It seems to me that the first and best trick a performer can pull is convincing an audience that he's an underdog—whatever mounds of evidence might exist to the contrary. This was also the first trick that Kanye West pulled. When he burst onto the scene in the early 2000s, he was known as the super-producer behind some of the era's biggest rappers. He'd been the architect behind Jay Z's triumphant Blueprint album in 2001, his production style unmistakable with its penchant for sped-up samples and soulful drum kicks. His true aspiration was to be a rapper-producer, and he was known early for his rigorous work ethic that often kept him in the studio well past midnight.
In the fall of 2002, West left a California recording studio after working until 3 a.m. and fell asleep at the wheel of a rented Lexus. The Lexus crashed into another car in front of West's hotel, leaving West with major injuries, and his jaw was wired shut at Cedars-Sinai Hospital. Two weeks later, his mouth still lined with hardware, he recorded the song "Through the Wire," which used a manipulated sample of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire." In the song, West's voice is only somewhat audible, fighting to rap through the wires enclosing his jaw. Even when you revisit it today, the track registers as an incredible feat, a testament to West's "at all costs" approach to what he viewed as making it. By the time his 2004 debut album College Dropout was released, the mythos of West as an underdog was off and running.
The story about the car crash doesn't come up in the West narrative as much as it used to, and in some ways, that makes sense. His is a career divided clearly into two parts: the part before his mother's death in 2007, and the part after. Because the part after has produced the most lucrative and most public of his work, and because it has diverged so drastically from his earlier work, it might be easy to gloss over the first steps of West's career. But even back then, West was interested in selling an idea as much as he was in selling music. Kanye West did not get in a car accident intentionally, but the way he battled through the car accident on the way to his first career triumph cemented him in the minds of many as an inspirational underdog story: Someone who fought so hard to make it on his own terms that he almost died along the way, but instead rose victorious from a hospital bed.
The problem with any underdog story is that it can become impossible for some audiences to see through it, even once the underdog is no longer an underdog. If someone spends enough time convincing audiences that he's just like them, fighting the same type of hardship, the audience can then feel indebted to an artist, once that artist makes it. And Kanye West most certainly made it. But what does the underdog do when he's no longer the underdog, even if he still feels like one? The fire Kanye West brought to his music never abated; once he got in the door, he wanted to own the entire house. Thus, he began working against himself.
This is the root of narcissism. No, the ability to want to top your last effort isn't inherently narcissistic. But if you rely on people's belief in your ability (or their doubt in your ability) to fuel you toward excellence, then you have to continually find ways to keep people either with you or against you, wholesale. And that's where provocation becomes crucial.
When Kanye West said "George Bush doesn't care about black people" in 2005 during a nationally televised Hurricane Katrina fundraiser, it was the first of the outbursts that he's come to be known for. At the time, it was shocking, but sounded righteous to enough of his fan base, and it felt like it was coming from a genuine place of anger and confusion in the face of the Bush administration's dismal response to Katrina. The episode didn't seem like a harbinger of anything greater; for instance, it didn't presage his performance at the 2009 Video Music Awards, when he interrupted Taylor Swift as she was receiving the award for music video of the year. The moment became immediately infamous, and set off a complicated relationship between the two pop stars that echoes still.
The background to that incident was a bit more complex: West was indeed still mourning the loss of his mother. He'd released the album 808s and Heartbreak in late 2008, detailing this loss and the dissolution of his longtime engagement to Alexis Phifer. He had emerged on top of his tragedies, but markedly different. The Swift incident seemed to show us a West with a different motive for his provocation. While it can be read as though he was defending a friend—Beyoncé, who lost to Swift in the video of the year category—the way West expressed his displeasure allowed him to take center stage in a way that appeared villainous, as though he were feeding off of the potential displeasure of a wide audience for his own gain.
Today, Kanye West is back on Twitter, after a year-plus hiatus. He is tweeting hollow philosophical nonsense, to the delight of his avid followers and to the rolling eyes of those who have become exhausted by his antics—who haven't forgotten when he tweeted about Bill Cosby being innocent in February of 2016, or his long run of contradictory statements about racism, like in 2015, when he insisted that racism didn't actually mean anything.
Now, West has come under scrutiny again for tweeting in support of Candace Owens, a black alt-right media personality who, among other things, insisted that Black Panther was a pro-Trump film that dispensed anti-immigration propaganda. West tweeted that he liked "the way she thinks." Hot 97 DJ Ebro Darden later revealed that West called him this past Tuesday to explain all these tweets, and reiterated a love for President Donald Trump—which shouldn't be all that surprising, given that West took a meeting with Trump in 2016.
While these antics have proven difficult for longtime fans of West—those who have been with him through his earliest moments and reveled in his rise as a part of their own success story—the reality is that these latest outbursts feel like the logical conclusion to the arc that he built for himself. If we are to strip away all else, Kanye West is back on Twitter because there is a run of new music coming that he needs to promote. In the midst of all these controversial tweets, West has also been ticking off a number of release dates for albums: a solo album, a collaborative album with Kid Cudi, and a new Pusha T album. A first-year marketing student can see through West's designs here, despite the rapper's insistence that he's on Twitter to spread truth and open people's eyes to new ways of thinking. This is West's play to regain relevance at a time when he has a lot of music at stake. Which is fine; artists do this in lots of different ways all the time. But West has grown attached to his role as a provocateur, and the role of the provocateur is to place himself at odds with whatever the majority group thinks in a given moment. To imagine that West has some kind of political ethos or moral convictions beyond inciting small fires of outrage would be a mistake; for the past several years, he hasn't bowed to any direct motivations beyond whatever will grant him brief, bright bursts of attention.
When a performer gets bored with righteous provocations that light an energy in their followers they will often take what looks like the more daring route: pushing back against those followers and seeing who will stick around in spite of everything. Bob Dylan went electric at Newport. Ice Cube left NWA and went to the East Coast to make hit records. Kanye West's brand of provocation is boring and predictable. His ideas are pure surface, and he is ill equipped to elaborate on them in any way that enriches them. Which is perfect for West. It makes sense for him now to become an odd but precious darling of the alt-right. Like so much of that movement's brand, West's provocations now depend on sheer noise, regardless of who he's associating with. Make enough noise, for a long enough amount of time, and you'll get the desired heads to turn. When the underdog makes it to the top he's no longer an underdog. But if he allows himself to keep imagining himself as one, he'll do whatever it takes to build new enemies to fight against.
West is an overdog who believes himself to be both singularly deserving and uniquely at risk; while his aims are different from those of the alt-right, what he seeks is similar to what they are seeking: success through controversy, through triggering his audience. If you imagine yourself as West does—too large to fail—and if at the same time you're constantly writing your own controversy, you are always the person winning, no matter how many people you lose along the way.