Kanye West's year of breaking bad

A rocky 2016: Musician Kanye West's (above) life last year has been a rough one, including the cancellation of his concert tour and a week-long stay in a hospital.
A rocky 2016: Musician Kanye West's (above) life last year has been a rough one, including the cancellation of his concert tour and a week-long stay in a hospital.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

NEW YORK • At the start of last year, Kanye West was already sounding alarms.

On Dec 31, 2015, he released Facts, an out-of-nowhere harangue that insulted Nike, praised his wife's business acumen and seemed to express sympathy for comedian Bill Cosby. About a week later came Real Friends, a song about how fame warps, traps and will always pull you down.

These songs set the stage for one of the most productive, disjointed and confusing years in the life of West. It was one that began with him seeking grace, in the form of music, and also ended that way, but for very different reasons, following his hospitalisation and his meeting with United States President- elect Donald Trump.

And yet the West of 12 months ago and the West of today are not so far apart: instability, loneliness, a sense that he was being treated unfairly, a continuing quest to be heard.

He may be facing severe public scrutiny, scepticism and concern, but even during this most challenging stretch, there are clear bridges to his old self.

In the last year, he has released an album, The Life Of Pablo, then continued to tweak it for a while in real time. He convened two runway collections of his Yeezy fashion line. He had an art show and teased a video game based on his mother's journey to heaven. He sold merchandise in pop-up shops. And he performed in a tour that remade the proportions of arena concerts.

The first nine months of the year were of West firing on all pistons and meeting with success. But the final three months spiralled well beyond his control.

First came the Paris robbery of his wife, Kim Kardashian, a violent affair that included the theft of the 20- carat diamond engagement ring he gave her, worth a reported US$4 million (S$5.7 million).

That was followed by the disruption of his tour, and its eventual cancellation, after a couple of speeches in which he spoke admiringly of Mr Trump; his involuntary admission to UCLA Medical Center hospital, followed by what will be remembered as the most public crack of all: his meeting with Mr Trump at Trump Tower on Dec 13.

Rupture has long been the axis around which West's career has turned - where most artists seek to create smooth narratives about themselves and get everyone else to play along, he prefers disruptive leaps, quick reframing and firebrand positioning.

The ruptures are typically intentional provocations, but not always: The period of deep trauma following the 2007 death of West's mother remains one of his most vital, influential and least understood times.

The last three months of last year figure to be another such stretch. West dyed his hair blond, then multiple colours. In paparazzi photographs and the holiday-party family picture he posted on Twitter, his eyes are somewhere far-off.

Since his hospitalisation, he has barely spoken publicly.

His embrace of Mr Trump, who spoke about black communities in cartoonish, inaccurate strokes, arrives at a particularly unlikely moment in his artistry.

In 2013, he released Yeezus, an album full of industrial thump that featured some of his most acidic political commentary. It struck a confrontational tone that West carried through that year and the next.

By contrast, The Life Of Pablo takes a turn to the ornate, melodic and emotionally intimate.

The Saint Pablo tour, which began last August, took the worship elements of the album and rendered them literal.

Each night, for a couple of hours, West performed while tethered to a platform that dangled over the crowd and moved from one end of the room to the other like a warship.

The optics were bracing: West was both a god hovering over his subjects and a slave bound for their entertainment.

The approach was also a stark contrast to his last tour, following Yeezus, which became well known for lengthy speeches that veered between motivation and tirade.

But, in November, that impulse began to return.

In San Jose, he said: "If I would've voted, I would've voted on Trump."

In Sacramento a few nights later, he spoke for about 15 minutes before leaving the stage having performed only three songs. The remainder of the tour was swiftly cancelled.

A few days later, he was hospitalised, after police were called to perform a welfare check after an episode at his personal trainer's home.

The low points of last year, whether a sign of deep trouble or just a momentary misalignment, have caused a radical shift in how West is publicly received.

His week-long hospitalisation, and the presumed illness that led to it, rendered him more sympathetic to critics, but his support of Mr Trump was, to some, unforgivable.

Embracing Mr Trump is perhaps the most consequential political act of an artist who, at a much earlier and less sure-footed stage of his career, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina risked his mainstream acceptance to make a bold accusation on a national telethon: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

But he and Mr Trump have parallels. Both are vocal about those who they see as obstacles and are steadfast in their self-belief.

Perhaps West sees in Mr Trump someone who freely speaks his mind and has been rewarded for it. During his speech at the Sacramento show, West referenced him as a sort of spirit guide: "Yeah, I'm taking his lead."

Read another way, his embrace of Mr Trump suggests an incipient nihilism at work.

Rather than align himself with broader social causes, the mainstream of black political thought or even the politics of his wife, a supporter of Mrs Hillary Clinton, West's unlikely shift suggests the manoeuvres of someone who no longer believes in the systems that have previously nourished, sustained and inspired him - someone whose sense of safety has been revoked.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 09, 2017, with the headline 'Kanye West's year of breaking bad'. Print Edition | Subscribe