Across over a decade of increasingly unhinged and hateful outbursts, the 45-year-old rapper and fashion mogul Kanye West has become the starkest encapsulation of one of American culture’s oldest unresolved questions: Do wealth and fame make people crazy? Or is America a country where the unhinged actually have an advantage over the rest of us? Jay Gatsby, Howard Hughes, Elon Musk—these are all Westian figures, oddballs who were crazy enough to dream, but who were also lucky enough to be inhabitants of a country where the craziest of dreams could make them fantastically rich and powerful.
West is one of the most beloved musical artists in the world, with 50 million monthly Spotify listeners. He makes tens of millions of dollars every year just on royalties from his Yeezy line of shoes. He has infinite money and organic popularity on the scale of almost no other rich American nutcase before him.
This was an especially busy week in the life of Kanye. He appeared at a Paris fashion show in a White Lives Matter t-shirt, which is one of the more inflammatory things a famous Black man can do in 2022 America. The provocation gets at the deeply American impulse that I believe is at the root of Kanye’s years of restless self-destruction and self-defeat: He wants to be free, and he wants to flaunt his freedom at every possible turn. Later in the week, West went on the Fox News show of populist firebrand Tucker Carlson to explain that his White Lives Matter shirt was the expression of “an instinct, a connection with God, and just brilliance,” and to voice his opposition to abortion.
Then, early Sunday morning, West tweeted: “I’m a bit sleepy tonight but when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE…you guys have toyed with me and black balled anyone whoever opposes your agenda.” The tweet received over 40,000 likes. As one prominent user of the website observed, Kanye has twice as many Twitter followers as there are Jews on planet earth. That West is an embittered recent divorcee with a very public history of bipolar disorder shouldn’t soften any of these views, and it doesn’t lessen their noxious impact.
Whatever else you can say about West, he generally hasn’t let his unique opportunities go entirely to waste, which is one of the more simultaneously hate-able and likable things about him. In February, West premiered a handful of new songs in an IMAX-simulcast event broadcast live from the packed grandstands of Miami’s 40,000-seat baseball stadium. The purpose of the stunt was to introduce a suite of new tracks meant to personally threaten Pete Davidson, the comedian and then-boyfriend of West’s ex-wife, lifestyle titan and reality TV star Kim Kardashian.
In other words, West used his money and fame to rent a stadium, and then summon (and assumedly pay) Alicia Keys, Playboi Carti, Future, and a dozen other culture notables to put on a gaudy pageant about his thirst for revenge against one specific person. The new songs were terrible of course, but only a true creative freak would think to do something so ludicrous, and only a certifiable lunatic would actually have followed through. It’s hard not to admire that kind of dedication. And fear it.
What makes West’s meltdown into public bigotry especially sad is that, in an age of fragmentation, West remains one of the only American artists with the popularity and the imagination to pull off huge, risky artistic statements that the broader culture couldn’t ignore. He changed his sound with the dexterity of a Stevie Wonder, and inhabits new personas with the genius of David Bowie. American culture has almost no real Bowians now—big names who can still surprise us, and almost no one who is single-handedly bigger than the rest of the culture and thus free to do whatever they want. The one we did have seems to have lost himself. So, what does that say about us?
Maybe nothing new: Henry Ford had a much more developed theory of Jewish evil than Kanye; in his time, he was considered a world-builder on par with the Founding Fathers. Speaking of which, Jefferson and Washington were both slave-owners, in case you haven’t heard. Even amid our ongoing cancellation mania, Americans have shown an admirable ability to take whatever positives we can from heroic yet morally ambiguous and often borderline lunatic figures, of which we’ve never had any shortage.
Or maybe the Kanye saga warns us that something new and ominous has arrived on our shores. Kanye is a master of mass-media forces that are too new and too massive for nearly anyone to fully understand yet. Whether he emerges from his latest controversies chastened or diminished, or unrepentant and unaffected, will reveal how much freedom Kanye-like levels of fame and money can buy now, and what the effects that kind of freedom will have on the rest of us.