“He’s a genius.”
This is the conventional wisdom of many fans surrounding hip-hop mogul Kanye West. Even after last week’s release of his “Bound 2” video, this remains, by wide regard among his supporters, West’s legacy. He has sparked controversy, leading to discussions on race and politics. He has combated the negative and fictitious stereotypes of the young black man. The cornucopian press and backlash only attest to his brilliance. And the latest in his antics, naming his album Yeezus and in it, re-appropriating the most recognizable white figure in the world is simply another moment in his trajectory of premeditated brilliance.
This is a reasonable intuition. West is not going to filter himself — and it’s not just his ego that impedes him. As he continually articulates in his songs and interviews, there’s a political motive. A black man saying what he thinks all the time is a radical, significant intangibility. It makes people squirm in their seats. One reason is because of the intricate content—the institutionalized residency of the black man in America. Another is that he’s snubbing the oppressive rules of decorum we have been taught to live by. And his candor is not just racially motivated; as he said on Jimmy Kimmel Live, also concerns class and how the world views and responds to creative people.
However, while necessarily bound by our fan group-think and yearning to defend a gifted minority unapologetically remonstrating the racist and classist status quo, we often neglect the qualities inseparable from the title of genius. When we treat brilliance solely as the product of shocking but truthful oratory (often accompanied by catchy beats), we run the risk of overlooking the essential traits necessary in a mastermind.
The problem with the notion that West’s genius extends far beyond the music realm is that it takes the meaning of genius away from its well-established common usage. In fact, the primary function of a word like “genius” is to very precisely exclude those who only have special skills and include those who are exceptional at their craft. It is widely accepted that West is both remarkably talented and knowledgeable within the field of music, but it ends there. Dabbling in fashion and performance art and launching failed website/production agency Donda secures him nothing more than the title of entrepreneur at best.
In late November, the video for “Bound 2,” one of the most lauded tracks from Yeezus, debuted on The Ellen DeGeneres Show. It opens with a group of horses running in front of a green screen and concludes with him making love to his now-fiancée Kim Kardashian on a motorcycle, also in front of a green screen. The video is empty provocation and clumsy art, the move of someone who, in a climate of unchecked glorification, has been given too much rope to play with. Although it seemed like enough for sufficient backlash, people still defend him, calling it intentional brilliance.
It’s a shame, really, that Kanye isn’t the genius we want him to be. There is an inherent racial undertone in regard to members of the hip-hop community and their failure to be recognized on a separate level. And while this certainly exists — and Kanye, to some extent, falls victim to it — it is not a valid rationalization of his self-appointed title of genius more fitting for Steve Jobs or Pablo Picasso.
Perhaps to understand this, we must explore Yeezus’ preceding album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Though critically acclaimed, the album suffers from the all-too-familiar boring racism and sexism that is no different from Eminem or Chief Keef at their worst. The line from the song “Power,” “Rolling with some light-skin chicks and some Kelly Rowlands,” is akin to “you’re pretty for a dark-skinned girl” in this supposedly post-racial era.
The album in its entirety, like many of West’s, is casually racist and transparently sexist. The obvious defense is that this is an exploration of West’s psyche; but it isn’t. Neither is his most recent work. Instead of a conscientious, internal struggle, Yeezus stands as a belligerently external, relentless dismissal of his haters which simultaneously slut-shames women.
Having Chris Rock ask a woman who “reupholstered [her] pussy” is not a stroke of genius but rather a lack of artistic courage. It means even on perhaps the most psychologically agonizing cut, he’s not convinced that the song can stand on its own. Always when listening to Kanye, I feel like I’m standing next to Paulie Gualtieri saying, “nudge nudge, did you hear what I said?” This deficiency extends beyond West’s bigotry to the quality of the lyrics themselves. “In a French-ass restaurant” when followed by “so hurry up with my damn croissants” is a lyrical failure, and when it’s the chorus of a song — a disaster.
Lines like this make up the incalculable bulk of his music, making it difficult, if not impossible, to accept his few outbursts of truth over the years as a replacement for the premeditated sexist and racist spewing in his music.
I’m not defending the tired argument that West is a narcissist, insane, or even misguided, but if you, like me, so often find yourself in the perennial Kanye fan position of having to twist and turn to make him sound like an incontrovertible genius — perhaps it’s time to give it a rest.