Kanye West is gearing up to drop a new album — an event that would've been a major pop culture moment 10 years ago. But his reputation has fallen dramatically in recent years as he's embraced MAGA politics, conspiracy theories, and most recently, blatant anti-semitic rhetoric.
Yet, West remains an object of fascination for the media who, despite all his seemingly cancelable behaviour, can't seem to quit covering him.
Music journalists Dalton Higgins and Leor Galil unpack the Kanye conundrum: the desire to distance themselves from the trainwreck, but the inability to look away.
We've included some highlights below, edited for length and clarity. For the full discussion, listen and follow the Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud podcast, on your favourite podcast player.
LISTEN | Today's episode on YouTube:
Elamin: The Kanye onslaught of news just means we kind of semi-permanently exist in a Kanye news cycle, which is not a way to live. I cannot dis-recommend this enough. Dalton, in recent years, Kanye has also done a lot to provoke Black people, right? He said that slavery is a choice. He's worn All Lives Matter T-shirts to troll the Black Lives Matter movement. Just last week at the Vultures release party, which is his new project that's supposed to come out, he performed in a black version of a KKK hood. As a Black man, how do you square these provocations, these gestures with an artist whose music you really like — but also with an artist who at the start of his career, made Black liberation at least a part of the story that he was trying to tell?
Dalton: Kanye West is an equal opportunity offender. I think watching that footage a couple days ago, for me it was equal parts sad, disappointing, disturbing and somewhat bizarre. What you were witnessing there was the new Kanye, which is obviously not to be confused with the old Kanye, where the focus used to be on creating life-altering music and art.
What happened a couple of days ago was also very predictable. I think the part that really gets me as someone who is Black and of African descent is this scene we saw in that 10 to 15 minute rant. It looked like a train wreck, and it's being broadcast on IG Live in real time. That's sad, too, because it looked to me like he was almost having a psychotic episode, and there's nothing cute or funny about that when we talk about issues tied to mental health. So that's what I saw: this Black male figure having what appeared to me to be a bit of a breakdown, and everybody sharing it on social media and taking some great joy and delight at that. That's saddening to me, personally.
Elamin: Yeah, I struggle with that a lot because every time that a Kanye rant gets broadcast, I don't look at that and go, "Oh, I see someone who is healthy." I mean, he is often yelling at the camera. Whoever is holding the camera is often someone who's very far away from the epicenter of who Kanye considers his people. And you kind of go, "This, to me, looks like an isolated person." However, you can't divorce that from the fact that a lot of people go through very difficult mental health problems without resorting to anti-Semitism, without resorting to outright racism. I mean, in that 10 to 15 minute rant, we couldn't even broadcast a clip from that rant because it was just a constant onslaught of racism and constant onslaught of anti-Semitism. How do you square the way that we talk about his mental health with the way that we sort of hold him to account, if we do at all?
Dalton: Well, I think our interest in Kanye mostly stemmed from his music output — its high production quality, he's a fantastic producer, his rapping, his lyricism as he often times has some interesting things to say on the mic. So many of us Kanye-philes, I think we didn't really sign up for this. I don't care so much about this sideshow Yeezy routine. And what I noticed, too, is most of the focus and attention on these things having nothing to do with music. We're hearing his issues tied to politics and religion, and sportswear companies, and child custody — everything but the actual music, right? So that's kind of weird.
Elamin: Lior, we have to say when a celebrity does or says something that is indefensible, I think the media has a way of just kind of stopping writing about them, stopping giving that person oxygen, right? They stop promoting their work. The artist is essentially removed from the conversation and it takes a long time for those artists to come back into the conversation again. As Dalton just mentioned, Kanye clearly has had this reputational hit as a musical artist for a bunch of albums. They've not been that well-reviewed — and yet his every move is still covered by the media. You can have an Instagram influencer in the room holding up a camera and then news stations are going to run the clip of everything that he's saying. He's still working with some big name artists and producers. Why do you think we're still invested in the Kanye sideshow, as Dalton put it?
Leor: I mean, years ago he became a celebrity. He crossed over from being somebody who is important because of his once-in-a-generation voice and music, and into being a public figure in part because of his once-in-a-generation voice. Whatever he does is going to make the news. Granted, it is at a much more diminished rate now, and we're only seeing it when he does something outlandish. But that's the entire reason why we keep hearing Kanye not because of what he's doing creatively, but because of what he's said in a place of, oftentimes, when he's hurt.
You can listen to the full discussion from today's show on CBC Listen or on our podcast, Commotion with Elamin Abdelmahmoud, available wherever you get your podcasts.
Panel produced by Stuart Berman.