It’s been a strange 12 months for Hot Press Man of the Year, Kanye West. Ed Power looks back at 365 days of heartache, scandal and sublime art from a troubled superstar.
It was the mic drop heard around the world. “Get ready to have a field day, press…’cos the show’s over.” With those words, on November 19 last Kanye West exited the stage at Sacramento’s Golden 1 Centre, less than half-an-hour into a sell-out concert.
As boos and chants of “fuck Kanye” rang out, fans may have wondered if what they were seeing was real or some bizarre farce. The superstar rapper had arrived 90 minutes late and performed just three songs before embarking on one of the surreal rants that have become a Yeezy trademark. It was the worst sort of pinch yourself moment.
Several nights previously, 39-year-old West had similarly goaded a crowd in San Jose – declaring that, had he taken the time to vote in the recent Presidential election (which he obviously hadn’t), his preference would have gone to Donald Trump. As footage of the tirade circulated on social media, there seemed a very real danger of the internet spontaneously combusting.
However, that earlier scandal was quickly eclipsed by the Sacramento walkout and the follow-up announcement that West had been admitted to hospital having suffered “temporary psychosis” (the breakdown triggered, it was whispered, by unresolved grief over the 2007 death of his mother). West was discharged from UCLA Medical Centre on November 30. Yet, with his touring schedule on indefinite hold, his mental health remains a matter of conjecture. What an extraordinary conclusion to a year in which one of the most intriguing musicians of his generation has progressed from hero to villain, before finally becoming an object of sympathy and fascination.
Why is Kanye our “Man of 2016”? Because, for good or ill, this was a seismic 12 months for the rapper, whose rise and tumble earthwards serves as an almost-too perfect metaphor for the fall-out that can result when art and celebrity collide.
The irony, of course, is that, even as his world crumbled at the edges, Kanye was reaching new heights as an musician. The tour which ended so abruptly in Sacramento had been widely praised as ground-breaking and provocative. Kanye drifted above the audience on a suspended stage – a framing that allowed him to get closer to his fans even as it offered a commentary on the impossible distance between punter and celeb (who really do seem to float high above the rest of us).
The setlist, meanwhile, was dominated by material from his extraordinary seventh album, The Life of Pablo. The project needed all the love Kanye could lavish up it. In February he had almost derailed the release of the record with the inclusion of a provocative lyric about on/off frenemy Taylor Swift.
“I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,” rhymed the married father of two. “Why? I made that bitch famous.” Pouring fuel on a conflagration already threatening to burn to the ground any goodwill towards the LP, he would later insist Taylor had approved the incendiary rhyme. In the follow-up video, he even cast a naked body double of the singer and other celebs (including George Bush and Rihanna). Yeezus Christ – what was going through his head?
“I think Kanye West has been a bit dodgy lyrically for awhile,” says Steven Grainger, the DJ and clubbing impresario who welcomed Kanye to his Pavilion venue in Cork for an unscripted collaboration with NASA in 2009.
“It cast a shadow over both [2013’s] Yeezus, and Life Of Pablo, two sonically excellent collections which suffered from rushed, lazy and often puerile lyrics. He’s possibly not well and he’s always been misunderstood too, which has got to him. 808s and Heartbreak, his record from 2008, got panned on its release. However, it ended up influencing a lot of the best new wave and electronic music of the last few years.”
In parallel with art that jackknifed from sublime to the sorriest kind of surreal, Kanye was negotiating the sharp end of the celebrity industrial complex. In October he cancelled several concerts after his wife, Kim Kardashian, was robbed at gunpoint in Paris where she was attending fashion week (she may, in retrospect, have regretted flaunting her $4 million diamond ring on Instagram). There was further controversy as he hosted a “multiracial only” casting call in New York for his Yeezy fashion show, with some commentators arguing “multiracial” was merely a polite way of saying “no blacks allowed”.
“Kanye has a bit of a chip on his shoulder,” says Grainger. “Occasionally that is justified – for instance, though hip hop artists grab loads of Grammys, it’s generally only in niche areas and not the bigger categories. That said, rambling about Donald Trump etc seems a bit over the top. He’s a clever artist but since his mother died he appears to be going through some sort of personal turmoil.“
West is the highest profile rapper yet to publicly struggle with mental health and his hospitalisation has reopened the conversation about hip hop, machismo and the social deprivations that begat the genre.
“We have to look to the origins of hip-hop to really understand how much mental health has always been at its core,” write Cambridge academics Dr Akeem Sule, a consultant psychiatrist, and Dr Becky Inkster in Hip Hop Psych, their recent study of the relationship between rap music and depression.
“It developed in the mid ’70s in the South Bronx, where gangs were roaming the streets, there was a drug epidemic, there was extreme poverty, a housing crisis. You throw in absent fathers, losing family to crime, people with no support; all those are ingredients for mental health problems. There was this very masculine culture of hip hop where you had to be resilient and you couldn’t show any signs of weakness,” said Sule and Inkster in their fascinating study.
“While the lyrics spoke of mental health problems covertly, there was a stigma, particularly with the black mean living in these communities where rap and hip hop was emerging from, about saying outright ‘I have depression’ or addressing mental health issues.”
Kanye, it may be argued, has changed the dialogue about hip hop and mental health – another reason why this confounding, inspiring, deeply troubled individual is our man of 2016.
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