Kanye West is, quite predictably, being mocked for making bold statements about his art and his ambition to become a cultural vanguard on par with the late Steve Jobs. “I think what Kanye West is going to mean is something similar to what Steve Jobs means,” he told The New York Times in an extended interview about his career and his new album, Yeezus. “I’ve been connected to the most culturally important albums of the past four years, the most influential artists of the past ten years. You have like, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Nicolas Ghesquière, Anna Wintour, David Stern.”
This is a hugely arrogant thing to say about yourself, sure, but for Kanye, it’s also a very defensible claim. At least in the context of contemporary hip-hop and pop music, West is inarguably a crucial figure, and someone who has attained massive popularity and cultural relevance while creating music that is consistently socially and/or musically progressive. This is an incredibly rare achievement, especially in an era when audiences for music have fragmented to the point that there are very few artists with a truly broad fan base and cultural reach. West’s comments are only off base if you deny that he’s an important and influential artist, or believe that it’s wrong for anyone to speak about their achievements without watering it down with humility, or be honest about their loftiest goals as an artist.
Kanye also says that he’s the Michael Jordan of music, and at least over the past decade, he’s got a more legitimate claim on this than anyone aside from Jay-Z. (In Jay’s favor, he and Jordan both did that “I’ve retired!”/”No, wait, just kidding!” thing.) No other contemporary artist has enjoyed consistent critical adoration and commercial dominance, and did it while being the primary author of their own material. There are very few true rapper/producers auteurs in hip-hop, and the only similar artist with his degree of success is Dr. Dre, who hasn’t released an album since 1999. West has consistently set trends in rap production — he popularized sped-up soul samples in the mid-’00s, pioneered EDM/hip-hop fusion with “Stronger,” he set the template for the dark, melancholy tone of Drake’s commercial breakthrough with 808’s and Heartbreak. He’s been a tastemaker too — he’s put the spotlight on rappers like Nicki Minaj, Chief Keef, Kid Cudi, and Lupe Fiasco at pivotal moments in their careers, and pushed Bon Iver and Daft Punk further into the mainstream. West has been successful in pretty much every way a musician can possibly be successful, and to use a sports term, he’s basically been “undefeated” since 2005.
Kanye’s Times interview is inspiring because he’s owning his place in culture, and committing to pushing his art — and potentially culture at large — in new directions. Culture thrives when we have people like this in the mix, and there’s really no way of stepping up to this challenge without seeming arrogant or crazy. The amount of self-belief and bravery necessary to truly be at the vanguard of any aspect of culture will look like insanity or egomania to anyone inclined toward timid, pragmatic conformity. Any artist who is openly confident and aware of their cultural power runs the risk of being written off as a delusional idiot — and sometimes they actually are! — in part because so many people resent the very notion that artists can have any great importance or influence. This is a poisonous idea, an assumption that art has no value aside from entertainment, and that audiences are only just consumers.
A lot of West’s frustration right now comes down to this struggle to make art that matters in a cultural environment in which music is made to seem disposable, and any statement or action made by a celebrity of any kind just becomes fodder for easy jokes on websites and social media. Kanye was pegged as an “egomaniac loose cannon” type long ago, and virtually anything he says will be stuffed into that narrative. For just one example, look at how even some of his most lucid and sharp comments from the Times interview got tossed into a Vulture post that was originally titled “The Sixteen Most Ridiculous Things Kanye Said in His New York Times Interview.” (The word “amazing” was inserted into the headline later on, and writer Delia Paunescu’s comments about him being “out of touch with reality” were cut.)
The rush to treat Kanye like a clown in both legit and social media is tacky, but also troubling, at least in that it shows just how eager a lot of people are to immediately discredit or marginalize artists when they’re acting on a large scale. There’s a fair point to be made about how hubris opens anyone up to ridicule, that it just lets a lot of people off the hook for lazy thinking and for not confronting why they might want to diminish an artist like Kanye’s achievements — especially in a moment when he’s saying a lot of provocative things about race, class, culture, and social mobility.