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I Am Kanye: Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy by Kirk Walker Graves

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Here’s what I witnessed on the AT&T Stage at Lollapalooza on August 6, 2006.

Kanye West—about three songs into what was supposed to be his triumphant, homecoming Chicago concert and hot on the heels of his classic sophomore album, 2005’s Late Registration—experienced sound problems. “Diamonds of Sierra Leone” and “Heard ’Em Say” were barely audible, and West said stuff like, “I do shows all over the world and come back to my city, and now y’all are going to mess up the sound. There’s going to be some changes after this” and that his sound crew had “embarrassed [him] in front of [his] city.”

I also saw an amazing set that featured some of the most vital, creative, and compelling music of its time.

West’s words, for many media outlets, constituted a “tantrum” and were plastered all over the Internet in the days that followed, spreading like a virus. The SPIN site, for example, featured a clip of Kanye on stage, a list of what “Lollapalooza-goers” said, and the following: “Do you think that Kanye overreacted on stage? COMMENT.” Site visitors, of course, could click on “COMMENT” and chime in with their opinions, which continued the seemingly endless river of text that not only made Kanye’s on-stage remarks dwarf the actual concert (the show really was a knock out, once the sound problems had gotten corrected) but also constructed an identity for West and, perhaps more importantly, for his audience.

An identity? Yes. As Kirk Walker Graves’ excellent study of West and his 2010 album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy shows, this identity is that of the narcissist.

Graves is right. But his argument isn’t just about West, Gen Xers, Millennials, and the narcissism inherent to two generations of mainly privileged Americans that, in the late Neil Postman’s words, are “amusing themselves to death” with social media by generating texts that eternally return to one thing and one thing only: the self.

No Luddite, Graves doesn’t take the easy road out in his Kanye book and condemn social media in one fell swoop. When I read his opening chapters, I was reminded of four social critics and philosophers: Postman (as I mentioned above), Theodor W. Adorno and Max Horkheimer and their critique of the “culture industry” in Dialectic of Enlightenment, and Michel Foucault and his explication of his methodology in The Archeology of Knowledge.

Don’t worry. Graves’ writing is a lot less stodgy and a lot easier to read than what you just read in the preceding paragraph. But please bear with my stodginess for a little longer. Adorno and Horkheimer conclude that the “triumph of advertising in the culture industry is that consumers feel compelled to buy and use its products even though they see through them.”


Graves makes a similar argument about Facebook and the like. What is Facebook, Graves asks, but advertisements for ourselves? Why do many of us get on the site to share—or “sell” or “promote”—our lives (pictures of ourselves, our cars, our backyards, our hotel suites, our pets, our children, our food, articles and jokes we find interesting and/or funny, YouTube clips, ARTICLES WE’VE WRITTEN)?

I, for one, know how lonely each and every Facebook post I make makes me feel, how nauseated (in the Sartrean sense) I feel when I promote the article you’re reading now, and how Facebook’s supposed status as a benign community in which you and your “friends” freely talk is really a narcissistic land where a constructed self grows like a blight.

Like Foucault, Graves is interested in archeology—more specifically, the archeology of our narcissistic land. In my reading, Graves’ book reveals Facebook and other social media sites as a single system of control. This system is so ubiquitous and persistent that we can’t see it; it’s become part of the ether, the very air we breathe, the way we live now.


William Blake writes in his great epic poem, Jerusalem: “I must Create a System, or be enslav’d by another Man’s. I will not Reason & Compare; my business is to create.”

Blake sounds awfully narcissistic here. He sounds a lot like Kanye West.

When Graves analyzes West’s music, as he does so cogently in the second half of his book, he focuses in a large part on West’s ability as a producer. West has an uncanny ability to sample diverse sounds from all musical genres—he even samples King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man” on one My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy track—and bring together MCs and singers as diverse as Jay-Z, Nicki Minaj, Justin Vernon, and Rick Ross (hear “Monster”).


At this point, I think that Kanye’s production sound is so recognizable that it functions as a system that illustrates his unwillingness to be “enlav’d by another man’s” sound (the first single from 2013’s Yeezus, “New Slaves,” best demonstrates the political implications of West’s revolutionary production style; it’s that rare song where lyrical and musical meaning absolutely coincide).


How methodically different is West from Blake, whose Jerusalem stylistically, thematically, and politically challenges received and, for the most part, unchallenged English values? How methodically different is West from Blake, whose Jerusalem synthesizes Christian mythological figures, Blake’s made-up mythological system, English history, and the landscape of London?

But West, unlike Blake, has to deal with the fact that the endless hunger of the social media-driven culture industry has made his work—and, really, everything he says—a part of its architecture. That is, social media has, for the most part, nullified any political and/or artistic radicalism in his work and made it the stuff of narcissism.

All of this brings me back to Graves, who in my reading at least, claims that West’s art’s importance lies in its narcissism. Whether West raps, “My presence is my present, kiss my ass” (as he does on “Monster”) or “She finds pictures in my email / I sent this girl a picture of my dick. / I don’t know what it is with females / But I’m not too good with that shit” (as he does on “Runaway”), his subject is himself. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, therefore, is a mirror image of Facebook: it purports to give insight into West in all of his various emotional states, from the confident monster to the pitiful sufferer who advises his lover to run away.

But, at the end of the day, the 13 songs on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are akin to 13 Facebook posts.

How is this so? A friend of mine once wrote an article that claimed that West is our generation’s John Lennon. I initially agreed with him. But then I disagreed. Yes, much of Lennon’s work was ego-based and, now that I’ve read Graves, narcissistic. But Lennon had something to say that transcended the self: stuff about peace and love, women’s rights, war being over if you want it…I don’t need to go on.

For the life of me, I can only identify one message in West’s music, and that message is that “Kanye West is a genius”—a narcissistic message if there ever was one, a message that truly does make Kanye West the voice of my generation.

And here I go again. The nausea hits as I get ready to put this post into WordPress, find some images, put it up on Facebook, and shamelessly promote my magazine and myself.

I am Kanye.