The Philosophy of Kanye West
Welcome to this special Wisecrack Edition on Kanye West’s Philosophy of Death. Mortality is clearly a recurring theme in Kanye’s lyrics, videos and interviews. But is it any wonder that the WAY in which Kanye deals with death is similar to the ideas proposed by Danish philosopher Søren Kierkegaard? Is this similarity a total coincidence or is there truly a comparison to be made between Kanye and Kierkegaard? We’re here to find out!
Written by: Claire Pickard
Directed & Produced by: Jacob Salamon
Narrated by: Jared Bauer
Edited by: Ryan Hailey (http://www.ryanhaileydotcom.com/)
Assistant Editor: Andrew Nishimura
Motion Graphics by: Drew Levin
The Philosophy of Kanye West
Hey Wisecrack. Jared here. Today we have a special episode on an artist who forces us to think about our own mortality, among other things- Kanye West. Following Kanye gives you the feeling of watching a train filled with $300 sneakers crash into a guy dressed as Jesus. But at the same time, he projects a certain sincerity that seems to contradict his otherwise impulsive image. There’s no doubt that Kanye thinks he’s a philosopher. Kanye has never been shy about mentioning death.
In his 2005 Grammy Award speech, he spoke about his experience with a car accident and Kanye has repeated similar sentiments throughout his career. In a 2013 radio interview, he used this awareness of death to explain some of the risks he takes as an artist. “Through the Wire,” recorded when Ye’s jaw was still wired shut from his 2002 car accident, describes his narrow miss with death and his “triumph” over the situation at the hands of a guardian angel. Frankly, I’m surprised he gave the angel any credit at all. This interest in death is pretty explicit starting from his first album, The College Dropout, where we hear: “When this life is over/ I’ll fly away/ To a land where/ Joy shall never end.” On “Power” off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he fantasizes about a “beautiful death” And his 30 minute art film Runaway opens with an excerpt of the Lacrymosa from Mozart’s Requiem- which, is, of course, a mass for the dead. Okay, so Kanye has some strong feelings about death. So what? Kierkegaard’s philosophy tells us that despair over our mortality is pretty inevitable unless we embrace our relationship with the big guy upstairs.- the notorious G.O.D. Jesus is pretty key to coping with our worries about death because having faith in him means that death isn’t actually the end for you.
For Kanye, this despiar is revealed in his fixation on death, and perhaps, his desire to evade it. You know the saying, that a man may die but an idea will live forever? Kanye has bought into that big-time, except the idea that will preserve Kanye is… Kanye. Perhaps by positioning himself as musician, producer, fashion designer, reality star, frequent commentator on… everything and whatever he next pursues. Kanye is doing more than just expressing himself. Maybe he’s trying to cultivate a kind of celebrity that is so ubiquitous, that he achieves some kind of immortality. Like Kierkegaard’s works, Kanye deals with mortality in three ways: distracting himself with cool stuff, trying to be a good person, and striving to somehow make himself eternal so he doesn’t have to worry about all that shit anyway.
Or in the words of Kierkegaard, the aesthetic, the ethical, and the religious. Kanye is a walking contradiction: private and radically public, meticulous and spontaneous, why can’t he live the contradiction of embracing his inevitable death while also trying to live forever? Kierkegaard tells us that in order to be cured of the despair that arises from this contradiction- one must understand his or her own self and the nature of that self, and to get there, they can progress through three consecutive stages of existence. Kanye does all three. Is the similarity to Kierkegaard a total accident born of too much cocaine and a god-complex bigger than Kim Kardashian’s, uh, personality? Possibly, but we’re here to figure it out anyway. So let’s get to it.
The hedonistic spectacle of Kanye is pretty much exactly what Kierkegaard would define as the “aesthetic.” We can see this in Kierkegaard’s 1843 philosophy text. Either/Or: “grab a drink, grab a glass, after that I grab yo ass.” Kidding; that’s definitely Kanye. But Kierkegaard does tell us that the aesthetic man lives his life in the pursuit of desire and pleasure, often interpreting himself as though he were always on stage. Sound familiar? To get a better grasp of Kierkegaard’s stages, think about a corndog. When you’re young, corn dogs are really delicious, and that’s pretty much all that matters. You don’t think about the stomach ache you’ll have in the morning or about the future of your bowel movements Corn dog= yum. That’s the aesthetic stage. It’s easy to find examples of aesthetic debauchery in Kanye’s work although that’s not exactly unique among rappers. What’s more interesting is the way in which Kanye’s aesthetic embodiment is so over the top and so enduring. As seen most vividly in his music videos, Kanye takes the typical sex and drugs imagery of a hip hop video and draws out the obscenity, makes it self-aware, and really crafts it into a kind of art. This is the video for “Famous,” off his most recent album, and while it doesn’t shy away from controversy, it’s also a pretty interesting social and political statement.
But for someone who lives on a stage, both metaphorically and also kind of literally, Kanye has a lot to say about his privacy. Kanye has said that one of his biggest concerns with paparazzi is the effect that they have on his family, especially his daughter. This is a different side of Kanye than the one we see yelling about being Shakespeare, but it’s certainly not an altogether different character. Far from it, Kanye’s sometimes-outlandish aesthetic serves as a kind of frame to his familial and ethical considerations. And we know Kanye loves frames. Kanye’s relationship with his wife and children is one of his most clearly humanizing characteristics. Using one of his many pseudonymous characters, Kierkegaard argues that the transition from the aesthetic stage of self-discovery to the ethical stage is exemplified in marriage. A person in the aesthetic stage is focused only on the momentary pleasures of the erotic, and marriage forces them to commit to something long-term, which changes their priorities. We see evidence of this in Kanye’s most recent album, The Life of Pablo, the first he has released since marrying Kim.
Pitchfork describes this album as “the moment… that the artist finally settles down” after years of turbulent affairs and, uh, probably one too many pregnancy scares. Let’s go back to our corndog —at some point, you might discover that corn production requires a tremendous amount of water and has a lot of potential to do economic and environmental damage. Then, even your own personal health concerns might take a backseat to your commitment to something higher than yourself: the welfare of the planet. That’s Kierkegaard’s ethical stage. Besides his relationship with his family, we see Kanye most actively engaged in the ethical sphere in his advocacy for racial and class justice. Kanye has been vocal in addressing inequalities since the very beginning of his career, and this hasn’t changed as he’s gathered more fame and different projects. And he draws much of his musical influences from soul music of the civil rights era.
We also see consistent mentions of racial and class justice in his own lyrics. The message that we hear on “Crack Music” from 2005 is a similar one to the messages in “Murder to Excellence” in 2011 and “New Slaves” in 2013. Kanye’s work often speaks to the ways in which deeply- entrenched power dynamics within our society can perpetuate the oppression of people of color and the working class. His commitment to certain moral ideas about justice outside of just what benefits him or his family is the mark of someone operating in the ethical stage of self-discovery. Or just, you know, common human decency.
Remember that Kierkegaard says that the whole reason to even talk about these stages is because they help you to escape despair. To escape despair, you must accept your true nature (which means realizing that you are bound to Christ) and then you can basically just chill the fuck out. Kierkegaard is 100% on board the Jesus boat, so he’s not actually worried about his own death, but he knows you probably are, and he just wants to throw you a big ol’ Christian lifesaver Kanye has one leg in the Jesus boat, and one leg in his own boat. On one hand, he has been consistently vocal about his relationship to the big J.C. Remember that one of his first big hits was “Jesus Walks,” and that theme of religious devotion has stayed in his music even up through his latest album, which samples Gospel tracks. But on the other hand, Kanye is pretty insistent that he is a God and he doesn’t seem to be too concerned about blasphemy. We could really spend an entire day dissecting just that one song. He calls himself a god, he acknowledges his connection to another god and he is extremely insistent on the timely delivery of his baked goods.
That’s not the only time Kanye has referred to himself as a God. I mean, the guy named himself “Yeezus.” In the bonus track “See Me Now” off My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he says he is Lord and refers to his GDs, which Rap Genius tells me means “gangsta disciples.” He’s also spoken about his apparent divinity on stage and in interviews, where he gives a somewhat more nuanced approach: Angelic language and imagery appear all over his work. The presence of angels is especially strong in his music videos: “No Church in the Wild,” “Power,” and the 30-minute film “Runaway” all feature winged women. He also just released a trailer for a video game which focuses on his dead mother’s ascension to heaven. No, really. That’s a thing.
Kanye’s tense relationship between himself as God and the Christian God might be representative of the despair that he is trying to evade. As previously mentioned, despair is characterized by a tension between a desire for the temporal—the right-now-on-Earth—and the eternal. As a God, Kanye hopes to achieve earthly immortality through the legacy of his work, while as a believer in another God, Kanye gives over his life to someone else. For Kierkegaard, religion is the highest stage of existence and self-discovery. It’s where you realize that the corndog actually belongs to someone else, and oh damn, where did this corndog come from? How did it even end up in my hand? Where am I? Who are you? What are you doing with all those corndogs? Yeah, now you’re the corndog, and you belong to Jesus. In the religious stage, you recognize that reason and belief can only get you so far Rather than belief, which can be grounded in proof or in reason, you need faith, which is totally beyond the bounds of logic. Kierkegaard describes faith as a “passionate inwardness,” which is also probably a pretty good description for Kanye. That “beyond logic” part is important since coming up with rational arguments about death has never made anyone feel more okay about death. When you look at it scientifically, rotting in a hole isn’t all that great. I suppose one way to no longer care about death is to believe in your own godliness. The immortality of his work isn’t important at all unless he knows it, so the performance art trainwreck that is Kanye West’s public persona really just exists as a conversation with himself. But does that surprise you?
So Kanye is trying to turn himself into a God at the same time that he believes in the God of Christianity, and he’s doing this because he’s really confused about death. But how much of his aesthetic, ethical, and religious action is just a matter of him saying whatever pops into his head and how much is intentional? It’s impossible to say for sure, but maybe it’s worth some thought. He’s a lot smarter than people are sometimes willing to give him credit for. Can Kanye really escape his anxieties about death by creating an artistic legacy to leave behind him? Forget the sick beats or the VMA antics—maybe the real reason Kanye has such a massive following; he gives voice to a certain dread that we all have in common. Or maybe he’s just really good at Twitter. Thanks for watching!