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Publicity stunts are Kanye West’s real genius

06 Nov 2018

Image credit: Rodrigo Ferrari, Wikimedia Commons

Is Kanye West a genius? It’s a question I’ve heard asked and discussed since he exploded on the scene 14 years ago with the release of The College Dropout. He’s engineered some of the biggest hits of the last two decades, sold millions of albums and won a slew of awards. There’s a contingent that believes his production prowess should put him in the conversation with some of the great composers of modern music, there are others – such as myself – who respect his talent and contribution to music, but aren’t necessarily convinced of his legacy. As the debate continues over Kanye’s musical aptitude, his public persona, or whatever may be happening with him behind the scenes, I’ve had a revelation: Kayne IS a genius, just not of the musical variety.

“All publicity is good publicity” is one of the oldest adages in public relations. This school of thought suggests that even if media coverage is negative, it’s better to be a topic of discussion as opposed to not being covered at all. Throughout his career Kanye has embraced this concept, often going beyond standard publicity stunts and odd antics to secure attention. Whether it’s a rambling, four-minute-long diatribe in the middle of an award show or declaring that “slavery was a choice”, Kanye has shown expert-level ability to make himself a trending topic in a way few other artists have matched. He’s made the manipulation of media on a worldwide scale its own art form.

Kanye’s propensity to ignite unprovoked controversy seems to reach another level when he has a release looming or a project in the works. It’s a pattern he established early on in his career. In 2005, during the aftermath Hurricane Katrina, Kanye appeared during a live telethon to benefit rehabilitation efforts. In what would become standard Kanye fashion, he veered from script, nervously stammering through much of the spot before finally proclaiming that then U.S. President George Bush “doesn’t care about black people”. While that moment has gone on to serve as a reminder of a more socially aware Kanye, it also came less than a week after he released his sophomore album, Late Registration. In the weeks and months that followed, Kanye’s proclamation was dissected by the media with President Bush himself eventually chiming in. Even at his most authentic and socially conscious, Kanye made himself a talking point to the detriment of the cause he was there to champion.

Kanye’s most infamous and meme-able stunt happened in 2009 during the MTV Video Music Awards. Kanye bombarded the stage during Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech for Best Female Video, snatched the microphone out of her hand, and announced that he believed Beyoncé was the rightful winner. Although some attributed the moment to alcohol (he walked the red carpet with a bottle of Cognac in hand), Kanye’s outburst happened a few weeks prior to the kick off of ticket sales for Fame Kills – an arena tour he was set to co-headline with Lady Gaga. The tour would never come to fruition as it was subsequently cancelled following intense public and industry backlash.

Which brings us to 2018, where we are fully immersed in Kanye’s masterpiece. His foray into, and apparent exit from politics, set against the backdrop of his ‘Wyoming Sessions’ – a set of seven-song albums released over the summer of 2018 – is shaping up to be his most ambitious production to date. After making pro-Donald Trump comments in 2017, Kanye doubled down in 2018. In late April, a week after announcing his Kids See Ghosts collaboration with Kid Cudi, Kanye was photographed wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) hat. The slogan was coined by Trump during the 2016 Presidential election and has since become a divisive catchphrase in American politics. When his fanbase questioned his fashion choice on social media, Kanye unleashed a series of tweets in support of Trump and Candace Owens, an outspoken alt-right proponent. A week later, Kanye sat down with media outlet TMZ, and made his contentious comments on slavery. Shortly after, Kanye released the first of the ‘Wyoming Sessions’: Pusha T’s album, DAYTONA.

Kanye’s cycle of political faux pas continued throughout the summer as the remaining ‘Wyoming Sessions’ albums were released. There were attempts at clarifying his offensive remarks, heartfelt apologies, and odd monologues on live television. It all culminated in a highly publicised and bizarre meeting with Trump at the White House in October where Kanye claimed that wearing a MAGA hat made him feel like a superhero.

While headlines have primarily focused on Kanye’s dance with Trump, he recently made two separate donations totalling $200,000 to the campaign of Amara Enyia, a progressive mayoral candidate in his hometown of Chicago, Illinois, albeit with significantly less fanfare. Some supporters may claim that his support of a progressive candidate should serve as hope that the “old” Kanye may re-emerge some day, but there is no real distinction to be made between the “old” Kanye and his current persona. The biggest difference between Kanye circa 2005 and MAGA Kanye is the stage. If he were to declare “Donald Trump didn’t care about black people”, he’d be just one voice amongst a chorus of millions. But as one of few black celebrities to publicly support Trump, he gets a bigger portion of the spotlight to himself. He’s been playing us all along.

Kanye may very well be out of politics as promised. He’s likely maximised that area but with an album on the way and a long history of evidence, it’s only a matter of time before he launches his next publicity stunt. Kanye’s erratic behaviour makes it hard to predict what it may be, but one thing is for certain: it will be a spectacle.