Yeezus could make a strong case for Kanye West as a full-fledged villain: a barking dog high on hubris, rampaging across the pop culture landscape in search of new trophies, young models to fuck, and a legit fashion house to work with. He's been calling himself a "monster" since at least 2008's 808s and Heartbreak, when the untimely loss of his mother and the implosion of a serious romance seemed to detach the man from so many human constraints, along with those of traditional rap music. This year, the most brilliant pop star of our time calls himself a monster only 40 seconds into his new album.
Declaring "I Am a God" on Yeezus' third track does come off like the ultimate arrogance, and possible citations for an argument about Kanye's misogyny are many on the man's sixth long-player. But the album is a dark night of the soul more than a beaming self-affirmation. It's a fevered confession, not a celebration. Listening to the most nauseating lyrics on Yeezus — "Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign," "Eatin' Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce" — one gets the sense that Kanye knows exactly how awful he's being, and that he's being awful for a reason. The man is well aware of his polarizing, controversial place within the culture, and much of his music is a commentary on it, explicit or otherwise. So Yeezus can be heard as an album partly about how he reached this point of celebrated villainy: a tour through the egotism that fueled his success, a display of the holes where he sacrificed parts of a normal human self, and an outlet for his fury that he still can't get what he wants. In a larger sense, Yeezus is about the limits of celebrity and cultural power, and the hypocrisy of what we consumers demand from our stars. If it makes Kanye look like a villain, that's in part because villainy — or at least the appearance thereof — is what we've asked of him.
"The blueprint" for Yeezus, according to contributing producer Hudson Mohawke, is the song "I Am a God," where Kanye barks orders over burbling, nauseating bass. Its mission statement arrives in the first verse, where the man addresses himself: "Soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you/'Cause kissing people's ass is so unlike you ... Old niggas mentally still in high school/Since the tight jeans they never liked you." Kanye announces that he's done trying to satisfy the rap world and is pushing forward alone, and naturally, it comes off as beyond arrogant. In an age where so many people are doing so poorly, and where a few are doing incredibly well yet don't care about the many, it can really only look despicable for a rich and powerful celebrity to declare himself divine.
Consider, though, what Kanye told the BBC's Zane Lowe about the song in his rambling interview earlier this fall: "We got this other thing ... where you don't have to be racist anymore, it's called self-hate.... Where, when someone comes up and says something like, 'I am a god,' everybody says, 'Who does he think he is?' ... Would it have been better if I had a song that said, 'I am a nigga?'" He explained that he was taught by his parents that he could do anything, and that his music is for people who believe the same. "If you are a Kanye West fan, you are not a fan of me, you're a fan of yourself," he said. "I'm just the shot in the morning to get you going." So it's possible to see "I Am a God" as partly an assertion of not just Kanye's power, but everyone's; as him trying to help us find endless faith in our own abilities.
"I Am a God" also rails against the contradictions of a system that values wealth, celebrity, and cultural power, but criticizes anyone who acts like they have it — even if they do, and especially if they're black. It's Kanye saying that he acts like he's the shit because he is, more than he thinks the white establishment realizes; because he "showed people I know how to make perfect," as he said regarding his 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. If that seems to contradict the song's stated intent as a positive affirmation, well, Kanye has long been torn between various contradictions: anti-materialism vs. conspicuous consumption, unbridled arrogance vs. humility before God, a desire to elevate the masses vs. his desire to elevate himself above all. Those contradictions are what make him so interesting. He's one of us, but not of us; he's assured of his own greatness, but thinks we should be, too. The smirk of knowing what you're really capable of may not be pretty, he says in this song, but once you've worn it, it never comes off.
Kanye says he wrote "I Am a God" and "New Slaves" after the designer Hedi Slimane would only let him attend a fashion show in Paris if he promised not to attend any other designers' shows. "And I was like, 'Wait a second,'" Kanye told the BBC. "'I'm not your boy.'" So "New Slaves" is about Kanye's enslavement to his love for fashion (he says he drew designs for Air Jordans in fourth grade), as well as his inability to fully realize that love. He says he can't find a company to work with that won't insist on controlling him, and calls this limit his "Truman Show boat is hitting the wall" moment, comparing it to Michael Jackson's battle to get his videos shown on MTV (which, in the early '80s, did not show clips by black artists). Kanye's confidence is never more inspiring and powerful than here, where the slave battles a corporate system and a social class that won't let him in.
In many of the ugliest places on Yeezus, Kanye tallies the price he paid for becoming Kanye. "Blood on the Leaves," a tone-setter originally slated to be the album's first song, evokes the loneliness that accompanies his success by showing how his romantic relationships are almost never between financial equals, and thus are never not-flawed: "These bitches' surroundin' me/All want somethin' out me ... Thought you'd be different 'bout it/Now I know you not it."
Kanye has said he's a sex addict who carries porn at all times, and has long glorified his power and freedom to basically fuck anyone. Lately he details the despair that comes with that freedom, too. The end of "Blood on the Leaves" is a nightmare about one of his "second-string bitches" getting pregnant: "Now your driver say that new Benz you can't afford that/All that cocaine on the table you can't snort that." And this is a real concern for him. When Kanye's romance with Kim Kardashian came up in the BBC interview, he said: "She was in a powerful enough situation where she could love me without asking me for money. Which is really hard for me to find." Succeeding at being Kanye West has meant sacrificing normal human romance, because he can't trust women — partly because of his own obsession with sex and power, which leads him to regard many women as objects, but also because he's rich and the women he might love usually are not. He may be a misogynist, but one reason Kanye looks like a monster is because he couldn't have the main thing that keeps the rest of us from becoming one. (Until Kardashian, anyway.)
All of which is what makes this pop star, this maniac, so perfectly now. What we see in the Kanye West of Yeezus is the ugly contradiction our cultural moment deserves: a monster who claims he wants to do good for the world, a dedicated player who wants but is terrified of love, a striver who has more than anyone could imagine, but is still held back by some unaccountable, racist system. His success mirrors our values: our obsession with the Internet (which he consumes voraciously), our addiction to porn (his too), our terror of commitment, of compromise, of death. Like any major celebrity, Kanye is, as he told Jimmy Kimmel, an "abused zoo animal," a genius Frankenstein we assembled and taught to be this way for our amusement. Now he's looking back at us with angry eyes we recognize and attack lines we wrote ourselves. He is a monster and he is us. No wonder we don't want to like him.