We can’t fault him when he sells cocaine (7. “Jesus Walks”)[3] and makes a workout video designed to help women woo wealthy men (11. “The New Workout Plan”). Though his mother begs him to finish his degree, and though he continually seeks God’s guidance, Kanye flounders. In one moment, Kanye visits his girlfriend’s father, on his deathbed, and promises to marry the man’s daughter (8. “Never Let Me Down”). In the next he finds someone new online (9. “Get ’Em High”) and slathers Cool Whip on her naked body (12. “Slow Jamz”).

Aside from his mother, whom he often avoids, everyone else in Kanye’s life — the 12 rappers with guest verses — is too preoccupied to offer him guidance. His friend GLC laments, “Lost my momma, lost my mind” (foreshadowing that eludes our protagonist), and Twista devotes himself to “fulfilling” women “with every temptation.” Kanye never mentions his father. The closest thing to a paternal figure is a former drug dealer and current record executive who calls himself Hov and who tells vulnerable young Kanye that religion exists for the kinds of weaklings he squashes.[4] Disguised as a savior early on, Hov will reveal himself to be one of the novel’s primary villains, a “zombie with no conscience.”

But just when Kanye decides to “live by two words: fuck you, pay me” (18. “Two Words”), a deus ex machina arrives. Living too fast, he crashes his Lexus and ends up on life support (19. “Through the Wire”). This prompts Kanye to attend a family reunion (20. “Family Business”), and express deep gratitude to his mother and to Hov on the final track, “Last Call.”

The College Dropout ends with a cliffhanger. Kanye asks if he can join Hov’s rap empire: “You think we could still get that deal with Roc-a-Fella?” The final word echoes until the music stops 20 seconds later. Is it a coincidence that those echoes mimic Jay Z’s maniacal laugh at the beginning of the song? Through these sounds Kanye West crafts dramatic irony: unbeknownst to our hero, Hov has just lured Kanye into a trap door called fame and fortune.

What makes the following chapters even more painful is young Kanye’s foresight. Immediately after his brush with death he admits “I still won’t grow up” — he won’t be swayed from one day becoming a “38-year-old eight-year-old” (on The Life of Pablo). He also knows, in “All Fall Down,” “We livin’ the American dream / But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem.”


Chapter 2: Late Registration, or Kanye West and the Specter of Fatherhood

The absence of Kanye’s dad leaves him haunted by the prospect of fatherhood at every turn. Three friends share cautionary tales of impregnating women.[5] Kanye can only see a father as a “punk,” and can only offer one commitment as a parent: “I vow that my child will be well endowed” (17. “Celebration”). He falls in love with a woman with four children, but quickly decides she’s not worth the burden of child support should the relationship ever sour (4. “Gold Digger”).

Abandoning this second woman rattles Kanye. Once seeking a “Spaceship” (track six on the College Dropout), he tries to “Drive Slow” (track six here). He feels guilty wearing a necklace with diamonds mined by slaves (but keeps it on). He returns to college (but sleeps in class). He joins a fraternity, but with his mind so set on money, he can only hear the brothers chant, “We can’t afford no gas!” Soon they kick him out.

He gets addicted to wealth, women, and weed. When he starts another dysfunctional relationship, rather than try to resolve anything, he proposes a threesome (11. “Addiction”). Never learning, he will again ask another woman for “other bitches” years later (“Bound 2”).

Late Registration also dramatizes the country’s colossal class gap. While Hov and a rising Kanye get “sky high” — strutting in Gucci and rapping over Jon Brion’s champagne production — a lower-class vortex chews up everyone from Kanye’s pre-fame life. His younger cousin’s employer lashes out at him for being too “niggerish” (2. “Heard ’Em Say”). His childhood “heroes and heroines [get] hooked on heroin” (8. “Crack Music”). His family can’t afford the medicine his hospitalized grandmother needs (9. “Roses”). And his old friend Consequence — who made plans to build a spaceship with Kanye in chapter one — receives a 20-year prison sentence for an unspecified crime (20. “Gone). Kanye questions his faith for the first time: “God, how could you let this happen?”

At last, Kanye turns to his one source of light (16. “Hey Mama”), and for a moment the story slows down. As a storyteller, Kanye West is often minimal on description and relentless on plot. We flash through multiple scenes in a single line. (In comparison, Kendrick Lamar, who may be a GAN contender with a few more albums, will spend 16 bars detailing a half-mile car ride). But on “Hey Mama,” he devotes six lines to reveal the moment that gave Kanye his raison d’être:

Seven years old, caught you with tears in your eyes

Cuz a nigga cheatin’, telling you lies, then I started to cry

As we knelt on the kitchen floor

I said mommy I’mma love you till you don’t hurt no more

And when I’m older, you ain’t gotta work no more

And I’mma get you that mansion that we couldn’t afford

With this confession we understand why Kanye would sell his soul to a kingpin like Hov: “He got me out my mama crib / then he help me get my mama a crib” (as he later explains in Graduation). In a town where citizens end up either “dead or in jail” (“Two Words”), getting rich to protect your family passes for a noble cause. But young Kanye mistakes this as the only cause, the only “Good Life.” He never considers that college may help him build moral character and combat his demons; it’s only roadblock to wealth.[6] Though he promises his mother to return to class, by now we know the emptiness of his promises. We see his inability to fully connect with his mother in that first couplet, Kanye’s “cry” only an approximate rhyme with his mother’s “eyes.” Kanye hears his mother, but not enough.

Then another deus ex machina: Kanye’s father finally appears (20. “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”). This is the first of only five times his father is even mentioned in the novel; in contrast, to get a sense of where Kanye’s mind gravitates, “pussy” appears 23 times, Louis Vuitton 14. Appalled that his son has become an “international asshole,” he sends Kanye to get baptized, for the fifth time. When the priest says the Church needs leaders, the always on-the-go protagonist is frozen with a sense of purpose. But instead of joining the seminary, six lines later he decides to spread God’s word through rap. He turns back to the man he considers more of a father: “Big K pick up where young Hov left off.” But his voice raises an octave at the end, as he worries—over a horror piano score—just how long he’ll have to remain under Hov’s wing to survive: Forever ever? Forever ever? Ever, ever?


Chapter 3: Graduation, or Kanye West and the Burden of Dreams

We’ve flashed forward to meet a devoted prophet in Godless times: “Bow in the presence of greatness / cause right now God has forsaken us.” Teachers used to have to wake up Kanye; now he’s the one telling the world “good morning.” He even contemplates having children.

But we quickly learn Kanye’s message veils a moral free-fall. He drinks so heavily he confuses the club for divine intervention[7] (a problem that will persist for years), implies that he impregnates a one-night stand[8] (who’s never heard of again), and cheats on another woman. He finds solace in materialism: “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace.” And he confuses the unexamined life — sipping champagne and receiving fellatio, simultaneously — with the “Good Life.”

Passersby try to get Kanye to study himself. “I wonder if you know what it means to find your dreams come true” (the Labi Siffre sample in “I Wonder”). “Is the good life better than the life I live / When I thought I was gonna go crazy? (T-Pain on “The Good Life”) “What are you doing so late?” (Connie Mitchell on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”). But Kanye only answers the one question that flatters him: “Did you realize / That you were a champion in their eyes?” (“Champion”) Why yes, yes I did.

As with The College Dropout and Late Registration, Graduation ends with Kanye sharing gratitude, for Chicago (12. “Homecoming”) and yet again for Hov (13. “Big Brother). But whereas close calls with his own and his grandmother’s death prompted thanksgiving in the first two chapters, he now seems to do this only out of habit. He’s trapped in an endless cycle of degeneracy followed by gratefulness for the few good things in his life, and then back to degeneracy.


Intermission

Hold on. This is just barroom banter that regrettably ended up on the internet, right?

And why waste our time? Does Kanye’s body of music need to be a great American novel to qualify as a great work of art? Of course not. If aliens invaded and declared they’d use the single greatest work of American art to decide whether to liquidate the human race, we’d have barbaric debates on whether to offer Moby-Dick or Blood on the Tracks or “(You Make Me Feel Like) A Natural Woman” or 2001: A Space Odyssey or a Pollock painting. But sometimes a work of art so transcends the medium in which it appears that to consider it only as a book or song or painting is to miss its larger effects. You could argue that Joyce’s Dubliners—with its pacing, lyricism, and breathless musicality—is the greatest Irish album of all time.

And as I kept listening, I heard it more and more: The Book of Kanye is a literary masterwork.

Let’s take a second to review Lawrence Buell’s common criteria for a GAN.

1. “Center on an individual figure, like Huckleberry Finn, with the proviso that he or she should be in some sense socially representative”: check.

2. Rich dichotomy between main characters who represent competing American values: check.

Hov and Kanye are the 21st century’s Ahab and Ishmael. Buell writes, “Ahab’s quest is to hunt the whale; Ishmael’s is to understand what to make of both whale and hunt.” Hov, the captain of the rap game, is consumed by his never-ending hunt for power and wealth. On his five verses in the novel — starting with “Never Let Me Down” and ending with “So Appalled” — he rhymes exclusively about his wealth, stature, and willingness to murder anyone who gets in his way. He describes himself as “the Rock of Gibraltar,” and sees no flaws. Like Ahab, Hov is “democracy’s worst nightmare,” the realized fear that American individualism can breed a ruthless totalitarian.

Kanye is also obsessed with power, but he’s keenly aware of its perils. For as much as he self-mythologizes and “dreams of being Hova,” he knows when he often “can’t get much wronger.” He knows that the higher he climbs the more he “acts more stupidly” and the more he abandons the children of his depraved hometown, who need him most. He knows that his singled-minded pursuit of the American dream will make a stable relationship “a dream that’ll never come true.” As Buell says of Jay Gatsby, Kanye’s “aura is built up at least as much as it is torn down.” For all the flack that Kanye West’s music promotes vice, a moralizing undercurrent streams through every song. At his core Kanye shares the simple desires of the American everyman: “I just want you to be proud of me” (“Hey Mama”). “I just want to be a real boy” (“Pinocchio Story”). “I just want to feel liberated” (“Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 2”).

3. An insistence that “national greatness is unproven, that its pretensions are hollow, and that the ship of state is going down”: check.

Kanye didn’t invent a dystopia; he’s talking about America. Specifically, he’s painting a black America — the “we” in most of his songs — that the government still subtly and not so subtly enslaves. “We buy our way out of jail, but we can’t buy freedom.” “We get Merrill Lynched / and we been hanging from the same tree ever since.” “We trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we stoop.” And living the American dream means sacrificing your blackness: “Whole nation standing at attention / As long as I’m in Polo smiling, they think they got me / But they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me.”

4. Provide “consequential reflection on U.S. history and culture and its defining institutions”: check.

The Book of Kanye is a story of man vs. self as much as it is a meditation on American individualism (“I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary”), democracy and its shortcomings (“the DEA / teamed up with the CCA / They tryna lock niggas up / They tryna make new slaves,” “feeling like Katrina with no FEMA”), and the inequities of capitalism (“Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead buy crack, And a white man get paid off of all of that”).

But am I just cheaply borrowing from the exhaustive research of a top scholar to bolster my argument? I emailed Buell, half-expecting him to reply, “Are you a shithead?” He conceded that because music and film has “overtaken” the novel in American culture, what counts as a great American story in 50 years will and should look “a lot different from now.” But, “as to the narrative art of Kanye West himself, I am absolutely unqualified to judge.”

For that he sent me to his former student, the eminent hip-hop scholar Adam Bradley, who teaches African American literature at the University of Colorado Boulder, coedited the Anthology of Rap, and wrote the forthcoming Poetry of Pop. Bradley seesawed throughout our conversation. On one level, he conceded that Kanye’s “aspirational sensibilities — his emotional, thematic, and sonic range — exceed that of pretty much all of his contemporaries.” If not a GAN, his albums may at least constitute a “great American literary statement.” Then again, many lyrics on his last two albums “seem like a conscious act just to say, ‘I can say dumb shit and you’ll still buy into it.’” (But we’ll see in a minute that that dumb shit drives plot.) And unlike novelists who created worlds largely themselves, Kanye relies on collaborators so much that his albums “wear their multiple authorships on their sleeves.” “Ultralight Beam” would be as interesting as soggy toast without Kelly Price, Chance the Rapper, Kirk Franklin, The-Dream, and the gospel choir. “But gosh,” Bradley paused. “Every time you make a statement about Ye you have to undo it. He cedes authority, but the ultimate exercise of authority is that the bastard keeps revising tracks” (hours before we spoke on March 31 Kanye had retooled 12 songs on The Life of Pablo). Perhaps the greatest sign of Kanye as “the great auteur,” says Bradley, is that his albums so eloquently “encompass the American sonic template,” from gospel to gangsta, scream-o to Nina Simone, Motown to horror punk.

And that’s it. Kanye hasn’t written a classic just because he meets a checklist of what a GAN should say. It’s more about the way his story feels through the way it sounds. To get at that, let’s move on.


Part II

Chapter 4: 808s and Heartbreak, or Kanye West and the Fall

Something is very wrong. We hear an electric heartbeat, a muted, mournful choir, and then Kanye’s voice, pleading and broken (via Auto-Tune) for the first time: “Why would she make calls out the blue?” (1. “Say You Will”) Until this point, the narrator has reliably told his story. But now that he’s actually feeling pain, he’s reluctant to share any details. He goes quiet — more time passes between his words than any previous track. He mumbles, and then blurts out too much, with no context: “When I grab your neck, I touch your soul.” What happened, Kanye?

Before he can say, he shares all the ways in which his life is broken (2. “Welcome to Heartbreak”). “My friend showed me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs.” He shows up to weddings late and leaves early. “Chased the good life my whole life / Look back on my life and my life gone.”

Side note: We know Kanye wrote this album as he grieved his mother’s death. Yet he mentions this only once, indirectly at that, on 808s’ closing song. Perhaps Kanye felt this reality was too unreal to be believed in the story of the fictional Kanye. Or, more likely, the loss was too unspeakable to put to song.

At last reveals that a heartless woman cheated on him, and the rest of the album mimics the grieving process. Denial turns to anger: The muffled 808 drums on track three, “Heartless,” grow to marching-band tom-toms on track five, “Love Lockdown.” By “Robocop” (track seven), Kanye dismisses his ex as “a spoiled little LA girl.” He bargains by asking questions of himself for the first time in the novel: “Do I still got time to grow?” (8. “Street Lights”) “Where did I go wrong?” “Real life, what does it feel like?” Then depression: He “starts to fade” and vows to never love again (11. “Coldest Winter”). But he never reaches acceptance.

The soundscapes manifest Kanye’s state of mind through each album. In the first three chapters, in which our hero can’t remain grounded, synthesizers and violins and bass and soul samples bubble up constantly — he’s full of distractions. But with pain comes focus on 808s. There are fewer flourishes, slower melodies, and zero chipmunk soul samples. His mind is quiet, and at last able to reflect.

In the end, loss at least breaks the degenerate-gracious cycle of the first three chapters. Instead of giving thanks at the end, Kanye hops on a stage to pour his soul to fans. (12. “Pinocchio Story,” recorded live in Singapore). We’ve heard 66 songs at this point, but this is the first live track, and therefore, in the context of the novel, the first time we hear Kanye sing since he signed that record deal with Hov. It’s a big moment. Rolling Stone called “Pinocchio Story” the album’s low point, and Pitchfork dumped it as “tacked-on . . . wtf curiosity at best.” But it’s the novel’s most raw and crushing scene. He reveals that his mother has died, and blames himself. “All my fault . . . chasin’ the American dream.”

He moans as he asks the audience questions: “Do you think I sacrifice real life for all the fame?” Do you know what it feels like when you cry and everyone tells you to laugh? He hasn’t engaged in dialogue with anyone since the fraternity brothers kicked him out years ago. In many ways the story mimics how it can feel living in the age of social media: all monologue and no dialogue. “I ask you tonight. I ask you tonight.” He begs for a human response, for a moment of compassion.

All they can do is scream. The chapter ends as their screams vanish.


Part III

Chapter 5: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or Kanye West and the Symposium

The chapter begins with a new narrator (Nicki Minaj on “Dark Fantasy”). She tells us everything we’ve heard up to this point was “watered down” and that everything we hear henceforth with be “real.” It’s almost an apology for being so vague in the previous chapter — but, in keeping with stubbornness of the protagonist, Kanye had to commission someone else to say sorry on his behalf.

But things get very real very quickly. He contemplates suicide (3. “Power”). Then he finds himself with yet another woman, assaults her, goes to jail, and when he returns he’s surprised she’s moved on to a new man — again, the lack of a father really showing here (5. “All of the Lights”). He reveals he has a daughter with this woman. Whether or not it’s the child he conceived during his one-night-stand on “Drunk and Hot Girls” he won’t say. But a restraining order prevents him from seeing here anyway, and he never mentions her again.

You could argue that she’s obviously never mentioned again because she doesn’t exist, his daughter is just a metaphor for his fans. You’d be right. You could also argue that this is a glaring plot hole. You’d be right. You could also argue that narrative continuity isn’t within 8,000 miles of Kanye West’s mind when he writes songs. You’re probably right. But you don’t have to intend to be a great American novelist to write a GAN.

And I would argue that “All of the Lights” marks something more sinister. It’s worth noting here that even the album titles seem to be written from fictional Kanye’s perspective. While Kanye West in reality dropped out of college, fictional Kanye gets kicked out. But fictional Kanye is exactly the type of character to lie and call himself The College Dropout to build cachet. In this respect, Kanye resembles GAN character Jay Gatsby, a fellow poor, undereducated Midwesterner who lied about his past on his quest to realize the American dream. And while the events of MBDTF are fantasies of the real Kanye West, they are realities of fictional Kanye West. But fictional Kanye pretends his assault and battery and fathering and abandoning a child is just a dark twisted fantasy, and moves on as a self-described “monster.”

The next five tracks — from “Monster” to “Hell of a Life” — seem to play out over one night. First Kanye joins friends old and a new at a modern-day Plato’s symposium, with as much wine and casual sex as the original. They dive into the Big Topics. Time: If you want to live lavishly, don’t watch it pass. “Looking at my wrist, it’ll turn your ass to stone / Stretch limousine, sippin’ rose all along,” says Rick Ross. Pusha T echoes: “Invisibly set, the Rolex is faceless / I’m just young, rich and tasteless.” (See the appendix for more on watches and symbols.) Love: Can be an Achilles heel. Hov admits his insatiable desire for love caused him to murder and rape women and children, and that he’s “lived long enough to see [himself] become a villain.” And life: “Can be sometimes ridiculous.”

Pusha T tries to tell Kanye to have perspective: “Success is what you make it.” Like Kanye, Pusha came from nothing, and was told he would die in his twenties (7. “So Appalled”). Could he offer wisdom? Ecstatically, no. Instead, he brags about “hoes coming in a baker’s dozen.” At that, Kanye proposes a toast (9. “Runaway”) to all the douchebags, assholes, scumbags, and jerk-offs, which applies to just about character in the novel except his mother. A man with a megaphone barks out to Kanye, “Look at ya!” (the modern equivalent of “know thyself”) about 850 times. He blames yet another failed relationship on his lack of commitment, and slurs his speech in a three-minute whine. Convinced he’s going to hell, he leaves the symposium for a club, and has sex with a porn star in the bathroom (10. “Hell of a Life”).

Night turns to day. Soon they’re cheating on each other (11. “Blame Game”). Kanye overhears his new woman in the act with another man, who’s so impressed with her sexual dexterity he says, “Yeezy taught you well.” It’s one of the few compliments Kanye has ever received. Back in chapter one, Kanye taught kids to “keep your nose out the sky” and “keep your heart to God.” Now he can only teach porn stars how to get the most out of their genitals.

Kanye heads for the woods, once again “Lost in the World” (track 12).


Chapter 6: Yeezus, or Kanye West and the Jamaican Emancipation

The first 10 seconds tell us everything we need to know (1. “On Sight”). We hear a grizzly, fried, psychotic synthesizer storm (courtesy of Daft Punk) — it is the sound of Kanye’s soul after a decade of living recklessly, hurting everyone he loves, losing his mother, his religion, and his mind. In some ways the next 39 minutes are superfluous.

But he emerges from the wilderness with a new resolve. He begins: “Yeezy season approaching,” this is my time. He decides, “There’s leaders and there’s followers / But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” (4. “New Slaves”). Sadly, unlike his idol Steve Jobs[9], Kanye lacks a caring partner like Steve Wozniak to tell him, “It’s not binary; you can be decent and gifted at the same time.”

With no one to turn to, the only way he can remain in this hellscape is declare himself a God (3. “I Am a God”). But in the moment he does — as if shocking himself into sense — he also turns back to his long-lost Christian faith. “I am a god / Even though I am a man of God,” he says. “My whole life in the hand of God.” And at that, Jesus himself appears. The divinity Kanye has been searching for his whole life finally answers his call. The entire novel has been building up to this moment. Jesus starts, and asks Kanye how he’s doing. Kanye’s response: “Shit, I’m chillin’ / tryin’ to stack these millions.” The line goes dead. Another opportunity for growth shattered. In effect, Kanye spits in Christ’s face and tells him he’s sided with the devil, who told him years ago (on Late Registration’s “Heard ’Em Say”) that “money is the key.” The song ends as Kanye screams the way his fans once screamed back at him in his hour of need. He knows the gravity of his error, but is too anguished to describe it.

He spirals to the bottom. In one moment, he threatens a record executive, “I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse.” Before anyone has time to respond, we’re already in the past tense: “Came on her Hampton blouse, and in her Hampton mouth.” He drunkenly drives to an ex’s house in Indiana, crashes into her car in the driveway, and tries to win her back with the words, “One more fuck and I could own you” (5. “Hold My Liquor”). It doesn’t work. He quickly flips through two more beaus, cheating on the first (6. “I’m in It”), and deciding on impulse “I need to call it off” with the next (8. “Guilt Trip”).

Kanye doesn’t reveal exactly where he is geographically, but he’s clearly surrounded by good-natured Jamaicans who blurt one-liners of advice throughout the chapter. (These include dancehall artists Capleton on “I Am a God,” Assassin on “I’m in it,” Popcaan on “Guilt Trip,” and Beenie Man on “Send it Up.” Kanye then refers to “all these Jamaicans” on “Bound 2.” Positive Jamaican vibes continue on The Life of Pablo with the Sister Nancy sample on “Famous.”) “No to X rated.” “Reliving the past? Your loss!” He’s stumbled upon goodwill (of course it comes from outside the American dystopia), and it seems to bring him toward the light. This sets up one of the greatest transitions in the Kanye West canon, the end of “Send it Up” into the beginning of “Bound 2.” The moment another Jamaican, Beenie Man, tells him that memories are all that he has — you could call it the third deus ex machina — all of the frustration in the form of gritty synthesizers evaporates. In comes — what’s this? — a chipmunk soul sample from Kanye’s early days. It sounds like home. It sounds like hope. Though Kanye once vowed to never love again, a voice keeps singing, “Bound to fall in love.”

He meets another woman — the 17th or so, if you’ve been keeping score — but she might be different. She compels him to quit drinking (“admitting is the first step”). And Kanye becomes optimistic with tiny victories: “We made it: Thanksgiving. Maybe we can make it to Christmas. . . . Maybe we could still make it to the church steps.” Odysseus returns to Ithaca. Huck Finn returns to St. Petersburg. Kanye returns to the only guide that’s ever kept him on the righteous path, a woman’s love.


Chapter 7: The Life of Pablo, or Kanye West and the Cycle of Enlightenment

This is the most mature we’ve ever seen our protagonist, committed to his new wife, their young children, and his faith. Once fixated on his own prowess, he tells God, “You’re the only power” (3. “Father Stretch My Hands Part 1”). He shuts up for once and seeks the company of people with moral direction. He listens to two women profess their faith (Kelly Price on “Ultralight Beam” and an uncredited vocalist on “Low Lights”) and a young man called Lil Chano proclaim that he will uplift all his neighbors in Chicago. A pastor even offers Kanye a prayer:

For everyone that feels they’ve said “I’m sorry” too many times. You can never go too far when you can’t come back again.

Unlike his reaction to the first priest (at the end of Late Registration), Kanye takes this second message seriously, and makes a pilgrimage of atonement. He wishes his exes well (4. “Famous”) and blames himself for having no “Real Friends” (track 12) and for neglecting his family. He takes Lexapro, sees a psychiatrist, and gives away some of his worldly possessions (the “ghetto Oprah” ad-lib on 5. “Feedback”). He realizes he inherited some of his flaws from his absentee father (3. “Father Stretch My Hands Part 2”), and fears what his mother would think of him were she alive (13. “Wolves). For once our hero even avoids temptation: “If I fuck this model, and she just bleached her asshole / and I get bleach on my t-shirt / I’m a feel like an asshole.” It’s also a rare instance of deductive reasoning.

But he regresses. First he barges into a gym and demands that all the women tell him whether or not they’re freaks (7. “Highlights”). Then he gets drunk at a dinner party and fantasizes about having sex with a fellow guest (8. “Freestyle 4”). But he gives himself a pep talk (9. “I Love Kanye”) and realizes his life is fated for “Waves” of vice and penance (track 10). Perhaps this is the acceptance he never reached at the end of 808s. He doubles down on his commitment to his wife and family (11. “FML,” and 13. “Wolves”). On Yeezus, he said, “I ride with my niggas / I’d die for my . . .” stopping short of making another promise he couldn’t keep. But now he can proclaim, “I am willing to die for those I love.” He pleads with his wife, “Don’t stop your loving,” and asks her to help him clear his life of sin: “Please baby, no more parties in LA.” He even returns to giving gratitude (the ad-lib verse on 16. “30 Hours”), and forgives those who’ve wronged him (17. “No More Parties in LA”). A man named Max B pays him a phone call just to say he appreciates him (15. “Siiiiiiiiilver Surffffeeeeer Intermission”) — maybe he can make real friend yet. Could we somehow be headed to a happy ending?

At first Kanye West, the author, decided to end The Life of Pablo (TLOP) with “Wolves,” which fades out as Frank Ocean sings, “Life is precious, we found out. We found out. We found out.”[10] This would have made an appropriate finish — encouraging, but the repeated last words looking back at all the savagery he suffered from and put the world through to get to a sense of peace, savagery that may haunt him still. But then Kanye decided to add more track, “Ultralight Beam.” This would have been a triumphant, prodigal-son finale — the protagonist in the end as he was in the beginning (“I’ll Fly Away” on The College Dropout), surrounded by a Gospel choir lifting their voices to heaven, but this time having the faith to join. (Listen to “Ultralight Beam” in the dark and you will be reduced to something very small and swelled to something very big at the same time.) But Kanye West knew that for all his fictional alter-ego’s penance, there are some sins for which he still he’s yet to pay. When the album came out, “Ultralight Beam” was first and “Wolves” in the middle.

Critics casted TLOP as a mess of an album — which it is, sonically. But it’s the most straightforward narrative of them all. Tracks 1–6: Commit to faith and family. 7–8: Relapse. 9–17: Commit and atone twice as hard. But 11–13 portend another slip. Though the trio of “FML,” “Real Friends,” and “Wolves” contain the most honest confessions and professions of devotion Kanye has even spoken, they are said amid the most barren soundscape on all seven albums. It’s as if he’s singing from the bottom of the well, nearly drowning at one point (the warbled Autotune in the first verse of “Wolves”). The music belies his words, begging the question, Can Kanye sustain his focus among all of the lights, temptation, the wolves? The final two tracks answer: No.

For a man so lost for so long in such a cruel world, it makes sense he would want to build his own. And he starts to do exactly that: designing shoes, an app, and a hotel — with plush couches because he likes his “bitches extra thick” — and makes plans to run for office (18. “Facts”). But this also means turning attention away from faith and family, and there are consequences. The story closes with Kanye too conflicted to speak the last word (19. “Fade”). There’s a chugging bass line, and two vocal streams that reveal Kanye’s competing thoughts, a man’s voice repeating “Your love is fading” (his family’s? The world’s? His own? All of the above?) and a female chorus chanting, “I get lifted, yes.” The voices disappear. The bass persists. The world marches on without our hero.


Afterword

Unless Kanye moves onto a new story on Turbo Grafx 16, we’re far from the end of The Book of Kanye. (If he sticks to his recent claim that he’ll release three albums a year, his novel will soon grow to Proustian proportions.) He’s the Charles Dickens of our time, the world perennially abuzz for the next serial installment.

You could argue that Kanye’s exactly zero songs from the perspective of someone else indicates a severe songwriting limitation. But it’s really his signature achievement. Ultimately, Kanye has been writing about his life all along. And he wants us to know it. On June 14, four months after he released TLOP version 1.0, he added a new final track. For one, “Saint Pablo” tightly wraps the narrative — it quotes the very first song on The College Dropout, when Kanye announced he wasn’t “supposed to make it past 25,” and looks back on his botched conversation with the messiah in Yeezus: “Looking for the Church in the night sky / Wondering when God’s gonna say Hi.” But “Saint Pablo” is really there to summarily tear down the façade of fiction. Whereas Kanye abstracts his life on most previous tracks, here he rattles off a litany of details from his real life — Twitter rants, his Time magazine cover, his debt, his spat with Apple CEO Tim Cook. “Saint Pablo” shatters the notion that fictional Kanye is based off anyone but himself. And in that way Kanye is also like Karl Ove Knausgaard. He’s willing to sacrifice his entire life, his darkest and most glorious thoughts and moments, to lay out his id, ego, and superego and turn it into his art. “I’m trying to right my wrongs / But it’s funny them same wrongs helped me write this song.” He’s willing to turn himself into everything we love and hate about ourselves.

But—come on, now—is Kanye really a great American novelist? In some ways, of course not. You’re meant to grind to “Slow Jamz”; not so much with The Grapes of Wrath. Kanye also once told Reuters, “Sometimes people write novels and they just be so wordy and so self-absorbed. . . . I am a proud non-reader of books. I like to get information from doing stuff like actually talking to people and living real life.” But this is as idiotic as it is incisive. Real life is exactly what gives Kanye the edge over who Time and many others consider today’s great American novelist, Jonathan Franzen. Rich as they are, his books never feel true to life; as Grantland’s Brian Philips wrote, “they analyze the wave frequency but don’t hear the sound.” Kanye hears the sound and plays it back to you, amplified. Kanye couldn’t write a Franzen sentence like “There’s a hazardous sadness to the first sounds of someone’s else’s work in the morning; it’s as if stillness experiences pain in being broken.” (Just as much as Franzen couldn’t write “Mayonaisse-colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips.) But Kanye’s music works its way through your entire body. The racing bongos and voluptuous Luther Vandross sample on “Slow Jamz” make you feel the same lust in your loins Kanye feels when he brings the Cool Whip. The primal claps and dancing guitar on “Power” make you feel like the superhero, your ego swells. When the bass and violins tango with each other on “Highlights,” you want your whole life to only be highlights. When Kanye’s cries “I can’t find her no more, I can’t follow no more, I can’t . . .” and the words echo until screams and a cymbal crash drowns them out, you feel that you have lost your mother. That we feel all these things isn’t just a testament to Kanye’s artistry and the power of collaboration, it’s also a reflection of the capacity for enlightenment and evil within ourselves. We wouldn’t feel them if they weren’t true to the human spirit. You sympathize with Kanye because you are Kanye.

And your Kanye self is different than mine, because we bring our lives to what listen. My associations with Kanye are tethered to a very whiteboy adolescence. When I hear “Jesus Walks,” I think of the version my friend Casie sang in Mr. Carleton’s sophomore U.S. history class, with reworked lyrics about the temperance movement. Graduation takes me back to the week it came out, my first week at college. As I played “Champion” with my dorm door open, the basketball team’s point guard popped in to ask for a burned CD (yup) and condoms (nope, I was a virgin).

That’s why I hope come 2116 my great-great granddaughter discovers Kanye — and many other recording artists — in the classroom, where everyone can bring their lives. After all these long-ass verses, I’ve only given a rudimentary plot summary and highlighted a few themes. There are courses to be taught, dissertations to be written, symposiums to be held, on Kanye’s vision of the African American experience, his problematic treatment of the Asian experience, on the allusions to James Bond and the Book of Matthew, on the epistemological consequences of the many flows Kanye borrows from rappers of yesteryear.

Kanye makes music and takes to Twitter because he wants his story to reach the broadest audience possible. If Kanye lived in Melville’s time, when the printed word reigned supreme, he would have been a novelist. The concept of the great American novel was born nine years before Edison invented the phonograph. It’s time we expand the discussion of the Great American story to beyond just the novel, especially since, as Buell told me, cinema, TV, and music “have long since overtaken it in popular and even high culture.” A few have begun to evolve. Adam Bradley has developed a “Hip-Hop in the Classroom” curriculum for Colorado high schools. English professor Andrew Hoberek has taught “Major Authors: Jay Z and Kanye West” at the University of Missouri. I’m in no position to say, nor am I trying to say, that educators and scholars of literature should bend to the whims of society and start teaching Selena Gomez in lieu of Henry James. But the likes of Kanye, Bob Dylan, Joni Mitchell, Michael Jackson, Paul Simon, Stevie Nicks, John Darnielle (who’s also a novelist), Smokey Robinson, and Carole King should be taught more often alongside the great novelists — not only as a way of engaging an audience that listens to music a baker’s dozen times more often than it reads, but also because they have just as much resonance. Kanye himself put it best:

In the meantime, spare yourself the dangers of armchair-diagnosing the artist. Forget what you know about Kanye West when you listen to his music, because ultimately it’s not about him. It’s about you and me.


Footnotes

[1] Of all time.

[2] This excludes singles, such as “Only One,” sung through his mother’s perspective.

[3] “A trunk full of coke, rental car from Avis / . . . I’ll be gone ’til November, I got packs to move.”

[4] From Jay-Z’s second verse on track eight, “Never Let Me Down”: “When I start spitting them niggas get very religious / Six Hail Mary’s please father forgive us / Young the archbishop, the Pope John Paul of y’all niggas.”

[5] First, on “Gold Digger”: We hear of an NFL player whose ex recklessly spends the money he pay for child support. Then on “Drive Slow”: Kanye’s friend Mali “boned so much [he] even had him a baby” at age 16, and warns Kanye, “Don’t rush to get grown.” And on “Gone”: “Aaron love the raw dog, when will he learn? / . . . Plus he already got three children / Arguin’ over babysitters like ‘Bitch it’s yo’ turn’.”

[6] He echoes this attitude on Graduation: “Look at the valedictorian scared of the future / while I hop in the Delorean.”

[7] From “Stronger”: “I’m tripping, this drink got me saying a lot / But I know that God put you in front of me / So how the hell could you front on me?”

[8] From “Drunk and Hot Girls”: “I thought I’d be with you for only one night / Now I’m with this girl for the rest of my life.”

[9] Among the other figures Kanye compares himself to are Steve Austin, Donald Trump, Jesus Christ, God, Jay Z, Michael Jackson, Tupac, Nas, and Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.

[10] A month after The Life of Pablo was released, Kanye broke out Ocean’s lines onto a separate song following “Wolves,” “Frank’s Track.”