Magazine Feature

The New Pioneers: Is Kanye a Genius or a 'Classic Narcissist'? Toure, Joy Reid & Justin Hunte Debate

Kanye West
Nathan Arizona

Kanye West

MSNBC host Joy Reid, cultural critic Touré and HipHopDX editor-in-chief Justin Hunte discuss what makes Kanye the biggest musical disrupter of the 21st century

MSNBC host Joy Reid, cultural critic Touré and HipHopDX editor-in-chief Justin Hunte discuss what makes Kanye West the biggest musical disrupter of the 21st century. Was it the real-time, flaws-and-all rollout of The Life of Pablo? Is it his Trump-like tendencies? Or Yeezy’s public obsession with a certain blonde pop superstar?

Touré Why is Kanye so ­disruptive? My initial answer is Kanye believes in himself. Immensely. This began when he was a child: His mother once told me she worshipped the ground he walked on. I met her circa his first album [2004's The College Dropout] when, to me, he seemed massively entitled, a level of entitlement I had never seen in a black kid -- I had only seen it in white boys who had grown up with money. You think Kanye loves Kanye? Dr. West loved him more. Kanye is not powered by ­external ­validation; he validates himself. I saw the same thing in Prince.

Joy Reid I agree Kanye's ­disruptiveness stems from an ­overwhelming self-belief. He takes hip-hop swagger and ­braggadocio to another level, basing it on his self-declared superior ­artistic sensibility. Kanye really believes he is The Picasso of Hip-Hop. He's a classic narcissist. In some ways, he's a lot like Donald Trump: lashing out at those he doesn't think give him his due, craving more and more attention and respect, and ­fancying himself a great, great man -- if only the rest of the world would recognize it.

That said, Kanye has had some truly brilliant moments. He has flashes of genius interspersed with the erratic ­madness. His statement about President Bush in 2004, after Hurricane Katrina, was a defining moment for hip-hop and pop culture, which had been scandalously silent throughout Bush's rise, including on the Iraq War. The activist tradition had really died in hip-hop, and Kanye revived it.

Touré There is definitely a connection between Kanye and Trump: extremely egotistical, intensely attention-seeking, massively influential, era-defining men. But part of why many of us revile Trump is that he's a con man who's lying to Americans about what he can, and will do, for them. Kanye's core relationship with us is as a musician -- the rest is secondary -- and his music remains extraordinary.

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Justin Hunte I'm an unabashed fan. His 2004 entrance represented a black ­American perspective absent from ­commercial rap back then: Here's a middle-class black man rapping about working at The GAP while wearing ­blazers with jeans, Zack Morris-style, in an era littered with oversized white Ts and violent lyrics. The College Dropout was 60 degrees left of center and somehow the most ­relatable mass-marketed rap release that year.

But the first time I truly took notice was during his 2005 plea for Americans to be less homophobic: "Everyone in hip-hop ­discriminates against gay people," Kanye said during MTV's All Eyes On: Kanye West. "Not just hip-hop, but America... I want to just, to come on TV and just tell my rappers, just tell my friends, 'Yo, stop it.' " Here's one of the hottest new artists in America, one of rap's biggest stylistic outliers -- the only ­rapper wearing culturally ­questionable attire -- skinny jeans -- and he's on TV ­telling hip-hop to be less homophobic. Fighting for LGBTQ rights was one of the riskiest causes an MC could champion in 2005 and he did so openly, two weeks before [second album] Late Registration was released -- sales, cash or reputation be damned.

Touré Amen to all that. Throughout Caitlyn Jenner's introduction to America, Kanye was a voice of acceptance. He's all about being exactly who you are: Don't ­compromise on your vision of yourself.

As for The Life of Pablo, one of the most disruptive things he did was to tweak the music after it was released -- which in a world of streaming, almost any ­artist could do. People loved that idea, but did it make the music better? In every case, for me, Kanye's post-release tweaks made the songs worse. Especially "Fade": The tweaks made me ­dislike the song. But Kanye is about constant ­experimentation -- and if some of his experiments fail, that's part of the whole Kanye thing.

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Hunte Pablo is ­sonically ­magnanimous: Kanye goes full Phil Jackson, guiding his gaggle of players to heights many hadn't seen individually. Not only does "Highlights" open with the year's most hilarious eight bars -- "Sometimes I'm ­wishing that my dick had GoPro" is the visual that won't go away -- but teaming Young Thug with El DeBarge may be the most ­masterful ­outside-the-obvious ­collaboration of his career. Chance the Rapper and Kirk Franklin on "Ultralight Beam" -- simply amazing. Still, West's ­latest is super low on replay value for me. The melodies and moods and tones are brilliant and wide-ranging, but the ­conversation feels more narrow than what's typical from Kanye. I loved Pablo when it dropped. But last week I ran out of space on my iPhone, so Pablo had to go -- and it wasn't a difficult choice.

Touré It's insane that you deleted a Kanye album from your iPhone. The man's out here making art and you're talking about phone space?

Hunte (Imitates Kanye shrugging.)

Touré You can't Kanye shrug a diss of Kanye.

Reid You all are a hot mess! The ­collaborations on The Life of Pablo are smart and well-­executed -- love Kirk Franklin & The Family and Chance on "Ultralight Beam" and "Father Stretch My Hands, Part 1" with Kid Cudi. Overall, not his ­greatest album -- I give that to [2010's] My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy -- but ­certainly not worth deleting for space.

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Touré The recent Taylor Swift flap over "Famous" is really ­interesting. At one point it was clear one of them was lying, and I bet many white people reflexively believed Taylor. But Kanye was telling the truth and that was established by the video his wife released.

Hunte I agree that Kanye is winning against "America's sweetheart," but it is suspect that the video did not include Swift agreeing to being referred to as a "bitch."

Touré I'm suspicious of locating too much of this around him using the word "bitch." The really heavy thing is him talking about hypothetical sex with her.

Hunte "I made that bitch famous" is the call-and-response part of the song: Millions of people are calling Taylor Swift "that bitch" in cars, clubs and stadiums ­worldwide. That means something.

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Reid I'm pretty anti-Cult of Swift -- I find the phenomenon behind her boring as hell -- but it says something that all these years later, Kanye just can't leave her alone. But this whole collection feels like Kanye on the couch: He knows his faults, examines his flaws and asks God -- and his mother's spirit -- for guidance, but when he gets up off the divan, he's still Narcissus, staring into the lake. Would love to see what would happen if Kanye applied his genius to ­writing about something other than himself.

Touré I don't know if I want Kanye talking about something other than Kanye. He's a selfie artist in the selfie generation -- and his narcissism fits with the era and with his persona. I think Kanye, like Trump, is ­radically authentic, both saying whatever they really think without any strategy behind it. But this is Kanye's medium: Hip-hop is so often about rhyming about yourself and your world -- and Kanye's world is unique. No one else is in his lane, moving from Jay Z and Beyoncé to Nicolas Ghesquière and Marc Jacobs to Elon Musk to Takashi Murakami to Kim Kardashian to Caitlyn. Even "I Love Kanye" is so great because he's not talking about Kanye, but "Kanye," the meta-image of himself.

Reid "A selfie artist for a selfie ­generation." No truer words.?

This article originally appeared in the Aug. 20 issue of Billboard.