Desperation is mostly inseparable from masculinity. Men strain for fame, for female attention, for sad, trivial triumphs over one another. We are a people perpetually trying to figure it all out—flexing in the mirror, using lines we've heard before, trying to seem bold and dignified. We're not cowboys or poets. If we are, we wear it as a disguise. Mostly, we are vulnerable and self-conscious and probably masturbating for the third time on a Tuesday afternoon, because we're off work and that Lea Thompson scene in All the Right Moves just came on. We are not men, but almost. Note: columns may also contain William Holden hero worship and meditations on cured meats.
My senior portrait in my high school yearbook is bad. Stupendously, horrifyingly bad. Orbit-stopping, telethon-necessitating, encyclopedia-entry bad. Bad in a way that should entitle me to write it off on my taxes. Not bad in the almost-charming way that perfectly encapsulates a bygone pop-culture phase like “Remember Old Navy?!” or bad in a blatantly misrepresentative way that belied some current or future attractiveness. Bad in a way that feels permanently branded to one’s identity, like an addiction to animal pornography or a manslaughter conviction. I imagined the women of the world meeting at some Bilderberg-type conference, with headphones and translators and a giant white screen that lowered from the ceiling so the yearbook picture could be projected onto it. WARNING: THIS MAN IS OUT THERE AND HE MIGHT APPROACH YOU.
My eyebrows were a sprawling, untamed mess. To call them “eyebrows” would be insufficient. They were something to be classified by a horticulturalist. I was sweaty. My skin was not pale so much as it was a sickly beige, as if my entire face was made of wet Band-Aids. I had braces. I deliberately left my hair “messy,” because I was 16 and believed this was “cool” and was going to “change everything,” except it wasn’t, and it didn’t, because I am not Mark Ruffalo, I am me, I am this, and this spent high school afternoons microwaving bowls of cheddar cheese and eating them with its fingers. I weighed 120 pounds. In the picture, you can see distinctly in my neck not just the outline of an Adam’s apple but a number of fragile throat parts. Afterward, as I walked from the platform where the pictures were taken, I saw waiting in line one of the coolest kids in my grade—cool, as measured by Number of Girls Fingered in a Stairwell. He looked down and realized that we were wearing the same shoes. Real, actual devastation has never been as discernable as it was on his face in that moment. Like it temporarily altered his perception of himself. Like my uncoolness was so immense that even the slightest similarity to it could briefly transfer that uncool-ness onto him.
I am 26 now, and my hair is less awful than it was then. I exfoliate. I have consumed several pieces of cauliflower. I own a tie. The picture exists only in the yearbook, which is in my room, in a box, in a closet. We hide and we change and we pretend the new us is the only us we have ever been.
About a month ago, Jon Caramanica of the New York Times said this to Kanye West: “You look at your outfits from five or seven years ago, and it’s like—” Then Kanye said to him, “Yeah, kill self. That’s all I have to say. Kill self.”
At various points in his career, Kanye West has dressed like Diddy at a Hamptons Party, Frat Bro at a State College Beer Pong Tournament, Divorced Suburban Dad Trying to Get Back Out There, Midtown Lothario, Late-80s Siegfried and Roy, David Byrne on a First Date. There were shuttershades, chinchilla shawls, aggressive graphic tees, brand name obsessions, shirts unbuttoned to his navel. Jerry Seinfeld once said, “All fathers essentially dress in the clothing style of the last good year of their lives.” Kanye West has not stopped redefining his style, perhaps because he is a man who refuses to believe that any year of his life can be the best, that any height, no matter how stratospheric, cannot be surpassed.
Implicit in change, in adaptation, is the acknowledgement that we have failed. We change to get better, to become something bold and singular. In 2009, on his VH1 Storytellers special, Kanye said, “So few, you know, hip-hop artists have ever advanced. Their songs, you know, on their seventh, eighth album, sound exactly like the songs on their first albums. More than an artist, I’m a real person, and real people grow. And I want to ju… sing my growth.”
Growth is inessential to the quality of an artist’s work (I will listen to Ghostface rap about trips to Pathmark on as many songs as he chooses to release), but the need to be understood as a human being, not merely as a delivery service, a bard, and to reveal such an unabashed desire to grow, in front of us, is valuable. Kanye is perpetually in kill-self mode, because to him, there is always a better self.
On “Eyes Closed” he raps, “Begging one of these fuckin fashion houses to hire me / They say I’ve been an asshole / I said if you acquire me / I can be a quiet me.”
He contains every fault, every landmine of our culture’s last decade: ugly polos, clothing with the names written on them in big bold letters, armchair political activism, sneaker obsession, falling defenselessly in love with a Kardashian, a fascination with Scott Disick, silly jokes about sitcoms, getting drunk and doing shocking things in front of pretty white girls, writing all-caps blog posts. He is constantly in search of vindication, to prove you wrong, to learn new things and REBRAND himself and I really mean it this time and ohbytheway fuck taxes. But he accepts this. He celebrates this. In a way, he is everything we wish we had the courage to try to become ourselves. Kanye West sent a picture of his penis to a woman and wrote a song about it.
He said this to Vibe magazine in January of 2009: “People always try to be so fucking perfect and I think that there’s some beauty in imperfection. People should embrace their flaws. Right now it’s all about the perfect six-pack. The perfect outfit. The perfect pitch. The perfect everything. And it’s like damn, your grandmother wasn’t perfect, but you still love her.”
Kanye went from backpacker to Jumbotron rockstar to messianic figure. He wanted to get Jay-Z’s attention, then to rise in the sky at Coachella, then to be Steve Jobs, to be a nucleus. Whether he has actually achieved this is secondary to the objective. This, to him, was a career trajectory. This wasn’t simply opulence or hedonism or some lordship in the rap game. Jay-Z has the world figured out, has its equations solved and written in scrolls. Kanye doesn’t want to take over the world. He wants to be gravity.
He has never looked as comfortable as he does when surrounded by people chanting his name, obeying him, telling him they love him and singing the words he wrote. It is likely that every artist responds to this, craves this, on some level, but few have ever made it so evident, including it in their measure of self-worth. Few have ever so incorporated the public in their own mythology—feeling WRONGED and wanting redemption, trying to convert the haters while simultaneously posturing to not give a fuck what the haters think. “We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it,” he rapped on “All Falls Down.”
During the Twitter purge that concluded with him apologizing to Taylor Swift, Kanye said, “the ego is overdone. It’s like hoodies.” And then, three years later, on last week’s Yeezus, he released a song called “I am a God.” He is all contradictions and remorse, making promises that he doesn't simply break but drops anvils onto. He apologizes, and then years later rescinds his apologies. It feels childish on some level, but invigorating in its honesty on another. Who among us has not done the right thing for the wrong reasons?
He is so willing to fail in broad daylight, furiously swinging his arms at the opposition, and then apologizing to them, in front of Matt fucking Lauer, in moments that border on paralysis. And then not giving a fuck again, in Hawaii, while he records an album about not giving a fuck. He is relentless. His love songs are about as subtle as a mariachi band playing on your front porch in a rainstorm. He is all ego—beautiful, explosive ego, fragile and loud at the same time. He lives a protracted adolescence while occasionally veering into something more. Then he makes an antagonistic remark about Asians or the shitty sedans normal people drive. His songs are not so much conventional narratives; they are him assessing his life, reflecting, commiserating, attacking, retreating and then fucking you on the sink.
During the Storytellers appearance, he said, “I’m an easy target, because I don’t fit in. I think through the gate. I think from The College Dropout, I was the only one in a polo in the midst of a whole bunch of jerseys, I was THE difference.” Kanye is wrong; the superficial is only a disguise. It is spectacle. But this desire to matter, to put yourself in a historical context beyond Top Five Dead or Alive” is something even us normals can identify with. “Haters” is in the canon of rap’s New Testament; it creates an artificial adversarial dynamic, and Kanye revels in this role more than anyone. He thrives as the renegade, all of that angsty contrarianism and smirking vengeance that sometimes involves hacking apart a Maybach and driving it around an abandoned lot to “Try a Little Tenderness.”
Robert Christgau, in his review of The College Dropout for the Village Voice, responded to Kanye’s critics with this: “They’d buy the Benz—so would I, Volvos don’t last as long—and probably the gold too. They’d say anything to get laid.”
Of course, you get the sense Kanye West wants it very clear that you can admire him, but you cannot be him. You cannot get laid like him. No one can.
There is a picture of Kanye West, from middle school or early high school, wearing a forest green gown and a white corsage, holding a cap and half smiling toward the camera, right there for everyone to see. It is peculiar and hard to believe: he looks just like everyone else.
More fun with pop culture - Miley Cyrus Needs to Take an African American Studies Class
Previously by John Saward:
John Saward likes O.V. Wright and eating guacamole with no pants on. He lives in Connecticut. Follow him on Twitter @RBUAS.