Kanye West started with what appeared to be good-intentioned, self-improvement musings in his return to Twitter, before veering into narcissistic and political territory. What's the impact of this on the people that he wants to break out of the "simulation"?
Kanye West returned to Twitter last week in typical Kanye fashion— a little bit funny, a little bit arrogant, and a little bit artistic. His first tweet was a retweet of the creator of Twitter welcoming him back to the platform. It's the kind of self-reflexive humor only Kanye could pull off, and for a moment it almost appeared humble— a fresh start to the Zen, philosopher iteration of Kanye West. And then he reminded us that no one is ever ready for a Kanye party. Self-promotion, photos of clothing, inscrutable bits of sublimated animosity. These can be exhausting, but are routine enough to remain tolerable. The danger (and thrill) is how any one of these expected actions can careen into a feud with Wiz Khalifa, tweets of Kim Kardashian nude, irresponsible political musings, or messages like "BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!!!!!!!!!."
Since Kanye’s disappearance from Twitter last May, there’s been no shortage of spectacle propelled by 140-character screeds and egomaniacs. And along with the unanswerable (at the heart of it all, doesn't it all help promote the various release dates we now know about?) question of 'Why now?,' his return left many asking when the next controversy would erupt. The consensus seemed to be that he’s too crazy, "too black, too vocal, too flagrant" not to blow. For about a week he had us convinced that the opposite might be true— that he might be too crazy to engage with the spectacle and flippancy fostered by (now) 240-character discourse. In a recent interview with Axel Vervoodt, Kanye revealed that he was working on a book of philosophy titled Break the Simulation and the last week has seen him convert Twitter into a public first-draft. Kanye's narcissism was seemingly tucked away, then, as he set his sights on becoming the visionary who will save us all.
Philosopher Kanye wants to break the simulation and become something more real— he wants to “be water.” That transformation is tied to a denunciation of capitalism, competitiveness, and ownership of ideas (ironically all crucial to his own enterprises) and an emphasis on practical steps toward personal growth. This is a space that celebrities don’t inhabit on Twitter and if they do it’s not in the way Kanye West does it. Most celebrities, and most Twitter users for that matter, deal in the concrete. For them, anything approaching philosophical stays grounded in a specific events or moments. For example, a discourse on capitalism might mean sponsoring a specific ‘fair-trade’ clothing company while criticizing sweatshops. Or they might retweet an article to show support for a protest movement. Kanye West is spreading his message piecemeal using vague maxims with broad applicability (like the tweet, “question everything,” given with absolutely no context).
One way to read him is to say that Kanye’s benign truisms offer an alternative to the vitriol that seems to dominate Twitter interactions. He’s not harming anyone, and maybe he’s making some people feel better, so leave him be. Other people might be content to shrug him off as a celebrity with his head up his ass. The former theory unravelled further this past weekend, with the revelation of Kanye’s continued support for harmful right-wing political pundit Candace Owens, giving some credence to the latter. Still, it’s worth treating Kanye’s latest creative project with serious consideration if we want to know how to respond.
In a series of video tweets shared by Kanye West, Scott Adams, the creator of the Dilbert cartoons (and a Trump supporter), broke down his understanding of Kanye’s new cultural and social function. It was the clearest explanation of the simulation Kanye is “breaking” for us. According to Adams, by tweeting about Candace Owens, the black political pundit and Black Lives Matter critic, Kanye forces our minds to grapple with a paradox, and the dissonance is the key to liberation. By putting himself, an artist and champion of black rights (in his own way) aside a conservative pundit, Kanye’s followers will discover new ways of conceiving of race and equality. Now apply this to the thousands of other issues that face our society— simulation broken.
Except for an enormous contradiction in the plan. Kanye says he wants to "take the information [he has]... and help as many people as possible." Kanye’s project looks to be something like providing actionable information (or inspiration) to people to make the world better in some unspecified way. The irony is that his more specific philosophies aren’t in any way unique, and his bigger ideas are so vague that the information can’t be deciphered. A tweet like “everyone should be their own biggest fan” is straightforward enough, though not something that would prompt anyone to view the world differently. How, though, should we reckon with “new ideas will no longer be condemned by the masses. We are on the frontier of massive change. Starting from breaking out of our mental prisons.”? There is no elaboration on what those mental prisons are or how we can counter them. If these tweets are Kanye’s plan to break the simulation, he is only pushing us deeper into it. Meanwhile, the only concrete answers he can promise, according to Hot 97 host Ebro Daren, are packaged into one of the many albums he is promoting.
Kanye West used to be the guy who went on TV and said: "George Bush doesn’t care about black people." He was the guy who interrupted Taylor Swift and initiated a cold war that made it impossible to ignore race’s messy heritage in pop-music. Put simply, Kanye created the expectation that hip-hop should remain plugged into the culture it was already commenting on in its music. That its artists should have big, loud, controversial thoughts to contribute to the discussion of both politics and art.
I think he might now be looking back and asking, perhaps pessimistically, what good has that done us? As far as Twitter is concerned, digging deeper into conversations on culture, race, capitalism has only entangled us in "the simulation." Think about The Life of Pablo’s roll-out, with it’s chaos inextricably rooted in its cultural moment, with last minute changes and dramas commented on in real time and in the album. The tangible results of that project were an exhausting, doomed tour, Kanye’s hospitalization, and a controversial meeting with Donald Trump. And still we have kept moving forward along that path. Twitter has become every young rapper’s playground. Many Soundcloud rappers have adopted a social-media first, music second mentality that makes Twitter an invaluable tool for sparring with haters and burnishing your star. Drake’s Instagram posts during the making of “God’s Plan” were nearly as crucial to the buzz as the music video itself. And even Jaden Smith has matured from weird Twitter-kid to promoter of boxed water and environmentalism Twitter-kid.
Compared to his peers Kanye has moved backyard on the platform by turning cultural dialogue into skepticism and by letting narcissism overtake his message (again). This is his greatest sin, not as a rapper, but as a so-called philosopher. His “questioning everything” philosophy isn’t freeing anyone because all it does is say that you are free if you go against the mainstream, no matter what that mainstream is (like challenging the validity of Black Lives Matter). Look at his earliest tweets, when he said, “be fearless. Express what you feel not what you've been programmed to think.” By itself, that's a sound piece of advice. But to Kanye West, that means Donald Trump is a visionary because he expresses ideas that offend people without caring about the consequences. To Kanye, it appears as though challenging convention is in itself good, innately, regardless what you say. That's why he views Donald Glover and Elon Musk in the same way as Candace Owens or Donald Trump— they are all "free thinkers," perhaps they are all embodiments of: "to be great is to be misunderstood." As of writing this, Kanye continues to unleash more thoughts on twitter, a seemingly never-ending supply these days, and these latest ones veer further into dreaded political, or else narcissitic territory, so much so that wife Kim Kardashian had to "come to his rescue" on her own twitter account. The reason for the defense of her husband stems specifically from pro-Trump behaviour, which, as of an hour ago, also included a "Make America Great Again" dad hat photo-tweet. As of 17 hours ago, it included a nod to his possible on Presidential bid, "2024." As of six hours ago: "when we become president we have to change the name of the plane from Air Force one to Yeezy force one."
At this point, Kendrick Lamar comes to mind. On the surface Kendrick seems to embody the exact opposite approach to political dialogue. Kendrick’s philosophy of self-empowerment is tied to concrete political stances and passionate community activism. But, like Kanye, he has challenged his fans to re-evaluate how they tackle political discussions. Asked about Donald Trump, he called the endless conversations around the president, “Beating a dead horse,” which is why has avoided any direct engagement with it— like when he seemed to ignore the tension in the air during his performance at the CFP National Championship where Trump was also in attendance. Instead he opts for: “on and off the album, I took it upon myself to take action in my own community.” If Kanye created the expectation that we could put the burden of culture wars on rappers, Kendrick Lamar is the most recent bearer of that weight. Kendrick’s response has been to take action within “the simulation” but he is doing something Kanye would never conceive of— he is removing himself from the center with all its controversy, hate, and criticism.
Kanye West's attempts to guide us with philosophy have unraveled in the past week. He recently tweeted something much more familiar: "I’ve always had a desire to do things people wouldn’t even think to do." Now his philosophy seems less about achieving a "collective consciousness" and more about validating all the controversy he causes, taking unpopular political opinions or by supporting people as rightfully vilified as Bill Cosby. So what is Kanye West really giving us, how is he challenging us the way someone like Kendrick is? That's hard to say. Unlike the era when he could deliver impassioned tirades on Sway in the Morning and spark conversations about modern consumer slavery, Kanye is just polarizing people and pushing them deeper into whatever political sides they are already on. Sadly, he's not motivating people to action (whatever that means to him) the way he has expressed he would. Read the Twitter comments under something as harmless and banal as "If your foresight is incredible Stay stubborn to your vision." You see a food-fight breaking out with people talking about Trump, Thought Police, and weird government conspiracy theories. But no one is talking about the content of the tweet— it's all about Kanye and controversy around him.