Zora Neale Hurston described Black folks thusly, “And the Negro, in spite of his open-faced laughter, his seeming acquiescence, is particularly evasive.” We’ve been forced to smile through our pain, so our spirits come in twos. And Kanye West, one of our Geminis, is having a lucid dream.
A rancid, vainglorious, megalomaniacal fever that’s as old as Gilgamesh and as seductive now as then. But, look, West is irreplaceable. For his critics, he has survived whether through hubris or genius. For his fans, he is a page turner in a traditionalist milieu that tends to stick to the script. But Blackness isn’t a particular way of doing this or that, it’s a constant like the many broad strokes shadows turn when day gives way.
And there’s no mistake that Kanye West is heading back to his roots. His moorings are the tendrils of Black intellectualism and exceptionalism. That is to say, West is derived from his mother’s and father’s tradition of resistance and transcendence. From the roiling wave of ambition that birthed the miracle that is the Black middle class. If only, in its way, to come to terms with the notion that Black Americans are without a class; that we have been set together against virulent discrimination and it has proven difficult to separate from each other. And he is, now, testing himself against the swell of inertia we’ve settled into. A bizarre gospel has emerged in his wake: A St. Peter’s cross of sophomoric philosophizing that in a completely ignorant way asks, ‘How do we move past discrimination?’ Put another way, how do we escape— nay— how do we conquer whiteness? He thinks it’s a question both sides should be leveling with.
A deluge of theory has been put forward to answer that query. The beauty of Kanye West is that he thinks his journey is the first one. In his delusion, though, lies a kernel of hope. Like, yo, maybe we can find a way out of this cage. Isn’t that what bewitched us about Black Panther? Which means, this is, unfortunately, consistent with West’s career trajectory. He’s doing less something different than something far more controversial. And because we give him his perch (earned, mind you) from which to move culture, his outsized influence causes reverberations through every stitch of it.
Now he’s begging us to think along with him. And, for the record, the consensus is that he isn’t doing much of that very well.
This is the legacy of Kanye West. The person who brought us into the studio with him when he asked what we did and didn’t like about songs he was working on. The Black Friday series, which saw him present to us choir like B-sides filled with mistakes. The Taylor Swift incident, which, in two-hour hand-holding with Charlamagne Da God, he says caused him to lose his grip on radio. His in-betweens have always been experiments in creation, pushing us to create along with him. Now he’s begging us to think along with him. And, for the record, the consensus is that he isn’t doing much of that very well. Just watch Van Lathan of TMZ rise to the level of internet hero in one swift takedown of Ye after he insists that slavery was a “choice.” Jesus Christ.
His life is less public than it has ever been. He’s been sequestered, apparently, trapped by the ghosts in his mind. Here, now, he wants to heal in public. He wants to get out one last dream. One turn after another shows Kanye is using his audience as his hospital. He screenshots his friends’ text messages. Talk of love springs forth from blue-lighted screens. The man was going to put the face of the surgeon who performed his mother’s surgery on his album cover. He wants to forgive him. He wants to be unburdened from his sorrow. I get the feeling he thinks this is a kind of freedom. The freedom to ask uncomfortable questions? But this is not the beginning of anything.
It seems to be a kind of end. West has lost a lot of people, some of them forever. He may never win them back, but he will forge forward anyway. He may never be the man who said, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” ever again. But this is coming from the same place, I think, and I have to believe that he, an experiment in Black confidence, knows that. Whatever the case, welcome to act three in the gospel of Kanye West.