On May 17, 2013, Kanye West projected his towering face onto the sides of buildings the world over, premiering “New Slaves” to all who gathered at Ye’s altar to see what prophecy he might bring.
The song is four minutes and sixteen seconds of pure, hot anger, criticizing corporate racism with references pairing Nina Simone and Waterboy’s Bobby Boucher, allusions to the prison-industrial complex—which elicited the praise of the ACLU—and a finale that sputters out into a vengeful fantasy with someone’s Hampton spouse (which elicited criticism from women). As far as the Book of Ye goes, “New Slaves” is as Kanye as Kanye gets: at turns conscious and thoughtless, in praise of Black legends and '90s Adam Sandler characters alike, both prophetic and problematic.
The same paradoxes Kanye had always been praised for were present, but their authority was now under question. Moses was about to descend the mountain with 10 new commandments, but his followers were about to have their devotion tested.
To really understand Yeezus, the album that followed, you have to start earlier, with the VMAs.
No, not the 2009 VMAs when a drunk and bereaved Kanye interrupted a young Taylor Swift’s speech to declare Beyoncé’s video better. Start with the 2010 VMAs, after the media fallout, after reality star Donald Trump called for a Kanye boycott, after #RIPKanye trended, and after the fallen star moved halfway across the globe after he moved to Hawaii to create a secret album poised to win back the public’s heart if executed exactly right. Feel the distance and the depth that a year can create, what it can do to a person, how they might fight back—or merely scream from the void.
At this VMAs ceremony, only a year after their infamous moment, Taylor Swift would take the stage to share a song penned about Kanye, entitled “Innocent,” while a video of SwiftGate blurred in and out of the television set next to her.
“It's okay, life is a tough crowd / 32, and still growing up now / Who you are is not what you did / You're still an innocent.”
However you felt about Swift’s well-meaning forgiveness song, the artist clearly had not communicated with Kanye to ensure they both stayed on message. As the night drew to a close, amidst a mixture of cheers and boos, Kanye debuted “Runaway,” a song toasting douchebags, assholes, and anyone living on the opposite end of innocent. Thus began Kanye’s apology tour.
Except, of course, the tour was light on an apology. Though Kanye publicly apologized to Taylor, the album that followed—My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—never directly addresses the moment. The closest it comes is Justin Vernon’s “Monster” coda, where he confesses (on behalf of Kanye?), “I crossed the line / and I’ll let God decide.” If anything, “Runaway” is not an apology at all, but an admission of guilt morphing into acceptance, a warning to the audience that the man-turned-media-monster is starting to like the view from down below.
With Fantasy, Kanye opted for a cinematic and grandiose gesture of what he was capable of, and despite its critical and fan status as one of his best albums, it may have been nothing more than an act for him—an interlude before he said his real piece. This is not speculation: Kanye said as much in a 2013 interview with Jon Caramanica of The New York Times, at once claiming that his apology was the result of peer pressure and dismissing Fantasy as a public relations stunt:
“Dark Fantasy” was my long, backhanded apology. You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: “Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.”
The question becomes, then, if Fantasy was just a “backhanded apology,” does that make Yeezus an un-apology?
In the year leading up to Fantasy, Kanye interned with Fendi, where he began to plant the seeds for his eventual Yeezy line. In various interviews afterward, the fashion icon felt “marginalized” by the industry for not taking his ideas seriously. “Exclusivity is the new n-word,” he told Zane Lowe, long before his comments on racism abruptly ended his Saint Pablo Tour, sparking an era that fans and critics are still not quite sure what to do with. Yet simultaneous with his fashion endeavors following Fantasy, Kanye began to sow the seeds for Yeezus, a 10-song diatribe against the fashion industry, corporations, elitists of any kind, and apologies of any variety.
On an SNL appearance soon after his projections of “New Slaves,” Kanye debuted “Black Skinhead,” which takes aim at everyone who might take aim at Kanye, from the conservative religious to the racist. The media-deemed—and now self-appointed—monster was doubling down on his devotion to being a “menace.”
After winning fans and critics back with Fantasy, Yeezus seemed—and still seems—to be a willful act of self-sabotage. After apologizing and making amends, what is a provocateur to do? What mountain is left to climb when you’ve hit rock bottom, then ascended again? If you let Ye tell it, “As soon as they like you, make ‘em un-like you.” Un-apologizing becomes the only feasible route, short of giving up provocation altogether.
That lyric is often read at face value, which is maybe all that Kanye meant by it: now that you have their approval, lose it again. Chew it up and spit it back.
But read another way, there is an element of self-isolation, in that Kanye’s fans—a cultish group made in his image (“If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself,” as he said at the time)—want to resonate with him, and Yeezus literally strikes a tone of discord from the slasher film opening of “On Site.” He at once calls his followers to him and keeps them at arm’s distance.
“So you want to be like me?” the self-projected god asks. “You are unlike me.” How else would Kanye be Kanye, and all that name brings with it into a room? Fans have often seen Kanye as a man of the people, and he agrees to some extent, but on Yeezus, his tone is ominous—he does not live in our midst. He told The Breakfast Club that he knew listeners would have loved to hear “Blood On the Leaves” start the album, but the point was not comforting. Yeezus is conflict, contradiction, and no certain conclusions.
In his interview with The New York Times, Jon Caramanica nods to this self-projection: “One of the things that you’ve thrived on over the years is sort of a self-conception as an outsider, that you’re fighting your way in. Do you still, in this moment, feel like that?” Kanye replies, “No, I don’t think I feel like that anymore. I feel like I don’t want to be inside anymore. Like, I uninvited myself.”
This exchange pretty much sums up Yeezus, and Kanye’s career post-SwiftGate: there are plenty of people who hate him, sure, and the fashion industry was and is critical of his Yeezy line, but with a following like his, and sales numbers like Yeezy shoes put up, much of Kanye’s perceived rejection is both real and projection. And what is projected allows a certain mythology of Kanye as a pariah to persist. He keeps his fans close, but his enemies closer, in the sense that he needs them—not his fans—to maintain his outsider status.
It was possible at one point to both critique Kanye’s interruption of Swift showing sexism in real-time and the ensuing media maelstrom striking racist undertones of a Black artist’s “place,” but that didn’t happen, and now it no longer seems possible. Level-headedness leaves the room when Kanye enters. Otherwise rational people take essentialist stances, defending or demonizing him, depending on where they stand. If both critiques had stood alongside one another, Kanye could have grown, and the media could have been held accountable for its troubling views. But now, with what has increasingly become the case with Kanye, you don’t get to stand in between. The gray area no longer exists. As he said early in his career, perhaps all-too-tellingly, “Everybody feel a way about K, but at least y’all feel something.”
And on Yeezus, Kanye seems to stake his own claim in the fight: you’re either for me or against me, but most of you are against me, and I am who I am, a monster because you said so, a monster because I said so. He was building a mountain only fit for one man. The icon of sampling had chopped up the media sound bites about him and created anew.
And what he created was more than a monster: a god. In a storyline of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s Black Panther comic run, T’Challa seeks the help of Ororo, a goddess in her time who has since lost her following. T’Challa, confused, tries to confirm that she is, in fact, a god, but Ororo says this is the wrong question:
“It is true, I was worshipped once. A religion swirled around me. And what I remember of that time is that the more that people believed, the stronger I grew. If I was not divine, the strength I drew from their belief made me feel as though I was. And that is what I know of gods. Their native powers may be formidable—but it is the faith of others that elevates them beyond the mortal coil.”
In a way, before Atlanta’s purposeful brand of unsettling television, there was Yeezus. Before Kendrick’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Beyoncé’s LEMONADE were hailed as “unapologetically Black,” Yeezus was unapologetic, and Black, but uncomfortably so, as Yeezus will never be mentioned alongside those albums, nor celebrated as widely as his earlier work. Perhaps the creator intended it this way. The album is full of self-isolation, self-contradictions, and self-projection, as a wolf and a king, a menace and a monster, a slave and a god.
But perhaps his projections are less telling than our reactions to them: those who believe him a monster, without recognizing the troubling undertones of such a claim, and what they did to him; and those who believe him a god, without recognizing that Jesus was characterized as both divine and human, yet Yeezus is far more human than some will ever be willing to admit.
Forgive us; we know not how to see.
Original illustration by Nick Francis. Follow Nick on Instagram.