What to Make of Kanye West?

Whether he’s suffering from a mental-health issue or not, here’s hoping he comes out of this dark hole a better artist and a better human being.

Kanye West at the 2016 MTV Video Music Awards in August JEWEL SAMAD/AFP/Getty Images

This piece started off quite differently.

You see, after years of skating around the margins of the sentiment, I’d finally leaned into full-on “F–k Kanye West” mode. It followed years of annoyance at his trend of constantly obnoxious and solipsistic behavior. Even his admission during a recent concert that he didn’t vote at all Nov. 8 but would have voted for Donald Trump—as many of his fans struggle to grasp the reality of our incoming president—barely made me bat an eye. Just Kanye being Kanye.

But his Nov. 19 show in Sacramento, Calif., during which he went on a 17-minute rant before bouncing after performing fewer than five songs, was a bridge too far for me. It wasn’t the shots at MTV and DJ Khaled. It wasn’t the reference to Kid Cudi and himself as “aliens.” It wasn’t the renewed public butthurt at Beyoncé and Jay Z, at whom he’s still apparently pissed for not respecting him to the degree he feels he deserves.

What did me in was thinking about the Sacramento fans who paid upward of $200 for a ticket—some of whom certainly switched work shifts, hired baby sitters and spent dollars that were very significant to them—to see an artist they loved. I couldn’t reconcile that with garden-variety Kanye arrogance, so I cracked my fingers and hit my keyboard, intent on leaning in on him.

About halfway through my first draft, news came down that he had canceled the rest of his Saint Pablo Tour and was hospitalized following the Sacramento performance, ostensibly for “exhaustion.” I was left staring at my keyboard, thinking, “Goddammit, maybe he’s not a complete a–hole.”

If Kanye is suffering from a legitimate psychosis, diagnosed or not, it opens up a litany of questions involving his behavior as a whole. But it also demands that I, as a human being who bleeds when cut, approach his situation from a point of compassion that I wasn’t ready to have for him.

It speaks volumes about Kanye’s pop culture imprint that he engenders more conversation these days about his behavior and the motives behind it than his actual product. Everyone, ranging from armchair therapists (read: all of social media) to people actually trained to know what the f–k they’re talking about, have conjectured that something hasn’t been kosher in Kanye’s noodle since his mother’s untimely death in 2007.

On the one hand, I recognize that, as a society, we tend to be too blasé and dismissive of mental-health issues—citing them when it benefits our narrative and dismissing them when it does not. It was refreshing to see us embrace Kid Cudi for his bold, candid admissions of his mental-health struggles (and also refreshing to see us jump on Drake for clowning Cudi’s challenges, even if for a hot second).

On the other hand, it’s remarkably difficult for me to forgive much of Kanye’s behavior as manifestations of mental illness. The whole Taylor Swift business. The puerile public comments he made about a woman he once loved. The consistently aberrant and narcissistic social behavior that always seems to precede an apparent self-awareness through his mea culpas.  

And I’d be remiss not to admit that I do indeed miss the old Kanye very much. That Kanye was also arrogant, but he backed it up with an uncanny flair for manipulating soul samples that would come to define his early mainstream sound and make him one of the 10 best hip-hop producers of all time.

He was a true hip-hop fan in the first decade of his career, giving his all to produce entire albums for local Chicago artists and ultimately for his heroes, pioneers of turn-of-the-century boom-bap like Common, Talib Kweli and the erstwhile Mos Def. His first three albums are debatable classics, and he’s the mastermind behind my single favorite hip-hop track of this century’s first decade.

But he’s spent a lot of energy conforming to (bad) mainstream rap as of late. The one-two punch of G.O.O.D. Friday loosie tracks and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the last time I got truly hype about his output, and they were released back when Barack Obama was still developing his sea legs in the White House.

The old Kanye is indeed dead, having apparently left this plane along with his mother; most of his off-the-hook behavior seems to have occurred in the nine years since Donda West passed. The mere thought of losing my mother at this age brings pressure to my body, so I wouldn’t deign to attempt to understand his feelings, given the Nov. 10 anniversary of that event.

If the Sacramento rant was a manifestation of that anniversary—as many have speculated—then I feel bad that a breakdown had to occur so publicly, and I hope the Kardasharati take good care of him … especially for the sake of his children.

But I maintain that Kanye has to truly atone for some of his behavior—if not to his fans, then to the Amber Roses of the world who deserve it. Here’s hoping he comes out of this dark hole a better artist and a better human being.

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