Kanye West Has a Goblet
An all-access, totally non-exclusive interview with the would-be king of hip-hop.
Last September, when he interrupted Taylor Swift at the Video Music Awards, West's nagging inner voice enjoyed its biggest platform to date—and suffered its biggest rebuke. As Swift accepted her award for best female video, West stormed the stage, grabbed her mic—and the spotlight—to mount a protest on behalf of Beyonce Knowles, whose "Single Ladies" video was up for the same award.
West had risen to national prominence with a stammering, justice-seeking outburst in 2005, when he interrupted Mike Myers and Chris Tucker on a Katrina telethon and excoriated George W. Bush. Here was a stammering, sort-of-justice-seeking outburst of a different kind—and where the first had been roundly celebrated, this one was decried. "Fuck you Kanye, it's like you stepped on a kitten," Katy Perry said, neatly encapsulating the majority response. Last week, on Hot 97, West—who apologized to Swift then fell into a long, self-imposed exile—likened himself to "a modern day Emmett Till," the 14-year-old boy murdered in Mississippi for supposedly whistling at a white woman. Although it'd be naive to say that there had been no racial component to the event or its fallout, the Till comparison proved that West's sense of persecution is alive and well.
At his apartment today, West says he's "working on being a doper person," but he seems to be feeling pretty dope as it is. "This is gonna be a dope ass day," he says. "Life is awesome," he says. "I love me," he says.
West's struggle between self-love and self-doubt has been career-long. He made his 2004 debut as a Louis Vuitton backpack of contradictions, casting himself as a principled "conscious" rapper with a weakness for womanizing and conspicuous consumption. "Always said if I rapped I'd say something significant," a rhyme on one early song went, "but now I'm rapping 'bout money, hoes, and rims again." On another track, West observed, mournfully, "We buy a lot of clothes when we don't really need 'em/ Things we buy to cover up what's inside/ Cause they make us hate ourself and love they wealth." He identified his materialism—and, by extension, that of the upwardly mobile underclass at large—as the symptom of an inherited, deeply ingrained self-loathing and insecurity.
West has yet to cure himself of that affliction—quite the contrary, as the kingish splurges attest. But he hasn't swept it under the rug, either. (The rug in question is a Persian "with cherub imagery," in case you're wondering). His tendency, in fact, is to inflate his cockiness to the point of grotesquerie, to type it out in ALL CAPS, to render it obscenely over-compensatory, and maybe even to inscribe its plush trappings with a faint tinge of penitent masochism, from the uncomfortable fur-pillows to a new song that revolves around a refrain—"My chain heavy, my chain too heavy"—that turns a boast into a statement of suffering.
When West says something like "I love me," the words carry some irony. One of his favorite fictional characters is Ron Burgundy, from Anchorman—an arrogant, preening blowhard who exults in his stupidity, blissfully unaware of how ridiculous he is. When West raps, "I don't know how to put this, but I'm kind of a big deal," quoting from Anchorman, it's both a boast and a parody of one.
In other words, West has always been an interesting braggart because he lets a brag function as its opposite—he likes to have his cake and poison it, too. "Thoughts is Napoleon," West says, and you wonder if he's comparing his mind-state to the emperor or the complex.
When West spoke to me last spring, there was more poison in the cake mix than usual. "I never feel like I'm not the underdog. I never felt completely comfortable," he said in March, still reeling, it seemed, from the VMA fallout. As West went on, it became clear that the death of the designer Alexander McQueen had shaken him and added to his funk. Mainstream rappers aren't really supposed to parade their vulnerabilities—at least they weren't until West came along, clearing the way for marquee emoters like Kid Cudi and Drake—but he readily admitted that he empathized with the designer's suicidal torment. (In the video-of-sorts for "See You in My Nightmares," he drives a blade into his stomach, loosing a flurry of confetti and a little claymation beast in a fantastical act of hari-kari.)
"I know how it feels when the night demons come," West told me. "Sometimes when it hurts so bad we have to just lay in the bed. Just lay in bed and don't move." He added that he had begun work on new music, and described the process as gruelingly cathartic: "Sometimes I turn the music up and drink and cry."
Jonah Weiner is Slate's pop critic.
Photograph of Kanye West by Larry Busacca/Getty Images.