Writing an opinion about Kanye West on the internet is like trying desperately to cup water in your hands and then pour it into the ocean. Yet, for as many times as the hot takes have seeped through my fingers on their way into an endless abyss of seemingly indistinguishable perspectives, I’ve remained steadfast in my attempts. Since the current Kanye-centric media frenzy began a little over a month ago, I’ve read approximately 15 articles, sent out several half-baked tweets, and started and then abandoned a handful of Google docs, all in an attempt to illuminate something unique or profound about Kanye West—the man, his actions, or his art. Suffice it to say, I failed.
The release of ye this past week did very little to help me find the clarity I’d been hunting for. I suppose I hadn’t realized it until I found myself staring at my phone intently, watching live-streamed footage of a campfire in anticipation of the album’s debut, but there was a small part of me—the dumbest, most naïve part—that was still hoping the album would act as some sort of magical panacea to absolve Kanye of all of his ideological lapses and behavioral misdeeds.
Even after the “slavery was a choice” debacle that held zero traces of being staged; even after his boneheaded brag about how MAGA hats help him avoid speeding tickets on Pusha-T’s DAYTONA, I was still foolishly holding onto hope that Kanye might come out of the gates, rapping something to the effect of “Fuck Donald Trump, I was clearly trolling.” Deep in the recesses of my subconscious, buried with the childish part of me that wants to believe that the Toronto Raptors are an elite NBA franchise, or that wars are fought for virtuous reasons, I wanted to believe that Kanye West knew better. Several exceedingly forgiving listens later, it was clear that the album was not going to throw me any such rope.
Plausibility be damned, I was ready to accept virtually any explanation Kanye offered. I wish I was exaggerating more when I say that, if he’d come out publicly and claimed to have been abducted by aliens, I would have barely given pause before exclaiming, “I fucking knew it!” Instead, he opted to go a different route, making only passing references to his outrageous behavior, offering no discernible explanations whatsoever, and provoking further ire by packing his lyrics with abject misogyny. To say I was surprised would be disingenuous, but the pang of disappointment I felt was certainly a bit silly considering the evidence I had available to me to set my expectations.
Against all odds, it was actually Kanye himself who helped me understand why an otherwise cynical person like myself would cling so desperately to this unfounded sense of hope. During a recent interview with Big Boy, he offered a theory about why the culture at large has been somewhat reluctant to give up on him: “I feel like as a son [and] as a family member of the world, that is the reason why the world won't let me go—cause I'm just a family member. […] They might disagree with me on certain shit, but I'm they family. I've been here for 15 years, 18 years.” He seems to have a point. Leave it to Kanye to say something incredibly self-aware, even as he’s reacting to the public losing patience with his loss of self-awareness.
Kanye’s theory reminds me of a stray lyric from JAY-Z’s 2005 song “Dear Summer.” Toward the middle of the song, he raps: “I still love 'em but they don't love me / They like the drunk uncle in your family / You know they lame, you feel ashamed but you love ‘em the same…” For many of us, Kanye West has come to represent this uncle. We want to see the best in him, even though he consistently lets us down. We’re forced to qualify every compliment we pay him with an asterisk about his inescapable flaws. We spend our time tracing his life’s trajectory in order to speculate on where things might have gone wrong.
Yet, Kanye is far too removed from reality to appreciate why we currently feel like our love for him is unrequited. Rather than acknowledge that his embrace of Trump feels like a direct betrayal, he acts like he’s imparting a valuable lesson on us about the importance of “loving everyone” and “embracing free thought.” In this regard, Kanye is less like the black sheep uncle of your family and more like your beloved, but didactic grandfather.
For those of us who have been fortunate enough to have had relationships with our grandfathers, we recognize our current attempts to reckon with the person Kanye has become because it mirrors a process we’ve been through already. There’s no diplomatic way to say this, so I’ll just state it plainly: the majority of our grandfathers are problematic as hell. Granted, they may have been heroes to us at some point in our lives, but the world has continued to change while their worldviews have remained stagnant, causing them to appear increasingly out of touch. I’m generalizing to some extent, of course, but I’m reasonably confident that most people could identify at least one topic they wish their grandfathers would stop talking about.
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Even the “wokest” among us don’t write our grandfathers off entirely, though. Instead, we jump through hoops in our attempts to make excuses for them, chalking their challenging views up to ignorance rather than outright hate. “If only he’d read the same articles I read...” we think wishfully, assuming that our grandfathers would ultimately arrive at the same conclusions we did. “It’s clear that Kanye doesn’t have any real grasp on what Trump’s policies are,” we think, remembering the interview in the wake of “Ye vs. the People,” where T.I. stated that Kanye hadn’t even heard about Trump’s Muslim ban. “He doesn’t seem to possess even the most rudimentary understanding of modern-day party politics,” we recall, referencing the time Kanye trumpeted a piece of information about a Republican freeing the slaves on Twitter.
Through these mental gymnastics, we convince ourselves that it’s merely a lack of awareness that is holding our grandfathers back from being the upstanding people we remember from our youth. We even go as far as to selectively recall instances where they examined all the information available to them and then came down on the moral side of an issue. “He can’t possibly believe all these terrible generalizations he’s making,” I remember thinking about my grandfather. “This is the same man who moved to Toronto as a middle-aged immigrant and got his first small business loan by calling out the racism inherent to the loan officer’s approval process.” More recently, I’ve seen many people on the internet express similar sentiments about Kanye: “There’s no way he could genuinely support a president who refers to other nations as ‘shithole countries.’ This is the same guy who went on live TV after Hurricane Katrina and said, ‘George Bush doesn’t care about black people!’”
Stories like the one about my grandfather’s journey to Canada are an integral part of why we choose to offer our grandfathers this benefit of the doubt. We tend to overlook our differences in values out of respect for their accomplishments, knowing as we do that we wouldn’t be here today if it wasn’t for the groundwork they laid down and the sacrifices they made. If it seems like this comparison is too generous to Kanye, it’s only because his impact on the culture is now so ubiquitous that it’s difficult to remember a time before it.
It’s not just that 75% of the popular music we listen to today owes a debt to his sonic influence, it’s that he inspired a generation of artists, like Kid Cudi, Drake, and Travis Scott—and through them, their fans—to be themselves. In a time when hip-hop was marked by gangster posturing, Kanye made it okay to acknowledge an alternative upbringing. In a time when the genre was bogged down by an excess of uninspired bravado, Kanye made it okay to be vulnerable. Through spending his entire career bucking one trend after another, Kanye West offered an entire generation of people a brand new roadmap to follow for identity formation. Even if we were all to ceremoniously boycott ye going forward, we’d be doing so as disciples of Kanye, unable to disentangle this action from the abstract influence he’s had on our personalities.
Of course, there’s something to be said about the fact that we’re willing to afford our problematic grandfathers—and accordingly, Kanye—this sort of leeway simply because we love them. For as much as we dread being forced to spend our Thanksgivings listening to our grandfathers drone on about their misguided political opinions, we can remember a time when they offered their sage wisdom in a time of need. Through babysitting us, giving us gifts, and regaling us with stories, they were an integral part of our upbringing. For better or for worse, this is a formative bond that transcends politics.
I’m not overstating things in the slightest when I say that Kanye has played a similar role in my life. Late Registration helped instill in me the love of music that is integral to my livelihood today. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” has allowed me to affect confidence during countless occasions when I possessed none of it organically. The first song I listened to when I got my driver’s license was “Drive Slow.” The beauty of his music has helped me combat mental health struggles, form friendships, graduate university, and so much more. I know unequivocally that his politics are worthy of condemnation, but my personal history with his music makes me feel like, in this one particular instance, it’s okay to be a hypocrite.
On some level, though, I know that the comparison I’ve drawn between our problematic grandfathers and Kanye West isn’t as neat of a parallel as I’d like it to be. For all of my grandfather’s misguided opinions, he never had a platform the size of Kanye’s to share them with the world and cause undue harm with his overwhelming influence. When Kanye raps that he’s going to “pray for [Russell Simmons] cause he got #MeToo’ed” on “Yikes,” he isn’t saying this to me alone at the dinner table, he’s saying it to millions of people who hang on to his every word. He’s telling people to have sympathy for an abuser and giving them a refrain to sing along with to mock his victims. It’s too vile to compartmentalize. It makes the entire song unlistenable.
Unfortunately, I’m just not ready to throw the baby out with the bathwater entirely. Knowing as I do that there are more than enough reasons to boycott ye from top to bottom, I’m conflicted because there are other moments on the album that harken me back to a feeling I’m just not ready to let go of yet. Listening to the gorgeous arrangements, the soaring choruses, and the sheer triumph that is “Ghost Town,” I’m transported to a place of comfort—the same place I used to go to when I listened to the timbre of my grandfather’s voice as he told me a story for the 400th time. For all of his flaws, Kanye is still capable of having this effect on me.
Summarizing a person’s legacy is a complicated task. When our grandfathers die, we don’t eulogize them by reading a laundry list of their most problematic opinions. We remember them by reminiscing about their accomplishments and the positive impacts they left behind on their communities. In Kanye’s case, he deserves all the criticism he’s currently receiving, without question, but for selfish reasons, there’s a small part of me that still hopes that there’s room to acknowledge the other part of his legacy too.