“Here’s a theory for you to completely disregard…”– Lester Bangs, Almost Famous
On September 17, 2004, USA Today published a story entitled “Who’s more likeable, Bush or Kerry?” Election season was in full throttle. Battling a tidal wave of negative press over his mishandling of the war in Iraq, President George W. Bush was seeking a second term in office against the Democratic challenger, Senator John Kerry.
43 notched a number of accolades in his initial four years. He was the first candidate since 1888 to win the Presidency while losing the popular vote. He remarkably spent 42% of his first eight months as Commander-in-Chief on vacation. He was the first sitting President since Franklin D. Roosevelt to allow a foreign enemy to strike on American soil then followed that minor footnote by bumbling the nation through two wars—one unwinnable, one irrational.
In arguably any other election, any incumbent rocking Bush’s resume would have landed in November dead on arrival. Yet President “My Pet Goat” stayed steadily ahead of Senator “Windsurfer” for several reasons including this one:
People would rather get drunk with Dubya.
“A Zogby/Williams Identity Poll…found that 57 percent of undecided voters would rather have a beer with Bush than Kerry,” USA Today reported in 2004. “Many Americans are uneasy about the war in Iraq and the mounting death toll. But polls show they trust Bush more than Kerry to handle it. A lot of that has to do with personality. If they like you, Americans will give you the benefit of the doubt when things go bad.”
Bush went on to defeat Kerry for the same reason RiFF RAFF gets to hang around Hip Hop: Because enough people liked him. Factors like, Are the Twin Towers still standing? Or, Did he show up to work at least 60 percent of the time were trumped in part because Americans preferred to have a hypothetical Heineken with Dubya. Despite his gross ineptness, people liked him more so they voted to keep him around. It’s both logical and illogical simultaneously, and an absolutely pervasive symptom of modern pop culture. Call it “The Fuck With You Era.”
Translation: As long as people fuck with you, you don’t have to be good at your job.
Characteristics Of “The Fuck With You Era”
The by-products are everywhere: Vine stars, instaographers, websites buying traffic, labels faking Youtube views, Journalists going Personality, Tweeters with bought followers and photoshopped verified accounts reveling loudly in faux-popularity, talentless rappers enlisted to hock corporate swill because they look Internet cool.
Making money by simply appearing interesting is an Industry. This isn’t positive or negative, rather merely the economic reality. The $20-30,000 a year gig managing some entity’s social media is the new assembly line job opportunity. There’s value in both off and online activity. For the moment, pageviews pay. At least at the front end of today’s multimedia supply chain, interesting can be more profitable than good.
Honey Boo Boo was awful at winning “Toddlers & Tiaras” beauty pageants. But Honey Boo Boo was the most interesting, so Honey Boo Boo was handed her own reality show. “Here Comes Honey Boo Boo” has been such a ratings draw for TLC, that in July of this year, Honey Boo Boo actually retired from beauty pageants. Honey Boo Boo-child is so interesting that she no longer needs to do what she first became famous for doing—which was something she wasn’t very good at anyway. That’s how many people fuck with Honey Boo Boo.
The point is this: Kanye West is making it extremely difficult for people to fuck with him.
“I done played the underdog my whole career” – Kanye West
It was easy to fuck with Yeezy in 2004. Hip Hop’s glorious diversity had been swallowed and repackaged as a monolithic behemoth representing little more than phat asses, bullet wounds and oversized white tees. At least that’s how it was presented on radio and television. So when the cocky college dropout showed up rocking a blazer and backpack and made hits rhyming about regular people shit, for millions unaware of Internet options, Hip Hop was all-inclusive again. America loves a Horatio Alger, rise-against-all-odds-narrative and Ye delivered like pre-Lakers Karl Malone.
West was a person, not a caricature; a producer who people told shouldn’t rap. Although he had never been shot, he wasn’t soft. He fought and clawed his way to opportunity through hard work, determination and bombastic vulnerability. The advocates and dream killers encountered along the way were name-dropped on wax like a Game offering, adding recognizable characters to his Alchemistic journey—Joe “3H,” Dame Dash, Talib Kweli, Cam’ron, Jay Z, Capitol Records. His music reached mass appeal because it viscerally appealed to the masses. We felt him. In that sense, the Louis Vuitton Don began as the People’s Champ. Who couldn’t relate to being so self-conscious?
Comparing Kanye West To KANYE WEST
The guy dropping “motivational speeches” this year sounds inline with the guy publicly fulminating after losing Best New Artist to Maroon 5 at the 2005 Grammys; that pitched a fit after Late Registration went 0 for 5 at the VMAs in 2007. “I’m never coming to MTV!” he was caught screaming backstage. “Give a nigga a chance, man! Give a Black man a chance! I’m trying hard, man! I got the fucking number one record, man!”
In the aftermath of the Britney Spears Tirade, West told Z100 that he wasn’t upset that he left the VMAs empty-handed. He was upset because MTV misled him into performing in a suite at Las Vegas’ Palms Hotel instead of on the main stage and because the network reneged on a promise that Pamela Anderson (who was featured in the video for “Touch The Sky”) would not be allowed to say anything “disrespectful” of his then engagement to designer, Alexis Phifer. All of these seem like first world problems, but still… “Give a nigga a chance!”
Earlier this year, Gawker leaked a “secret tape” of Kanye West rationalizing his Taylor Swift “I’ma let you finish” moment during the 2009 VMAs. (Breakups to make-ups to breakups, apparently.) Allegedly the conversation was recorded during a dinner at Manhattan’s Corner Bistro immediately following the awards show. “I was happy to be in a situation where people couldn’t say I was just trying to promote my own songs,” he says, before continuing:
“I’m pushing the envelope! I wrote my fuckin’ ‘Run This Town’ verse for a fuckin’ month! When I heard Eminem’s verse on the Drake shit, I went back and rewrote my shit for two days. I cancelled appointments to rewrite! I fuckin’ care! You know what I’m saying? And that’s what I’m saying. Because I did that, Taylor Swift cannot win over Beyonce. As long as I’m alive, you gonna have to deal with it because there ain’t gonna be no more mothafucking Elvises with no James Browns.”
There’s another portion where a woman is heard asking West why he’s so angry, to which he replies: “Because my mother died for this fame shit! I moved to fuckin’ Hollywood chasing this shit. My mother died because of this shit. Fuck MTV. ”
There’s an even better portion where Ye is yelling about Pink’s performance that night in a fashion that eerily foreshadows his recent dismissal of Sway’s clothing line on Sway In The Morning. “Don’t nobody know that song!” he yelled. “I don’t know that Pink song!”
Although Yeezy initially apologized for lampooning Swift, in his June interview with the New York Times, West revealed that he felt forced to atone out of peer pressure. “[My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy] was my long, backhanded apology,” he said. “I was like: Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You have to want me on your shelves.”
Translation: “My bad, y’all. Here are some free songs and an incredible album. Just keep fucking with me.”
“YOU AIN’T GOT THE ANSWERS, SWAY!!!!” – Kanye West
I don’t hear contradiction in any of Kanye’s questionably delivered motivational speeches. What I hear is an expansion of his personal objectives wrapped in the same cocky, against-all-odds cocoon we’ve only known from him. To criticize Ye for using every available microphone to extol his genius while exorcising his frustrations with industry is shortsighted considering the reason we even know of him as an emcee is because he ran around in the early 2000s telling anyone who would listen that he could rap. It feels more invasive this time around because the cameras watching have multiplied exponentially. But the method is consistent.
When Kanye describes moving to Paris to work more closely with the heart of the world of fashion, it sounds like Part II to the end of The College Dropout’s “Last Call” where he describes how he moved from Chicago to Newark, New Jersey after being jilted by an artist that was supposed to sign to his publishing company. To make it into Hip Hop’s heart, he needed to move closer to the heart of Hip Hop.
When he told Zane Lowe that he “put in the 10,000 hours” of design practice, he sounds like the same guy who wrote, “Five beats a day for three Summers / That’s ‘A Different World’ like Cree Summers.” When he told Sway that he went $13 million in debt by investing in his own clothing lines, it’s fiscally reminiscent of when he spent $550,000 of his then new money financing the second and third “Jesus Walks” videos. Second. Third.
“I always advise my artists not to spend a lot of money on videos,” Dame Dash told the New York Times in 2004. “But I don’t think Kanye does everything for business. He does things for the art of it, and it’s hard for me to knock him for that.”
When Yeezy screamed on Sway In The Morning then apologized explaining that the flare up was a hold over from his interview with The Breakfast Club earlier that day, it was one of few supremely relatable, real world emotional exhales to take place on camera in recent memory. Seriously, West sat there for 42 minutes and 19 seconds fielding questions from Angela Yee & Co as if he was on trial, listened to unrequested suggestions on how to start a fashion label such as DJ Envy’s subtly insulting, “Don C, he makes his own hats. It’s not distributed to a whole lot of people. It’s small. You can do the same with your leather pants…” and remained as calm as expected of someone who once made a song called “Dreamkillers” while still coming across somewhat affable. Celebrity or otherwise, who wants to sit in a room full of less successful people telling you to think smaller?
“[Charlamagne The God] wanted this so bad,” Ye said to Sway, reflecting like someone who came home after a horrendous day at work and unloaded on his wife because she forgot to save him the big piece of chicken. “He wanted me to turn up on him and I didn’t even look at him. I can turn up with you because we got history.”
Whether it’s Hip Hop’s homophobia or Brittney Spears or signature sneakers or awards he should’ve won, Kanye West has always found a rant worthy issue. It’s part of his personality, how he expresses his passion. The difference is this time he’s describing his efforts to curb societal ills in a way that we don’t fuck with.
Kanye West’s Racism & Classism
When Kanye West appeared on national television in 2005 during the Hurricane Katrina telethon and nervously muttered “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” he aptly spoke for millions who watched the tragic images from New Orleans play out in the news and reeled at the government’s gross neglect of displaced minorities. He used simple terms to acknowledge a contemporary example of a centuries old inequality we were all taught in school.
But when he talks about “New Slaves,” and brushes off the idea of a benefit concert to help quell violence in Chicago in favor of working on making water bottles, it sounds selfish and elitist. The term “slavery” is still too harsh for society to accept any type of comparison that doesn’t include visible shackles on both ends of the juxtaposition.
Wealth inequality is real, though. In 2010, bulge bracket financial institution, Credit Suisse reported that the wealthiest 0.5% of the world controls over 35% of the world’s wealth and that 2% own more than half of all global household assets. Companies of all sizes readily leverage celebrity influence to reach potential new markets, and they do so at a cost that is a fraction of the value received in exchange. Healthy salaries and bonuses are regularly offered, sure. But past certain points, ownership is rarely on the table. Business Insider describes the scourge:
“There are few nations around the world that have not been almost entirely plundered by the global elite. When the elite speak of “investing” in poor countries, what they really mean is taking control of land, water, oil and other natural resources… The system was not ever designed to lift up the poor. Nor was it ever designed to promote “free enterprise” and “competition.” Rather, the elite intend to funnel wealth to themselves and to have the rest of us enslaved either to debt or to poverty.”
West is calling out the classism calamity from a similar place as when he called out Katrina. He’s not wrong in his assertion that classism is racisms’ cousin and needs to be challenged from all perspectives. He’s just using all the wrong language to help most understand the significance of their perceived insignificance. The struggle as he describes is littered with brand new names unrecognizable outside of high art like Marina Abramovic and Hedi Slimane. Plus, it’s tough to commiserate with sentences such as “Me and Kim…had to do what we had to do to get to this point to be able to support our family. But we ain’t financially there to make sure that North is safe at all times,” when half of the couple is “the biggest rock star on the planet” and the other half was born to one of the guys who helped OJ Simpson get off the hook. To the background listener, the Michelangelo of relatable raps just went un-relatable.
In 106 words, here is the sentiment I believe Kanye West is conveying:
Yo, I know I’ve been making great beats and rhymes all these years, but the whole time I’ve been designing on the low and I’m finally ready to make the career shift. I’ve always wanted to be a designer so my initial plan was to use production to get into rapping and the combination to get into fashion. I needed Jay Z’s cosign to gain enough influence to spark the change I wanted to see in music and now I need the equivalent in this industry in order to reach my next check point. That’s how I plan to make my side job my day job.
Maybe my assessment is invalid. But anyone criticizing the Louis Vuitton Don’s chosen path to empowerment from the safety of their high-speed Internet service could likely benefit from looking deeper into what seems like madness. After the broadcast bellyaching and Jimmy Kimmel Twitter “beef,” in the end, Kanye landed the deal he spent all these on-air appearances kind-of describing. The next Yeezy incarnation will come courtesy of adidas. In this case, maybe the right people picked up on the right cues.
Nevertheless, most know someone hoping to push their hobby into a career, someone willing to sacrifice everything for a chance to write about Rap. Not only is it a tangible narrative, but it’s also inspirational. That’s the narrative that made the cocky college dropout the people’s champ in 2004. That’s one of the primary reasons so many initially fucked with Ye.
But through the fractured lens of a series of disjointed, arguably overly emotive “visionary streams of consciousness,” it would seem Yeezus is running around ranting about little more than $80,000 sneakers, trillion-dollar companies, and disrespectful multimillion dollar Nike offers. Every new headline rings like a bratty Violet Beauregarde demanding blueberry croissants, whether or not they exist. And in an America where millions lost their homes, livelihoods, and life savings at the hands of corporate greed exacerbated by the George W. Bush-economy; one where the wealth gap is widening and the Obamacare website doesn’t work right; one where “corporations are people” and those on the highest rung of the economic ladder are never held accountable for their destruction, the last thing anyone has any sympathy for are millionaires crying broke…broke.
At this point in the “Fuck With You Era”—regardless of talent, accomplishment or Steve Jobsian genius—a rich dude bitching about why he deserves to be richer is one thing that remains 99 percent “unfuckwithable.”
Justin “The Company Man” Hunte is the Editor-in-Chief of HipHopDX. He was the host of The Company Man Show on PNCRadio.fm and has covered music, politics, and culture for numerous publications. He is currently based in Los Angeles, California. Follow him on Twitter @TheCompanyMan.