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Kanye and LeBron: Preview Chuck Klosterman's 'I Wear the Black Hat'

"Perpetual Topeka" is a brand-new essay included in the paperback version of the book, out July 1st

June 16, 2014 10:10 AM ET
Chuck Klosterman
Chuck Klosterman
Courtesy Scribner

"Perpetual Topeka" is a bonus essay that will be included in the paperback edition of Chuck Klosterman's I Wear the Black Hat, out July 1st. Order the book here.

I've obliterated three days trying to come up with an elegant way to write what I'm about to write, but I think the least elegant way is probably best: I like Kanye West. I don't particularly like LeBron James. I do, however, want LeBron James to succeed. And I want Kanye West to fail (at least once).

So there it is.

There's the concept. Accept it or reject it.

There is, certainly, a limited utility to this type of proclamation. Just because I don't like a guy doesn't make him a villain, and just because I have an irrational personal investment in someone's failure doesn't reflect any universal perception about that guy's life. I'm not claiming that these are the perspectives other people currently hold, nor am I arguing that these are the perspectives other people should adopt. Feel what you want to feel. Disagree with whatever you disagree with. My interest here is personal, and it tumbles through the chasm of my own emotional illogic: I'm interested in the gap between liking a musician while hoping he makes a horrible album, and I'm interested in the gap between disliking a basketball player while hoping he goes for 44 and 13 against the Pacers. The specific individuals I've designated are almost arbitrary; I'm more engaged with the problem itself, because I don't think this type of disparity is rare (particularly when one considers how impossible it should be). It shouldn't happen. But it happens all the time.

In 2004, historian Thomas Frank wrote a book titled What's the Matter with Kansas? Politically, the book leans left. But its central inquiry is apolitical: Why do Americans so often vote against their own interest? Why, for example, would an unemployed person support a presidential candidate who wants to reduce welfare? It's a complicated, multilayered paradox (and Frank's book is appropriately nuanced). But such a question can also be answered simply: Voters don't know who they are. They don't view themselves objectively, because no person can. Instead, they see themselves as a self-generated projection of who they could be, striving for whatever best-case scenario they consider plausible. The contradiction between what they think and how they feel does not pose a problem; as far as they can tell, no contradiction exists. That's the matter – that's the problem – with Kansas. It's also my problem, and I'm not even registered to vote.

I reside in perpetual Topeka.

 

No one needs me to culturally connect Kanye to LeBron. It happened on its own, in front of everybody. West refers to himself as "the LeBron of rhyme" and inexplicitly attended ESPN's disastrous made-for-TV event The Decision (where James announced he was leaving Cleveland for Miami). Ye referenced LBJ in the 2011 track "Gotta Have It" and puzzlingly deleted another reference to James from his 2013 song "Black Skinhead" (although he later posted the deleted lyrics on Twitter for reasons that almost certainly don't exist). They're both only children obsessed with cultivating and usurping imaginary older brothers. They both fear loneliness. They're both driven by childlike insecurities (whenever things go pear-shaped, LeBron still can't stop himself from chewing his fingernails). LeBron has said he wants to be the first billion-dollar athlete; Kanye insists the only way to make an impact on society is to become a billionaire. They want us to know that they're friends. In fact, they interweave their relationship so transparently that pointing it out sometimes annoys people: I once made a public joke about LeBron demanding croissants, and people fucking hated it. They insisted the allusion was tired and cliché, even though the Yeezus song it referenced ("I Am a God") had been released a mere forty-eight hours prior to the inception of the joke. And you know what? The people who hammered that joke were right. It was sub-Borowitz. It was old before it was new.

 

I like to tell people that LeBron and I grew up together, which would be true if our relationship were viewed from Zeta Reticuli. In May of 1998, I took a job with a newspaper in LeBron's hometown of Akron, Ohio. Soon after, a peach-fuzzed 14-year-old James entered St. Vincent–St. Mary High School and immediately averaged 18 points a game. When LeBron was a tenth-grader, a coworker told me I needed to see this kid play in person, even though it seemed ridiculous to visit a tiny Catholic high school gym on a wintery Tuesday night. "You will never see a better sophomore," he said. "That might be true," I replied, "but I'll wait until next year." The following season, LeBron's tiny Catholic high school started moving its home games into local college arenas. They still sold out immediately. I never got inside. Sometimes I would see him on TV, which already seemed crazy. Even things he didn't do qualified as news; when he was a senior, the biggest story of September was that LeBron wasn't going to play football. In January, he ["mysteriously"] started driving a $50,000 Hummer. That vehicle became more famous than the mayor.

LeBron's mother was a teenager when she gave birth. She lived in public housing. Money was scarce. His father was a convict who played no role in his upbringing; LBJ's initial paternal role model was his mom's boyfriend, a man twice sentenced to prison. Despite this adversity (or because of it), James became a basketball genius. Considering his height and strength and dexterity, it was the obvious path. College was never necessary. Considering who he has become, it's the type of origin story one expects. There are probably twenty players in the NBA who'd submit a similar childhood résumé.

Kanye West was also raised solo by his mother. He came from a family of divorce, but the landing was softer; born in Atlanta, he was raised in a middle-class suburban Chicago household. His mom was an English professor. His father (who remained in the South) was a devoutly Christian photojournalist and a former Black Panther. Judging from the esoteric aesthetic of his music, this arcane origin story is almost more predictable than LeBron's – it seems as if it was cobbled together by someone making a VH1 movie about a fictional rapper who's supposed to "signify" Kanye after the network failed to secure his life rights. Viewed through this biographical prism, no artist has ever been better engineered to become who he is. But this, of course, is not enough. Kanye aspires to be greater than his literal self, so he adds value. Here is how he describes the source of his maniacal drive, outlined in a spellbinding Q&A with Jon Caramanica of the New York Times: "[In] seventh grade, I wanted to be on the basketball team. I didn't get on the team, so that summer I practiced. I was on the summer league. My team won the championship; I was the point guard. And then when I went for eighth grade, I practiced and I hit every free throw, every layup, and the next day I looked on this chart, and my name wasn't on it. I asked the coach what's up, and they were like, 'You're just not on it.' I was like, 'But I hit every shot.' The next year – I was on the junior team when I was a freshman, that's how good I was. But I wasn't on my eighth-grade team, because some coach – some Grammy, some reviewer, some fashion person, some blah blah blah – they're all the same as that coach."

The reason this anecdote is awesome is not because it's so insightful, or because it elucidates something that can't normally be explained, or because it fits so nicely into an essay that compares Kanye West to a pro basketball player. It's awesome because it's not really his story. It's possible this all happened, exactly as he claims. But I have some doubt. [West is five foot eight, there's no tangible record of his adolescent basketball career anywhere on the Internet, and I've never seen a roster photo involving his face. I'm not suggesting that he can't play ball or that he wasn't good – it just seems odd that there's no electronic paper trail for someone who's both very famous and unusually obsessed with bringing up his junior high basketball career in major interviews. I can locate Kanye's baby pictures in less than three seconds. Why is this so comparatively difficult?] Moreover, the origin story West tells is a note-for-note cover of Michael Jordan's origin story. It was Jordan who famously got cut from the basketball team as a sophomore, an anecdote he continued to reference even as he was being inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame. It should be noted that Jordan's story is also a slight exaggeration – he was technically cut from the roster, but it wasn't like he was vanquished from the program. The varsity needed another post player and Jordan was a guard; he merely had to play JV for one season (and it probably helped his game). The memory of his alleged degradation is constructed, but the construct has consequence. It became a way for Jordan to galvanize his first grudge against society, a process he repeated for the rest of his life. Over time, it became his singular advantage: No one ever worked harder at making his imaginary enemies pay for sins they never committed.

Growing up in Chicago during the nineties, it's not surprising that a kid like Kanye might pattern his life after Michael Jordan's. At the very least, he adopted the most insane aspect of Jordan's persona: the fallacious belief that no one respects him. This is what West forces himself to believe about his art, and it becomes his motive for everything else. He wants to talk like Michael Jordan, and he wants to succeed like Michael Jordan. In that same Times interview, he calls himself the "Michael Jordan of music." But his day-to-day posture is not Jordanesque; their core personalities are dissimilar. Jordan is a much meaner person. West does not desire the cold, lonely universe that MJ constructed for himself. West wants to exist in the universe of LeBron James: He wants to be a natural genius, which is what LBJ is. And Kanye is not. He's more like Axl Rose – a man who willed himself into genius, and a man who needs conflict in order to thrive. But being unnaturally brilliant is not good enough for West. It might be good enough for other people, but not for him. And that makes him seem as crazy as he probably (actually) is.

 

Kanye and LeBron aren't villains in a functional sense, nor do they adopt a false veil of villainy for some sinister, pecuniary purpose. It only feels that way because of who they are. Is this racist? I suppose some (including West) might argue that it is. But this is just the unavoidable problem of flawed luminosity (it happened to Madonna and Nick Saban, too). LeBron is the most talented basketball player who ever lived, but not the greatest basketball player who ever lived. That pedantic distinction makes him vulnerable to the most unwinnable types of attack. Kanye operates from the nuclear center of our popular culture, but he literally says things like "I am the nucleus" when discussing himself. This prompts a certain kind of person to hope that he's eventually humiliated for being right. [If you want to avoid criticism, it's better to be good than it is to be great.]

At the time of this writing, LBJ has played eleven seasons in the NBA. He has been named MVP four times; by the time this is published, he might have a fifth (unless the media decides hyper-efficient stickman Kevin Durant has sufficiently paid his dues). Yet those four (or five) MVP trophies still underestimate his merit. Even in the years when others won the award, James was unilaterally viewed as the player most coveted by rival general managers. For one game or one series or one season, no objective GM would ever trade James for Durant. It does not matter who gets the votes or what criteria is used – with a gun placed to the head, everyone knows who the best player really is. Over that same expanse of time, Kanye West released seven studio albums (assuming you count the collaborative Watch the Throne). The consensus is that two of these albums are classics, one is very good, two are pretty good, and two are boring. But those engaged with pop still talk about all seven of those projects, constantly and equally. As with Philip Roth, West's latest work is obsessively compared with whatever he produced in the past; instead of seven separate albums, it's more like he's making one superlong album that will only be complete when he dies. Other modern musicians have made better records, but Kanye makes the unavoidable ones. He makes the records that require conversation. So within this new musical economy – within this attention-based economy, where music has almost no tangible value beyond the degree to which people discuss it – West makes the records that are worth the most. He is the MVP every season, even when he doesn't get the votes.

Now: Is this "news"?

This is not news.

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