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Kanye West's worrying week, explained

Kanye West attends Kanye West Yeezy season 3 on February 11, 2016, in New York City.
Kanye West attends Kanye West Yeezy season 3 on February 11, 2016, in New York City.
Dimitrios Kambouris/Getty Images
Alex Abad-Santos is a senior correspondent who explains what society obsesses over, from Marvel and movies to fitness and skin care. He came to Vox in 2014. Prior to that, he worked at the Atlantic.

What America thinks about Kanye West can change in a single tweet. In the time it takes to smash down 140 characters, the rapper could be a staggering genius reflecting the ills of society back onto itself, a masterful salesman screaming for attention, or a candid artist on the verge of a breakdown. Sometimes he's all three; sometimes, in an instant, he's none of them.

"He’s the last great innovator, a man who has the power to change the world and finds himself denied at every turn, the only artist who can save music — or the one who has ruined it," Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib wrote for MTV News.

The desire to figure out what makes Kanye West tick isn't anything new. There's always been something about his personality mixed with his talent and his spontaneity that makes eyes roll, tweets fire, and browsers refresh. But this week especially, in light of West's recent erratic outbursts — both in person and digitally — both fans and observers have once again been tasked with hitting a moving target: deciding how we feel about Kanye West and just how concerned should we be.

How did this Week of Kanye West start?

The cornerstone of this Week of West was the release of his new album, The Life of Pablo, in the early hours of February 14, 2016. The hype around the album had begun in January, when West announced that he'd be changing the title; at the time, it was known as So Help Me God, but then became Swish and later Waves, before West ultimately decided on The Life of Pablo. The Waves title in particular sparked a brief Twitter feud between West and Wiz Khalifa.

This constant jumble of changes to an unreleased album from one of the most talented men in music drew lots of attention. And people were interested in the chaos of it. On February 1, Kim Kardashian tweeted about West's potential album titles, asking which one fans liked best. Her Twitter poll received 439,102 votes — more than were cast in the Iowa caucuses:

On February 10 there was one final change, when West revealed that the album would be called The Life of Pablo:

At this point there was, to borrow a phrase from Star Wars, a disturbance in the Force. But it was hard to decipher what exactly was going on. It seemed like Kanye was experiencing a burst of artistic indecisiveness and trying to manage it in a public forum. But it was also possible that all of his announced album changes were a measured and constructed PR stunt to get people talking about his work.

West's live fashion show/album debut goes wrong and becomes all about Taylor Swift

On February 11, 2016, West held a live event at Madison Square Garden where he debuted The Life of Pablo and "season three" of his fashion line, Yeezy, and it was a glorious mess. Tickets for the event were exclusive, as guests like Anna Wintour, the Kardashian sisters, and rapper Young Thug were all in attendance. But for the hoi polloi, there was a "live stream" set up on the streaming platform Tidal so that anyone could follow along.

Said live stream was a complete disaster, and it frequently flatlined under immense traffic as tons of people tried to tune in at once.

But in the end, that didn't matter. The biggest takeaway of the evening wasn't about the new clothes, the new songs on the album, or Tidal's colossal failure — it was four lines about Taylor Swift. In a new song called "Famous," West claimed that Swift and he might someday have sex since she owes him for her fame. He sang:

I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex

Why? I made that bitch famous

God damn

I made that bitch famous

That's the lyrical equivalent to throwing a grenade at the internet. West took an incident we all recalled and thought was over — his infamous interruption of her Best Female Video acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards — and breathed new life into a dead grudge. But that's only half the equation. The next day, Swift, speaking through her publicist, denounced the song as misogynistic and stated that, contrary to what West claimed, West had not contacted her for approval of the lyrics.

"Kanye did not call for approval, but to ask Taylor to release his single 'Famous’ on her Twitter account," Swift's representative said. "She declined and cautioned him about releasing a song with such a strong misogynistic message."

West then tweeted that Swift and her publicist were liars and that they actually came up with the line about Swift themselves:

The latest feud between the two then erupted at the Grammys on Monday, February 15, when Swift won Album of the Year and used her acceptance speech to snap back at West. The speech was a good one — about empowering young women — but it was more of a thinly veiled jab at West than anything else.

"There will be people along the way who will try to undercut your success, or take credit for your accomplishments or your fame," she said. "But if you just focus on the work … you will look around and you will know that it was you and the people who love you that put you there. That will be the greatest moment."

If we're taking a cynical view, both Swift and West are playing the game excruciatingly well. We're thirsty for more, and the only thing missing is a performance where the two share a stage and mend their wounds.

West has a meltdown backstage at Saturday Night Live

West was the musical guest on Saturday Night Live for the show's February 13 episode — two days after the live event at Madison Square Garden and two days before the Grammys. He sang two songs from The Life of Pablo, and the performances went relatively smoothly. However, Page Six reported that West had a fiery meltdown behind the scenes that we didn't get to see. Then Page Six obtained and released audio of the incident:

In the audio recording, West calls Swift a "fake ass," seemingly in response to the public statement she'd put out about "Famous." He also calls NBC staffers "white motherfuckers" and complains about how his performance sets at SNL were handled.

He brags that he is as talented and impactful as any artist, dead or alive.

"Bro! By 50 percent. [I am more influential than] Stanley Kubrick, Apostle Paul ... Picasso and Escobar," West says on the recording. "By 50 percent more influential than any other human being. ... By 50 percent dead or alive, by 50 percent for the next thousand years."

A source told Rolling Stone that the outburst was a private moment that was edited, but did not deny that some kind outburst did happen. "He found out his stage design was changed and taken apart under the direction of the show's lighting director without anyone's approval," the unnamed source said.

What's fascinating here is that flipping out on SNL actually seems like a rational reaction. West was coming off a week that was littered with failures and annoyances. His Madison Square Garden event was plagued with glitches. Taylor Swift became a bigger story than his fashion line or his new album. And then SNL bungled a set.

Getting mad at the SNL kerfuffle would be an understandable outburst of frustration. But then something else happened — West tweeted some really bizarre stuff. And he went from someone who's merely angry to someone who could be having a meltdown.

Kanye West's erratic tweetstorm was confusing and, to some, disturbing

In the midst of these real-life events, West maintained a first-person, continuous stream-of-consciousness commentary in the form of unfiltered tweets.

On his Twitter account, West seemed obsessed with quantifying artistic greatness. In a flurry of tweets he posted before the Grammys on February 15, he talked about the financial strain of being an artist, how it's impossible for white writers to judge black art, and education, among other topics.

One of the most surprising tweets, though, came when he claimed he was $53 million in debt because of his fashion line:

And then he asked Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg for $1 billion:

West is worth an approximate $145 million and is married to a woman who's worth around $58 million, according to InStyle — one assumes he could easily pay off a $53 million debt (which is allegedly from pouring money into his fashion line). The sweaters in the Yeezy season one fashion line were priced at $420, and outerwear sold at $3,800, according to Refinery29.

The audacity to ask for Zuckerberg for money and to talk about not being able to create art seems absurd, since West is in a perfect position to create art. (Someone even created a satirical GoFundMe campaign for West, in response to his public requests for cash.) But it seems like he's addicted to validation that comes with making art.

After talking about money, West tweeted about the value of his art in the eyes of white critics:

West isn't wrong in regards to how black artists are judged and measured. Prior to this week, we saw some absurd reactions to Beyoncé's new song "Formation" — to the point that SNL aired a skit lampooning all the white people who were offended that Beyoncé, a black woman, would sing about being a black woman.

West later segued into a discussion about the price of education, and education reforms:

But eventually he returned to tweeting about his album:

What we talk about when we talk about Kanye West

There exists an idea that brilliant people are plagued by some crippling ... something. Music has given us examples like Amy Winehouse and Kurt Cobain's substance abuse; there are constant questions about how much David Foster Wallace's suicide is part of David Foster Wallace's legacy; Steve Jobs's stubbornness is legendary to the point that cancer experts say he could have lived if he had just listened to science; and so on and so forth.

All of West's rants, outbursts, tweets, and ramblings, coupled with his immense talent, fit that mold. But until now, there's been an underlying idea that some of that instability was something West himself constructed and performed — that beneath the swirling saga of Kanye West, there was an album to sell or another tour to promote.

But something just feels off this time, and maybe even dangerous for West, in a way that it hasn't before.

MTV's Molly Lambert shared one possible reason for this:

"Hearing Kanye talk about going off his [antidepressant medication] Lexapro [in one of his songs on the new album], I started to reframe his recent run of Twitter sprees as something other than just record promo," Lambert wrote. "By the time the audio of Kanye blowing up backstage at SNL was released, it no longer seemed funny."

Lambert hits on an important point: In spite of his accomplishments, we tend to think of West, on some level, as a joke.

And there's a bone-rattling scariness to the idea that a man who achieved what West has isn't in control of his own mind. That a man who is embarrassingly rich and married to a famous, beautiful, and equally wealthy woman, who has two darling kids and is immensely talented, and who spends a copious amount of time crying about other people's validation on the internet should be funny, because it's downright terrifying if it's not.

This isn't the last we'll hear of Kanye. (Early this morning, he tweeted out pictures of his daughter and what appears to be an inspiration for his next season of clothing.) And this isn't the last of us being obsessed with this man and his obsessions — regardless of how we feel about him.

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