Kanye’s New Album Is Out. So, How About That Performance Art Theory?
As of writing, there’s a Twitter thread that has over 13,000 retweets and might just convince you that Kanye West was never having a public meltdown, or pivoting to the right wing, or cashing in all his genius chips for a bonkers interview on TMZ, but instead engaging in some seriously high-concept performance art aimed at changing how we talk about politics in America in 2018. Spencer Wolff, the author of said thread, laid out what he calls the “Prestige Theory,” a complicated but well-researched argument that Kanye’s behavior over the past six weeks or so was designed to provoke, to make us think. People, especially Kanye fans, loved it.
Wolff’s theory tied together conceptual artists David Hammons and Joseph Beuys; late actor Andy Kaufman; a serious interpretation of emojis; and the 2006 Christopher Nolan film The Prestige. It also involved coyotes. The basic idea was that there was an intellectual game going on that explained what Kanye was doing when he tweeted an image of himself wearing a Make America Great Again cap, or when he burst onto the TMZ set and claimed slavery was a choice. That there was a bigger point being made.
The problem was no one could tell when the performance had started. More importantly, no one knew when it was going to end. The best bet was June 1st, when Kanye had announced he would release his highly anticipated eighth studio album. It was always unlikely that this theory would pay off. For one, it would be extremely difficult to make a musically worthy album that also explained the particulars of your recently concluded piece of complex concept art. Also, as May went on, it became harder to square Kanye’s behavior with Wolff’s painstakingly explained theory. However, many fans clung to the explanations that Wolff laid out in his Twitter thread, and later in a piece he wrote for the music site Pigeons & Planes.
The album was released last Friday, and it contains no indication that Kanye was orchestrating a grand piece of performance art. If he was, Ye was not its end point. Rolling Stone caught up with Wolff in the wake of Kanye’s album release to see where he’s at on his ambitious theory now that Ye is out in the world.
How’s Kanye release day going for you?
It’s good, man, I’ve listened to it probably four or five times now, had it on repeat all day. You know, with his albums, you catch stuff every listen. I still catch stuff off Pablo, sometimes his words are super cheesy and corny, and sometimes — he uses a lot of double meaning. A lot of times you don’t really catch it on the first listen, so I’m still trying to get those figured out.
What do you think of it?
I think that this is the least I’ve liked a Kanye on album on first listen, but my opinion has moved up since then. I need a couple more days to see where I’m really landing.
Yeah, I felt the same with a lot of his albums in the past. Yeezus obviously took a while for people to get, and now it’s probably my favorite of his.
I see people on Twitter saying that I was 100% right, and I’m not really sure where they get that from, because I don’t see that.
I wanted to talk to you about the “Prestige Theory” that you put out on Twitter last month. I thought it was well-researched but, listening to the album, I’m not sure that I see any of it there.
Oh yeah, sure. You know, I tried to make it clear – and I probably could have made it more clear – that I didn’t know that the album was going to be the giant prestige or the album was going to be the answer. Possibly it could have been. I think in the thread I just thought it could be. But after I thought about it, especially after the first few days of that thread blowing up, I leaned towards it maybe not being the end? Because, you know, Kaufman never broke character, and I think when Joaquin Phoenix was doing his thing – I’m Not Here was not some giant revelation, it was the final piece of that performance. As far as I know he never came out and said, “This is performance art,” it was just understood.
I’ve seen people on Twitter say that this thread was Capone’s Vault, that it was all lies, that it wasn’t real. But I don’t know if that was the case. And if it was, if I was totally wrong, I’m fine with that. I’m not a person who thinks that I have to be right about this — I don’t have any stake in this. But I still haven’t figured it out. Because I see people on Twitter saying that I was 100% right, and I’m not really sure where they get that from, because I don’t see that.
The one thing I’ve thought about more and more as I’ve listened to the album [is that] I think originally I thought the piece was more political, with the coyotes and Trump and Candace Owens. Now, I’m kind of leaning towards that it was more about mental health, and his bipolar [disorder]. This album is the first time he’s really acknowledged it and he’s fully embraced it – I mean, he put it on the cover, he talks about it on the first song. And the whole album really deals with his mental health a lot.
I’m kind of wondering now if the performance art was all geared toward that. You know, the TMZ interview happened the same day as the Charlamagne interview, which to me was always a juxtaposition of showing how you’re perceived in the media. If you do this two-hour sit-down you come across as rational and well-spoken and thought-out, and if you go on this heavily edited tabloid show you’re perceived as crazy and nuts, and that’s what he was trying to do.
I don’t think I understand what he was going for.
That’s what I lean towards, but who’s to say, I guess.
You’re a big Kanye fan. Do you worry that you’re working overtime to make everything he’s doing make sense?
I’ve thought about that, too. Obviously I’m going to be biased, I’m a huge Kanye fan, and obviously I put this thread out there, so I’ve got to stand by it. Like I said, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong. That’s totally fine by me.
I don’t know that anyone will be able to prove you right or wrong.
Yeah, I don’t think think that’s ever going to happen. As time goes on, if I come to the conclusion that I was wrong, that’s totally fine by me. Before the album dropped, I was 100% certain. Right now I’m down to 50/50. He doesn’t talk about anything that would allude to this being a prestige, but I never thought he was going to. I don’t know, it’s hard to say.
Before the album dropped, I was 100% certain. Right now I’m down to 50/50.
There’s the possibility parts of it were true and parts of it were not. He was tweeting about some of the things you were pulling from, but it may not have been one unified piece of performance art.
Looking at it now, in retrospect, there were parts that probably made sense and there were parts that I was probably reaching too much on. I was basically trying to do emoji encryption, I know it was ridiculous [Laughs]. It was far-reaching, and I never lost sight of that, that it was an off-the-wall, crazy theory. I never thought every single thing made sense, but I was pretty sure that I was right about it. Looking back on it now I can see that it could be a mix.
I haven’t really decided yet, but it’s coincidental to me that his last three albums include his name: Yeezus, and Pablo was based off this alias Paul, and then with Ye — I kind of think, Has he been doing this a while? Because if you look at Yeezus he was dressed in black leather and fighting cameramen, and just this super angry, mean guy. Then with Pablo he has this mental breakdown. And now we get Ye. And just, was this Bowie-esque? Was he playing characters and the albums were reflecting that? I don’t want to be misconstrued — I don’t want to say that’s for sure what he’s doing, that he’s playing characters and whatever he does shouldn’t be taken seriously because it’s all characters. Because I don’t know. I just think it’s kind of coincidental that these three albums all kind of tell this story of his life. Musicians do that a lot, but I’m curious if that somehow ties in.
I’m a big Kanye fan too, but it’s interesting how you take all the same information that I have and turn it into a narrative.
Yeah, I don’t know. I could be reaching.
I’m not making a value judgement on that, just noticing it. I also wanted to ask about how much attention you got from the tweet thread — what was that like?
Oh, it was crazy. It was nuts. I’m talking to Rolling Stone. I talked to Pitchfork, and Pigeons & Planes. It was crazy. It was fun; it was cool. I was worried for a little while that I had spoiled it, if that’s something that could have happened. I don’t want to speak too highly of myself.
No, I understand what you mean.
If that was what he was trying to do, I don’t want this tweet to go viral and then I fucking ruin the whole thing. That would be terrible, as a Kanye fan. But this has all been a lot of fun, if I’m wrong, I’m wrong, that’s fine. I enjoy Twitter, I enjoy Kanye’s music, being able to talk to people about it is a lot of fun to me. It’s a shakeup from ordinary life, if that makes sense.