"I'm the number one artist in the world right now. I'm the number one human being in music."
Kanye West made that declaration in 2007, and seven years later he probably thinks he was selling himself short. Next to West’s ocean-wide narcissism, every other pop celebrity is just a two-bit egocentric. Even West’s latest collaborator, author Bret Easton Ellis, doesn’t deny that the rapper brims with the arrogant pride that is a hallmark of self-love since Narcissus himself fell in love with his own reflection. Ellis recently told Vice that all entertainers are egotists, but West is “one of the few people who will admit it, and I like him for that and I wish more people would follow suit."
A world with more Kanyes would surely be a more exciting and volatile place, even if Taylor Swift would want an exit visa. And Ellis is no wallflower when it comes to shock-and-awe artistry himself. His controversial, blood-spattered book-turned-movie American Psycho inspired a promo video for West’s 2013 album Yeezus. Now he says he’s on board to script a biographical movie that West will direct, starring the rapper’s girlfriend, Kim Kardashian.
What Ellis understands is that even if narcissism carries with it an unwavering certainty about one’s own talent, it also carries potentially huge artistic benefits. Those who think they can do no wrong or don’t care what others think of them are more prone to take risks, to push beyond what’s considered acceptable, to break rules in the name of furthering not only their own greatness, but their own conception of what art is and what it can do.
It can all go horribly wrong, of course, and often does. Egotists turned narcissists have been pushing pop-culture boundaries for decades, for better and inevitably worse – often in the same career. Michael Jackson declared himself the “King of Pop” before imploding. Roger Waters built stadium-sized walls and made pigs fly before breaking up Pink Floyd. Bono is still Bono, even if U2 hasn’t made a great album in more than a decade. Liam and Noel Gallagher are still fighting in the UK press, even if their last US hit, Wonderwall, continues to rapidly recede in the rearview mirror. Axl Rose still thinks he’s the reason Guns N’ Roses once mattered, even as Chinese Democracy collapsed beneath the weight of its own self-importance.
Along the way, all these headcases made some great music, before they became victims of their own vanity. And there’s the challenge: to recognise when ego transitions from artistic fuel (“the world needs to hear me”) into a trap (“how do I stay in demand?”). To prevent fame and ubiquity from becoming the goal, art turning into a business and the narcissist evolving into a brand obsessed with doing whatever it takes to stay on the mountaintop.
West isn’t there yet. From invading Taylor Swift’s stage to proclaiming himself the voice of a generation, the rapper makes himself awfully tough to love. But his musical standards remain high. He’s not the greatest rapper, singer or musician. But he’s a visionary producer, capable of uniting sounds, ideas and styles from a range of cultures into music that appeals to pop fanatics and arty connoisseurs alike. In many ways he represents the apogee of hip-hop production, an expert at mixing, matching and recontextualising in a style of music that has come to dominate the world by encompassing everything in it.
After a decade of mostly excellent albums, he shows no signs of slowing down – either as a loud mouth or a creative force. Yeezus, his sixth album, is also in many ways his most challenging: a harsh, abrasive and sometimes off-putting statement that puts West at the centre of an ongoing debate over race, class and sex.
On the Yeezus tour, he spent most of the time on stage alone – were you expecting him to share it with someone else? And yet it was mesmerising theatre. Here was a show that saw West scale a mountain, drape himself atop an iceberg, even control the weather. (What other pop concert has included a simulated snowstorm?) And still it wasn’t enough. In a lengthy rant near the end of the show, he focussed not on the world’s problems, but the world’s problem with him. “I know I have something more inside to give,” he said one night, “but I was being held back from giving it to ya’ll.”
Delusional or not, that statement suggests that Kanye still has a Sequoia-sized chip on his shoulder. He still feels he has something to prove to the world, that he hasn’t gotten the props he deserves. Until he is persuaded otherwise, he likely will remain an exasperating, petulant narcissist who keeps making albums like no one else.
Greg Kot is the music critic at the Chicago Tribune. His work can be found here.