In 1968, Bob Dylan was living in Woodstock, New York, where he’d recently relocated to escape public scrutiny, focus on his new family and, eventually, record a shit-ton of world-historic music with the Band. On visits upstate, friends found Dylan relishing his new bucolic life, “contented to talk about stonemasonry more than Vietnam,” as author Barney Hoskyns writes in Small Town Talk, his 2017 history of the Woodstock scene. “He even expressed support for George Wallace, the pro-segregationist governor of Alabama.”
The idea of the man who wrote “The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll” big-upping the avatar for racist backlash may still shock a few people. But, of course, it was just another example of Dylan being Dylan, tweaking his friends and signaling his disdain for his role as spokesman for the Sixties left. In 1968, Dylan also knew his self-conscious bullshitting wouldn’t make it much further than his dinner table. Fifty years later, Kanye West‘s dinner table is as big as his number of Twitter followers – and the wall between sincerity and irony, lazy contrarianism and genuinely unhinged belief, has essentially collapsed into a kind of dada hate speech.
Sure, there have been right-leaning rockers before. But the kind of raw hurt West has caused feels new, delivered with a blithe, vengeful narcissism that makes Morrissey look well-intentioned and levelheaded. It’s hard to think of another artist at the top of his career who has alienated so many people so quickly for political reasons. To a generation of hip-hop fans, it’s a seismic, even quasi-Oedipal betrayal – record-burning time, a moment where the only thing holding some people back from firing off anti-Kanye Twitter invective is that it might inadvertently offend the mentally ill.
But we also probably shouldn’t be too shocked that pop’s preeminent narcissist would be down with our infant emperor. Even before washed-up reality-TV star Trump morphed into birther-bully Trump, Kanye was already vaguely Trumpian – charging through his Olympian ascendance in a swirl of arrogance and ambition, giving his songs fashy win-at-all-costs titles like “Power” and “Stronger,” ripping an award from the hands of a woman because that’s what famous men get to do, firing off asshole aphorisms a mile a minute, weaponizing chaos and scandal.
During their rise, both also thrived on bulldozing institutions. The stunned look on Mike Meyers’ face when Kanye interrupted a nationally televised charity event to tell us “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” isn’t that different from the deer-in-the-headlights glaze that beset Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio in the early Republican debates when Trump showed up to ruin their careers by sucking up all their oxygen with his unscripted fulminations. Their creative processes aren’t dissimilar either. Kanye releasing The Life of Pablo, then claiming it’s just a rough draft he’d get around to finishing when and/or if he feels like it is the brilliant hip-hop–opus equivalent of the way the Trump White House does everything – every Fox and Friends appearance or policy decision or misspelled press release. It’s all a train wreck to be re-railed later. We’re living in the Pablo Presidency.
Sadly, the darkest connection between the two is political. Trump Brand racism was unique – a mix of warmed-over Wallace-ite “law and order” dog whistles set against the backdrop of anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim xenophobia. When he did half-heartedly gesture toward the African-American community, he offered a nihilist olive branch (“What have you got to lose?”), playing on his outsider status and an accrued sense of systemic betrayal at the hands of Democratic and Republican politicians alike. West echoed that sentiment during his Tweetstorm when he noted, “Obama was in office for eight years and nothing in Chicago changed.” That sense of cynicism may have played a role in depressing African-American turnout on Election Day 2016, helping put Trump in the White House.
West visited Trump Tower during the presidential transition, another convulsion of Crazy Kanye that most people tried to blow off as one more bizarre moment of vertigo in our process of adjusting to the new Trump hellscape. A year-and-a-half into his presidency, we still haven’t really acclimated, which for Kanye is no doubt another perverse draw – the ability to keep our attention by making us feel terrorized, like we’re listening to Yeezus on a loop, a violent purity of unrelenting amoral attack that Shania Twain misread as “honesty” and Kanye calls “dragon energy,” maybe because Tiger Blood was already taken.
Ultimately, how you feel about Kanye is how you feel about your own ability to separate art from the artists who make it – on whether or not you’re the kind of person who almost pukes every time you flip past a Woody Allen movie on TCM. Along with having incredibly shitty taste in hats, Kanye is also the engine of a massive amount of amazing music full of raw beauty and exhilarating contradictions. It’s music that until this deal-breaking week most of us could still listen to with revelation and enjoyment. Don’t let the jerk-off who made it ruin it for you.