Kanye is probably the biggest musician of our time, for better and for worse, because he has truly become one with his art. His life, tweets and struggles are as important as the lyrics, the musical landscapes and the concerts to appreciate or depreciate the man. And the thing about him is that he never reduces himself to be a reliable or known property. A huge aspect of Kanye’s place in our culture is that we never really can tell how self-aware he is. But it doesn’t matter. What’s great about Kanye is that he’s so damn earnest.
Very few artists are so willing to be so open about themselves and their perception of the world. Yeezus and Dark Twisted Fantasy are outright confessions and exorcisms of Kanye’s many sins, but at the same time, he never seems to back down from his pride and his sincere belief in himself and art in general. In a very real way, he feels like a folk hero tailor made for Millennials. He isn’t afraid of believing in himself and being effusive about it on social media, haters be damned. He isn’t afraid of defending his beliefs as loudly as possible. He lives on his own terms and in exchange, he creates art that connects to us because he isn’t afraid to dig deep inside of himself.
Kanye is the sort of person who can create a song like POWER, where he makes a final stand against anyone who has ever dared to criticize him while confessing his preferred way to die and how hounded he feels by depression and what he feels is an inability to connect with people because of his gifts. In a weird way, Kanye feels like the reverse of the expectation of an artist these days. These days, artists are expected to show us something beautiful that reflects their love of others and their ability to empathize with others. Kanye demands you empathize with the ugly sides of his personality and then asks you to believe in yourself. They’re both about searching for connection but Kanye is all about himself. He asks you to connect with him, not with an aesthetic or with a fictional construct, like Bowie or Dylan, the previous voices of their times. Kanye feels entitled (and he’s damn right) to your empathy and he’s not willing to hide it because he believes himself to be a beautifully flawed human just like all of us.
If there’s a why to Kanye’s place in our culture, where he’s equally derided and beloved (and often by the same people) is because he does not care for damage control. He does not care for trying to be anything other than himself or for how he presents his brand. He isn’t concerned with whether people believe him to be the Greatest Artist of His Time as long as he believes it and the evidence stacks up. And in the end, that self-confidence, in an age where it feels like our thoughts and opinions are more and more in the open because of social media, is both inspiring and terrifying. We all want to be able to articulate ourselves greatly in this new age, where our thoughts can travel to all kinds of places. But what if, instead, we let ourselves go on a rant that ends up putting us at odds with everyone we love because they see just how ugly we can get?
That is exactly why Kanye has taken over as the embodiment of this century’s nascent spirit of honesty and earnestness and why even his most lackluster albums connect with people. He’s brazen about who he is in a way we all wish we could be and he’s a cautionary tale for any of us who dares admire him. He decided to rise above something as boring as being this generation’s voice to become this generation’s mirror.