Even those who’ve never heard Kayne West’s music have caught the exploits of his epic ego, whether interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Music Awards or projecting his face onto 66 buildings across the globe. But West’s legendary sense of entitlement never enjoyed a showcase quite like the Q&A recently conducted by Jon Caramanica of the New York Times. In the midst of a marathon session with demigod producer Rick Rubin for his upcoming album—entitled, unsurprisingly, “Yeezus,”—West offered his thoughts on his compulsive outbursts (“It’s only led me to complete awesomeness at all times”), his place in the current culture (“I am the nucleus”), and his legacy (“something similar to what Steve Jobs means”). With this hilarious display of narcissism, it’s both fitting and ironic that West professes a fondness for 20th Century architect Le Corbusier, a man whose creative self-assurance led to the evil of the modern housing project whence hip hop came.
But perhaps the most exasperating thing about Kanye West’s firm belief that he is God’s gift to hip hop is that West is actually more than that: He’s hip hop’s gift to the world.
Kanye West’s success in sophisticated pop would have been impossible 30 years ago. Before the arrival of hip hop in the 1980s, the American music scene was a bad place to be a freethinking black artist. Pop radio and MTV barred all but those few black musicians with the most non-threatening personae—either androgynous like Prince or Michael Jackson; or mild-mannered like Whitney Houston or Lionel Richie. As it flourished into the 1990s, hip hop changed all of that. Rap made pop stars out of people who either lived outside the status quo or challenged it. To be sure, the pendulum swung the other way, as hip hop’s pop-face became increasingly hypermasculine, hyper-violent, and misogynistic. But the genre’s true destiny, similar to that of America itself, was to produce titans of commerce: living, breathing one-man brands like Jay-Z and Sean Combs who ultimately could buy almost anything and thus, be almost anything they wanted.
Kanye is the recipient of that culture of self-determination. He’s become an American pop icon without bowing to either end of the stereotype spectrum. He’s hardly nonthreatening: Put him on your telethon and he’ll attack the president; let him in your awards show and he’ll shove that less-deserving white girl aside. But brute he isn’t: West collects art, not weapons. He plays a serial monogamist, not a serial killer.
Hate him or love him, Kanye West is the ultimate manifestation of the freedom of expression that hip hop won for Black pop artists. It’s a freedom other hip-hop artists like Nicki Minaj and Drake enjoy, too. And yet Kanye remains vigilant. It’s hard to miss his own racial consciousness in the Times interview, where he laments that for all the Grammys he’s been awarded, he hasn’t “won one against a white person.” He sees his own trajectory as “a fight for justice.”
For all his bluster, Kanye may underestimate his own impact. He calls himself “the Michael Jordan of music.” It’s an inadequate analogy: If justice truly prevails, he’ll be seen as a Warhol, the creator of an unconventional pop aesthetic. Pretentious at times, yes. But as much as Kanye pretends, he is, in equal amount, the real thing.