Kanye West’s vaulting ambition does him – and others – a disservice

Kanye West doesn’t do many interviews these days but he knows how to make each one count. That is, of course, if you can define what happened on Radio 1 last night as an interview. Zane Lowe was less an interrogator than a hostage negotiator trying to process a series of outlandish demands while maintaining at least a veneer of normality.

Kanye has never been hobbled by a lack of self-belief. The only time I met him, back in 2005, when he still consented to answer questions instead of barking out monologues, he explained that his hyperbolic claims were a strategy to goad himself into living up to them, and it worked. He has released six strikingly different solo albums, produced or collaborated on several more, and changed the sound of hip-hop at least three times. His insistence to Zane Lowe that he is “the No 1 rock star on the planet” may sound like typical Kanye hoopla but really, who else in the past decade has been this outrageous, compelling, artistically daring and central to pop culture?

What seems to be driving him to distraction now is the refusal of other citadels of culture to bend to his will – he compares himself to Jim Carrey at the end of The Truman Show, banging his head against a painted sky. It’s an extreme example of the sense of entitlement bred by success. Celebrity culture insists that if someone is gifted in one area then they should naturally be allowed to make fragrances or write children’s books, as if talent were an infinitely transferable resource. Because of this expectation, and because Kanye will not admit to having limitations, any failure or rejection must be somebody else’s fault. If he wants to design shoes or water bottles or, goddammit, entire buildings (has he been reading The Fountainhead?) then people should let him and if they don’t, well, they must be resentful bigots trying to keep him in his place.

The idea, cautiously ventured by Zane Lowe, that these fields require years of training and experience does not compute. Pop music may be unusually sympathetic to the plucky amateur with more imagination than know-how but architecture, for various reasons including not wanting people to be crushed or burned to death, has somewhat higher barriers to entry. Most of the important figures Kanye namechecks in the interview were brilliant at one thing and maybe capable at a couple of others. Hedi Slimane, who annoys him so much, isn’t trying to be a rapper. Steve Jobs didn’t try to write a Broadway musical. Even the biggest egos usually stop somewhere.

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Kanye is not alone in feeling snubbed by cultural gatekeepers in other disciplines: just ask any thin-skinned pop star whose ventures into painting or classical music have ended badly. What leaves a sour taste is his half-assed attempt to frame his setbacks in terms of racial politics, a doomed effort because no argument can escape the tractor beam of his Death Star-sized narcissism long enough to reach a satisfying point. He draws his conclusions from a sample set of one. I’m sure, for example, that when he ventures outside the music business he encounters racism. Wealth and power may trump race in the short run but once you’ve arrived in elite circles you can’t help but notice that most of the faces are white. However, it’s also possible that the right people genuinely didn’t like his leather jogging pants and, if his pitching style is anything like his interviews, conceivable that they didn’t relish working with him. Similarly, it’s true that US radio has become increasingly unfriendly to black artists, but there are more prosaic reasons why daytime radio hasn’t taken to the uncompromising harshness of his latest album Yeezus.

When Kanye does reference the wider African-American experience he applies such berserk logic and nonsequiturs that he only makes things worse. “We’re seriously, like, in a civil rights movement,” he says, tantalisingly, before talking about his courageous decision to wear tight jeans. Or there’s this, regarding airplay: “My mom got arrested for the sit-ins, and now we’re more like the sit-outs, like sit off of radio, and say, ‘Hey, radio, come to us.’” These are the same kind of crass false equivalences you find on the Strange Fruit-mutilating Blood on the Leaves, an artistic nadir that I wish Lowe had had the time or inclination to bring up in the interview. It’s particularly hard to take Kanye’s claims seriously since he backtracked on his criticism of President George Bush after Hurricane Katrina, the one moment in his career when he did actually make a stand for black people who aren’t called Kanye West.

Unwilling to engage with politics in any meaningful way, he therefore claims that his music is, in itself, a social good: “If you’re a Kanye West fan you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself.” While that may be true of the occasional can-do anthem like Touch the Sky, it’s nonsense when you listen to the embattled, claustrophobic Yeezus, a record that barely acknowledges the existence of other people. Kanye’s music has many virtues but generosity and empathy are not among them.

And yet Kanye still has many qualities that make him more than an ego on legs. He can a laugh (a bit) at his own excesses. He likes to support smaller artists, from long-serving mid-table rappers (Pusha T) to young British producers (Hudson Mohawke). He gives credit where it’s due, constantly thanking Jay-Z for helping to launch his career instead of pretending he built it single-handedly. He is sincerely committed to innovative, risk-taking music when other artists of his stature, especially in hip-hop, tend to play safe. And he touches on many interesting points in the interview about race, power, celebrity and culture, even if he’s too impatient to develop any of them.

Of course, it’s the impatience, the unguarded stream-of-consciousness ranting, the exposed nerves, the mad, overheated tangle of thoughts, that makes him compelling and provocative in ways that he doesn’t even intend. He’s a creature of our times, the quintessential product of the cult of self-belief, ambition without restraint. He’s a genius and a clown. As a music fan I wish he’d devote more of his energy to making brilliant music and less to designing leather jogging pants. On a political level, I flinch at the self-absorbed way in which he invokes the spirit of the civil rights movement. But I still think that, like those other difficult egomaniacs Prince and Michael Jackson, he does more good than harm. Simply by being so spectacularly unreasonable, he encourages other artists to sail towards the painted sky.