Nearly a decade ago, during the arena tour for Yeezus, Kanye West, now known as Ye, donned an MA-1 bomber jacket with a Confederate battle flag stitched prominently on the right sleeve. He also draped a full flag around his shoulders in photos à la Lil Jon on the Put Yo Hood Up album cover, and for good measure, Ye sold a couple of T-shirt designs incorporating the flag as tour merch. This was a fashion statement—and from an artist who took to the fashion industry with a vengeance in the 2010s. Ye wore his bomber jacket into a backlash—a quaint one, in retrospect—that pointed to the pro-slavery mission of the Confederacy and the common use of its flag in racial intimidation to this day. But Ye dug in his heels: “It’s my flag now,” he told a news radio station in Los Angeles.
Was this behavior thoughtful provocation, mindless trolling, or something else? Did it really matter? He was a rapper. It was a jacket. It was easy enough to see the thematic alignment of the subverted flag and the songs on Yeezus such as “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” the former about the artist’s encounters with bigotry in high society, the latter about the artist’s power to incite moral panic in his biggest critics at the time: “If I don’t get ran out by Catholics / Here come some conservative Baptists / Claiming I’m overreacting.” Yeezus earned a great deal of acclaim in its day, but Ye’s bomber jacket set the stage for the subsequent decade of Ye, in large part defined by the ideological escalation of his fashion statements.
Earlier this month at Paris Fashion Week, Ye and the conservative commentator Candace Owens stepped out together in complementary black-and-white shirts with large, bold text printed on the back: “WHITE LIVES MATTER.” This, too, was a fashion statement—this one designed to infuriate “liberal Nazis” and dramatize his belief that Black Lives Matter “was a scam.” Ye’s opposition to Black Lives Matter is new, but it’s consistent with his reactionary turn in recent years, and so despite the progressive appeals for Adidas to terminate its long-running partnership with Ye over the “White Lives Matter” shirt, he seemed like he might endure the backlash to his appearance at the fashion show as well as he’s endured his previous waves of post-MAGA backlash to date.
But then Ye spent the weeks after his Paris trip sitting for long interviews with the likes of Tucker Carlson, Piers Morgan, and LeBron James. The latter discussion, which was set to air on HBO’s The Shop, won’t be released due to Ye “[using] The Shop to reiterate more hate speech and extremely dangerous stereotypes,” according to James’s coproducer, Maverick Carter. In the Carlson interview, aired on Fox News but substantially cut down to withhold especially harmful statements, Ye ranted against a variety of people and messy ideas, very often contradicting himself in the process. His chief target in recent weeks has been Jewish people, whom he also criticized and threatened on Instagram and Twitter, resulting in suspensions from the services for antisemitic hate speech. Ye describes a great conspiracy of Jews in music, fashion, and finance that’s determined to ruin his life.
Ye has been honing his rants for years, but his grievances this time around have made for the most breathtaking celebrity meltdown since Charlie Sheen ranted to Alex Jones and Good Morning America—also in antisemitic terms at one point—against his network sitcom boss Chuck Lorre. The shock value in both meltdowns was complicated by the underlying factors; Sheen was struggling with hardcore drug addiction, and Ye is struggling with bipolar disorder. But in the decade between Sheen and Ye, the association of culture and politics has turned perpetually anxious and combative, and Ye has leaned hard into that dynamic. It was easier for us to laugh at Sheen and trivialize him as a coked-up crank. It’s much harder for us to trivialize Ye, or better yet recognize his rants as distress signals of psychological crisis, given his persistence and the hyperpartisan, hyperpolarizing nature of his provocations. We’re much more inclined to take Ye seriously, for better or for worse.
In the past week, Balenciaga, Gap, and finally Adidas, under pressure from the public, cut ties with Ye. His career-long partnership with Def Jam ended with last year’s Donda, so he’s now without backing from a major record label, too. The pivotal interview in Ye’s collapse fell not to Tucker Carlson nor LeBron James, but rather to the rapper N.O.R.E. and his popular hip-hop podcast, Drink Champs. The typical episode of Drink Champs places an aging hip-hop figure in the hot seat for a couple of hours while N.O.R.E. force-feeds the guest cognac and peppers them with open-ended questions about their life story and career misadventures. Ye didn’t drink much in his sit-down with N.O.R.E. He seemed sober, if otherwise unwell, in his three-hour tirade. “I want Jewish children to look at [their] daddy and say, ‘Why is Ye mad at us?’” Ye said to N.O.R.E. This was the moment when every creaky anti-woke rationalization of Ye’s heterodoxy in recent years snapped and crashed. We couldn’t get much lower.
The Drink Champs interview was a continuation of the bizarre and outlandish claims Ye has made in recent weeks. In the deleted Carlson footage, Ye said someone planted “fake children” in his home to manipulate his kids. On Instagram, he said the LVMH chairman Bernard Arnault “killed my best friend,” alluding to the late fashion designer Virgil Abloh, who passed away from cancer. In N.O.R.E.’s company, Ye again showed little restraint. He said “[Derek Chauvin]’s knee wasn’t really on [George Floyd]’s neck like that.” Throughout the interview, Ye wondered whether his press tour might culminate in his assassination, eliciting anguished groans from N.O.R.E. Two days after posting the interview to his feeds, N.O.R.E. unpublished the episode and apologized for Ye’s brief comments about Floyd, in particular, in an interview with The Breakfast Club.
Ye has never been a mellow guy—I’ll refer you to the documentary footage of him harassing Def Jam employees at their desks with “All Falls Down”—but his earliest albums were crowd pleasers. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy marked his turn from charming irreverence to vindictive songwriting, and ever since, save for the spiritual relief in his gospel compositions, he’s been stuck in a self-obsessed rage.
It’s now harder than ever to reckon with Ye’s enduring appeal. His music seems so pathetically secondary to his provocations in any other form; his interview with N.O.R.E., for all its hateful nonsense, is a thousand times more memorable than Kids See Ghosts. Ye’s unraveling into elaborate antisemitism really is his idea of entertainment. At one point in the Drink Champs interview, Ye outlines the supposed globalist plot to keep Black voters in political lockstep with “the left, the Jews, and the Chinese,” and N.O.R.E., shocked, interrupts to ask, “Chinese niggas got something to do with this?!” I can’t lie, I laughed out loud at this misguided bit of race comedy, straight out of Rush Hour, weaseling its way into an otherwise insufferable lecture about Blacks and Jews. This is the problem. Ye is still one of the greatest entertainers of his generation, and Ye the entertainer bolsters Ye the hateful polemicist despite the common high-minded insistence on separating the art from the artist. I was blogging about that bomber jacket nine years ago. I listened to those interviews last week, and I’m telling you: This is his art. So what do we make of his fashion statements now?
Ye is a tremendous musician. I’ve loved his albums, for the most part, for a long time. His misadventures into other fields—fashion, politics, and now apparently tech—tend to embarrass him and irritate me. His “fashion statements” have always been so flustered and ugly and foolish. So it’s begun to feel a bit foolish to respond to his incitements with any sincerity. We all know how this goes: Either you’re a hair-triggered progressive or an irony-poisoned reactionary, a breathless critic or a brain-dead stan. There are no winners in this discourse, only proof of the ideological perils ruining him and us alike. It’s so strange to watch him plead enlightenment, empowerment, and liberation when he’s really just let himself be reduced to a mere pawn in the culture war. He’s been fashioned into a mouthpiece for conspiracy theories he can’t even keep straight. Apparently Candace Owens talked him into buying Parler, the conservative social media “free speech” platform he hadn’t even joined before I started writing this article. Does he sound free to you?