“Personality” is the key to gaining a handle on who Kanye West is and why he operates the way he does. This extends to his controversial affinity for Donald Trump. When Kanye used the nebulous phrase “dragon energy” to sum up the overlapping qualities between himself and the president, what I heard was a quasi-euphemism for certain personality tics that he holds in high regard contrary to the mores of polite society.
Kanye revels in being a loud, erratic, disruptive self-promoter who pushes the envelope and upends expectations and does a lot of things just to burnish his status as an Individual. In other words, he’s not to be trusted with your sacredly-held worldview. He sees the same in Trump. He sees a president who doesn’t abide by the normal rules of Washington and is totally unlike his predecessors — someone in the seat of power but still out of place. That’s right in Kanye’s sweet spot.
After all, he made his name as the pink polo-wearing ex-Gap employee/college dropout of the hip hop world. And he continues to stand apart from his peers. It’s also the main reason why he never embraced Obama as he’s doing with Trump. What does a high priest of technocratic liberalism have to offer an artist like Kanye who values creativity, contradiction, and unpredictability over anything related to policy-making or a coherent political ideology? Not much.
Despite being the first black president, Obama probably bored Kanye to a large degree. Too polished, too conventional, too self-possessed. (And there was that infamous diss.) On the other hand, Trump is a lot of things, including some very bad things, but he’s not boring.
So it is with Kanye. He’s always up to something. He’s always in the headlines for a stunt he pulled or an ill-considered comment he made or any further demonstration of his ongoing egomania. He can’t help himself. That manic, untamed, overflowing personality of his just has to assert itself. I’m sure it’s led some erstwhile fans to jump ship, while others just roll their eyes and stick to a reasonable “the music matters above all else” position.
I belong to a different slice of Kanye fandom, one that watches the latest interview or hears about the latest controversy and can’t help but smile. Because the truth is, Kanye has been making us smile since day one. It’s not a matter of endorsing his behavior or subscribing to his opinions. We’re just endlessly entertained by the spectacle of our favorite artist being a genius and a clown, a visionary and a child, all at the same time. I honestly don’t think you can have the former without the latter. The same reckless, relentless spark, the same “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” sensibility, lies behind both.
Not only do we laugh at Kanye, oftentimes we even laugh with him. The humor in Kanye’s songs is, in fact, an inescapable, essential part of the “Ye” experience. It’s a potent mix when an artist can wow you with their technical mastery or ambitious style *and* make you laugh.
It’s something I find even more powerful than a dramatic appeal to the emotions that’s rooted in sadness or grief or the like, partly because it’s harder to pull off. When someone can make you smile and laugh over and over again, they might have a special hold on your heart. It’s why, in spite of so much that should turn me off about the guy, I celebrate both Kanye the Artist and Kanye the Personality.
Below is a collection of my favorite Kanye lines. It won’t truly do justice to Kanye’s sense of humor, because the way he says things is often just as funny or even funnier than what he says. But even so, I still think it’s hard to miss the wit, creativity, and spirited personality behind the lyrics.
There are more I could list, and with Kanye’s next album due for release on June 1 (or maybe an undetermined date after that, depending on his mood), there should be another crop on the way. Here’s to hoping for more laughs and life-giving joy.
For the sake of focus, all the lines come from Kanye’s solo albums, not any of his guest spots or collaborative projects.
1. The inevitable Michael Jackson line: “She got a light-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson. Got a dark-skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson.” (“Slow Jamz”)
Kanye would take a back seat to no one in his admiration for the King of Pop. He’s often said that, without Jackson, there would be no “Kanye.” But that didn’t stop him from dropping this line. It’s the right balance between having fun with that uncomfortable aspect of Jackson’s life and not being mean-spirited about it.
2. The always relevant line: “So say goodbye to the NAACP award. Goodbye to the India Arie award. They’d rather give me the ‘N***a Please’ award. But I’ll just take the ‘I Got a Lot of Cheese’ award.” (“Everything I Am”)
One of the most memorable expressions of Kanye’s “me vs the world” mentality. Everyone’s turned against him. In the eyes of his fellow African Americans, he’s a punchline. And where does he retreat for consolation? “I’m rich.”
3. The “Family Matters”-inspired homophone: “Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why your wins low.” (“Dark Fantasy”)
If you’re a ‘90s-kid who grew up on “TGIF” programming, this one really delivers the goods. Only a robustly clever mind like Kanye’s could’ve thought of it. Inspired silliness is still inspired.
4. Crazy Kanye line: “In a French-a** restaurant, hurry up with my d** n croissants!” (“I Am a God”)
It’s all in the juxtaposition. “I Am a God” is an intense, hard-hitting cut off an album, “Yeezus,” that often has the tone and texture of a horror movie soundtrack. And right in the middle of it he delivers this preposterous doozy. Of course he’s in on the joke (he has to be, right?), but he plays it straight, which only heightens the comedic effect. It’s Morrissey-esque in that regard.
5. The G.O.A.T. pun: “I’m like the fly Malcom X. Buy any jeans necessary.” (“Good Morning”)
This is it, the ne plus ultra of Kanye lines. He takes a well-known quote that was popularized by a major figure in African American history and tweaks it into a transcendent pun about himself and his luxury consumer habits. Kanye West, ladies and gentlemen.
— “Couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis.” (“All Falls Down”)
— “Rollies and Pashas done drove me crazy. I can’t even pronounce nothing. Pass that Ver-say-see.” (“All Falls Down”)
— “At the Grammys, I said, ‘I inspired me.’” (“Big Brother”)
— “What if Kanye made a song about Kanye called ‘I Miss the Old Kanye’? Man, that’d be so Kanye!” (“I Love Kanye”)
— “Thank God for me. Whole family gettin’ money. Thank God for E!” (“No More Parties in LA”)