A very sensitive douchebag. West’s paranoia is profound and productive. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy doesn’t try to resolve West’s contradictions: He bristles at the haters even as he relishes their criticism. The album is riddled with references to Michael Jackson, and, in West’s mind, he is the next M.J., for better and worse: the new King of Pop and the next media-martyred freak show. But unlike Jackson, who retreated further into himself as time went by, West keeps putting himself out there, on his own, equally self-aggrandizing terms.
In the past year, he’s taken the public self to levels unusual even for this era of naked display. When he got back from Hawaii, he began one of the most compelling publicity blitzes in memory, mostly because it’s never been clear what’s calculated and what’s accidental. There are certain turning points in pop culture, like when Dylan went electric—and then there’s July 28, when Kanye found Twitter. In four months, he’s typed over 1,200 tweets on his laptop (he has no cell phone) to over 1.6 million followers, bitching about the size of his private jet, obsessing over a YSL suit, complaining about how hard it was to find a Persian rug “with cherub imagery.” “I think Twitter was designed specifically with me in mind just my humble opinion hahhhahaaaahaaa humble hahahahhahaahaaaa.” More clearly strategic: In August, West launched good Fridays (named after his G.O.O.D. Music imprint at Island Def Jam), outmaneuvering the pirates by leaking free downloads—including near-identical versions of songs that would end up on his album, straight out of the studio. Ryan Leslie remembers wrapping production on a track at Electric Lady Studio, “tearing up to the New Museum for a second,” then hearing the track on the car radio as they returned to the studio.
No one can be the next Michael Jackson. No one can be the next Michael Jordan, Madonna, or Bill Cosby either. That media culture, those days, are behind us. But if there are two pop stars reconceptualizing what super-fame means right now, Lady Gaga and Kanye are pop’s new carnival queen and king. West’s innovative music is more influential, but all four of his albums haven’t sold as much as Gaga’s two. The almost mythologically egotistical West would like to change that. “Her methodology was basically the same as it has been for years,” says frequent West collaborator John Legend. “Big hit single after big hit single, and sell the album on the legs of that. Kanye has done it differently. He sells his albums based on the aggregate of controversy and buzz.”
Last month, like a fabulously dressed door-to-door salesman, West went to the center of the buzz—the offices of Facebook, Twitter, and Rolling Stone—selling his wares and even performing a cappella previews of his songs on conference-room tables. “It’s such a shame that all your favorite artists are so underground,” West hectored Rolling Stone staffers. “That’s the hipster justification of failure … Everyone who could be a real rock star is just fucking scared.” (The magazine would later give My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy five stars.)
In August, West also debuted one of the most unusual music videos in years: Marco Brambilla’s “moving painting” for “Power,” in which a neoclassical, regal West is encircled by partially nude courtesans. Then MTV, MTV2, and BET simultaneously premiered West’s 34-minute art film Runaway on October 23. Directed by West with help from artist Vanessa Beecroft and Lim, it’s about a phoenix who is nearly destroyed by a cynical world. The film includes a spooky, funereal tribute to Michael Jackson.
And then, in a moment no one could have anticipated, West got a publicity assist from George W. Bush. In his new memoir, Decision Points, the former commander-in-chief revealed that West’s “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comment—made during a Katrina telethon—was the “most disgusting” moment of his presidency. Not missing a beat, West announced that he was “empathetic” to Bush since he himself had been called a racist, and then went on the Today show to apologize to Bush for playing “a race card”—an apology some felt was unnecessary. “Kanye [interrupted Swift] from a place of passion of art, then it got turned into him being a racist,” says Jay-Z. “Of course he’s not racist. He got misjudged, so he had to think, Maybe I misjudged as well.” But in any case, the apology to Bush wasn’t what made the Today interview so memorable. When a video clip of the Swift incident aired while he was talking to Matt Lauer, West, who’d hired a media consultant just for the broadcast, got pissed off and left. “Please don’t let that happen again—it’s like ridiculous,” he snapped to someone off-camera. (The publicist quit.) “It’s all a fucking setup!!!!” West ranted on Twitter.
The old celebrity-rehab narrative suggests that when you screw up bad, you should hide and heal before you come back stronger. West is hyperaware of his faults, but he seems to have no intention but to blunder boldly through the messes he’s created—and then to revel in the wreckage. “I wish Michael Jackson had Twitter!!!!!!” West tweeted after the Today debacle. (What if he’d explained “why he hung the baby out the window”?) What if? Does Kanye really think Twitter would have helped Michael? Or just that it would have been fun to watch? Every time Jackson opened his mouth, the gossip grew worse. But Michael wasn’t a talker like Kanye, who seems to crave the notoriety, the crown of thorns, the enemies, the exposure. “It’s funny these same wrongs helped me write this song,” he rapped on his second album, and that hasn’t changed a bit. So long as the beats are good—and they are incredible—the rest is just new material.