Kanye West and the Image of the Genius: A Nietzschean Tragicomedy

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Let's be honest with ourselves: Kanye West is a genius-level creator. It's proper we start referring to him as a "creator" now instead of all the multifarious hats he wears and has worn over the years.

The man designs clothes, makes beats, raps, directs videos, designs stage productions, offers what can only be termed (in a very endearing and respectful way) performance art improvisations.

But it's not plurality that makes Kanye a genius, nor is it his occasional greatness. It's his intensity.

Really, in short, Kanye is a Nietzschean Overman.

1: On Nietzsche

That's a little controversial, but only because the cultural view of Nietzsche is a little off. The Overman, as Nietzsche saw it, was more or less a creator. More specifically, it's a creator making something true to their vision and their vision alone, and remaining in a state where they can keep doing that. It's a mode people can slip in and out of.

It's become controversial partly on the fault of Nietzsche. He did after all say it was about going "beyond good and evil." But it's not like he meant the fruits of the labor of Overmen would inherently be good.

Culture and individuals can still decide whatever a creative saint makes is good or bad; there's nothing that says we have to sign off on anything a creative genius makes.

But likewise, it's hard to debate figures like David Bowie or Miles Davis or Prince having something that carries over from group to group, some kind of vision or unnameable thing. And "Overman" is just one way to attempt to name that thing.

Nietzsche's idea was, to make a complex idea very simple, that things should become themselves. What is meant by that is that whatever elements or ideas make something unique and differentiates it from its neighbors and peers is what it should lean into and pursue. It's effectively the idea that we can't really make a full judgment of something that doesn't tell us what it is. And we hold this to be true in certain ways; the cultural fixation on authenticity and appropriation, for better or for worse, stems from this idea that things should be themselves and not be things they aren't.

We even refer to things as "coming into their own" or encourage others to "be themselves." It's ultimately not a very controversial thought. It's just become one because of, to be frank, huge jerks who want to cite a philosopher to get away with being jerks.

And, yeah, that's partly the fault of Nietzsche for phrasing things in a way that appeals to a lot of jerks. But it doesn't make his ideas wrong or silly just because he wrote them like a jerk would.

But of course this leads to a problem: If being yourself is all that philosophical idea is about, why did Nietzsche valorize it? Why the fixation on Kanye as embodying this figure as opposed to someone else?

It's a matter of intensity. Anyone can "be themselves" in a passive way. It's actually very hard to not be yourself at all.

It takes a lot of active work to masquerade as something else. In fact, it's such a large amount of work to become something else that the notion of being a great actor or a great sideperson or great mimic has become its own kind of valorized art form.

And for good reason: We value work for a whole mess of reasons, one of which is the ability to easily do it ourselves, and so the work of great actors and actresses and people of that kind rightfully impress us.

Great acting, seeing someone totally become someone else like Daniel Day-Lewis in There Will Be Blood or Lupita Nyong'o in 12 Years A Slave, is worth noting precisely because of how difficult it is.

The Overman, to Nietzsche, is precisely the opposite of the actor. Instead of pursuing becoming someone or something else, the Overman pursues actively and to the greatest intensity the act of becoming themselves. It's not a passive thing for the Overman according to Nietzsche.

It's a work, often a life's work, and one that is pursued despite prevailing moods regarding proper conduct or even sometimes base morality.

This is where the idea, somewhat rightfully, comes into hot water.

Is it really advisable to encourage people to, again, be a huge jerk or worse to "become themselves," or is there maybe a slightly less fulfilling version that is also remarkably less dangerous? (That cost-benefit problem is a separate and fairly deep matter on its own.)

So, like most things, there's a danger to it, and there's a social responsibility to checking dangerous things. But likewise, there are also sometimes huge rewards.

There are some people that find their true selves to actually be much more moral than their time and compel others to become more moral in their wake.

And it's that precise element that hints at why they are important.

They act as liberating figures; they remind us, most importantly, that we can break barriers, that we can become better, that we can become more wise and more skilled.

Superman, after all, is an Overman; that's a big reason why he got his name.

It's this melding of philosopher and artist and a kind of secular saint that Nietzsche idolized most.

Not just someone who would intensively become themselves but would, by gravity and the quality of this act, encourage others to do exactly the same: to give more, to offer more, and to be more, for themselves and for others.

And Kanye's in the same ballpark. Kanye is a Nietzschean Overman.

2: On Kanye

It's important to keep in mind when thinking about Kanye that he is much more than a rapper. Granted, the man himself and culture at large do their part to keep us aware of that fact.

From his production work on albums such as Jay-Z's The Blueprint and Common's Be to his own critically-acclaimed solo work to his short films to his design work both in clothing and albums, Kanye has always effected multiple positions in public consciousness.

It's easy to let his outspokenness overshadow his work, but there have been more than enough pieces written about why that's foolish (and sometimes a little bit racist).

Even a cursory glance at his work gives him a bit of leeway to speak his mind and, frankly, someone who is so upfront about his deeply-felt political and social views despite decorum is a welcome and necessary change of pace, especially given the more socially progressive bent his views often take.

There is a reason why we pay attention to Kanye. With each new project, there is a simultaneous longing for work of the kind he made in the past, as well as acknowledgement that the new work is cutting edge. Granted, his more nuanced critics have some merit; the angsty and dark industrial sonic palette of Yeezus has shown up in underground hip-hop plenty of times, most apparently in groups like Dalek, and so crediting him as creating entirely new sonic spaces is perhaps a bit hyperbolic.

But that only transforms his work into something closer to the Beatles, a group less important for inventing entirely new methods or experiments as much as bringing other people's experiments to the mainstream.

They expanded on ideas by smaller groups (at least at the time) like mid-60s Pink Floyd and the Velvet Underground and offering up the work to a much wider audience who might otherwise have never turned their ear to that kind of work.

It makes all the sense in the world that Paul McCartney would recognize this and want to work with Kanye.

Kanye very rarely retreads himself. His production prior to his solo debut rode the line between throwback aesthetic and cutting edge sonic ideas.

His solo material quickly morphed from an extension of that same set of ideas to rich orchestral backing to a combination of breezy pop, electronica, and prog rock to something more indebted to Kraftwerk and early 2000s emo revival to a lush prog hip-hop epic to grimy and angst-ridden industrial.

Trying to sum up his sonic evolution in a way that gives due credit over the course of only five albums is as exhausting as it is difficult.

That sentence is over-long, but how else do you describe five almost totally different albums, one after another, with no major repetition of styles between them?

His newer solo work like "Only One" and "All Day" presents itself as a melding of the lushness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the skeletal and harrowing industrial grime of Yeezus mixed with the heavily processed machine-man hybrid emotionalism of 808s and Heartbreak. It offers perhaps the first example of a more backward-gazing Kanye, but one looking back and seeing something different those works that needs to be taken.

The aesthetic makes these huge, obvious leaps, sometimes even to completely different creative worlds such as his recent line with Adidas, signifying something a little bit more intensively self-searching than a typical artist.

This isn't to slag artists who find their space early and work to refine it. But Kanye is something else, seemingly deliberately so.

His intensity outside of his work seems to explain the way his work radically jumps. He doesn't come across as an artist content on resting on their laurels.

It doesn't even seem all the time like he is interested in the act of refining or getting better so much as producing some as-yet-unseen Great Work, one that requires him to work incredibly hard and make incredible metamorphoses between major projects in order to approach.

All of his work up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy presaged a kind of lush progressive album-length suite arrangement of work, a deeply constructed pattern replicated on the effective concept album about wealth, success, and black genius in Watch the Throne.

But it was blown apart and totally disintegrated in Yeezus. His comments following its release are telling; his claims that he could have produced another MBDTF if he wanted, but that the point, as he saw it, wasn't to replicate something already done but strive toward making the thing that hasn't yet come.

So of course he had to blow it all up. It was only in the rubble of the old that he could feel light and free enough to make the newer, even better thing.

It's precisely this kind of thing that makes Kanye an Overman.

3: On the Eternal Return

Kanye's artistic intensity and longing for a future that hasn't come yet touches on perhaps one of the most important aspects of Nietzsche's concept of the Overman: the Eternal Return.

The idea is deceptively complex, but the brief version is rooted in effectively the same concept as YOLO. (Don't write off anything as stupid; there's riches everywhere, in everything.) Nietzsche put forward the following thought experiment: If, at the end of life, you were forced to relive the entire events of your life from beginning to end, forever, how happy would you be with the experience? And if you knew this was coming, what would you do differently to make sure that it would be pleasurable or even triumphant to do so as opposed to a miserable?

It sounds a bit sophomoric and cliche put like that, but that's where it becomes deceptively complex.

Nietzsche focuses less on the thought experiment on its own and more as a leaping-off point.

He posits that, once we shrug off the idols and mores and morals of our time and pursue with the greatest intensity the thing that we wish to be, there eventually comes a kind of transcendental moment, one where we become something simultaneously worthy of repeating and, somehow, repeating a greatness from the future that hasn't yet come.

It's a bit like Prometheus stealing fire from the gods. But instead it's a person, envisioning some greater, better, more perfect tomorrow, going there in their hearts, and taking something back with them.

This is, in Nietzsche's mind, how Great People are born. They may be widely lauded, like Martin Luther King Jr.

and Malcolm X and Frederick Douglas and Jesus and the Buddha, or quietly forgotten to be remembered later.

Because the results doesn't necessarily have to be immoral or bad; they can easily be a shirking of, say, artistic stagnancy or internalized systemic bigotry and a seizing of the freedom and peace we know the future has for all of us that is brought to the present day.

The model accounts for evil; it accounts for corrupting and genocide and oppression just as equally as goodness.

But that's only because it's concerned more with the mechanic of greatness and achieving greatness than what we do with it. That burden is on us, not the philosopher.

Nietzsche terms the people who achieve this state "philosopher-artist-saints." Further, and more controversially, he says only those who already have this nature are able to achieve it in life. He does, after all, apply his own rules of the Eternal Return to his ideas, finding them yoked by the idea that their philosopher-artist-sainthood beatification exists already after their birth. But we know, and he knew too, that the future isn't really set in stone like that, and so those words are best read as one referring to the spirit of the person rather than their fate. The title is grandiose, but it's referring to a grandiose thing.

Nietzsche wanted to acknowledge the social effect of these figures is one of liberation and inspiration. Their stories, human stories of human greatness and human triumph, whether they should or shouldn't, do inspire us, or at least can.

They offer models, things that say even in terrible conditions, revolutionary liberating greatness can come. It's a hopeful thing. That's what Kanye is.

4: On Kanye as Philosopher-Artist-Saint

This last part goes almost without saying. He's cited by Drake as a massive influence on his moodier, more album-level cohesive brand of hip-hop. His aesthetics in beats, working alongside the ever-present figure of Mike Dean, has fully infiltrated hip-hop and beyond. It takes a certain level of artistic accomplishment for Beck to shrug off comments about not deserving album of the year and for Taylor Swift to talk about possibly collaborating after their widely-noted controversy. Yeezus was given a glowing review by none other than Lou Reed, another artist-saint if ever there was one.

If anything, our reaction to his social faux-pas are now less ones of him being a jerk and more that they soil his glowing artistic reputation. The man, after all, is collaborating extensively with Paul McCartney, joining the company of figures like Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, and the members of Nirvana.

Less noted, his eye for design in terms of album art has completed altered the way a huge number of rappers approach how their album art plays with their albums.

Kanye wasn't the first to introduce a wider palette of artistic options other than a themed shot of the performer for hip-hop record covers, but he was one of the first to be deeply embedded in the mainstream world of hip-hop to do so and find success; he borrowed an idea from people who inspired him and used it to break down the door in the world of the mainstream.

Not unlike a certain British band.

It's easy to write off his current obsession with fashion, in which his new line looks eerily like the costuming for an anime about being trapped in a dystopian moon prison by some intergalactic color-hating tyrant, but it's impossible to deny the aesthetic lineage from Yeezus and its stage design for the tour. Kanye has said that he doesn't want to repeat My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because he already did a big, beautiful, progressive hip-hop epic and proved that it could succeed in the mainstream and the art world (a delineation I'm wary of, but we work with what we get and not what we want sometimes). It's not about that for him anymore. It's about...

something else. And he can't really be said to be pursuing his restless artistic spirit in a half-assed way; he's just as intense and opinionated and strident as ever.

We forget sometimes that 808s and Heartbreak confused a lot of people and got middling to poor reviews when it came out, no matter how clearly it presaged the combination of street rap, emotive singing, gothed out beats and moodier art house aesthetic that Drake would refine.

I think he's in the midst of that now.

But regardless of the output, that spirit remains. We remain fixated on him because of that spirit, that thing inside that drives everything he does, from snatching mics to rep Beyonce till death like the best friend you could ever ask for to dropping multiple modern classic hip-hop records to calling out the president live on air for potential internalized racism to his current focus on visual aesthetic and demolishing the barriers of class that limit the common people's access to the kinds of things that make life fun and good and, well, cool. The quality of his artist output only verifies this spirit; it does not precede it. And that's the thing in Kanye that inspires. We know it.

We don't always have a name for it, though. Kanye can make mistakes and missteps, but Kanye is a genius.

Kanye's vision is of things that have not come yet that he wants us, all of us, to have right now.

Kanye isn't about how things are or how we are told they should be, but how they should be ideally. Kanye is a philosopher-artist-saint.

Image taken with permission from Wikipedia.