West, the son of a noted English and African-American Studies professor and a former Black Panther, emerged in the music scene as a semi-”conscious” rapper, addressing racial inequality, oppression and community ills in his lyrics along with the standard rap fare of money, clothes and women. Music fans who weren’t of age during the first conscious era of hip-hop in the early ‘90s found something in West’s music that was missing with 50 Cent, Ja Rule, and even Kanye’s “big brother” and frequent collaborator Jay-Z, the hip-hop chart dominators of the early to mid-’00s.
In his 2018 essay for The Atlantic, “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye,” Ta-Nehisi Coates examined West’s seeming separation from his Blackness, and how far away it is from the West fans love: “When I heard Kanye [through production on Jay-Z’s Blueprint album], I felt myself back in communion with something that I felt had been lost, a sense of ancestry in every sample, a sound that went back to the separated and unequal, that went back to the slave.” Now, the man who once famously declared the president didn’t care about Black people on live national television has put on a MAGA hat, said it made him “feel like Superman,” and publicly supported a president whose apathy and abject disdain for anyone “other” leaves marginalized people as vulnerable as those Katrina victims Bush failed to aide.
“Kanye’s always said f--ked up or off the wall things,” hip-hop writer and historian Dart Adams remarks to Billboard. “But this is it. Now, he’s doing serious damage. And the thing is, his following is so large and so young… he can say the most false thing. The wrongest thing ever. Things that aren’t even based in fact. But, because Kanye said it, they’re going to defend it.”
“Harmful” is a descriptor often used, now, in reference to Kanye’s impassioned, on the fly rhetoric. In his mind, he’s just being a “free thinker.” But there’s a correlation to a figure as influential as Kanye continuously comparing being a Democrat to slavery, and the President and his supporters thinking nothing of comparing being investigated to “lynching, in every sense of the word.” Nah, fam.
For a while, we pondered, “What happened to the old Kanye?” Che “Rhymefest” Smith, Kanye’s longtime creative partner, co-writer of some of his strongest work including “Jesus Walks” and “New Slaves,” and a collaborator on Jesus is King, believes the conversation around West is unfairly limited. “I don’t know what to tell you about an old person or a new person,” he says. “That’s Internet banter.”
In a similar vein to West’s own arguments about not being constrained to monolithic thought, Smith points to the idea of duality in artists -- essentially being able to view both the person and the art, not just one or the other.