It’s impossible to ignore Kanye West these days. In the last couple weeks alone he has declared himself the “greatest living artist and greatest artist of all time,” begged Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to relieve his purported $53 million debt, declared embattled comedian Bill Cosby innocent of sexual assault allegations, provoked yet another battle with singer Taylor Swift by suggesting he made her famous and that they “might still have sex,” and released another critically acclaimed album being hailed as a “masterpiece.”
Love him or hate him, West has consistently laid down the markers on where popular music is headed. He steers the conversation, and in that way, as well as many others, he is reminiscent of another infamously arrogant public figure – Donald Trump.
Whether or not he wins the 2016 Republican nomination for president, Trump has shaped the entire campaign. He has defined the issues and fundamentally changed the way serious candidates run for office. He has essentially run a free media campaign, bolstered by his steady string of insults and reactionary proposals that guarantee coverage and conversation. Even he has acknowledged minimal investment in advertising and ground games. He is winning through the sheer force of his will and his personality.
In hip-hop, Kanye West has been responsible for a similar realignment. He has changed the way rappers look and sound dramatically. He often doesn’t get enough credit for speaking out against homophobia in the hip-hop genre at a time when it was not fashionable, and one could argue that Drake’s more emotive style and Kendrick Lamar’s politically-charged fury both owe a debt to West’s earlier work. He doesn’t sell the most albums and hasn’t had a chart-topping hit in years, but his music stands the test of time, which is probably the best thing you can say about any artistic endeavor.
But despite his creative success, West’s penchant for awards show antics and self-aggrandizing interviews have made him a polarizing figure to say the least. Recently unearthed audio from backstage at last weekend’s taping of “Saturday Night Live,” should only provide more fuel for his detractors. On the tape, West rages at unnamed crew-members for allegedly dismantling a set for his musical performance, and declares himself “50 percent more influential” than any other creative person, including the late director Stanley Kubrick and iconic painter Pablo Picasso. According to The New York Post, West was ready to storm off the show until producer Lorne Michaels intervened at the last minute. Meanwhile, West’s recent string of high profile meltdowns have even led some to question his mental stability.
Still, people have been writing “Is Kanye crazy?” pieces for years. And it hasn’t really sidetracked his artistic momentum. While the coveted Album of the Year Grammy still eludes him, West has remained relevant by backing up his boasting with undeniably great music. And although by any measure the rollout of his latest – “The Life of Pablo” – was botched, its release has become a cultural event and consumed the conversation amid hip-hop aficionados.
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Meanwhile, both Trump and West appear immune to mainstream preconceived notions of decorum. They exaggerate, whine and bluster. They are incredibly sensitive to any perceived slights. They share an unrepentant misogynist streak. Their Twitter feeds are so obtuse and self-referential they could be categorized as performance art. And yet just when one would think the public has enough of them – they endure.
They are both impervious to parody. Trump has been ridiculed in some circles for at least 30 years, West for just over a decade. Yet they have had the last laugh by remaining viable and, right now, ubiquitous. Trump has been running for president for about eight months now, and during that time he has stoked racial and xenophobic paranoia, used profane insults, been deemed a demagogue, and routinely pushed his status in the polls ahead of the substance (or lack thereof) of his policies.
Curiously, when West floated the notion that he too may someday seek the presidency, Trump welcomed him with open arms. ”I’ll never say bad about Kanye West. I love him,” Trump told reporters. In a separate interview with Rolling Stone, Trump claimed: “He’s said very nice things about me in the past … extremely positive things.”Perhaps those comments came in private, because publicly West has only spoken of Trump in song, and not in the most flattering light. Still, both men are unapologetic capitalists, even though West has at least expressed some ambiguity over his admitted preoccupation with luxury brands. In fact, it may be West’s desire to gain entry into the upper echelons of the elite that could be his downfall. The millions in debt he claims to have has been attributed to his many ill-fated forays into the fashion industry.
But they both benefit from their own track record of outrageousness. West can slap the Confederate flag on his concert gear, accuse women of intentionally getting pregnant so men will have to pay for their abortions and declare himself the ideal person to carry on Steve Jobs’ legacy and no one will really bat an eye because that’s just “Kanye being Kanye.” Trump can imply that the Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia might have been murdered, question the validity of the president’s birth certificate, re-tweet neo-Nazis and insist that footage of American Muslims celebrating on 9/11 exists even though it doesn’t and it’ll be largely written off as “Trump being Trump.”
Public figures have been celebrated for their “Teflon” ability to deflect criticism, but West and Trump are in a stratosphere of their own. They have turned acting “crazy” into a brand, and a profitable (some would even argue charming) one to boot. They may have a lot of haters, but they are still being endlessly talked about, and that is currency you can’t buy. The caveat of course is that you must keep feeding the beast or risk becoming boring, hence both men’s aspiration to become leader of the free world.
Of course, Trump is actually running right now – and has a legitimate shot of becoming one of the two finalists (three if Michael Bloomberg hops in) for the most powerful job in the world. And the stakes are considerably higher – from the Supreme Court to the war on ISIS. West, as he is keen to remind his audience, is an artist – and so being nonconformist could be part of his job description. At the end of the day his bragging and tweets won’t affect anyone else’s life but his own.
Trump on the other hand is “entertaining” now to much of the electorate, and he’s even beginning to show that he would be competitive in a general election race, but should his rhetoric be actually realized it might mean pain for a lot of families and could plunge our nation’s foreign policy into chaos. The most collateral damage West can do at this point is to the ego of Taylor Swift. Either way, both men are the greatest show on earth right now.