“I Still Don’t Understand Award Shows”: Kanye West and Hip Hop Celebrity in the Twenty-First Century
Abstract and Keywords
This chapter examines the evolution of the rapper, producer, fashion designer, and reluctant reality television personality Kanye West. An artist whose subject matter addresses personal anxieties and self-doubt in ways seldom seen in mainstream rap, West engages fame and celebrity in conflicting and often incongruous ways. Through the amateur creation and distribution of memes, gifs, hashtags, and other “viral” cultural articles, the public plays an unprecedented role in the construction—and destruction—of celebrity. Exploitation of this process, in which West consciously engages, constitutes a unique enactment of celebrity work. West’s interaction with the notion of celebrity—as an antihero, an activist, and an icon—speaks both to the changing role of hip hop in mainstream American culture and to the ongoing racial microaggressions of “post-race” America toward influential black celebrity.
At the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards (VMA), the rapper/producer/polarizing public figure Kanye West accepted the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award, the most prestigious award of the night and, as such, the climax of the evening’s events.1 West’s acceptance of the award quite deliberately recalled the infamous moment at the 2009 award show in which West had interrupted the country-pop singer Taylor Swift’s “Best Female Video” acceptance speech to urge that the award should have gone to Beyoncé. Indeed, the Vanguard award was presented to West by Swift herself, an unashamed move on MTV’s part to boost viewership in anticipation of the salacious moment. “You know how many times MTV ran that footage again?” West noted in his speech, “’Cause it got them more ratings? You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award ’cause it got them more ratings?” West’s acceptance speech was true to his erratic and unpredictable public persona, perfectly punctuated with immediately reproducible and retweetable catch phrases (“Listen to the kids, bruh!”) and brimming with a nervous energy that showcased both West’s clumsy braggadocio (“I will die for the art!”) and his earnest desire to be forgiven, understood, and liked. Kanye famously concluded the speech by declaring his intention run for president in 2020, a date he has since pushed back to 2024 to accommodate two terms of President Trump.
Also evident in the decidedly nonlinear speech was West’s frustration with the concept of award shows—celebrations of popular culture that notoriously plague his public image. “I still don’t understand award shows,” he lamented after skirting around a direct apology to Swift. “I don’t understand how they get five people who worked their entire life . . . to come stand on the carpet and, for the first time in they life, be judged on the chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser. I don’t understand it, bruh!” West’s conscious, ever-shifting engagement with the idea of celebrity testifies to the oft-overlooked influence of hip hop culture on mainstream American popular culture—perhaps especially when it comes to “celebrity work.” Through his experimental manipulation of his own public image, Kanye West now stands at the vanguard of twenty-first-century celebrity, just as his music and personal style have always represented his willingness to defy and push beyond incumbent notions about hip hop. In the process of constantly recreating himself, West has played a part in shifting currents of celebrity construction and consumption in a post–social media landscape. Far from being an autonomous creation, however, Kanye’s “remaking” of hip hop celebrity has grown very directly from hip hop itself—drawing on both established aesthetic traditions and newer trajectories within hip hop.
Equally concerned with performing celebrity and performing authenticity—usually seen as opposing forces—Kanye has helped to upend traditional notions of hip hop “realness” while still drawing on some of its familiar conventions. His marriage to the quintessential social media and reality television star Kim Kardashian has only underscored his investment in new modes of reality construction. Operating in a post-Napster music economy that has weathered everything from MP3s to free music streaming, where “impressions” have steadily overtaken physical sales as a measurement of success, Kanye has led the way in recognizing that “likes” (or impressions of any kind) can be more important than being liked. In the social media famescape of the twenty-first century, as David P. Marshall describes it, “the number of followers on Twitter, the number of views for a particular YouTube video or image on Tumblr, the tracking of Twitter hashtags’ virality, and the number of friends on Facebook are defining the new metrics of fame and, by implication, value and reputation” (2014, xxxiv).
West’s impassioned proclamation, “I just wanted people to like me more!” (followed immediately by “But fuck that, bro . . . I will die for the art!”) can thus be understood not as a simple appeal to the sympathies or forgiveness of his audience, but rather as an insight into the creative celebrity work behind his characteristically bizarre outbursts and antics. With a focus on his seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo (2016), and his erratic public behavior surrounding its release, this chapter argues that West is engaged in emerging forms of celebrity work with implications for hip hop and beyond. I argue that West’s mobilization of social media represents a performance of “sincerity” in contrast to traditional narratives of “realness.” Further, through his highly publicized relationship with Kim Kardashian (including increasingly frequent appearances on reality TV) and his deviation from hypermasculine codes of hip hop behavior, West’s relationship to celebrity also entails an engagement with a distinctly feminized iconicity in a way unparalleled in mainstream male rap.
Fame and celebrity have long been cast as distinct and implicitly gendered entities, whereby the feminized realm of “celebrity” is unfavorably contrasted with the masculine achievement of fame.2 As Brenda R. Weber argues in her study of women and literary celebrity in the nineteenth century, “since the machinery of fame is often the elite masculinist theatre of politics, war, and heroism, whereas the workings of celebrity often engage with the feminized domains of rumor and innuendo, the divide between fame and celebrity clearly conveys both classed and gendered distinctions” (2013, 18). It is unsurprising, then, that this gendered distinction is also at work in hip hop’s reluctance to surrender the hypermasculine narrative. As a growing number of hip hop artists rose to celebrity status it coincided with an emphasis on “gangsta” narratives of hustle and survival over grassroots political engagement. With hustling acting as a form of street neoliberalism, the archetypically arrogant, powerful, and potentially dangerous gangsta rapper is often fixated too on more traditionally “feminine” concerns such as image and reputation, squabbles with rivals, and fashion-conscious “bling.” An evolution of the Stagger Lee/badman character in black American folklore, gangsta rappers tapped into a “rich new coordinate in the black vernacular badman repertoire,” in the words of Eithne Quinn, “requisitioned and rewired as commercial culture” (2005, 114).
Despite, or perhaps because of, the feminine gendering of their celebrity work, gangsta rappers tend to (over)compensate by performing a certain hypermasculinity, about which much has been written and which has become synonymous with mainstream hip hop (particularly among its critics). Existing analysis of the mainstream rapper (as well as more underground hardcore rap) has tended to focus on the ways in which male rappers mobilize tropes of black masculinity and American capitalist success. Christopher Holmes Smith, for example, focuses on the mogul figure as a particularly popular manifestation of the hip hop celebrity. Smith characterizes the hip hop mogul as a pop cultural hero of neoliberal America, “symptomatic of an age wherein, despite a prevailing wish to the contrary, the crowd’s volatile possibility for social change has become exhausted as a model of political mobilization, even as it has become a highly marketable simulacrum of exactly that sort of transgressive human potential” (2010, 682).3
This figure still holds considerable currency in twenty-first century hip hop: West’s mentor and collaborator JAY-Z, for example, is increasingly regarded as an entrepreneur and businessman rather than a performing artist. The hip hop mogul is not just a rapper-turned-businessman, however. As Smith explains, an essential part of the allure of the (male) hip hop mogul is his Teflon-like ability to remain unaffected by the seemingly ubiquitous “haters” that go along with fame and fortune. “For the mogul, jealousy, envy, and hatred from the crowd are merely rites of passage; to be the object of such ‘hatred’ merely serves to crystallize his essential charisma and mark him as one of God’s chosen few” (2010, 680). Kanye West, while increasingly involved in extracurricular business pursuits such as his fashion line and “Yeezy” shoe collaboration with Adidas, departs from the hip hop mogul rubric not only for the less “meteoric” trajectory of his life as the middle-class son of a college professor (the humbler the beginnings, the more compelling the capitalist narrative of ascension), but also for his palpable distress over his public image. This anxiety over public image was present through the early stages of his career, a tendency that has only grown more severe and stylized as he communicates increasingly through social media. In the article “Kanye West and Donald Trump’s Celebrity Kinship,” published shortly after their first infamous meeting, Spencer Kornhaber suggests, “Trump’s rhetoric and actions suggest a worldview in line with West’s, one in which talent is supposed to work like a magic talisman, removing all obstacles to exerting control,” where both “envision a world governed by neither principles nor professionals, only famous people” (Kornhaber 2016).
Discussion of rap and the hip hop celebrity has also been dominated by the vexed question of authenticity, a question that has preoccupied artists and fans—and hip hop scholarship—for decades. The onus of “realness” placed on many a hip hop artist means they are inevitably compelled to defend their claim to authenticity through lyrics and autobiographical narratives among other means. The generic framework of perseverance and success in spite of hardship is an essential part of this authentication process. As Mickey Hess argues, “although the types of struggles may vary, each of these stories plays on an archetypal American story of perseverance in achieving one’s goals” (2010, 636). It is significant, then, that West’s participation in this process—something he has struggled with since his first album, The College Dropout, which immediately “outed” his struggle as that of a middle-class and well-supported artist—has recently waned in favor of a less self-conscious mode of self representation. Though he has endeavored to present his narrative within the standard framework, by emphasizing his struggle to be taken seriously as a non-gangsta figure, and dwelling on his failure to live up to his academic promise, West has never quite reconciled his unease in the hypermasculine hip hop space with his confident belief in his own genius.
Indeed, much has been made of West’s various performances of contradiction. When he declared on his first album, “we all self conscious / I’m just the first to admit it,” he shared his personal weakness with the world and seemed to apologize, in advance, for the contradictions that would follow—the most glaring of which has been his love of luxury fashions while alternately critiquing how brands and consumer comforts can enslave us.4 His VMA acceptance speech betrayed this consistent contradiction, as he asserted, “we’re not gonna control our kids with brands” and only days later released a song, “Facts” (West 2016a) celebrating his successful collaboration with sports clothing giant Adidas. Noting this tendency toward contradiction, Chris Richardson argues, “West’s reflective struggle with commodity fetishism and other ills within hip hop culture provides a model for thinking critically about these issues while being situated within them rather than simply presenting dogmatic prescriptions” (2011, 109). Likewise, George Ciccariello-Maher acknowledges the important space for critique of the “authentic” self that West’s ambivalence opens up, suggesting, “there is something arguably postmodern about his embracing of the undecidable, his recognition of the contradiction of his own life and willing participation in that contradiction” (2009, 388). To critique and rethink the “authentic” hip hop artist’s vexed relationship to celebrity in these terms is, I argue, a conscious departure from the hypermasculinity through which hip hop fame has come to reconcile itself. That West could legitimately claim that in interrupting Swift in 2009 he had “just wanted people to like [him] more” suggests that his seemingly contradictory behavior is also an inheritance of what Sharon Marcus describes as the “impudent” celebrities of the nineteenth century. Like Oscar Wilde, one of the focuses of Marcus’s study, West exemplifies “the paradox embedded in the celebrity of impudence, which is not content simply to challenge social mores but gambles on being rewarded by society for doing so” (2011, 1011). West’s statement makes sense if we interpret “like” in its millennial, social media connotation. What West may have wanted, and what he achieved either way, was to inspire interest, to compel the world to watch. His willingness to be publically emotional and eschew the standard stoicism of the hypermasculine rapper (Beyoncé’s husband JAY-Z was notably silent during the West/Swift stage invasion) reflects, if not quite the “feminized celebrity personality” that Marcus attributes to Wilde, at least a disregard for the gendered politics of hip hop notoriety (2011, 1016).
West’s significance within the broader disciplines of hip hop and celebrity studies is evident in the increasing scholarly interest in his work. In the preface to his 2015 edited collection, The Cultural Impact of Kanye West, Julius Bailey writes, “West’s unyielding quest for a particular kind of brand identity suggests that he seeks a kind of public figure status like music icons Prince, Madonna, and the King of Pop, Michael Jackson. Such a position has arguably eluded most hip hop artists” (2015, x).5 Published before the much-hyped release of The Life of Pablo, West’s bizarre social media behavior surrounding the release, and the reigniting of his feud with Swift, the book can only gesture toward what would become all the more evident about West’s manipulation of celebrity. Reynaldo Anderson and John Jennings, for example, note that West “explores the various layers of identity in the public and uses himself as a ‘guinea pig’” (2015, 43). Their analysis of West’s celebrity work as an exercise in trial-and-error is particularly insightful in its assertion that “the software that Kanye West has been slowly reprogramming and hacking into is the representation of himself in the public eye,” given the specifically digital means through which West has begun to further complicate his public persona (2015, 43).
Their understanding of West as a shape-shifting celebrity entity echoes Steven Shaviro’s compelling work on what he calls “post-cinematic affect.” In his inquiry into the “bewildering new world space of late or multinational capital” and interlocking practices within digital media and neoliberal economics, Shaviro writes that pop stars “are slippery, exhibiting singular qualities while, at the same time, withdrawing to a distance beyond these qualities, and thus escaping any final definition. This makes them ideal commodities: they always offer us more than they deliver, enticing us with a ‘promise of happiness’ that is never fulfilled, and therefore never exhausted or disappointed” (2010, 10). Eschewing the notion of authenticity in celebrity altogether, Shaviro proposes the model of “sincerity,” which, he argues, “has a much wider range of application [than authenticity]; it does not presuppose the existence of any ‘true inner self’ to which one must remain faithful at all costs. A fiction, fabrication, or construction may well be sincere, even though it is evidently not authentic” (2010, 176). It is sincerity, rather than authenticity, that propels West’s own distinct enactment of “realness,” a positionality that makes room for contradiction and equivocation while still professing to an underlying earnestness of intention. These apparent contradictions are, in Shaviro’s terms, “iterations” of his celebrity self, rather than evidence of his inauthenticity or inconsistency. “There is no original, or Platonic ideal,” Shaviro argues, “of a celebrity: all instances are generated through the same processes of composition and modulation, and therefore any instance is as valid (or ‘authentic’) as any other” (2010, 18). West’s recent hyperactive and bizarre Twitter activity coinciding with the release of The Life of Pablo, to which I turn shortly, evidences his investment in sincerity over a more streamlined or detached approach to public relations.
West’s keen investment in “going viral” attests to both his understanding of the nature of twenty-first-century celebrity culture and his desire to have his iconicity permeate as far and wide as possible. His music may be increasingly avant-garde and uninterested in pandering to mainstream trends or radio play, but his engagement with social media indicates his ongoing desire to achieve icon status. West’s proliferation of Twitter activity around the time of the Pablo release included introspection (“a wise man should be humble enough to admit when he is wrong and change his mind based on new information”), political commentary (“the system is designed for colored people to fail and one of our only voices is music. One of our only ways out is music”), self-promotion (“Pitchfork, the album is a 30 out of 10”), and confession, perhaps most notably the admission that he is “53 million dollars in personal debt.” To a certain degree, his use of Twitter has been consistent with the phenomenon of “black Twitter,” an online subculture that has emerged organically and unofficially from the tweeting and sharing practices of Twitter users of color. A term commonly attributed to comedian Baratunde Thurston, “black Twitter” manifests the centrality of race to a sense of belonging, even online, where identities can be forged or hidden. In this sense, it is a social media iteration of the centuries-old practice of black American Signifyin(g), a concept defined by Henry Louis Gates Jr. in his study of the “signifying monkey”: “he who dwells at the margins of discourse, ever punning, ever troping, ever embodying the ambiguities of language” (1983, 686). Long a productive cultural framework through which hip hop studies have interpreted the role of the rapper/emcee in hip hop, the practice of Signifyin(g) can also help to explain the other ways in which West performs his persona for the public.
Significant in black Twitter practice is the momentary visibility or celebrity of the “tweeter.” As Gates argues, “Signifyin(g) turns on the play and chain of signifiers, and not on some supposedly transcendent signified” (1983, 688)—the focus is on the act or art of signifying, rather than on the ephemeral meme, hashtag, or tweet. Sarah Florini, further, writes, “even at its most lighthearted, Signifyin(g) is a powerful resource for signaling racial identity, allowing Black Twitter users to perform their racial identities 140 characters at a time” (2014, 224). Florini goes on to explicitly link black Twitter and its Signifyin(g) practices to hip hop. “On Black Twitter,” she writes, “Signifyin(g) often functions as a marker of Black racial identity by indexing Black popular culture. One example is the popular hashtag game in ‘Hip hop’ circles Signifyin(g) on the R&B singer and rapper Drake” (2014, 227). She cites popular hashtags such as “#FakeDrakeLyrics” to illustrate how hip hop fluency “combine[s] with the communicative tradition of Signifyin(g) to stand in as a signifier of Black racial identity” (2014, 227). West’s Twitter activity, if not directly representative of the kinds of tweeting identified by Florini and others, is nonetheless aware of, and in conversation with, the many millions of his followers and other Twitter users who do belong to this culture. When West tweets self-deprecating memes or gifs, or continues to oscillate wildly between emotions, subject matters, and points of contention, he is participating in the joke—the Kanye joke that arises out of social media roasting and meme-sharing. In doing so, he is mobilizing new media forms of visibility at the same time as he connects to long-held black American cultural practices.
Indeed, new innovations of Signifyin(g) in social media use are significant not only to black American cultures in the broad sense but also specifically to hip hop culture, as demonstrated by the popularity of hip hop memes. The definition of “meme” as it relates to social media is not altogether fixed in these still relatively early stages of critical interest in emerging digital cultures. With that said, Limor Shifman offers a useful working description of a meme as “(a) a group of digital items sharing common characteristics of content, form, and/or stance, which (b) were created with awareness of each other, and (c) were circulated, imitated, and/or transformed via the Internet by many users” (2014, 41). The circulation of humorous memes, a popular activity across social media platforms of all kinds, has become particularly rampant among hip hop fans and even artists. As Ben Beaumont-Thomas notes in a 2016 article for The Guardian that the rap meme “in recent years has become an integral part of hip hop culture” and that “rap fans are among the keenest memers, sharing Photoshopped disses at the slightest notice of beef; the website HipHop DX has a weekly round-up called All Eyez on Memes.” Hip hop culture is, in fact, ideally suited to meme culture: chopping and screwing, remixing, and biting are all elements of hip hop production that have remained essential to the culture since its humble beginnings some four decades ago. Sharing memes is about recognizing the value of an image or punch line, reworking it endlessly to intensify its inherent cultural resonance and multiply its potential uses and significations. It is also an inexpensive and (access to Internet bandwidth notwithstanding) democratic means through which to be creative and to impact on a wider culture, wherein the crucial tools are fluency in the currently trending memes and a sense of humor. Given the collage-like landscape of memetic social media humor, the polyphonic effect of which echoes Kanye West’s rich and diverse production style, it is perhaps unsurprising that West has become increasingly interested in meme culture.
The Life of Pablo is especially aware of the significance of social media and meme culture to celebrity in the twenty-first century. The album opens, in fact, with the audio from a viral Instagram post by user Natalie is Great, an account set up and managed by four-year-old Natalie Green’s mother, Samoria Green. The video shows Natalie in a state of ecstatic prayer, emulating the great black American preaching tradition as she cries, “we don’t want no devils in this house” and “praise the Lord, hallelujah.” Natalie is one of countless “viral” celebrities to have been plucked from obscurity and made momentarily famous for a social media post that sparked unprecedented interest. By opening his album in this way, West is immediately invoking the shared knowledge of his audience of fellow social media users and establishing Pablo’s keen interest in social media and celebrity. In a later track titled “I Love Kanye” (West 2016e), West directly addresses Twitter trolls, memes, and the seemingly infinite reproduction of his image and persona since the now-infamous moment in which he interrupted Taylor Swift’s VMA speech. “See, I invented Kanye / It wasn’t any Kanye / And now I look and look around and it’s so many Kanyes!” The proliferation of Kanyes through the meme-sphere echoes another controversial hip hop artist’s confrontation of the multiplicity of the public self: Eminem’s “The Real Slim Shady” likewise grapples with the flattery of imitation and concomitant threat to knowledge of self that such image reproduction effectively poses. As G. Christopher Williams argues, Eminem’s song “embraces the subjectivity of the age, blurring the line between authentic self and simulation” (2004, 79). Williams continues, “Eminem seems to admit that a media constructed identity of Marshall Mathers is as legitimate a claim about who and what he is as what he himself has to say about himself” (2004, 82). In West’s case, the multiplicity of Kanyes is perhaps more vexed still by the fact that he uses his real name, rather than a stage name such as Eminem (he has, however, in recent years referred to himself regularly as “Yeezus”). He even laughs along with his trolls as he lampoons “Kanye” the public persona: “What if Kanye made a song about Kanye? / Called ‘I miss the Old Kanye?’ / Man that’d be so Kanye.” The song ends with an actual gag that has circled the Internet for some years without clear origin (as with so much viral social media content): “I love you like Kanye loves Kanye.”6
The album’s cover art is also distinctly evocative of meme culture: a crudely cut and pasted collage of two seemingly unrelated images, one of West’s parents and guests at their wedding, and the other of a voluptuous and scantily clad woman (Instagram model @ShenizH) with her back(side) to the camera. Two phrases, “The Life of Pablo” and “which/one,” are reproduced line after line in the background—raising the question of who exactly the album is titled after.7 In the lead-up to the album’s release, West shared various memes on his Twitter feed mocking the album art and its delayed release: one which read “blame chance,” a reference to Chance The Rapper’s decision to continue working on one of the album’s tracks, and then another that read “thank you chance” when the song was declared finished. In creating and sharing these memes, West participated in an already-active meme culture: social media users were already creating their own album covers in the style of The Life of Pablo using a handful of websites created for the purpose. It would appear likely, in fact, that West predicted the sharable and meme-worthy quality of his cover art and deliberately invited his followers—be they idol-worshippers or the proverbial “haters”—to mess with his work. In its crude juxtaposition of West’s beloved mother with the faceless image of a near-nude Instagram model, the album art also represents a stark, if unexplained, acknowledgment of the contradictory ways in which West engages with femininity—an aspect of his work that is more complex, and more explicatory of the centrality of female iconicity and sexuality to his understanding of celebrity, than the virgin/whore dichotomy that these images might initially suggest.
West’s relatively recent investment in social media coincides, perhaps unsurprisingly, with his relationship with Kardashian, whose calculated use of social media to promote products, cement her brand, and seduce followers (often literally) into “liking” her and thus furthering her sphere of influence is arguably unparalleled. West and Kardashian are, as Vanessa Díaz points out, the only interracial celebrity couple to have been bestowed a portmanteau—Kimye—by the mainstream celebrity media, a renaming that marks the process by which said media “formally remake [two individuals] into a new, marketable, celebrity entity” (2015, 278). In this way West’s public image is explicitly embroiled in the iconicity of his wife, a fact that he not only embraces but also articulates in a way that implicates social media. In “Wolves,” a song that seeks to defend his wife against the common criticisms of her past exploits (a sex tape, various high-profile relationships, and a controversial divorce) West references his brief Twitter feud with his former fiancée Amber Rose’s ex-husband, the rapper Wiz Khalifa. West acknowledges and empathizes with his wife’s attempts at diplomacy, enacted, as is ever the case with Kardashian, over social media—she posted a “selfie” with Amber Rose later that week, suggesting that there was no bad blood between the families—telling her “I know it’s corny bitches you wish you could unfollow.” Likewise, West appears to register a moment, albeit fleeting, of defiance in “FML” (West 2016d), as he laments the temptations that surround him and the constant public scrutiny of “haters” and Twitter trolls waiting with unabashed Schadenfreude for him to fail. Once again, West’s introspection culminates in his rumination on Kardashian and the notoriety of their celebrity coupling, as he acknowledges, “they don’t wanna see me love you.” The song’s chorus, sung by The Weeknd, alludes to the struggle that West undergoes in order to brush off the constant barrage of hatred and trolling that comes with high social media visibility and celebrity. “They wish I would go ahead and fuck my life up / Can’t let them get to me / And even though I always fuck my life up /Only I can mention me.” The word “mention” is significant, too, as a reference to Twitter: to include a Twitter user’s handle in a tweet (@KanyeWest, for example) is, in Twitter parlance, to “mention” them. The song thus gestures toward a moment of resistance, a certain fatigue with the “iterations” of “Kanye” that leaves so little room for the private life of Kanye West.
The role of Kardashian in West’s approach to social media, as well as his long-held fascination with her as a celebrity figure, attest to the influence of iconic female celebrity on West’s own idealization of fame. Such admiration does not preclude his participation in the wider culture of misogyny in much male-dominated mainstream hip hop. West’s music contains gratuitous and misogynistic elements; in particular, his penchant for crude descriptions of sex acts (“Have you ever had sex with a Pharaoh? Put the pussy in a sarcophagus /Now she’s claiming that I bruised her esophagus”) is consistent with the hypermasculine bravado common to “hardcore” hip hop whether “mainstream” or “underground.”8 Sha’Dawn Battle interprets West’s particular manifestation of hypermasculine misogyny as a defensive stance against the historic and ongoing feminization of black men in the white American imagination, whereby “Black males have used the adoption of a hypermasculine disposition as one particular strategy to resist the feminizing and the dehumanizing characterization of the black male body” (2015, 82). West’s need to underscore his masculinity is additionally heightened by the softening aspects of his background and personality that distinguish him from more hardcore and gangsta rappers: his middle-class upbringing, love of high fashion, and generally less cool demeanor than, for example, JAY-Z. The problematic treatment of women in some of West’s work, as well as the (attempted) sexual degradation of his former lover, Amber Rose, in recent Twitter wars and radio interviews, typify what Battle identifies as the “bruised black male ego” at work in so much mainstream male rap (2015, 90). These instances of sexism are complicated, however, by his concurrent fascination with iconic female celebrity, and also by past releases that daringly challenged gender and musical norms, the massively influential 808s and Heartbreaks in particular (Greene 2015).
“Famous,” (West 2016b) the single from The Life of Pablo that became instantly notorious for quasi-requesting sex from Taylor Swift for “[making] that bitch famous,” demonstrates West’s multileveled engagement with celebrity and iconicity, as well as his fascination with famous women. In the hook, an interpellation of Nina Simone’s “Do What You Gotta Do,” Rihanna’s vocals act as a personification of celebrity itself: “Man, I can understand how it might be / Kinda hard to love a girl like me / I don’t blame you much for wanting to be free.” Doubling down on iconic soul divas, the song samples legendary dancehall artist Sister Nancy’s iconic “Bam Bam,” which, in addition, recalls the much-mythologized female rapper Lauryn Hill’s own use of “Bam Bam” in her song “Lost Ones.” In this way, West’s “Famous” is already saturated with a distinctly female celebrity and iconicity. The song goes on to explore the happy accident of fame through the sexual interactions of men and women, a skewed vantage point that embraces the female achievement of fame through romantic (sexual) association with a prominent male (Kanye). The aforementioned reference to Swift is replaced in the second verse with a shout-out to the women for whom this strategy did not, in fact, succeed: “For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West / If you see ’em in the street give ’em Kanye’s best / Why? They mad they ain’t famous / They mad they still nameless.” The song recalls his earlier (2005) hit “Gold Digger” (West 2014) in that it seems to celebrate—even congratulate—the sexual and romantic hustle of women in the pursuit of financial security and, perhaps, fame. The repeated line “get down, girl, go ‘head, get down” both alludes to oral sex and shrugs off the male complaint that women are interested only in their money, suggesting that their plight is valid. Toward the end this is made even more explicit: “Now I ain’t sayin’ you a gold digger / You got needs.” The Life of Pablo contains several other references to iconic female celebrity. In “Feedback” (West 2016c), West poses as “the ghetto Oprah,” and chants “you get a fur! You get a fur! You get a jet! You get a jet! Big booty Benz for you!” Again, this homage reflects West’s fluency in social media meme culture in which the Oprah “giveaway” performance, part of her annual “Oprah’s Favourite Things” Christmas show, features regularly. Aside from the Rihanna-meets-Nina Simone feature “Famous,” there are a handful of other appearances by black female icons, including “Ultralight Beam” (West 2016h), which features R&B/Soul artist Mary J. Blige.9
Of course, nowhere is West’s obsession with female iconicity more prominent than in his open admiration for—and promotion of—his wife. Kardashian is a vexed public figure herself, due in large part to the distinctly feminized realm of her popularity as well as cultural resistance to the new social media/reality TV mode of celebrity. The original source of her fame, a homemade sex tape featuring Kardashian and her then-boyfriend Ray J, is routinely cited to disparage the Kardashian family and their attainment of celebrity. West, however, regularly refers to the tape, Kim Kardashian: Superstar, as a means of invoking his wife’s sexual attractiveness, entrepreneurship, and apparent celebrity “x factor” (the video has made a rumored $50 million to date, and launched Kardashian’s reality television career and subsequent cultural empire). In “30 Hours” he notes casually that “me and wifey make a movie.” In “Clique,” a song released prior to his marriage to Kardashian, he brags about her unconventional attainment of celebrity status and the notoriety that they achieve as a couple: “My girl a superstar all from a home movie / Bow on our arrival / The un-American idols.” In “Highlights” West inserts himself more directly into the sex tape scenario: “Sometimes I’m wishin’ that my dick had / Go Pro / So I could play that shit back / In slow mo’ / I just shot an amateur video / I think I Should go pro.” He goes on to explicitly connect the Kardashian empire to the tape as he celebrates their mutual achievements: “Twenty-one Grammies, Superstar family / We the new Jacksons / I’m all about that action.” West’s pride in his wife’s empire extends beyond her physical attributes and sex tape to her successful business ventures. In “Facts,” he gives a shout-out to Kardashian’s emoji app—“Plus Kimoji just shut down the app store”—and in “No More Parties in LA,” he notes that the “whole family gettin’ money / Thank god for E!,” the broadcast home of Keeping Up with the Kardashians.
The Kardashian family’s long-running reality show is another realm where West pushes his own comfort level, insinuating himself into the feminine space of the Kardashian world. In the words of Anita Brady, “no other family seems to so readily embody the deliberate curating of self for the lenses of the world’s media” (2016, 115). Reality television has become a popular, indeed saturated, vehicle for two new innovations of celebrity: the “famous for being famous” reality TV star (Kim Kardashian, the Real Housewives, Alana “Honey Boo Boo” Thompson) and the reality career reboot (Christina Milian, Toni Braxton, La Toya Jackson). West’s initial reluctance to appear as a regular “character” on his wife’s long-running series likely stemmed from the “career reboot” implications of taking the role. Alice Leppert, whose analysis of the Kardashian brand emphasizes its balance of tight image management and personal transparency, notes that although “West seemed to revel in Kim’s reality TV stardom,” he “also made it apparent that he intended to use Kim as his Barbie Doll . . . as in one episode he advises her to get rid of all her clothes and replace them with a full wardrobe of his and his stylist’s choosing, a move that Khloé [Kim’s sister] immediately recognizes as controlling” (2015, 143). Leppert reads Kanye’s attachment to Kardashian as “most likely not the best choice for a man trying to break into European high fashion,” given “the low-value celebrity Kim represents” and citing the couple’s much-maligned American Vogue cover in 2014 as evidence of the considerable resistance to Kardashian and her particular kind of celebrity (2015, 144). It is precisely her perceived “low value,” however, that I argue is essential to West’s conceptualization of their combined power as provocative and antagonistic public figures. In the defiant spirit of hip hop, West parades his wife and her scantily clad body as deliberate provocations of white American standards of beauty and femininity, even as he seems to conversely play up Kardashian’s whiteness and the transgressive nature of their interracial relationship. In addition, West’s steadily increasing presence on the show since the tenth season represents a shift from the self-conscious management of his public image—in large part a hangover from the scathing public backlash following the Swift incident—to an acceptance of his vulnerability, part of the broader project of sincerity exemplified in his Twitter activity.
Recent convergences of hip hop culture and reality television—shows such as Love and Hip Hop, Sisterhood of Hip Hop, T.I. and Tiny: The Family Hustle, Run’s House, and Marrying the Game, to name but a few—may ostensibly mark a departure from hip hop’s post-gangsta framing of “realness” as a means of establishing a rapper’s autobiographical honesty and managing would-be corny attempts at coolness. As I have argued elsewhere, however, the relationship of hip hop realness to reality TV reality is more “organic” than it may appear.10 Reality TV is routinely disparaged as “fake” in a way that indicates the gullibility of its audiences. What elitist critiques of reality TV undervalue is the subversive and liberating potential of self-mediation to allow the individual to eke out a version of selfhood that they can live with, a concept that holds particular appeal to minority subjects such as women, LGBT people, and people of color. Noting this conscious manipulation of selfhood, Misha Kavka writes, “reality TV participants do not act up for cameras so much as act out the self. In so doing, they draw attention to the way that performance and performativity are inextricable even—perhaps especially—in private settings configured by the social gaze, which . . . envelops those in front of the screen as well as those in front of the camera” (2008, 98). She designates “mediated selfhood” as the “collective name for all of the gestures/behaviors/acts that are held for our use by the objective camera, mobilized by the screen, and performed in turn as the ‘real’ stuff of the self” (2008, 102). This process, exemplified so quintessentially and successfully by the Kardashian sisters, not only through their reality TV personas but also in their social media use, personal apps, and public appearances, is taken up, too, by West as he learns from the celebrity work of his new family. The reality TV format is also, however, implicitly feminized and queered. Reading television as a “technology of intimacy,” Kavka traces the historical association of television with the domestic space and the particularities of reality TV that emphasize further this underlying feminization (2008, xi). The implications of hip hop’s—and perhaps especially Kanye West’s—increasing involvement in these socially coded spheres of self-mediation and refuge from heteronormativity, are crucial to any critical engagement with hip hop in the twenty-first century.
In late July of 2016, some five months after the initial release of The Life of Pablo, West added a new song, “Saint Pablo,” to the album. The song is, in many ways, a reflection on precisely the modes of self-presentation and celebrity work that this chapter has interrogated. “People tryna say I’m goin’ crazy on Twitter,” he raps, “my friends’ best advice was to stay low.” Far from staying low, of course, West continues to implement both social media and his music to provoke and challenge the way we—as scholars, hip hop fans, and the general public—conceive of celebrity in the twenty-first century. “The media said he’s way out of control,” he goes on. “I just feel like I’m the only one not pretending / I’m not out of control, I’m just not in they control.” Crucial to West’s project in both his rejection of hypermasculine configurations of hip hop fame and his erratic, contradictory, and provocative social media behavior, is this commitment to “not pretending”—a certain enactment of “sincerity” that aims to reconcile hip hop authenticity more comfortably with the increasingly self-mediated experience of celebrity. Rather than “acting up” for the sake of attention and notoriety, West is “acting out” in a bold reimagining of what it means to be a black, male, and opinionated celebrity, in the twenty-first century.
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(1) The award was previously known as the Lifetime Achievement Award and was renamed the year of Michael Jackson’s death (2009).
(3) For a thorough elaboration of the relationship of the hip hop gangsta mogul figure to neoliberalism and politics, see Lester Spence, Stare into the Darkness: The Limits of Hip Hop and Black Politics (2011).
(5) It is worth noting that the iconic artists cited by Bailey—Prince, Madonna, Michael Jackson—are also explicitly interested in questions of gender in performance. Prince and Michael Jackson are notably feminized figures in the discourse surrounding their celebrity—it would be fruitful to consider to what extent such feminization (and concurrent speculation as to their respective sexual orientations) is influenced by their particular relationships to celebrity, as opposed to fame.
(6) The Australian artist Scott Marsh recently took this joke to new heights, quite literally, painting a 6-meter-tall mural of West locked in passionate embrace with himself. The mural was inspired by an existing meme in which a photograph of Kanye and Kim kissing at the 2016 Grammy Awards was photoshopped so that Kanye was, in fact, kissing another Kanye.
(7) In “No More Parties in L.A.” West raps, “I feel like Pablo when I’m working on my shoes / I feel like Pablo when I see me on the news / I feel like Pablo when I’m working on my house” (2016f). Theories on to whom the album’s “Pablo” refers, many of which draw on these lyrics, range from St Paul the Apostle, to Pablo Picasso, to Pablo Escobar. West has made reference to all three of these figures in the weeks surrounding the album’s release.
(9) West also makes multiple references to his former fiancée, Amber Rose. On The Life of Pablo he references her at least once indirectly (“Wolves”; West 2016i) and twice more directly in “30 hours” (West 2016g) and “No More Parties in LA” (West 2016f). In the latter he appears to present the romantic hustle of his ex with, if not quite admiration, then at least a shrug of understanding: “I remember Amber told my boy no matter what happens / She ain’t going back to Philly / Back to our regularly scheduled programming / Of weak content and slow jamming.”
(10) For my discussion of reality television and the female hip hop artist Iggy Azalea, see Morrissey, “The New Real: Iggy Azalea and the Reality Performance” (2014).