Kanye West, the music producer and rapper and author of some of the most influential records of the 21st century, returned to Twitter after almost a full year away, where he’s now posting so many tweets that it’s genuinely hard to keep up with his seemingly insatiable pace.
At first, it seemed like he was just back on Twitter to announce a pair of new albums (one solo, one with longtime collaborator Kid Cudi). But it didn’t take long before he set off a firestorm of controversy that expanded to encompass a series of right-wing pundits; the creator of Dilbert; his wife, Kim Kardashian West; and the president of the United States.
Many of Kanye’s tweets have been harmless or border on impenetrable (“I no longer have a manager. I can’t be managed” and then “decentralize”). But the hip-hop star immediately kicked up outcry when he professed his admiration for several right-wing speakers — and, as he had before, President Donald Trump.
You don't have to agree with trump but the mob can't make me not love him. We are both dragon energy. He is my brother. I love everyone. I don't agree with everything anyone does. That's what makes us individuals. And we have the right to independent thought.— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
President Trump returned the love on Wednesday afternoon.
Thank you Kanye, very cool! https://t.co/vRIC87M21X— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) April 25, 2018
And it just kept going.
Politico also reported that Cleveland pastor Darrell Scott is pitching the Trump White House on a series of summits about race, with West as one of the black artists and athletes who could be invited.
Kanye has always been an iconoclast, but it has still been jarring to see the man who once said that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” after the disastrous response to Hurricane Katrina shower love on a president who called African nations “shitholes.”
As Kanye’s tweets rapidly took over the news cycle and then spun into a news cyclone, his wife, Kardashian, a reality star and lifestyle mogul who publicly supported Hillary Clinton in 2016, stepped in.
my wife just called me and she wanted me to make this clear to everyone. I don't agree with everything Trump does. I don't agree 100% with anyone but myself.— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
Kanye will never run in the race of popular opinion and we know that and that’s why I love him and respect him and in a few years when someone else says the same exact thing but they aren’t labeled the way he is and you will all praise them! Kanye is years ahead of his time— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) April 25, 2018
Explaining exactly what’s going on here might be beyond our or anyone’s abilities. By his own design, Kanye West has become something of an inexplicable quantity. His refusal to filter himself is both one of his greatest artistic strengths and an endless source of frustration for fans who love his music as much as they’re stumped by his persona.
There is a long history at play here between Kanye’s obsession with celebrity, his sense of kinship with bombastic figures like Trump, and his very public struggles with his mother’s death in 2007, his mental health, and his recently disclosed opioid addiction. He’s an artist who’s always trying to put his finger on the culture’s pulse — or, preferably, define it.
So in 2018, tweets like “I leave my emojis bart Simpson color” roll by without much notice. But a little love for Donald Trump seems to stop Twitter on its axis. Kanye being Kanye just demands your attention. We might not know what to make of it — let alone his “Kanye 2024” declarations — but we can’t look away.
Kanye already had a history of buddying up to Trump. Now he’s embracing other right-wing figures.
As Vox’s Constance Grady wrote back in December 2016, the mutual fascination between Kanye and Trump has been around for a long time:
Kanye has referenced Trump three times in his lyrics, primarily as a shorthand for the idea of wealth, luxury, and the ability to fire people. The first reference came in 2005 when Kanye freestyled on the YouTube channel Tim Westwood TV (“I ain’t no clown like Ronald / Uh, more like Donald / Trump, with the way I get it crunk”), then in 2009’s “Flashing Lights (Remix)” (“You fired mothafucka Donald Trump ni**a”), and then in 2010’s “So Appalled”(“Balding Donald Trump taking dollars from y’all / Baby, you’re fired, your girlfriend hired”). He also featured a naked depiction of Trump in the bed tableau that appears in the video for his song “Famous,” which debuted earlier this year.
All of that adds up to four Trump references in seven years. (For comparison’s sake, that’s more than Kanye has referenced, say, Givenchy, but less than the 12 times he’s mentioned Gucci in his lyrics.) In Kanye’s songs, Trump is a symbol of the kind of wealth and power that American culture generally withholds from black men: He has the kind of decadent wealth that you can use to party with, but he can also control other people’s employment, hiring and firing them at will.
What feels new now, however, is that Kanye isn’t just embracing Trump. He has had kind words to say about Candace Owens, a leader of the right-wing group Turning Point USA, who has criticized Black Lives Matter, downplayed the problem of police violence against black Americans, and expressed a downright messianic view of the president:
I truly believe that @realDonaldTrump isn’t just the leader of the free world, but the savior of it as well.— Candace Owens (@RealCandaceO) April 17, 2018
May God bless America— the last stand for western civilization.
Apparently, Kanye digs her.
I love the way Candace Owens thinks— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 21, 2018
What exactly does Kanye love about the way Owens and Adams think? Who knows. He gives us little to go on. Maybe there isn’t anything more to it than an affinity for anybody else who is willing to buck “political correctness.” This is not unlike Shania Twain saying (to her later regret) that she would have voted for Trump because “he seemed honest.”
Some performers seem to identify with our most theatrical president. Kanye has been fixated in his Twitter comeback on “thought police” and the idea of suppressing unconventional thoughts — some notions that come right out of the Trump/Owens/Adams playbook.
The thought police want to suppress freedom of thought— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 22, 2018
Overall, the throughline of Kanye’s recent Twitter return, such as it is, seems to be freethinking mixed with a genuine hopefulness. That is the context for these tweets. He loves Hillary Clinton too, folks.
I love when people have their own ideas. You don't have to be allowed anymore. Just be.— KANYE WEST (@kanyewest) April 25, 2018
Love who you want to love. That's free thought. I'm not even political. I'm not a democrat or a republican
As always with Kanye, it’s hard to know what exactly to make of this. Looking back at his career, words, actions, and the way he’s curated them all, Kanye has always represented himself as a chronically curious person who hates being told what he can or can’t speak out about. The more people push back against him wanting to speak to conservative figureheads like Owens or Adams, the more likely he is to want to do it.
But he’s also something of a provocateur by nature. The line, with Kanye, between eccentricity, performance art, and any actual underlying insecurities is never clear — which is exactly how he likes it.
On Twitter and beyond, Kanye is a celebrity-obsessed celebrity who knows how to not just get attention but hold it
Kanye’s entire career has hinged on presenting himself as a mercurial genius. Once a brilliant behind-the-scenes producer, he burst out on his own musically with his 2003 album The College Dropout.
As a celebrity, however, Kanye arguably made his biggest public impression with that 2005 proclamation that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a line he dropped during a Hurricane Katrina fundraiser with such casual bluntness that comedian Mike Myers, standing next to him, visibly struggled to process it. (Bush would later describe it as the worst moment of his presidency.)
Kanye, for his part, knew exactly how much attention going off script would get — which was, of course, the point.
Though he got huge pushback for the moment, Kanye understood the power of grabbing people’s notice like that. “If I was more complacent and I let things slide, my life would be easier, but you all wouldn’t be as entertained,” he told Rolling Stone in 2006, when the publication had him on the cover in a Jesus-esque crown of thorns. “My misery is your pleasure.”
Not only did Kanye want to draw people’s attention to what he understood to be a huge injustice in New Orleans, but he knew that doing so out of the blue would be the way to do it.
Doing things seemingly “out of the blue” has pretty always much been Kanye’s go-to technique — or at the very least, the one that’s attracted the most notice.
At this point, we should note that Kanye has been more open recently about his struggles with mental health, going so far as to rap about his complicated feelings about the antidepressant Lexapro on his most recent album, The Life of Pablo. It’s possible Kanye’s mental health might have contributed to some of his most shocking moments, but we simply can’t know if that’s true or, if so, to what extent — a point Kardashian West made on Twitter amid her husband’s Twitter binge:
He’s a free thinker, is that not allowed in America? Because some of his ideas differ from yours you have to throw in the mental health card? That’s just not fair. He’s actually out of the sunken place when he’s being himself which is very expressive— Kim Kardashian West (@KimKardashian) April 25, 2018
Whatever its roots, Kanye’s unpredictability is a huge part of his public persona. It’s what makes moments like him storming the stage at the 2009 Video Music Awards to declare that Beyoncé should’ve won Best Female Video instead of Taylor Swift so indelible. When Kanye decides he’s got something to say, he’s going to find a way to make you listen.
Kanye has also always been aware of and fascinated by his own celebrity. (It matters, for instance, that he married someone like Kim Kardashian, whose entire success hinges on her uncanny ability to attract the spotlight.)
Maybe the best example of how Kanye sees himself and the world around him is the video for “Famous,” which features a sleeping tableau of naked celebrities who are all related to Kanye in some way — which, again, included Trump. You might think that this unflattering portrait wouldn’t appeal to the reportedly image-obsessed Trump, but as Grady outlined, Trump seems to have recognized a kindred spirit in Kanye, another celebrity-obsessed celebrity who understands himself to be the center of attention no matter what.
So even if the “Famous” video was hugely controversial, it’s also a perfect way to understand how Kanye understands his own place in pop culture. Everyone is in bed together, but no one except Kanye ever wakes up.
Updated to include Obama’s comments.