Kanye West and the five elements of creative genius
I went to see a publisher the other day, who said they had a project for me. The project turned out to be a series called ‘Great Philosophers’. Could I suggest any great living philosophers to write about, other than myself obviously? ‘How about a book about Kanye West?’ They laughed. Pause. ‘No, really. Make a series of little books about great cultural influencers. I’ll do one on Kanye West.’
They didn’t go for it, naturally. Apparently he's writing his own philosophy book in any case. But it was a genuine impulse. This may sound weird coming from a white, middle-class philosophy-blogger, but West has been a creative inspiration for me over the last decade or so, more than anyone else our generation. I often listened to his music while writing books, because it got me going, made me believe I could complete the creative task I’d set myself, in an era where artists don’t get paid and we’re all over-saturated with media.
I’ve been into West since I first heard the explosive optimism of Touch The Sky in 2005. But I only really got into him in 2010, when I was writing my first book.
Back then, West was in a bad place – his mother had died, he’d split up with his girlfriend, he’d made an electronic break-up album which didn’t sell very well (it's now considered a classic). Then he’d interrupted Taylor Swift during her acceptance speech at the MTV Awards, and been labelled a jack-ass by president Obama. He was a global laughing-stock.
For a while he apparently thought about quitting music. But instead he relocated to Hawaii, block-booked a suite of recording studios, then invited his favourite artists to come, stay, and make music – everyone from RZA and Q-Tip to Nicki Minaj and Justin Vernon of Bon Iver. Every day, they gathered for breakfast meetings, then played basketball, then in the afternoon hit the studio and stayed until the early hours. It was an extraordinary burst of creativity for West – he’d be at the studio all night, switching between different studios and songs, sleeping for a couple of hours in a chair, then starting again.
That led to My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy in November 2010, for many critics the greatest album of that decade. He was so on fire, he and his collaborators were turning out classic tracks that West just gave away on the internet for free, every Friday – tracks like Chains Heavy, or Joy, or his remix of Justin Bieber’s Runaway Love – one of my favourite tracks of that year (yeah, that's right, a Bieber remix was my favourite track of the year).
That was when I thought, shit, maybe Kanye's right...maybe he is a genius!
Genius is an unfashionable term these days, in an era when scientific breakthroughs occur via big data analysis and teams of hundreds. But I think psychologists like Frederic Myers and William James were right when they argued certain individuals can rightly be called geniuses, because they possess certain capacities.
As I wrote about David Bowie, a creative genius needs five attributes. First, they need to be able to open up to their subconscious, which means being able to switch off their critical fire-wall and dive in to uncensored imagination (often this goes hand in hand with mental instability, with a tendency to bipolar or schizoid personality disorder, as it did with Bowie and West).
Second, just as important, they need a conscious power of discrimination, to sort the gold from the dross that pours out of the subconscious. Third, they need to be able to collaborate with other artists, get their ego out of the way, and bring out the best in others. Fourth, they need incredible self-belief to follow their vision and do something new, when the market wants them to repeat the last trick over and over (think Dylan leaving his folk social criticism to go electric).
Finally, and most importantly, they need to have that particular daemonic power in their subconscious, that livewire connection to the Main Source, and to maintain a relationship to that daemon without being fried by it. That’s very rare – a lot of creative geniuses, like Amy Winehouse, get fried by the Main Source before they’re able to create much.
West, like Bowie, has this proximity to the Main Source, the fiery creative daemon within him. The creativity just pours out of him – he’ll create a killer hook, and then change direction mid-song, just because. On the first song of Yeezus, the abrasively electronic On Sight, he declares ‘How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up.’ And the song turns on a dime into this soaring gospel choir-song. The choir sings ‘He’ll give you what you need, it may not be what you want’... and then it’s back to the in-your-face electronics. It’s like Prince – just a ridiculous bounty of creative talent, an excess of it, a table groaning with dishes. Other artists will take a five-second clip of one of his songs and turn it into a hit – like Sigma taking the break from Bound and turning it into their hit, Nobody to Love.
Quite often, West’s songs seem like they’re winding up, and then suddenly they swell back even harder, like a thunderstorm. It’s nature’s bounty, the excess of it. It’s Shakespeare putting in a scene with a gravedigger because why the fuck not.
At the end of Devil In A New Dress from MBTDF – my favourite song of his – the song starts to wind down after three minutes, and you think that’s the natural end, then a guitar starts to wail, the storm starts to build, then Rick Ross comes in with an amazing last verse. It's a revelling in natural power, a dancing in the storm.
This is the last three minutes of Devil in a New Dress (the video is dumb):
With that creative power, that ‘dragon energy’, comes arrogance, ego-inflation and mania. The artist as prophet, the artist as superman, the artist as god. Both West and David Bowie flirted with the ideas of Aleister Crowley, the black magician of the early 20th century, who declared there would be a new era of superhumans who would do what they wanted while the pathetic masses worshipped them. This is the theme of Power, the big hit on MBTDF, the video for which shows West wearing a massive Crowley necklace at the centre of a pagan mass. Both West and Bowie have also flirted with fascism (or, at least, with Donald Trump in West’s case). And both have often fallen for their own myth and pretty much gone crazy.
But he somehow hasn’t destroyed himself, yet, partly through a capacity to face his shadow and make art from it. He rapped in Touch the Sky: ‘I try to right my wrongs but it’s funny the same wrongs helped me write this song’. That’s what makes MBTDF so amazing – the ability to hold steady and transmute all the darkness into one of the great albums, as Bowie did on Station-to-Station.
West wasn’t just confronting his own shadow, he was confronting the shadow of being a black male superstar. You get to the top by being a well-behaved performer, like Obama. You do not interrupt Taylor Swift at the MTV awards. You do not expose all your sexual peccadillos, your porn addiction, your kink for white girls. You do not support Donald Trump. You hide that darkness, create a polite persona and a monster in the shadows, as Michael Jackson did, or OJ Simpson, or Tiger Woods, or Bill Cosby. West confronted that monster and made art out of it. He put a painting of him fucking a white girl on the cover (or a white…angel?). ‘Let’s have a toast to the douchebags’, he sings on Runaway. That self-exposure takes guts. Who else doesn’t just admit he’s bipolar, but celebrates it?
And he has an ability to get on his knees before God, as Bowie did in the dark heart of Station-to-Station. He gets really close to the edge of mania and darkness and self-destruction, and he surrenders to God. There’s a powerful bipolarity in African-American music, between God and the ego / flesh / Devil. The church and the juke joint. White music sometimes lacks that energy because white middle-class hipsters don’t believe in God or the Devil anymore, so the stakes are lower. West taps into that bipolarity, consciously. Take ‘Father Stretch My Hands’ from Life of Pablo – it's a beautiful gospel track which begins with a preacher singing ‘You’re the only power’ and Kanye wailing 'I just wanna be liberated' and then goes into a rap about a girl bleaching her asshole. The last line of his excellent new album with Kid Cudi has him singing ‘Lord shine your light on me, save me please’, like Bowie singing ‘Lord, I kneel and offer you my word on a wing’ on Station-to-Station.
Then there are the other superpowers of the creative genius. The ability to discriminate, sort the gold from the shit, to be a perfectionist and not stop until it’s right – it reminds me of the story Jimmy Iovine tells of producing Born to Run for Springsteen, when Springsteen made him work on one snare drum sound for days.
And there’s the ability to collaborate. Like Bowie, Kanye West is amazing at finding collaborators and getting ego out of the way to bring the best out of them and him. That’s how he made MBTDF – gather the people he most admires, and crowd-source it. When he was stumped for the lyrics for Power, he went round the room asking everyone what power meant to them. So when he raps ‘no one man should have all this power’ – that song was, ironically, a group effort. This is what Brian Eno calls ‘scenius’ – not the solitary genius, but the ability to network and collaborate. He lifts artists to another level with his intensity – just like Bowie and Eno could.
Many of the greatest moments in his music feature other artists leading - Nicki Minaj's rap on Monster, Chance the Rapper at the end of Ultralight Beam, Lupe Fiasco's rap on Touch the Sky, 070's amazing last verse on new song Ghost Town, or Kid Cudi's amazing performance on new song Reborn. That’s generous and ego-effacing, to let others take centre stage. Check out how much he enjoys the other artists' performance in this killer live performance of UltraLight Beam on SNL:
And, of course, he’s also a douchebag, a loud-mouth, a narcissist, a fool, a personification of the vain male ego. But for a decade or so, now, he’s been chanelling the Main Source of creative energy, and that is exhausting and destructive – it almost killed Bob Dylan, it almost killed Bowie, it has almost killed West. The masses look to them as prophets but as Plato said of poets, they don’t really know what’s coming through them – it’s not wisdom, it’s sheer creative power. Don’t expect ethical or political wisdom from them.
Then the electricity shifts and finds someone else in the network to fry, and they’re out there in the cold for a while, everyone saying they’ve lost it, Dylan’s gone evangelical, Bowie’s making Tin Machine, Paul McCartney’s gone vegan, West’s gone alt-right. He’s a douchebag. You feel let down by his latest doucherie? He's always been a douchebag. But listen to the new album Kids See Ghosts. Or listen to this Spotify playlist I made of some of his finest moments. Here comes the rain again.