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“I Am Warhol”: On the Arrogance of Kanye

But if you guys that’re investing in the arts, y’all want to invest in the school in Brazil, y’all wanna go to Africa, I am standing up and I’m telling you, I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh. Walt Disney. Nike. Google. Now who’s gonna be the Medici family and stand up and let me create more? Or do you wanna marginalize me ’til I’m out of my moment?

—Kanye West, Interview with Sway, November 26, 2013

On November 26, 2013, Kanye West gave a now-infamous interview on Sway’s Shade 45 Radio Show, wherein he yelled at the radio host, repeatedly booming, “You ain’t got the answers, Sway!” Though Kanye spent a large part of the interview laying out a rather incisive critique of global economic inequality, commentators reduced his ideas by framing them as a personal, emotional response to Sway’s near-sighted questions. MTV’s Rob Markman wrote: “During last week’s radio interview, Kanye expressed his frustration with the corporate structure in the fashion world, venting about the lack of support and creative freedom from the big fashion houses he’s reached out to or collaborated with. When Sway asked Kanye why he doesn’t just fund himself, things took a hard turn.”

Markman’s reduction is characteristic of the mass media response to Kanye’s outburst. “You ain’t got the answers, Sway!” became a legion of memes overnight, the clip inserted into a hundred “stories” about one more instance of an egomaniacal Kanye inexplicably spazzing on someone trying, simply, to have a civil conversation with him.

However, Kanye made several astute points about who holds power in the world today, about the lack of power celebrities have, the general public’s lack of understanding about who has power, the hypervisibility of the seemingly powerful and the invisibility of the truly powerful, and the genius’s crucial need, throughout history, for massive wealth to support the creation of the most spectacular artistry.

Before I elaborate, I’ll disclose that, in my expert opinion, Kanye is a genius. I don’t think this statement can really be effectively contested if we are assessing the statement based on the art he has created in the past 15 years. If we base our judgment of the artist on whom he is married to, whose award ceremony he interrupted, which president he has offended, or public behavior we deem lewd, rude, or otherwise offensive, then we are no longer assessing his art.

Kanye’s challenge to the largest creative corporations refers to the fact that the Medici (the richest group of people on Earth during the Renaissance) took in Michelangelo as a boy and paid for him to have not only the best art education possible, but ensured that he would have the necessary resources to pursue his outsize visions. When Kanye compares himself to Michelangelo, as he has done on more than one occasion, we tend to see it as one more example of his egomania, when in actuality he is pointing out the material, economic conditions of possibility for the flourishing of genius.

Without the Medici, and specifically, without the wealth of the Medici, there would have been no Michelangelo. Without a Disney, or an Apple, or a Nike stepping up to the plate with the hundreds of millions or billions required for Kanye’s creative visions to unfold, we will have no Kanye in the sense that we will not be able to see his full potential flower the way Michelangelo’s talent did.

Kanye also calls himself “Shakespeare in the flesh,” which I don’t think is about his writing ability specifically but more about the fact that he sees himself as “the number one most impactful artist of our generation.” In his introduction at the beginning of the interview, Sway says something similar by calling him the “most important artist of his generation.” Legendary music producer L.A. Reid also concurs, as he stated to Seth Myers that Kanye is “one of the world’s greats, and maybe, I’m going out on a limb…I argue, I debate people on it, he might be the most creative artist alive.”

Reid’s explanation of Kanye’s supposed egomania is also instructive and consistent the reports of numerous artists who have commented on Kanye’s personality, antics, perfectionism, and, in a word, genius: “He’s not the egomaniacal guy that people think he is. I think he’s meticulous, he’s detailed, he works really hard, he wants to be great and he really works at it. But in private, he wants to know what you think. [Imitating Kanye] ‘Hey Seth, what do you think about this? L.A., what do you think about this? Is this good? What do you think?’ And when he gets it all right, then he puts back on the, like, super-confident guy and says, ‘I’m the greatest in the world like Muhammed Ali!’”

In his cascade of comparisons, he also says “I am Warhol,” which, again, I read not as a point about his ability in visual art, but rather that he is the one in our generation who has seen inside the machinery of advertising, consumption, and celebrity culture, contributed to it masterfully (Warhol worked in magazine illustration and advertising immediately after college). Like Warhol, Kanye deploys his embedded knowledge of and deep complicity in consumer culture to X-ray the souls of his fellow slaves. If you disagree with me, listen closely to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. You won’t find a more thoroughgoing self-examination through the lens of abject consumption, and an examination of abject consumption through the lens of the self, anywhere in 21st century artistic production.

Kanye might be the only contemporary artist to publicly compare himself to such an illustrious roster, but Talib Kweli has pointed out that Kanye has always been both “humble and arrogant.” Kweli, himself a legendary emcee and entrepreneur, was one of Kanye’s earliest supporters. He has an incredible ear for talent, as he also promoted and nurtured the fledgling careers of rap’s current kings, such as Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole.

For Kweli, Kanye’s music, even before his debut album, showed that he was “the complete hip hop artist,” and that his music represented what hip hop would sound like in the future. In another instance, when VladTV asks Kweli to speak about Kanye’s arrogance, his response is confrontational, and reminds us why we tend to throw shade at people like Kanye, and it isn’t fundamentally because they think too much of themselves:

Kanye got the type of arrogance and ego that it points out flaws in your shit. If you uncomfortable about yourself, you gonna be mad at Kanye. If you uncomfortable within yourself, or not comfortable with type of person you are, when you see him on his shit, it’s gonna make you mad because it makes you feel bad about yourself. ‘Cause you wish you could be that passionate about anything in your life as he is about his music. You see that and you like, ‘I wish I could be that passionate, but I can’t, ‘cause I’m just a sucka.’