Art via thelifeofpablol.com
I tried with Kanye West. And I know that now with his Twitter rants, bizarre Derelicte-esque YEEZY Season 3 and The Life of Pablo currently absorbing the popular consciousness, I’m supposed to care. But since he Tweeted the three little words (and multiple exclamation marks) no woman wants to hear—“BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!”—I’m out. I wasn’t the only person to immediately pull up the Tyra Banks “I was rooting for you, we were all rooting for you!” GIF. We were all hoping for another, better Kanye West, and were willfully blind to reality in the process of that hope. And like Tyra, we’re yelling as much at ourselves for believing as we are at Kanye for letting us down.
That very specific reaction to Kanye’s tweet isn’t because his casual misogyny is something new. It’s that, whether his tweet was flippant or calculated, Kanye has finally crossed an invisible but distinct line between what is acceptable and what is not only profoundly moronic but also deeply tone deaf and offensive, even for a performance artist. Since the Cosby Tweet, Kanye has continued vocalizing sexist rhetoric with yet more tweets and the lyrics of his semi-released album, The Life Of Pablo.
We’ve been exposed to Kanye’s sexism, in varying degrees, for the better part of nearly two decades. It’s pervaded nearly everything he’s done with sometimes terrifying alacrity—for instance, the infectious, buoyant “Gold Digger” hook, which makes a pop anthem out of the tired trope that women are as deep as their interest in material goods makes them. On 2008’s “Heartless,” lyrics like “You got a new friend, well I got homies” offer a shaming double standard. And Yeezus contained what Spin’s Brandon Soderberg called a “spleen-vent” against women, with lyrics like “Hurry up with my damn massage / Hurry up with my damn ménage,” one among many that paint a disturbing picture of Kanye’s perception of women.
Of course, it’s a little more complicated than that: on songs like “Love Lockdown,” Kanye allows himself to be vulnerable. As he sings “I'm not loving you, the way I wanted to,” he’s humanized and relatable, and as much as 808s is a rejected bro’s tantrum, it’s also his Dear Diary confessional in the wake of his split from fiance, Alexis Phifer, and the devastating death of his mother, Donda. 808s revealed Kanye’s unique ability to play the sympathetic anti-hero.Yeezus was trickier, but we’re supposed to read the inherent misogyny in Yeezus as a performance—a character portrayed by Kanye the same way he portrays Jesus on stage. The oversexualization of black men in pop culture can be just as troubling a phenomenon as the objectification of women, and Yeezus’s graphic sexism could be read as a response to this, confronting audiences with their preconceived notions of how a black man should act and turning it up so far that it causes an almost painful discomfort. The issue with this is that performing through someone else’s oppression—regardless of intention—makes for an exploitative kind of art.
Kayne is constantly excused for his transgressions by grand proclamations that call him an artiste, and allow him to occupy a pedestal alongside cultural icons like Michael Jackson, Beyoncé, and David Bowie. Kanye West has, in his continuing redefinition of hip-hop, certainly earned the right to be on that pedestal, in at least some respects. As VICE’s Brian Josephs wrote, in the beginning of his career, Kanye West validated blackness in mainstream culture, something that he continues to champion now. “Who else has been able to be this loud and this famous for this long within a white space?” asks Josephs, who also admits that Kanye’s current moment might not be his finest. It’s that exact legacy, however, that makes his misogyny harder to stomach. For such a progressive voice actively engaged in shifting the status quo, it can be hard for both fans and casual consumers of pop culture to believe he might be sometimes crossing a line when it comes to sexism. So we let things slide.
His 2010 song “Monster” is a perfect example of this. The video for the track (which was immediately recalled and never officially released) features Kanye rearranging the overtly sexualized, lifeless bodies of women on a bed around him, which Anita Sarkeesian addresses on Feminist Frequency: “Monster not only reduces women to sexual objects and perpetuates racist stereotypes,” she says, “but it actually fetishizes the aspects of women that don’t even require us to be physically alive.” The same could be said for the latest pictures from Kanye’s “zine” (pronounced “zeen”), which shows naked models with their faces obscured posed passively and photographed from provocative angles. Kanye has a penchant for fetishizing the women who appear on the visual side of his work—and a willingness to strip women of their autonomy in order to make them desirable. But “Monster” was able to find redemption in Nicki Minaj, who offered an equal but opposite reaction to the song’s open misogyny in what Kanye at one point called the best hip-hop verse of all time, mentioning his own insecurity in leaving it on.
Excuses have also been made for Kanye because in the past he’s displayed a certain level of introspection. When he was criticized for his song “Perfect Bitch,” which he tweeted was “about Kim,” he took to Twitter to discuss the implications. He wrote, "Is the word BITCH acceptable? To be more specific, is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it's endearing?" Kanye went on to liken “bitch” to racial slurs, concluding that both are “potent”. In this reflection, Kanye was challenging himself and his fans as well as the traditions and language of popular culture, which is how we expect a once in a generation culture creator to engage with the social repercussions of his output.
Since playing The Life Of Pablo for the public yesterday, Kanye seems to have circled back on this, claiming via Twitter that bitch isn’t actually offensive. “Bitch is an endearing term in hip hop like the word Nigga,” he wrote. Like the Cosby Tweet, Kanye is very generous with the decisions he makes on behalf of women. This sort of flagrant dismissal of alternate experiences to his own is troubling because, as a public figure who’s largely touted as brimming with positive artistic qualities like “crazy,” “boundary-pushing,” and “intellectual”, the expectation is that he can, or is at the very least interested in, disrupting dominant paradigms. This seems to be less and less the case when it comes to sexism.
In 2014, he released a game with Future for their collaboration “I Won” which involves “Tossing your chain on a trophy” in order to build a “Trophy collection.” The “trophies” are bikini clad women running along the beach. Meanwhile, the lyrics of “I Won” hone in on Kim’s physical beauty. It might be his most emphatic declaration of love for his wife, but it’s also one that offers a very narrow view of what a woman has to offer. “I Won” continues to perpetuate the notion that in order to be desirable, a woman must be both physically appealing to men and passive in that beauty.
The Life Of Pablo also contains some questionable references to Kim, such as in “FML” where he raps, "I’ve been waiting for a minute, for my lady / so I can’t jeopardize that for one of these hoes," and “High Lights”, where Kanye sings, “I bet me and Ray J would be friends if we ain’t love the same bitch / Yeah, he might have hit it first, only problem is I’m rich." Both of these reiterate the suggestion that a woman (again in this case, his wife) are trophies, and prizes to be coveted, won, and then paraded as a sign of that victory. Pitting Kim against other women who are nothing but “hoes” to him furthers the idea that women are only as valuable as they are desirable, and limits desirability to sex. Kanye’s “personal” life reflects much the same, in his weird kontiuing kontrolling of the Kardashian klan, from throwing out Kim’s entire wardrobe in order to make her his Barbie-doll dream girl, to this week putting the kibosh on Kylie’s rumored collaboration with Puma.
Read in tandem with his Twitter beef with Wiz Khalifa—which was just a masqueraded, sexist attack on Amber Rose—the “performance artist” Kanye West seems to see himself as something of a patriarch, doling out both admonishments and orders when the women around him are displeasing to his sensibilities. It’s not the first time he’s gone after his ex-girlfriend, either. A year ago, on Power 105.1's The Breakfast Club, he said, “It's very hard for a woman to want to be with someone that's with Amber Rose… I had to take 30 showers before I got with Kim." And today he released a new track “30 Hours” that opens, “My ex says she gave me the best years of her life, I saw a recent picture of her I guess she was right.” His constant, totally unsolicited dogging of his exes goes beyond performance and into the personal—it appears that Kanye West doesn’t abide what cannot be manipulated to his will.
This “performance” was repeated yesterday in his release of The Life Of Pablo, and the already infamous line from “Famous” in which he raps, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex / Why? I made that bitch famous," referencing his 2009 VMA interruption of Taylor Swift in a way that treats her as a sex object and downplays her professional successes (which, commercially at least, outstrip Kanye’s own). Kanye claimed on Twitter he had Taylor’s blessing and never meant to diss her, adding, “I’m not even gone take credit for the idea… it’s actually something Taylor came up with …” Swift’s publicist quickly shut this claim down, telling Variety, “Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single ‘Famous’ on her Twitter account. She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message. Taylor was never made aware of the actual lyric.”
Kanye West seems increasingly unable, or unwilling, to own his mistakes. The way Kanye West baits Taylor Swift is really no different from the way he baits Amber Rose—their mere existence as women who don’t comply with his passive ideals of femininity seems to be a point of obsession for him, something that he has to constantly revisit.
Since the Cosby Tweet, it’s been hard to reconcile Kanye West the performance artist with Kanye West the rampant sexist because it increasingly seems that the Kanye West performance isn’t so much about disrupting oppressive narratives as an exercise in ego stroking. Do we trust Kanye West enough to let him say Bill Cosby, accused of sexual misconduct by more than 50 separate women with nothing to gain, is innocent? Are we simply dismissing a tweet as the honest, insensitive opinion of Mr. West, or do we believe enough in the Kanye West genius that we’ll sacrifice the gratuitous trolling of rape victims to his dictates? Either way, it’s a step further than he’s gone before or than we should be willing to let him go.
The inherent problem with Kanye West’s “unique” “performance art” is that it requires the degradation of women to exist. By playing the misogynist, Kanye West becomes a misogynist. Maybe he’s interrogating masculinity, but even if that’s the case, Kanye makes women’s lived experiences the casualty of his “art.” Unlike his stunt working the Confederate flag into his Yeezus tour merch, he doesn’t have a historical investment in sexism. He has never lived in a woman’s body and experienced the violence and disenfranchisement that can come with that. It’s an experience he has no stake in. While it can be so inspiring to see Kanye West cite feminist artist Vanessa Beecroft as one of his closest collaborators or joyfully cheerlead his wife’s business endeavors, that only makes it more galling when he co-opts sexism, and dismisses the experiences of rape survivors, in the name of “art.”
Today, Kanye West tweeted, “First thing is I’m an artist and as an artist I will express how I feel with no censorship,” which misses the point entirely. It’s not about censorship—it’s about Kanye not fulfilling his capacity to create smarter art that doesn’t rely on dragging women down it order to court conversation. There are much more crafty, interesting ways to be provocative than by trolling victims of rape, or attacking Taylor Swift or Amber Rose. Beyoncé did it in a Super Bowl Halftime show that was elegant, timely, and, on no uncertain terms, provocative. Kanye West, on the other hand, might be so used to popping a wheelie on the zeitgeist that he’s forgotten the zeitgeist keeps moving forward even if you’re standing still or pedaling against it. There’s nothing avant garde or interesting or artful about a man using the pain of rape victims, or bludgeoning his ex or his female professional peer with slurs for attention, and the Kanye West we mythologize—the man who loves and supports his wife, who is articulately aware of his actions and power of language, and who rails against social injustices—should have known better. Which is why I’m finally out on Kanye West.
Kat George is waiting for Katy Perry to release a Kanye diss track. Follow her on Twitter.