Demented Genius

Photo: Marco Grob

“Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it / I guess every superhero need his theme music …”

Consider those lyrics a salvo. They appear in a defiant song called “Power,” which debuted in May, nine months after Kanye West almost derailed his career with a bratty, very public stunt. On September 13, 2009, in a drunken act of misguided gallantry, West rushed the stage of the MTV Video Music Awards and grabbed the microphone from then-19-year-old country-pop singer Taylor Swift, who was about to accept the award for Best Female Video. In an instantly YouTubed moment, West proclaimed, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you and I’ma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time. One of the best videos of all time!

The moment was debated on blogs, Twitter, and cable news for days, months—it’s still being debated. Seemingly everyone weighed in, including President Obama, who called West a “jackass.” Others accused him of being a bully and a racist. West said his friend Mos Def told him, “You can’t make it in America right now. You have to move.”

“They said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation / Well, that’s a pretty bad way to start a conversation …”

This week, West, 33, releases his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It is in many ways pop’s event of the year, a stunning comeback for an artist whom many people had started to think of as more of a clown. It reveals West in all his complicated splendor: the bully, the innovator, the polymath genius, the diamond-studded blowhard. Most of all, it showcases the undeniable singularity of his talent, which has gotten lost in months of extraordinarily bizarre behavior. But it also complements that behavior: “Power,” the first single off the album, is not its only anthem of defiance. The entire angry album is a flipped bird to the preprogrammed narratives of celebrity culture. It’s not self-defense; it’s a premeditated attack on West’s haters and a rough exultation of his ego, his impulsiveness, his mess. “Immature adult? Uh-huh,” West raps. “Insecure asshole? What else?”

By the age of 24, West was already famous, at least in hip-hop circles, for producing huge, soul-sampling hits for Jay-Z. He had ambitions for himself, but it took a brutal car crash in 2002 to launch the Kanye we have come to know. West emerged from the hospital, jaw wired shut, with a lot to say. Between 2004 and 2007, he released the albums The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation—commercial successes that also pushed hip-hop’s center away from gangsta posing and booty-shaking toward something brighter, bigger, more pop. West had the arrogance, but no street cred; at first, he dressed like a preppy. (He’s since developed a more serious interest in fashion, collaborating with Phillip Lim and Louis Vuitton, and art.) His mother, Donda West—an English professor who raised her son alone in Chicago—got shout-outs on every album. In 2007, she co-wrote the book Raising Kanye, which praised her son’s fetish for appearances: As a child, he offered to give up his allowance if she’d go to Jenny Craig. In November 2007, she died from complications following plastic surgery.

A devastated Kanye and designer Alexis Phifer ended their engagement in early 2008. Later that year, he released the introspective, melancholic, and synth-heavy 808s & Heartbreak, on which he abandoned rap and sang the entire album, through Auto-Tune. Many critics raved, but its first-week sales were half that of Graduation.

To make My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West spent six months in Hawaii, assembling a Justice League of producers, rappers, and voices (from Beyoncé to Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon). According to many of the musicians there, West spent most nights in the strip-mall studio he’d rented, letting his pals stay in his beachfront mansion. “We started out with basketball every morning, to get that blood pumping,” says Dwele, who’s featured on “Power.” In the studio, West would “let the song play on repeat, be checking out fashion on the Internet—then rattle a whole other verse off the top of his brain.”

Rapper Ryan Leslie says “everyone checked their egos” at the door in Hawaii, even West, who talked often about his failings, though in the most Westian of manners: The album would be honest about the way men knowingly blunder into mistakes and then try to fix them afterward. “Instead of being preventive … that’s just the asshole way of being,” says rapper Pusha T. “I had to write my verse four times, He kept asking for more douchebag. That was his chant: I need more douchebag!”

That song, “Runaway,” was unveiled at this year’s VMAs, with West surrounded by ballet dancers. Its unlikely chant—“Let’s have a toast for the douchebags! Let’s have a toast for the assholes!”—was partially inspired by a party where, West has said, he found himself surrounded by “Margiela snobs” and “douchebags” and realized, “I’d much rather be a douchebag, sensitive as I am. I’d much rather live my life to the fullest.”

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.

Demented Genius