Kanye West, Jimmy Kimmel And The Mangling Of Message

Sometimes Vine contributor Tom Hawking wrote a great piece on Kanye West back in June over at Flavorwire. Titled 'If You're Laughing At Kanye West, The Jokes On You', the article addressed the media's rabid response in the wake of West's then-recent interview with the New York Times.

In that Times piece, the usually reticent West had opened up, ostensibly to talk about his new album Yeezus. But also, basically, about how awesome he was.

"It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times. It’s only led me to awesome truth and awesomeness. Beauty, truth, awesomeness. That’s all it is."

"I will be the leader of a company that ends up being worth billions of dollars, because I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus."

“I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture. Period. By a long jump. I honestly feel that because Steve has passed, you know, it’s like when Biggie passed and Jay-Z was allowed to become Jay-Z.”

"I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things."

In the wake of media outlets picking up West's rampant self-referencing and rummaging through it like seagulls through a bin, Hawking's piece argued that Kanye is far from the portrait of the deluded dope painted in such interviews; he's allowing you to believe exactly what he wants you to believe. It's part of the game.

Wrote Hawking:

The way Kanye West is portrayed in the media is an ongoing study in the conflict between perception and reality. As the reaction to this interview (and, indeed, the interview itself) demonstrate, he’s frequently depicted as a cartoonish figure, a caricature of the egocentric modern celebrity. In fairness, he hasn’t always helped himself defy that stereotype, but then, perhaps he hasn’t wanted to do so, because the persona West projects is all about making the media work for him, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

I agree with this. But I also do think Kanye genuinely is frustrated with how the media parses his words. When he acquiesces to the rare interview, the rapper often talks about lofty ideals and high-concepts, but in the rambling untrained language of someone who traditionally doesn't. The media gets distracted by his dialect (or, to pull back, assumptions of race), taking easy shots at the medium he uses—the very same blunt, vivid (and sometimes mangled) self-expression that makes his music such an intoxicating listen—while ignoring the insights his words are carrying. 

Of course West's naked emotions often overshadow his conceptualising, and that's where the jokes creep in; where the public and their figureheads, (like talkshow hosts Jimmy Kimmel) take shots at the megalomaniacal auteur trying to make sense of the rarified world he lives in. One who, in this case, happens to possess the unique talent of being able to compartmentalise his often-conflicting worldviews and high-profile experiences, couch it in daring and demonstrative music, and offer it back to that same cultural storm as both (awesome) art and valid commentary. 

The same quote-worthy statements that tickle the industry, that prompt criticism and praise, that inspire parody and scorn, are also the manifestation of his singular ability to reflect all that populist chum and turn it into self/all-referential high-art. Kanye feasts on your misunderstandings of how he should work.

It happened again this week. Firstly, as a searching West withstood a sycophantic and sometimes unhelpful interview from BBC1's Zane Lowe. And secondly, with Kanye blowing up at US talkshow host Jimmy Kimmel on twitter today.

The twitter rant followed the below sketch, in which Kimmel took the transcript of West and Lowe's BBC interview and reenacted it with kids. (Kimmel—reporting from within the self-branded TV universe bearing his own name—introduced the sketch by saying "Doesn't Kanye know you're not supposed to be your own hype man?", while blithely personifying the huckster.) The video's meant to be funny, the joke being that we should side with Kimmel in the "no one knows what Kanye's talking about, what a weirdo lol" camp. But in Kimmel's reductive lampooning of West, it becomes a different joke—one the teller isn't in on.

In typical West fashion, the rapper responded with an bruising invective ranging from childish and immature, to sad and genuinely hurt. 

The downside of West being able to execute his art so accurately is that anything outside of it fudges its potency. And so in secondary attempt to pick-apart who he is—whether in interviews, pop-culture references ("Gay Fish!"), dramas with the Kardashians or stupid twitter rants like this one—the media becomes the idiot saying "weird stuff" while Kanye just collects kindling for his art.

PS: You know who else used to soak up critical opinion and turn it into popular art? Rock stars.

Marcus Teague (@marcusthevine)

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