When it all falls down: The twisted nightmare of Kanye West and Trump
West is making his hall of fame career irrelevant by pushing his musical genius to the footnotes of his legacy
Imagine one of the biggest rappers in the world standing in front of the president of the United States on live television with free rein to say whatever is on his mind. Imagine that rapper advocating for more mental health institutions to curb black incarceration rates. Imagine he or she arguing for the freeing of prisoners such as Larry Hoover, and for the creation of more jobs in the deeply troubled urban areas of Chicago. Imagine this musical artist advocating for an end to oppressive stop-and-frisk laws.
That sounds like the culmination of decades of rap music being a way to amplify the voices of those marginalized in the United States. And if anyone had told you a decade or so ago that Kanye West would be that rap ambassador to the White House, you would not have been surprised. After all, West built a big part of his career on being the most successful semiconscious rapper ever to stand up for black people. However, the reality of West’s meeting with Donald Trump last week was more twisted nightmare than utopian rap dream.
Last week, we didn’t get the Kanye West who spoke up for us. We got something unfamiliar, terrifying and ignorant. We got a West with Make America Great Again hats (he said the red cap “made him feel like Superman”). He’s been calling Trump a genius for a while (and Trump returned the favor). We got an unending vomitlike array of misinformation. But maybe that’s the Kanye West we should have seen coming for a long time.
West’s new alt-right image emerged seemingly out of nowhere this spring with a tweet of a MAGA hat and sudden praise for Trump, rants about slavery being a choice and a desire to do away with the 13th Amendment that abolished slavery. And it’s fueled by the same superficial ideas of activism that West has coasted on for his whole career.
In the past month, West has shut down his Twitter and Instagram feeds again. After a one-week hiatus, he returned, live from Uganda, with a Periscope rant about “mind control.” He also streamed a recording session from Uganda, where he’s apparently working on a new album called Yandhi (due Nov. 23). It went for 11 minutes and was called “Spaceship calling earth| 3 Domes Uganda.”
The Kanye who called out a president for racism has been replaced by a Kanye who buddies up to a president who calls African countries “s—tholes” and defends the military acumen of Robert E. Lee. But while this “new” Yeezy is a tragedy for fans who mourn the loss of someone they’ve believed in for years, the real tragedy is that New Kanye and Old Kanye are one and the same. New Kanye is a persona that has been hiding in plain sight all along — a Kanye West who never went beyond the surface on issues but was given the benefit of the doubt because of his otherworldly genius.
West has won 21 Grammys on 68 nominations. The indomitable Quincy Jones has 79 nominations, and the others just above West include Paul McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Jay-Z and Henry Mancini. West’s first three studio albums were all nominated for the most prestigious Grammy, album of the year.
There have been Billboard Music Awards, Soul Train Music Awards, World Music Awards, MTV Video Music Awards, Webby Awards, NAACP Image Awards. And the list of accolades goes on and on. And in just a matter of months, he made all of that irrelevant. The more he becomes a lackey for Trump and spouts ill-informed rhetoric, the more that long list of awards gets pushed to the footnotes of his legacy.
West cut his teeth as a producer first, helping Jay-Z refine his sound by infusing sped-up soul samples on the MC’s classic 2001 The Blueprint. West’s dreams of being a superstar rapper were mostly met with skepticism back then, despite his enthusiasm and self-confidence. “He interrupted our studio session,” Jay-Z said in 2017, “and stood on the table and started rapping. … We were like, ‘Could you please get down?’ And he was like, ‘No, I am the savior of Chicago.’ He ain’t even have a record.”
West, who signed to Jay-Z and Dame Dash’s Roc-A-Fella Records, was an anomaly for a brand built on authentic ’hood tales from artists such as Philadelphia-based Beanie Sigel and Freeway, Harlem’s Cam’ron and, of course, Brooklyn’s own Jay-Z himself. West was something different. He wore collared Ralph Lauren shirts and made songs about girls picking majors at college.
The prospects of West having a successful career were bleak in the early 2000s, as rap was dominated by the likes of 50 Cent, Jay-Z, DMX, Nelly and Cash Money Records, all of whom talked about either their lives in the streets or how many women they had sex with in the clubs. Musings about religion and the ills of spending money on Jordans didn’t translate to chart-topping hits. Jay-Z said it himself in 2003’s “Moment of Clarity”: If skills sold, truth be told / I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli / Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense / But I did 5 mill’ / I ain’t been rhyming like Common since.
But something unexpected happened. West spoke to (and stop me if this sounds familiar) an underrepresented middle-class sector of rap fans who wanted someone to speak to their everyday lives. People who neither grew up ducking gunshots nor got rich enough to wear million-dollar watches. His debut 2004 album, The College Dropout, hit that population to massive success. His first single, “Through The Wire,” about a car accident, was on the Billboard Hot 100 pop charts for 24 weeks.
His second single, “Slow Jamz” featuring Jamie Foxx and Chicago’s Twista, was about playing oldies with a lover, and it topped the charts. “All Falls Down” is about the downfalls of materialism and was a huge hit as well. The miracle, though, was “Jesus Walks” (co-written by Che Smith). It’s a song about wanting to create a song about Jesus — that would play in nightclubs.
Not only was it big all over radio and at the desired nightclubs, it won best rap song at the Grammys and appeared on lists of best songs of the year, of the decade and of the 2000s. Rolling Stone has “Jesus” as No. 273 on its list of the 500 Best Songs of All Time. The College Dropout is a classic album, a touchstone for the millennial generation and also in music overall.
West was the missing link between perennial underground “conscious” acts such as Common, Talib Kweli and Mos Def and conscious superstar artists such as Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Chance the Rapper of the 21st century. But not being “gangsta” doesn’t make one automatically “conscious.” West was gifted with a conflation of characteristics that he didn’t quite earn: Dude was grouped in with the conscious and politically aware even though, compared with that community’s music, West didn’t quite measure up.
He never rapped with an understanding of American politics with the kind of depth of, say, Public Enemy’s Chuck D. He never grappled with American foreign policy like Mos Def. He didn’t articulate Pan-Africanism like Black Thought. Yet West was given the mantle of being rap’s political leader: “Kanye was going to be the new leader, and I was fine with that,” Questlove (who has since changed his mind) wrote in his 2013 Mo’ Meta Blues. It was as if the absence of street subjects automatically meant the presence of political awareness. No.
West’s role as leader of rap consciousness would only be elevated in the fall of 2005 when, during a live benefit telethon for Hurricane Katrina, West looked directly at a camera and proclaimed, “George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The impact of this moment cannot be overstated. The comment took West from being one of the most popular rappers in America to one of the most recognizable celebrities in the world. And one of the most political — despite the fact he never really articulated what he meant.
Sure. We can deduce that West was referring to the endless images of black suffering on television in Katrina’s aftermath. And/or the ensuing disorganized Federal Emergency Management Agency assistance and botched humanitarian efforts. Or Bush’s inaction being about the race of the people he was supposed to aid. There was a need for West’s remarks. There’s a place for unfiltered anger in certain situations, and West captured the feelings of many in his telethon comments. It was also important to break the post-9/11 moratorium on criticizing the president.
But West never followed up with any depth with regard to his thoughts on Bush and Katrina. The closest he came was an onstage rant at MTV’s $2 Bill Concert days later. There was little conviction. There was a lack of substance:
“People are like, ‘Yo, aren’t you scared that something’s going to happen to you?’ I was like, ‘I can think of a lot worse things that could happen to me, like how about not eating for five days? Or how about not knowing where my f—ing family is?’ Everybody’s always concerned about theyself. … I just feel like America’s always been pushing the [impoverished] under the counter, trying to act like it’s not really there. … And what happens if you’re cleaning the kitchen and you’re always dusting something under the counter? If you spill something, it’s going come up and be in your f—ing face.”
But the toothpaste was out of the tube: Kanye West was a bona fide activist. A symbol of black resistance and of political rap even if he didn’t have the depth, desire or understanding needed to live up to that distinction.
Then, in 2007, West’s mother died. Donda C. West was a professor and a single mother from the time Kanye was 3. She instilled in him a confidence that would make him so outspoken and sure of himself as an adult. Donda West was featured in his early videos and was the inspiration behind Late Registration’s “Hey Mama.” Nothing was the same.
In 2009, Taylor Swift walked onstage at the MTV Video Music Awards to accept an award for best female video only to have her acceptance speech interrupted by a leather-clad West, who had spent most of the night on the red carpet with a bottle of ever-emptying Hennessy in his grip.
Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé has one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!
It was another off-the-cuff live TV moment that galvanized the country. But this one felt different. It felt mean-spirited and was treated as such — Swift’s innocent white girl persona and its historical implications only added fuel to the fire. The immediate logical leap came from the idea that the absence of his mother was somehow the cause of Kanye’s outburst.
When West went on The Jay Leno Show days later, Leno brought up his mother, asking what she would think of his actions.
“So many celebrities, they never take the time off. I’ve never taken the time off to really — you know, just music after music and tour after tour. I’m just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt. My dream of what awards shows are supposed to be, ’cause, and I don’t try to justify it because I was just in the wrong. That’s period. But I need to, after this, take some time off and just analyze how I’m going to make it through the rest of this life, how I’m going to improve.”
And now, more than 10 years later, armchair therapists on social media and beyond use Donda West’s death to justify her son’s behavior. The idea being that if she were still alive, she’d have stopped West from jumping onstage that night. That she’d even have stopped him from marrying Kim Kardashian. That Donda West would use her scholarly intellect to teach her son about the ills of his political marriage to Trump. This notion is, of course, placing the burden of a grown man’s actions onto a black woman. And, to a similar point, blaming West’s political shift on his marriage to Kardashian further infantilizes a grown 41-year-old man.
But that’s the Kanye West story: a man who has been crowned a prince of conscious rap without having to do the actual work of deep engagement with the issues — while having the blame for his harmful tactics placed on those around him. We can’t spend years celebrating West for his independence and free thought then wonder why the women in his life aren’t able to rein him in.
West is in the middle of one of the worst career meltdowns we have ever seen and only has himself to blame. His endorsements of Trump are not mere publicity stunts. They are not Andy Kaufman-esque trolling or subversive genius. His pro-Trump rants are not a phase, or a harmless form of album promotion. And West is not harmlessly ignorant — because there is no such thing.
Not as long as his words are used to raise campaign funds, and to further endear some to a political force pushing through legislation that is putting toddlers in cages. The stakes are higher than that of simply upsetting a president who doesn’t like black people, or embarrassing a pop star at the VMAs. West is allowing himself to be party to endangering the most vulnerable members of society.
So don’t feel sad that West’s career has reached a point of no return. Don’t mourn. Mourn those affected by his latest White House stunt. Because, compared with them, Yeezy’s career is immaterial. Come on, come on I’m tellin’ you all / It all falls down. If only Kanye West himself could understand that concept.