“I was drugged the fuck out, bro!”
— Kanye West
This May, Kanye had what appeared to be a manic episode on TMZ Live. At one point, he turned away from his interviewers and began speaking to the audience of cubicle-workers, his de facto pulpit, screaming about the amount of pills he was prescribed following his 2016 psychiatric hold. In a recent interview with The New York Times, Kanye told Jon Caramanica that he was “learning how to not be on meds,” boasting, “I took one pill in the last seven days.”
Kanye first publicly admitted to mental health struggles in 2010, at a screening for his film Runaway, when he told the audience he had considered suicide. Then, on his 2016 song “FML,” he rapped about how there is “nothing crazier” than when he’s “off his Lexapro.” Later that year, his Life of Pablo tour was cut short due to Ye’s “temporary psychosis.” Shortly after his release from UCLA Medical Center, Ye visited the Trump White House to discuss “multicultural issues.” Things were fairly quiet in Kanye-land until his return to Twitter this Spring, during which his rapid-fire tweets about “free thought,” to me, screamed mania. Then came the infamous TMZ Live interview, after which Kanye told radio host Big Boy he felt privileged to be able to release an album given what had transpired: “Think about somebody who does exactly what I did on TMZ [….] Tuesday morning they come in and lost their job.” On his subsequent album, Ye, he officially announced being bipolar for the first time, deeming it not a disability, but a “superpower.”
I watched all 42 minutes of Kanye’s TMZ interview in a state of rapture. There was something magnetic about the performance — and, yes, I’m calling it a performance — in which Kanye floated unpredictably between subjects, rejecting almost every convention known to man. After the previously-mentioned pill-rant, he debated a random TMZ producer about police violence, then insisted he be permitted to hug the producer (for “free love”) — right then, on camera. The final segment brought conservative commentator Candace Owens into the conversation, during which Kanye mostly fidgeted with his phone and whispered conspicuously to Harvey Levin. He seemed annoyed with the formal turn the interview had taken.
Kanye’s musical style is not unlike his rhetoric. It pulls us in, then pushes us away. We think it’s going one way, then it jerks us in another direction. He cuts off samples mid-word, just like he’ll stop a live performance mid-song to rant about some CEO failing to give him due respect. With Yeezus, Kanye traded the smooth maximalist choruses of Dark Twisted for raucous, industrial minimalism. On Pablo, he continued to tweak the album for months following its release, forcing Ye’s label to deem it a “living, evolving art project.” Kanye has no patience for predictability or expectation: He invents styles rather than copies them. He’d rather be a dick than a swallower.
Pretty much everything Ye did and said during the TMZ interview was overshadowed by his declaration that slavery “sounds like a choice.” On the heels of his MAGA-related Tweets, this comment left the public enraged. Fans felt betrayed that the man who famously said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” now appeared to be aligning himself with the alt-right. But I wasn’t shocked. In 2005, Ye told the crowd at the Live 8 benefit concert that AIDS was a “man-made disease”; in 2011, at a British music festival, he compared himself to Hitler. Anyone paying attention knows there is nothing Kanye hates more than the neoliberal establishment, and Trump is the face of the opposition. (Oh, they also share “dragon energy.”)
Last Spring, a year before Kanye’s epic return to Twitter, I interviewed Gender Studies Professor Jeffrey McCune, who is writing a book called On Kanye: A Philosophy of Black Genius. Regarding the public’s reaction to Kanye, McCune told me: “[b]ecause of the dismissal of his heightened performances, often we miss the significance and meaning of some really valuable statements and proclamations made by West.” In recent months, McCune told Pitchfork: “I think Kanye needs a much more nuanced analysis. He needs to have someone provide for him a much deeper context for his comments.” In his April interview with Charlamagne tha God, Kanye echoed: “People will take something that’s enlightened, put it in a different context and call it crazy to diminish the impact of what I’m saying.”
Following the TMZ interview, a reddit user deemed it “ironic” how the press fixated on Kanye’s slavery soundbite. “In the context of the full interview,” he wrote, “the slavery comment was an analogy to how people are manipulated to think a certain way [….].” The press “did exactly what he said they would do.” Ye “claimed the media would condition people to hate and not listen to his actual ideas and the actual point he is trying to make.” He concluded: “I’d like to take a second and say that I’m not a Trump supporter.”
“In Kanye’s songs,” Vox’s Constance Grady wrote last year after a platinum-haired Kanye met with Trump just after being released from the mental hospital, “Trump is a symbol of the kind of wealth and power that American culture generally withholds from black men.” Kanye reiterated on TMZ Live: “Trump is one of rap’s favorite people.” A search of “Trump” on Genius reveals countless lyrical matches. Despite his inherited wealth, there is something decidedly New Money — in the American Dream-y way rappers loves — about Trump. He’s lavish. He loves gold. And unlike most of our presidents, he didn’t go to Harvard or Yale.
Rejecting the chorus deeming Kanye an irritating contrarian, McCune retorted that Ye is rather “trying to disrupt the institutions that we have come to know as trusted institutions.” As Kanye said of his debut album College Dropout’s title in 2004: “All that’s saying is make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you.” Through and between his numerous provocative declarations, McCune believes Kanye insists on the “deprogramming of American society.”
When asked about his controversial take on slavery, Kanye told the New York Times, “If you look at that clip you see the way my mind works.”