For Our Own Good, Can We Please Stop Calling Kanye West a Genius?

Kanye West is a terrific and inventive producer. At various points in his career, he’s broadened the scope of what hip-hop can be, creating impressive sonic textures and drawing on seemingly dissonant musical influences to bring something truly special to a mass audience. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a fantastic record. Black Skinhead was the best song of 2013. But overall, Yeezus was an uneven, disappointing album. So Help Me God, a title which proves on its own that Kanye may be running painfully thin on ideas and obsessions, has started off uneventfully with a silly duet with Paul McCartney and a lifeless track whose visual component on Saturday Night Live was far more interesting than the song itself. But there are going to be a hell of a lot of very serious people who don’t see it that way, both within the music business and the listening and buying public. There are people who are going to be hailing this thing as brilliant even if it’s a giant pile of dogshit. And they’re going to do this because Kanye is Kanye, and even those who abhor his obnoxious off-stage — and now that I think of it, onstage — antics seem to always have to preface any criticism with some sort of hosannah to his name.

I admit that I’ve been guilty of this a few times, being utterly exasperated with Kanye’s juvenile tantrums, depthless narcissism and seemingly irrepressible persecution complex only to hear a new song or two and enjoy it to the point where I wonder whether his insufferability is somehow worth it all in the end. But the fact is, it’s not — not anymore. Maybe in the Dark Twisted Fantasy days, you could make the argument, but we’re way past that point now. Now all there is is the gargantuan sense of self-importance which not only overshadows Kanye’s occasional flashes of quality as an artist but which leads him to insult other, much more impressive talents. In 2009 it was his now infamous hijack of Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the MTV Video Music Awards, but as awful as that was, at least Swift was only beginning to plant her flag as any sort of artist worth taking seriously. Kanye’s shockingly ignorant comments attacking Beck at this year’s Grammys, on the other hand, proved that not only is he a boorish prick, he doesn’t know a damn thing about what constitutes actual musical talent. Yet unsurprisingly, Beck’s classy and seemingly genuine response to being insulted by Kanye West was to fawn all over him, calling him a “genius.” But he’s not. Not musically and absolutely not in any other capacity that should matter. And it practically goes without saying that all that sycophantically proclaiming otherwise does is fuel Kanye’s King Joffrey-esque sense of entitlement.

Kanye has never been as talented or iconic as he thinks he is. He couldn’t be. It’s simply impossible to be a carbon-based life form and have achieved the kind of preeminence Kanye insisted he did even in the earliest days of his career. If he were half the omnipotent cultural juggernaut he believed himself to be, he would’ve shed his physical form and morphed into a phantasmal ball of pure energy years ago. Yet the reality that the world didn’t, in fact, revolve around him never gave him pause when it came to embarrassing himself again and again in front of people who would normally have felt sorry for him were it not for their odd belief that somehow his musical abilities canceled out his atrocious behavior. And that’s the thing: Not only has Kanye believed he’s almost literally the second coming, a hell of a lot of other musicians, promoters and tastemakers have indulged that belief, which has in turn enabled his ongoing ego-fueled provocations against those he thinks are somehow inferior to him and in defense of those he deems his equal. Put simply, we all have to put up with Kanye, even those who don’t much like him, because there are so many people willing to reward his bad conduct that he’s able to get away with insinuating himself into the lives of artists we might like.

It would be one thing if we simply said that Kanye made some decent music. That kind of cultural designation would make it easy to admonish him when he goes off on one of his humorless, self-pitying rants or shows almost no respect for the music others have made. Instead, though, we’ve elevated Kanye to a place within our culture he really doesn’t deserve to be. Despite the fact that he’s married to Kim Kardashian, which should automatically disqualify anyone from receiving such an invitation, he was asked to speak at Oxford earlier this month. Predictably, that speech wound up being a bizarre stream-of-consciousness jeremiad that sounded like a spoiled 10-year-old in desperate need of an Adderall prescription. He spoke at Harvard as well, in 2013. He’s headlining Glastonbury this year. Over the weekend he was indirectly bitching at the President of the United States, insisting that Barack Obama had called him at home a few times. Kanye West believes he’s on the same level as Barack Obama because we’ve allowed him to believe it.

What Kanye really is is the latest and by far greatest beneficiary of the public’s need to convince itself that its frivolous cultural fascinations have actual weight and depth to them. We also see the ability to conquer every sphere of pop culture and make oneself ubiquitous and assume there’s great cunning and intellect behind it, rather than simply a never-ending cadre of yes-men, starfuckers and celebrity-obsessed media determined to indulge a star’s every self-delusion. Kanye West is dumb as a box of rocks. He couldn’t think his way out of a Saw trap that consisted of locking him in a room and putting the key right in front of him. Yet he’s allowed to go right on being possibly America’s greatest living example of the Dunning–Kruger effect because nobody who counts is willing to tell him that his highness has no clothes on (and the clothes he designs and charges the GDP of a small country for are ridiculous).

Musically, Prince is a bona fide, stone-cold genius, through-and-through. Pharrell essentially scrapped the early electronic version of the first N*E*R*D record, then went back and re-recorded it with full instrumentation and learned guitar so he could play it live. (The album, by the way, nearly saved hip-hop during a really dull period for it.) Kendrick Lamar’s new album utterly wastes anything Kanye’s done in the last five years.

These people are fucking brilliant because they care about music. Kanye doesn’t care about anybody but Kanye. And while he may be talented, it just isn’t worth it to feed his ego anymore for precisely that reason.

Chez Pazienza was the beating heart of The Daily Banter, sadly passing away on February 25, 2017. His voice remains ever present at the Banter, and his influence as powerful as ever.