It's been over three weeks since Kanye West's YE drifted out of a Wyoming fire pit and onto streaming services, but the tumultuous release cycle that preceded it still hasn't found any closure. YE's seven songs raised more questions than they answered, and West seemed less interested in explaining his incongruous ideas than he was in detailing the personal impact of the chaos he'd created, for his family and for himself, since returning to Twitter. And even then, even when he seemed to be opening up on "Yikes" and "Ghost Town," he was mostly slurring stream-of-consciousness lyrics over raw, occasionally unfinished beats. Nobody expected real clarity—not from Kanye, not after all that—but YE was exceptionally hazy.
New York Times pop music critic Jon Caramanica was one of the many journalists and "influencers" at West's Jackson Hole listening party that night, and he stayed around in Wyoming to speak to West for three days afterward. The interviews—West's first in print in years—went up this morning, and they have West in an eerily candid mood. Caramanica opens with a story about hulking self-help "guru" Tony Robbins encouraging Kanye not to take his own life in early 2017. West discusses his struggles with his mental health since that day, the collaborative writing process behind his records, and his admiration for Donald Trump.
Crucially, West discusses last month's infamous TMZ studio interview, in which he sat next to right-wing pseudo-intellectual Candice Owens and made ill-conceived and controversial statements about slavery. "When you hear about slavery for 400 years,” he said back then. “For 400 years? That sounds like a choice. You was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all. It’s like we’re mentally in prison. I like the word prison because slavery goes too direct to the idea of blacks. Slavery is to blacks as the Holocaust is to Jews. Prison is something that unites as one race, blacks and whites, that we’re the human race."
Caramanica sets the TMZ discussion up by asking Kanye about how he escaped from the "sunken place." The answer is revealing, disturbing, and eventually not at all shocking.
When did that change happen?
Getting out, learning how to not be highly medicated and, you know, just standing up saying I know I could lose a lot of things, but just standing up and saying what you feel, and not even doing a lot of research on it. Having a political opinion that’s overly informed, it’s like knowing how to dress, as opposed to being a child—“I like this.” I hear Trump talk and I’m like, I like the way it sounds, knowing that there’s people who like me that don’t like the way it sounds.
So West, who maintains that professing one's belief in an idea without researching it is a fantastic thing because it is good to think like a child, goes on. Caramanica writes:
To Kanye’s mind, what happened on TMZ was a failure of language, not ideas. "I said the idea of sitting in something for 400 years sounds—sounds—like a choice to me, I never said it’s a choice. I never said slavery itself—like being shackled in chains—was a choice,” he said. “That’s why I went from slave to 400 years to mental prison to this and that. If you look at the clip you see the way my mind works.”
He continued, delineating the path of many a Kanye West public conflagration. "I think an extreme thing; I adjust it, I adjust it, I adjust it," he explained. "That’s the way I get to it, but I have to push to, you know, the furthest concept possible."
The TMZ studio appearance hit the internet at almost exactly the same moment that a far longer (and calmer) conversation between West and Charlamagne Tha God went up on KanyeWest.com. At the time, it seemed as though the TMZ video represented West's anarchic id while the Charlamagne interview was West's ego. Kanye still sees it the same way, but he doesn't want to control either one:
The TMZ appearance essentially squandered all of the public good will Kanye had accumulated earlier in the day—except in the view of Kanye, who naturally saw the two media appearances as part of the same continuum.
“I think it was totally beautiful, both of them,” he said. “The Charlamagne one was like the most beautiful funeral you’ve ever been to, and you close the casket, and say this is done.”
Because, of course, it's all about Kanye. The real-life impact of his pro-Trump statements and alt-right missives don't matter as much as Kanye's growth, however small, as a human and an artist. People might suffer and struggle under a fascistic regime that gets stronger every time he tweets that Trump makes him feel good, but Kanye West will have figured out a new way to market his next product. And that, he says, puts him in the same category as Nat Turner:
How does it make you feel when you know an experiment didn’t work?
Awesome. I learned so much. I learned about the context of the idea of the word slave. I didn’t take it in that context. I think that my personality and energy mirrors Nat Turner, or it had in the past, but that showed me that also that Nat Turner approach would land me in the same place Nat Turner landed, and that I would be legendary but also just a martyr. But I guess we’re all martyrs eventually, and we’re all guaranteed to die.
To clarify, do you believe that slavery in this country was a choice?
Well, I never said that.
If you could say it again how would you frame it?
I wouldn’t frame a one-liner or a headline. What I would say is actually it’s literally like I feel like I’m in court having to justify a robbery that I didn’t actually commit, where I’m having to somehow reframe something that I never said. I feel stupid to have to say out loud that I know that being put on the boat was — but also I’m not backing down, bro. What I will do is I’ll take responsibility for the fact that I allowed my voice to be used back to back in ways that were not protective of it when my voice means too much.
You should really go read the whole piece in full. It might not answer any of the bigger questions, but nothing ever will. And Lord knows when you'll next get a Kanye West interview in print.
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