Tuesday marked the 10th anniversary of Kanye West’s enormously successful studio album, The College Dropout. Indeed, the occasion may have been even more momentous than West’s own birthday in June, which he spent with Beyoncé, Scott Disick, his Maybach and a birthday cake that allegedly had a net cost of about $13 million.
The hip-hop artist, songwriter, fashion designer, producer, film director, entrepreneur, philanthropist and self-titled musical “scholar” has had quite the decade, spent squarely in the media’s crosshairs as he discovered new and exciting ways of shocking the general public—and picking up 21 Grammys and a few misdemeanors along the way. It isn’t enough to simply say that controversy has followed Mr. West—Kanye has invited media attention to his (very ornate) front door, from calling George W. Bush racist on TV to comparing himself to a war veteran.
But on Tuesday, we put these (mostly) minor speed bumps in the greater context of Kanye’s highly acclaimed body of work, a collection that has inspired some of the most insightful conversations about race relations, class struggle, violence and drug culture in the U.S. On Tuesday, we asked, among many things, “What can we learn from Kanye West?”
The great ancient Chinese military expert, Sun Tzu, wisely said, “Know your enemy and know yourself, and you can fight a thousand battles.” Kanye says, just as wisely, “Believe in your flyness, and conquer your shyness.”
From Kanye, we can learn confidence—boundless and bullish confidence, undiminished by the harshest of spotlights and the most unforgiving of critics. On the one hand, West’s audacity is overt and gaudy; on the other, he is brooding and vulnerable—he unblushingly reveals the very best and the very worst of himself because ultimately, he loves himself.
Kanye deeply, unconditionally and profoundly adores Kanye. As a result, his songs are no longer subject to market forces or media critique. Perhaps they never were. Everything West creates is so genuinely loved and cherished by himself that metrics of popular “success” and “failure” become irrelevant. “Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem,” West raps, “Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams.”
From Kanye, we can learn how to be different, and to be better at being different. Every day, we grow—physically, intellectually, personally—but only within certain boundaries: the structures we live within. Standards have been set, and we funnel through our talents with these standards as our rails, much like the ones they put up in bowling alleys to ensure the ball never rolls astray.
And instead of changing these standards, we change ourselves. From College Dropout to 808’s & Heartbreak, and, most recently, to the often grating, collective tune of Yeezus, Kanye has carved out a niche for his work in the midst of an increasingly predictable hip-hop universe. Like Kanye, we can learn how to not simply find a place in the world but make a place in the world—and to forge that place from the very essence of what makes us great.
From Kanye, we’ve learned the devastating price of hubris. We’ve watched how a brilliant artist has been unceremoniously knocked from his pedestal, destined to spend his future displayed on the homepage of Jezebel by merely believing in his own perfection. “He that is proud eats up himself,” said Shakespeare. “Pride is his own glass, his own trumpet, his own chronicle.” Kanye, self-proclaimed as both a modern Shakespeare and the next Steve Jobs, proclaims, “You all want me to be great, but don’t want me to say I’m great?!”
Unfortunately, Kanye, yes; you and Richard Sherman have the unfortunate burden of brilliance without humility. And because of this, Kanye will never learn. It’s as if The Kanye West genre (TM) evolves without him, changing stylistically but never substantially. See, there’s a real value in honest self-critique, and it’s lacking in Kanye’s entire body of work. And because Kanye never looks back, Kanye never moves forward.
Kanye will continue to make beautiful songs and party with Beyoncé and buy luxury cars, but he will never truly know his greatness, for he will never understand the context in which he is great. As a result, he is stuck, a maladaptive character in his own book, who “wouldn’t change by the change, or the game, or the fame, when he came, in the game, he made his own name.” Kanye is bound to his own dark, twisted fantasy, exceptional and alone.
We can learn quite a bit from Kanye West. You wouldn’t really believe it from his interviews and radio talks, where he usually rambles about Chicago and Kim Kardashian and why exactly he thinks he’s Jesus. But on Tuesday, we had a chance to remember the Kanye that had a way of expressing pride and pain in the same verse, the Kanye that made us laugh with his puns, the Kanye that changed the game by merely being in it.
Happy 10th anniversary to you, Kanye. Thank you for giving more and more of yourself to us every year. Thank you for allowing us to hate you publicly and love you privately. Thank you for marrying the only woman who would put you in the media more than you already are. Thank you for naming your daughter something as absurd as a compass direction. Thank you for being Kanye West, because in truth, none of us would have the courage to rise so high and fall so far.
Contact Uttara Sivaram at email@example.com.