“Did I ever tell you that Gloria knew Donda?” Over Thanksgiving break in 2013, my mother casually said this in her kitchen in Atlanta, not even pausing while making breakfast. I’d been writing about Kanye West for years, but somehow on this morning, this fact about his late mother, Donda, popped into her head.
I needed to know everything. Every single thing. And so she told me. Gloria is one of my mother’s oldest and best friends, and in the ’70s, all three women were professors in Atlanta, Gloria and Donda in the same department at historically black Morris Brown College. Gloria attended little Kanye’s birthday parties and stayed close with the Wests even after they moved to Chicago, when Donda divorced Kanye’s father, the former Black Panther and pioneering black photojournalist Ray West. When the Wests would return, they would stay with Gloria, and vice versa when Gloria would go to Chicago.
After Kanye made his legendary “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment following Katrina, Gloria got a call from Donda. She told Gloria that she knew Kanye was going to get a lot of flak for it. Then she said, “What people don’t understand is that Kanye is the Martin Luther King of his generation.”
That was the end of the story, and my mom was now doing dishes, as if she hadn’t just dropped a bomb. Many of my own assumptions had just been verified — that Kanye was raised to believe that his destiny was not just that of a world-renowned black man but the saint of his time, and possibly even a martyr. This isn’t how the majority of the world has seen him, however, preferring the word crazy. A handful of celebrated black public figures of the past 15 years preceded Kanye in that category, from Dave Chappelle to (the former) Mos Def and Lauryn Hill. And through public appearances around and after their own fame crises, each has provided some of the more searching and mesmerizingly unresolved reckonings with what it means to live large in public, and manage to live with oneself in private, particularly as a black entertainer in what is still basically a white America.
There are many famous people who can be compared to Kanye West, given that he is probably our foremost case study in the contemporary American male ego. Donald Trump may not be the first one that comes to mind, considering that he lacks the penchant for naked self-exposure, selfaggrandizing and self-effacing at the same time, that accounts for a big part of Kanye’s DNA. But if you peel back a layer, Trump and Kanye actually share a lot, at least as public characters, starting with many rhetorical gestures, a truly messianic sense of purpose, and an amazing conviction that one’s ego is itself a kind of messianic purpose. But Kanye the troll — the Kanye who fires off outrageous statements Tourette’s-like, who seems to be testing the boundaries of what even a boundary-busting public figure can do or say — is probably the most Trumplike. When he simply provokes, offering no explanation, that’s when he flies close to the Donald Trump flame. When he uses free speech purely to get attention, even if it’s disrespectful, he veers even closer. And when he seems to be seeing what the public will let him get away with, almost as if he were aware that the crash and burn is inevitable, that’s when he feels very much like Donald Trump.
In 2016, with his new album, The Life of Pablo, and the spectacle of its very wild rollout (during a gigantic fashion show at Madison Square Garden, followed by a string of “Kanye has a temper” moments), we’ve been introduced to Kanye West, Vol. 12. He’s still recognizably Kanye — loud, cocky, lewd, clever, terrifyingly gifted at music — but like so many times before, he has again added a new layer. Right now, more than being a rapper, extended member of the Kardashian clan, a producer, or even, as he’s lately attempted to be, a fashion designer, current Kanye is a curator of experiences. He’s arguably at his most visionary with regard to scale (his music is spectacularly ambitious), but rarely is he the true star of the show. We felt this in 2015 when he collaborated with Rihanna and Paul McCartney on “FourFiveSeconds”; it also rang true during his MSG listening session, largely orchestrated by artist Vanessa Beecroft; and in the standout track of Pablo, “Ultralight Beam,” he’s the sixth-most-interesting musician.
The spectacle has many sides, though. And right now, perhaps for the first time in his career, Kanye isn’t just being overshadowed by others in his own music, Kanye himself is overshadowing his new music. Usually, if there was certainty about the rollout of a Kanye album, it was that the music would reign supreme, even when he spent the run-up to its release grandstanding about his genius. But while Pablo is really good, music is not the star in this moment; it’s the evolving persona that is unfiltered, untethered Kanye West.
His mother didn’t say she had merely raised the best artist of all time, after all. She said Martin Luther King — a man, very human, whom we’ve always othered into the category of those who have a likeness to God. The less we knew about King, the more we could pretend that he wasn’t actually a human; this willful blindness is how we protect our heroes and perpetuate the idea that the good are fully good.
Despite a career-long alignment to both Jesus and God, neither is actually what Kanye truly seems to be aiming for. Nor is the perfect Martin Luther King of legend. Today’s MLK — complicated, compromised, but still firmly atop a pedestal of greatness — is a much closer model, since Kanye’s self-prescribed path to sainthood involves being more human than any other great before him. The cat-and-mouse game of self-sabotage that he plays with the public—his simultaneously inspiring and disappointing us, his refusing to do what’s right when he knows what’s right — feels like this great test to see if he can simultaneously be both undeniably exceptional and tragically imperfect.
Lately, that test seems to be playing out most visibly on Twitter — long a source of insight into his life, a place for random thought-bursts. Now it’s playing more like an internal-monologue broadcast. Some tweets are boastful; others could be labeled inappropriate or skewed in their logic, based in only a partial understanding of how the world works. At one point, Kanye tweeted about a friend who works hard and only makes $370 a day, in the spirit of making a point about how life is unfair, seemingly not realizing that that isn’t such a small amount of money. A theme has intensified, however, one that has been there since the beginning: bold declarations.
The boldest might have been “George Bush doesn’t like black people.” And Kanye’s mother was right, he did get flak for saying it. But he also became a heroic figure, the first of many times where Kanye’s more brazen actions were justified on the grounds of “Well, he’s not wrong.” Of course, there have been a lot of times when he was wrong. When Kanye tweets “BILL COSBY INNOCENT,” as he did a few weeks ago, you feel let down. And when he rationalizes referring to women as “bitches” as a term of endearment, you begin to question all the years of hanging on to this man’s every word. But there’s another side of Kanye happening right now — on Twitter and in real life. It’s not new, exactly, but it’s certainly revealing. “My number one enemy has been my ego,” he tweeted a few days ago. Amazing — he’s beginning to try to explain himself. The most interesting Kanye has never been boastful, blanket-statement Kanye. It’s Kanye on Kimmel, giving a lengthy monologue on creativity. It’s Kanye in an interview with Sway, attempting to explain the degree to which he’s studied fashion (and the frustration he felt when it closed its European doors in his face).
When Kanye is like this, the response to him changes. Overnight, it goes from “He’s a dick” to “He’s crazy,” or even “He’s not well.” As a public, we love to diagnose — it’s a convenient way to distract from our own problems. And, as Trump shows, we can be seduced by those pretending they have no problems at all. When someone complicated comes around, it makes us uncomfortable. Because there are few things more human — and messier — than not having it all figured out and saying that out loud.
And if there’s one thing Kanye never led us to believe, it’s that he had it all figured out, or that he was a good person. Even musically, in some of his most beautiful moments, he’ll have a crass line that misses the mark, almost forcing the issue of his flawed judgment on the public. In the moment, it’s always puzzling. Why, Kanye? You know better. But what’s more human than having one part of your life in order as another part crashes and burns?
What do we want from Kanye? It’s a fair question. Whatever it is, we still aren’t comfortable with Kanye’s taking this much time to get there. And yet how much more interesting to watch him struggle. You take the struggle out of the ego and you just get Trump.
*This article appears in the February 22, 2016 issue of New York Magazine.