Kanye West may spit allusions to Michael Jackson like they were twins separated at birth, but West has become something harder, faster, and stronger than Jackson ever could be. What the two shared in superstardom and their disillusionment of the media, however, completes their similarities. West actually aligns more closely with the polarizing John Lennon—the outspoken microcosm of anti-energy, who compelled generations of the disenfranchised to get angry. West, like the raw Lennon, lacks certain social graces (shall we call it the gift of terseness?)—recall him famously calling out George Bush post-Katrina for not caring about black people. Both Lennon and West’s most controversial art is the purest, most eloquent form of anti-establishment anger—anger towards politicians, the leaders of the economic world, who, through policy, fail to understand the extreme disparity not just between the richest and poorest, but between the-just-getting-by and those living the dark night of the soul.
Both West and Lennon teeter on the tip of humility and hubris. While Lennon may have written “Working Class Hero” (1970’s John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band) as a protest of systematic ignorance of the soul, its surface is tactile, rooted in socio-economics. He sings with both intense reality and mockery: “As soon as you’re born they make you feel small / By giving you no time and nothing at all / A working class hero is something to be.” His sharpness seems off-putting and obtuse. However, when paired with songs like the unabashedly personal “Mother,” we understand John apart from the Beatles and as a loner with the wanting/longing created by the system he felt he was a part of for so long.
West mocks the idea of a working class hero with the same bitterness in the song “Runaway” from 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: “Let’s have a toast for the douchebags / Let’s have a toast for the assholes / Let’s have a toast to the jerkoffs that’ll never take work off.” But he brings the pendulum back on tracks such as the Gaye-like “All of the Lights,” in which he highlights the collective plight of the urban-American experience. He writes, “Cop lights, flashlights, spotlights / Strobe lights, streetlights / All of the lights, all of the lights / Fast life, drug life / Thug life, rock life / Every night” at a dizzying pace. Rihanna pleads, “Turn up the lights in here, baby / Extra bright, I want you all to see this / … / Want you to see all of the lights.” West’s plea is not just for himself; he challenges the world to feel the pain of the urban individual—to live out a raging life of discontent or to turn that pain into stardom (the middle ground having dropped out).
West’s true game is enlightenment. He showed up at the “Occupy Wall Street” congregation—slippery as a snake despite flashing chunky bling—without having to say a word to be heard. Like Lennon belting blues from a rooftop clad in a fur-coat or smoking cigarettes with Yoko Ono in bed, their energy is embedded in every action, in their build and shape, in their physicality, and in their flesh. To puncture and pierce the protective bubbles of the “haves” is the intent. Lennon sets the bar high, letting them know, “But you’re still fucking peasants as far as I can see” (“Working Class Hero”). West ends My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy with a spoken-word sample of Gil Scott-Heron’s gut-punch to reckless authority: “Who Will Survive in America.” This nod helps cement West with a sense of history and even links Lennon’s and his own generation’s disenchantment with authority. Neither West nor Lennon can be touched in their elusively relentless approaches.
In 1966, in an interview with English newspaper reporter Maureen Cleave, Lennon said that the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus” and sang, “I don’t believe in Jesus / … / I don’t believe in Beatles / I just believe in me” (“God,” John Lennon/Plastic Ono Band). Kanye might have gone about proving Lennon’s sentiment less discreetly, whether it was sulking over the fact that his Graduation lost to Herbie Hancock’s album, River: The Joni Letters, for the Grammy award for 2007’s Album of the Year, or interrupting Taylor Swift’s Best Video of the Year award speech to ostracize MTV for not choosing Beyoncé’s video. While his gaffes proved to be shows of unwavering stubbornness, he also understood the underlying tensions in an austere and duplicitous popular culture and its confusion of matters public and private.
Similarly, the Lennon and Ono nude photographs directly insulted the vestigial conservative ideals of the time. (I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the phoenix in West’s short film Runaway resembles Ono, who’s delicate and catatonic at the same time.) Lennon begged the question and West pushes it: When will the dichotomy between public and private become extinct?
Back in September, when I was still swimming in the Facebook aquarium, I pulled a Kanye gaffe. After Obama proposed his Buffet Rule tax reform, an acquaintance made a few anti-Obama posts, one reading, “Thanks Obama for flushing our country down the shitter,” and another about how she just didn’t understand why a certain demographic refused to go out and get jobs.
My urge to respond to her was imminent, and my post went something like this, “Maybe you should spend some time living in the city, see the blocks and blocks of boarded up shops and the worn down people walking the residential wastelands to the liquor shops and gas stations. Maybe then you’d understand the hopelessness of it all.” While awaiting her response, I felt a nervous pang because I realized that I had possibly committed a virtual sin. Had I overstepped the public and private boundary? What would I say to her the next time we met, say at a friendly Christmas get-together? And like that, I retracted my Facebook statement, hoping nobody read it, but knowing she all ready had. The damage had been done.
West eventually publically apologized for interrupting Swift, though I’m sure with clenched teeth. But in the end, it didn’t matter; West had made his point. In “Jesus Walks” (2004’s The College Dropout), he raps, “We’re at war with terrorism, with racism / And most of all, we at war with ourselves.” It turns out that West had used his anti-energy in the wrong format by trying to fit a triangle into a square. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West came to terms with his iconic status as a cultural rebel fighter; on the song “Monster,” he raps, “I’m living in the future so the present is my past / My past is a present so kiss my ass / Everybody knows I’m a mother fucking monster.” The unsettling hubris with which West spits these lines is the bullet that pierces the protective shield of the “haves,” and West is finally ready to let them bleed.
As for myself, I jumped free from the aquarium and hitched a ride to the nearest shoreline, swam out to the ignorant, ever-expansive sea. I wouldn’t worry about my hubris for a while. I wondered if Lennon and West ever dreamed of disappearing and watching from afar. It seems like they never left the black-tar tops of the crumbling cities of decaying souls. Lennon always had that shit-eating grin, knowing all too well its effect on his critics, or better yet, soul enemies. West is keen and happy for everyone to smell the tar and garbage rotting in the sun. My solicitation: If you’re missing Lennon’s raw energy, go West. It’s dressed up in shiny new clothes. Lucy’s in the sky with diamonds in the form of Kanye West.