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Do Kanye West’s Politics Matter?

Two Ringer staffers wrestle with the alt-right turn of hip-hop’s most confounding contrarian and assess the limits of his so-called genius

Kanye West in front of an American flag Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Kanye West reemerged last week to announce, via Twitter, the upcoming release of new music from himself, Kid Cudi, Nas, and his GOOD Music labelmates. Kanye also doubled down on, via Twitter and morning-radio call-ins, his fondness for President Donald Trump and, now, beacons of the broader alt-right.

Kanye’s right-wing political drift has caused great angst and sudden jockeying among his fans. Two Ringer staff writers, Justin Charity and Rob Harvilla, try to make sense of Kanye’s chaotic judgment and his fan base’s withering patience.

Justin Charity: Kanye West is a Trump supporter. He announced as much in November 2016 when he told a concert crowd that he would’ve voted for Trump, if only he had bothered to vote at all. He also met with the president-elect at Trump Tower. Now, in the past week, Kanye has reemerged to expound, mostly via Twitter, on his fondness for the “free thinkers,” including those of the alt-right.

In one of those tweets, Kanye praised the right-wing pundit Candace Owens—a Kanye fan—who routinely disparages the civil rights movement and praises Trump in messianic terms. “I love the way Candace Owens thinks,” West wrote. I should note that Owens is black. It was distressing to see how quickly—almost immediately—Roseanne Barr chimed in to applaud Kanye’s praise for Owens. A day later, Kanye indulged Dilbert creator Scott Adams, who now doubles as a reactionary web pundit.

What the hell is going on here? Is Kanye West a reactionary YouTube guerrilla now? Do I even want to know what Kanye thinks went down at Sandy Hook? How real is this?

Rob Harvilla: Having interviewed Scott Adams for this website in the summer of 2016, I’d like to take this opportunity to announce that starting 90 seconds from now, I refuse to spend any more time thinking about Scott Adams or even listening to his muffled voice. That Kanye West finds his ideas intriguing does not surprise me, however. Adams thinks that he, and he alone, truly gets Trump, and comprehends the eighth-dimensional chess master sorcery that accounts for Trump’s appeal. It’s a way to join a mob but also flatter yourself for transcending it. It reminds me very much of a rapper I used to think I knew.

I don’t think any single political opinion or public stand matters as much to Kanye as our continued perception of him as a contrarian thinker, as a doer of things we think he can’t do and a thinker of things we assume he doesn’t really think. He insists that we regard him as a genius in the realms of fashion, furniture design, and hotel management; he is hell-bent on presenting his every thought as a galaxy-brain act of iconoclastic triumph. It’s not trolling, exactly. But his goal in all endeavors is to appall us, or at least confound us. The problem is that the definition of appalling has changed drastically since summer 2016. It’s harder now. Which only makes him try harder.

It’s exhausting. Are you tired? I’m very tired. Kanye Twitter is in the running for worst Twitter overall; it’s a reminder that annoying arguments regarding his social media genius long ago overshadowed his actual, inarguable musical genius. The legacy of The Life of Pablo is not the song “Wolves,” but the tweet “Ima fix wolves.” (I love “Wolves.”) I’m old enough to remember when his art still overpowered his antics; I’m also old enough to have forgotten when, exactly, that ceased to be true. (My darkest fear is that the answer is “Gold Digger.”) Kanye’s just feeding the beast, just supplying the “rants” he is so often accused of constantly delivering. He’s going tweet to tweet trying to shock people.

Are you surprised? Are you disappointed? Is this frustrating outburst more frustrating than all the previous outbursts? Are you still a Kanye fan, and if so—or if not—does he still have the power to shock you?

Charity: I have always thought Kanye was a vicious moron (who makes great music). (“Wolves” is trash, however.) I’ve argued as much publicly since I started covering music regularly while he was selling Confederate flag merch on the Yeezus tour.

Kanye fandom routinely absolves Kanye of bullying, ignorance, and nonsense of his own design. I don’t think less of Kanye now so much as I think less of Kanye fandom for prohibiting this assessment for so many years. It’s awful watching the rationalizations take shape even now. Fans tend to abstract Kanye’s agency whenever he does or says anything bad, attributing his reactionary politics to his being “unwell” or else his classic commitment to trolling. It’s a strange way to talk about a 40-year-old man whom people otherwise make a point of taking very seriously. Seemingly, it cannot occur to anyone that Kanye West is, authentically, a self-obsessed dipshit. He’s behaved rather notoriously for more than a decade now. It is only shocking—and frustrating—that the discourse is just now conceding the limits of Kanye’s genius.

I take your points about Kanye’s contrarian nature, which informs his politics and his overall branding. But what about him seduces people into his cult of quasi-genius? How, exactly, did we come to take Kanye so seriously in the first place?

Harvilla: I do think the Kanye genius cult sprang organically from his records, especially when they’re at their boldest, their strangest, their most confrontational. (I’m mostly thinking the revolutionary softness of 808s & Heartbreak and the revolutionary hardness of Yeezus, which alone constitutes quite a spectrum.) He doesn’t get to startling new ideas first, as Kid Cudi would be happy to tell you, but he mainstreams those ideas in a way that preserves what made them startling in the first place. It is natural to think (as he does), or at least hope (as his fans do), that this sort of forward-thinking antagonism can apply to anything, that his declaration of the rightness or righteousness of something automatically makes it so. If he can make pink Polo shirts look cool, certainly he can make the witless demonization of Black Lives Matter look at least reasonable. Right?

Part of this is also a backlash to the backlash against him: Back when his every last public declaration was first insta-blogged and described as An Epic Kanye Rant, fans pushed back by imbuing every last thing he said with extra profundity and maturity. His lengthy speech at the 2015 VMAs (LOL at the person introducing him) was a turning point for me: I regarded it as a harmless act of self-indulgence (“Listen to the kids, bro!”), but his biggest admirers considered it an entirely credible announcement that he was running for president. The signal had become the noise.

The truth is that Kanye’s best tweet, and best pure thought overall, is, and will always be, the one about the water bottle. To ask more of him is to tempt fate. “Vicious moron” rings a little harsh to me (I’m Midwestern), but yeah, it’s especially maddening to watch right-wing trolls wield his affection like a glittering trophy when you remember that the right-wing-troll line on gun control is “What about Chicago?” Kanye hasn’t lived in Calabasas all his life; he has rapped with great affection and acuity about his hometown as a punching bag and source of easy political demonization, and with far more intelligence than all the clowns he’s now praising as wildly intelligent. That hurts. But does his indulgence of the alt-right swamp really mean anything? And is his next record going to get the same harsh extra-musical treatment as, say, Justin Timberlake’s or, OK, fine, Taylor Swift’s?

Charity: The post-Trump discourse about Taylor Swift was entirely bonkers. I do suspect that the discourse will have given Swift far more grief for never endorsing Trump and refusing to address the alt-right than it will ultimately give Kanye for endorsing Trump and stanning for the alt-right constantly. Which is bizarre! Kanye will humiliate the “pop performers have urgent political duties to oppose Trump” argument before the argument humiliates him. Kanye’s stans—including music critics—are too weak, arbitrary, and enthralled to keep up the argument.

It seems to me that the unique acclaim for Kanye’s mind—for his “genius,” in all its supposed aspects—is what makes his more reactionary impulses so exceptionally frustrating. He’s not just some brilliant performer whose extracurricular thinking can be made to seem beside the point. In fact, Kanye’s persona is tied up with his performance of politics, intelligence, and insight. I think much of his performance is vapid in these regards, but then again, that is also why it’s so easily adaptable to the target audience for Infowars. Kanye’s politics are pure bombast. His signature performance—the Kanye rant—is an inherently regressive mode. It’s a loud and unrelenting burst of petty grievances and incomplete thoughts.

At the very least, I hope Kanye’s succumbing to red-pill logic will lead some of his fans—anyone smarter than Candace Owens—to reconsider the themes and perils of his thinking over the years. His sincere and extreme valorization of narcissism is the most monstrous, Trumpian shit that people otherwise pretend only Trump embodies.

Harvilla: Here’s a confession: On Tuesday afternoon, I mistook this tweet as a subliminal Kanye thing.

Turns out she was referring to her own tweet about “VAGINA WATCH, 2018.” (I love Christine Teigen on Twitter almost as much as I love “Wolves.”) But I felt personally admonished for a couple of hours there, and so I wonder: How exploitative and uncomfortable is Kanye Twitter Mania, exactly? On Monday, he told Hot 97’s Ebro Darden that his 2016 hospitalization was related to an opioid addiction; given his very public struggles and somehow also very public bouts of total seclusion, he has long seemed to be Tweeting Through It in multiple senses. (A Kanye award-show performance I found much more uncomplicatedly affecting was his version of “Hey Mama” at the 2008 Grammys.)

Does it change your perception of what he’s saying or doing, right now or really anytime, if it seems to be the tip of an iceberg of a very ugly and very real personal struggle? Or do we not know enough about his personal life to use his personal life to explain anything?

Charity: In general, Kanye’s media manipulations are so deliberate and bewildering that I’m reflexively wary of any speculation about his mental health. Granted, I see how a troubled mind, taxed so hard, and for so long, and at such a high level, might have produced such a grotesque and impenetrable fiction in order to fortify itself. Either way, his thinking is disastrous, and his simulation is broken.

Harvilla: It’s also briefly worth mentioning that Kanye’s habit of making headlines via confrontational politics is something he arguably perfected, but inarguably did not invent. Daniel Caesar, a young R&B star with, to put it as mildly as he would, a far less pugnacious reputation, offered a lengthy apology Tuesday for vaguely backing Kanye via a gotta-hear-both-sides argument. Over the weekend, country superstar and Ringer guardian angel Shania Twain raised a ruckus by intimating that she’d have voted for Trump if she could’ve (she’s Canadian) (and an angel), a claim she then walked back as awkwardly as possible. And she’s working in country music, a genre that once almost literally ran the Dixie Chicks out of town for mildly expressing embarrassment with a previous Republican president. All of which is to say that no pop star of any stripe is handling this stuff well; nobody anywhere is handling anything well at all, for that matter. I miss the old America just as much as everyone seems to miss the old Kanye.