Kanye West’s Theatre of the Absurd

Kanye West. Photo: Cindy Barrymore/REX/Shutterstock/Cindy Barrymore/REX/Shutterstock

Kanye West released two songs over the weekend. Both were terrible, albeit in different ways. Friday evening witnessed the arrival of “Lift Yourself,” where the artist responded to rap radio host Ebro’s questioning of his recent right-curious and Trump-loving tweets with gibberish: “Poopity-scoop / Scoopity-whoop / Whoopty scoopty poop.” Not long after on the same night came the premiere of “Ye vs. the People,” a dialogue with T.I. where the Atlanta trap mogul raises the same sort of concerns as Ebro: Doesn’t Kanye have a responsibility to his original black and anti-Trump core audiences to not promote a promoter of hatred and division?

But in the second song a more substantive, or at least less blatantly trolling, response is forthcoming. “Yo Tip, I hear your side and everybody talk, though / But ain’t going against the grain everything I fought for?” Where others see walls, Kanye sees fresh angles. For him, posting a selfie in a MAGA hat doesn’t signal support for reactionary doctrines any more than his sporting the Confederate flag did during the Yeezus tour. Rather it’s a symbol of racial equality because Kanye made it so, a sign that black people, with Kanye at their head, can do anything white people can. “‘Make America Great Again’ had a negative perception / I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction / Added empathy, care, love, and affection.” The power of his example, by his own estimation, is enough to transcend the most entrenched political divisions — and if that power is enhanced by Trump’s election, so much the better for Ye, and therefore for the world surrounding him.

Some responded to the emergence of President Trump with despair; others, with glee. For West, the primary significance of November 2016 was that it proved that he could become president. That a self-obsessed buffoon whose lust for public attention was extreme even by the standards of other celebrities could, animated by a tenacious low cunning, by pandering to the basest impulses of American culture and society, become the president, the most important man on Earth — count Kanye West’s brain among the hundreds of millions of minds fractured, or further fractured, by this fact. However his political alignments end up shaking out, it’s beyond all doubt that he views Donald Trump as his spirit animal.

So how should we respond to these songs? Calling West’s ideas half-baked would be too generous; calling him a fool would be beside the point. Kanye West inhabits a theatre of the absurd where scatological squibs count as songs and ignoring your critics constitutes a constructive dialogue with them; to point out its stupidity would be like pointing out water in the sea. With more cretinous stunts surely in the works, suffice it to say for now that West’s album, on the current evidence, is shaping up to be his worst ever. His art is rapping, after all, and the natural outcome of his conflation of narcissism and politics is that no one now is fit to write his campaign-style lyrics for him besides his own self. In the absence of a ghostwriter, his delivery is as facile and awkward as the meanings the lyrics transmit are ludicrous and vain. Yet if his album flops on its own merits, it may not matter. Anything that centers discussion around Kanye West is a good thing to Kanye, and if his new album stinks, the artist will still take pride in the fact that even his crap merits special attention.

Kanye West’s Theatre of the Absurd