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If You’re Laughing at Kanye West, the Joke’s on You

The media is freaking out about an interview with Kanye West that the New York Times ran yesterday. West always gives good copy, and predictably enough, he obliged the NYT by saying lots of suitably “outrageous” things, all of which have been circulating like crazy around the Internet over the last 24 hours. The inevitable quote roundups have already started rolling in, and their tone is all too predictable — Vulture, for instance, gives us “The Most Ridiculous Things Kanye Said In His New York Times Interview,” while The Daily Beast goes with “The Craziest Quotes,” and… well, you get the idea. Look at the crazy guy! Listen to the crazy things he says! The thing is, if you really think West isn’t doing this on purpose, well, the joke’s on you.

The way Kanye West is portrayed in the media is an ongoing study in the conflict between perception and reality. As the reaction to this interview (and, indeed, the interview itself) demonstrate, he’s frequently depicted as a cartoonish figure, a caricature of the egocentric modern celebrity. In fairness, he hasn’t always helped himself defy that stereotype, but then, perhaps he hasn’t wanted to do so, because the persona West projects is all about making the media work for him, and he knows exactly what he’s doing.

The way in which savvy musicians are dictating their own mythology is something I’ve looked at before, but whereas in the case of many artists, this is a process of resisting the way they’re portrayed and trying to dictate an alternate narrative, West seems to have decided early on in his career to embrace many of the stereotypes thrown at hip-hop artists (although, curiously, not all of them; he’s never for a moment embraced gangsta clichés) and turn them up to 11.

West is many things — brilliant, idiosyncratic, egotistical, contradictory — but one thing he’s definitely not is stupid: “I get it, everybody knows I’m a motherfuckin’ monster,” he raps during the chorus to “Monster,” and he’s only too happy to play up to this popular perception of himself. People criticize him for his ego, so he appears on the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus, or proclaims himself “the Steve [Jobs] of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture.” People criticize him for being materialistic, so he raps, “They made us hate ourselves/ And love their wealth”… and then, a decade later, tweets a photo of himself with his private plane.

It’s hard to avoid the conclusion that there’s more than a whiff of racism in making a spectacle of “crazy Kanye West,” in the same way that there’s something sexist about the way that Fiona Apple is always depicted as the madwoman in the attic — take, for example, the rather distasteful way that Vulture’s quote roundup describes West as “Kim Kardashian’s future baby daddy.”

Again, West seems only too aware of this; on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he snaps that “the same people that tried to blackball me forgot about two things: my black balls,” and years earlier, he noted, “We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us/ We trying to buy back our 40 acres/ And for that paper, look how low we stoop/ Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop.” By the sounds of it, Yeezus tracks like “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” address this subject even more explicitly.

The fact that the media has been only too happy to portray West as a caricature rather proves the validity of the entire exercise. His persona has worked as a fractured reflection of expectations, and if you look back over the way that this persona has evolved throughout his career, it’s almost performance art — compare and contrast the fresh-faced, Polo-shirt-wearing, backpack-toting preppy of The College Dropout to the moneyed hedonist of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the latter-day firebrand of his new work. It’s like Middle America’s nightmare made flesh, an articulate and angry black man first trying to live the American dream, then transcending it, then rejecting it. Rarely has a career followed such a compelling and coherent narrative arc, and if you think the guy following it is just a cashed-up egomaniac, well, you’re putting an awful lot of faith in providence.

West’s attitude has defined his career, and without it, he might never have become one of the most famous rappers of all time. As he rapped in his guest verse on Rhymefest’s “Brand New,” “They say your attitude determines your latitude,” going on to describe himself as “still the motherfucker that you love to hate/ But [you] can’t because you love what I make.” This, perhaps, gets to the heart of West’s persona — you can love him or hate him, but he won’t be ignored. (It was fascinating to note his reaction to a reviewer giving one of his live shows a report card-style B+: “What’s a B+ mean? I’m an extremist, its either pass or fail! A+ or F-!”)

Even his occasional “missteps” have been remarkably successful in terms of refining his mythology. Take his notorious “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment, for instance — apart from the fact that he was probably completely correct, it occurred in the same week that he released Late Registration. I’m not sure that West is cynical enough to have treated his appearance solely as a publicity stunt — the speech in which the quote came seemed pretty emotional and heartfelt — but equally, he clearly realized that this was an opportunity to do… something. He pauses for a moment before making his proclamation, like he’s weighing its impact, and then jumps in with both feet. And look, here we are, nearly a decade later, still talking about it.

The NYT interview comes with the provocative headline “Behind Kanye’s Mask,” but really, it’s not anything of the sort — it’s another manifestation of the persona he’s been refining for years, and what truly lies “behind the mask” is something that very few people get to see. Intriguingly, those who know him best describe him as somewhat shy, which makes sense when you think about it — it’s often those who are least secure who tend to overcompensate by being aggressively extroverted. Whoever the real Kanye West is, one thing’s for sure: if you’re giggling about how “crazy” Kanye is, you’re doing exactly what he wants you to do.