By Jonah Allon
There’s a moment during the bridge of Kanye West’s “Blame Game” that always stays with me. After three full minutes of teary recriminations over a tender Aphex Twin sample, Kanye turns his scrutiny inward, crooning to the woman who brought on this bloodletting, “I can’t love you this much.” It’s a loaded line – both a self-exhortation and an expression of disbelief. With six simple words, it captures all our knotty ambivalence towards those we feel have betrayed us. Which is why it also perfectly sums up my thoughts on Kanye right now.
Being a Kanye West fan has always been an exercise in patience. But some of his recent antics have tested the faith of even the most devoted congregants in the Church of Yeezus, myself included. In February, he almost reprised his now-infamous “Imma let you finish” moment, this time with Beck at the Grammy’s. Later that month, he was back in the tabloids for trashing his ex, model- cum-feminist-icon Amber Rose, during an interview with The Breakfast Club. In a cover article he wrote for PAPER MAG in April, Kanye said this about racism in the 21st century: “We’re different colors – my cousins and I are different shapes and we’re all from one family. We’re all from one family called the human race” – a noble sentiment, to be sure, but one that you’re more likely to hear from a closeted bigot than an artist whose latest album featured a song called “New Slaves.” At the VMA’s this past August, he announced his plans to run for president in 2020. Then in October, he auditioned for American Idol – a questionable career move for someone trying to secure a spot in the pop-star pantheon.
I know what you’re thinking. Kanye’s been an ass lately – what else is new? And more to the point, who cares? In general, I’m inclined to agree. I usually think trying to parse the behavior of a celebrity, especially one as erratic as Kanye West, is futile. And I firmly stand by the time-honored principle of separating artist from art. The problem there is that Kanye’s never allowed for those kinds of delineations. His music blends them together. He can drop a saccharine tribute to his young daughter like “Only One” and then spit a verse on “U Mad” about getting into bar fights. Or gloat about his sexual liaisons while acknowledging his shortcomings as a family man in the same song (see “I’m In It”). So-called “authenticity” in rap is often just a veneer – a meaningless dick-measuring contest of who hails from the School of the Hardest Knocks. What sets Kanye apart from others is that his brand of authenticity is, well, authentic.
Consider his contemporaries. Jay-Z has forsaken his gritty Bed Stuy roots to hang up Picassos in his casa. Kendrick Lamar’s pro- fessions of modesty do little to mask his major messiah complex. Drake’s too busy bemoaning his ever-dwindling supply of “good girls” to engage in any kind of serious introspection. Only Kanye continues to delve deeper into himself as he cements his stardom, laying bare the conflicted soul underlying all the personal excess.
Maybe that’s why I can’t help but forgive Kanye. Sure, the guy’s imperfect. But his music, especially post-Graduation, reveals a sensitive soul, acutely aware of its own failings and willing to atone for past wrongs – even if those wrongs helped him write his songs. Think of the bruised ego on full display in “Runaway.” The self-flagellating desolation of “Coldest Winter.” The farci- cal hubris of “I Am A God.” Kanye’s far more self-aware thanwe give him credit for. And while that doesn’t fully explain, let alone excuse, the tactlessness, or the misogyny, or any of the other things he does that make you throw up your hands in frustration, it does offer a more nuanced picture of a man we’re often quick to dismiss as either callous or clueless following a rash of questionable behavior.
Recently, I’ve been revisiting 808s and Heartbreak, an album that marked a turning point in Kanye’s career. In 808s, he grappled with the death of his mother and the dissolution of his engagement, eventually producing some- thing that lacked the formal gloss of the near-immaculate efforts that had preceded it. But what it lacked in polish, it made up for in sheer audacity. The genre of rap, tradition- ally the exclusive domain of macho bluster and take-it-on-the-chin stoicism, had been upended by one man with an Auto-Tune plugin, a TR-808 machine, and a boatload of raw pain. That’s the kind of bravery Kanye embodies – the willingness to buck convention, to chart his own course, to risk ridicule. That’s what makes him so appealing and so infuriating at the same time. That’s the internal struggle I go through every time Kanye sparks some fresh controversy. Still, I always arrive at the same conclusion: Kanye, I can’t love you this much. But somehow, I still do.