If there’s one throughline to Kanye West’s current interactions with the world—which are running the gamut this week, from a thoughtful, 105-minute sitdown with interviewer Charlamagne Tha God, to a volatile conversation with TMZ that ended in West confronting a staffer over his assertion that 400 years of slavery in America “sounds like a choice”—it’s the well-known artist’s equally well-known desire to be heard and understood. That call for attention-standing has come at a lot of different pitches this week, though, ranging from quietly talking through his hurt feelings about long-time friend and idol JAY-Z, to loudly yelling about getting liposuction so that TMZ reporters wouldn’t call him fat.
It spends a lot more time digging into the details of West’s fashion brand than, perhaps, anybody who isn’t Kanye West is likely to really care about, but there’s a lot of interesting material spread throughout that mammoth Charlamagne interview. (Ye on therapy: “I use the world as my therapist.” Ye on feelings: “Nobody owes me anything, but I’m still going to feel what I feel.” Ye on innovation: “I’m like Telsa—like Nikola Tesla, not the car.”) Situated in an expensive white void, West lays into a number of intimate topics—the 2016 “breakdown” that saw him briefly hospitalized, the trauma of his wife being tied up and robbed at gunpoint that same year, his complicated feelings about the time Barack Obama referred to him as a “jackass,” etc.—while frequently circling around his feelings on Donald Trump and racism. (A point which Charlamagne returns to time and time again, trying to give West that much-craved opportunity to be understood.)
“Racism isn’t the dealbreaker for me; if it was, I wouldn’t live in America,” West notes at one point; although it was recorded before his recent MAGA-hatted self-promotional push, the comment is one of several times West has recently expressed his desire to be allowed to, essentially, opt out of the ongoing conversation about white supremacy and racial equality in America, and simply embrace his love for Trump as one “outsider” showman to another. He also bristled lightly at references to touchstone black American heroes like Martin Luther King Jr. and Harriet Tubman, suggesting that they only get trotted out to make people docile: “Certain icons are too far in the past to be relateable, and that makes them safe,” he said. “When I saw Harriet Tubman on the $20 bill, that’s when I wanted to use Bitcoin. It’s like when you see all the slave movies. Why you gotta keep reminding us about slavery?”
To be fair, West was the one who brought that particular topic up at TMZ, as part of an initially calm, eventually rant-y conversation on many of these same topics. At one point, West got on his feet, declaring that he had been struggling with an opioid addiction prior to his 2016 “breakthrough,” one that had started when he’d begun taking pills after getting liposuction because “I was tryin’ to look good for y’all. I got liposuction because I didn’t want y’all to call me fat.”
He got his biggest pushback, though, when he revisted the topic of slavery, at one point stating that “When you hear about slavery for 400 years—for 400 years?—that sound like a choice. Like, you was there for 400 years and it’s all of y’all?” West later tried to clarify these statements on Twitter—stating that he was simply trying to highlight how mentally broken African slaves had become by their ordeal—but that didn’t really come through in the moment, which led one of TMZ’s employees to directly call him and his “unbelievably hurtful” comments out. “The rest of us in society have to deal with these threats to our lives,” the man said, prompting West to respond with a repeated, “I’m sorry I hurt you, bro.”
And that, of course, is the other running idea in all of West’s verbal battles of late: The inevitable moment when someone steps forward and points out that, for all his talk of learning and humility, all of West’s opinions still seem firmly planted in a Kanye-centric world. Like when Charlamagne points out that West’s “not-a-dealbreaker” attitude toward racism comes from a place of privilege. Or the TMZ employee pointing out all the pain that West’s thoughtless, poorly-explained slavery comments caused him. Or, perhaps the most personal moment, from a making-of video for the recent dialogue/song “Ye vs. The People” that’s currently on the front of West’s web site.
Kanye’s friend T.I.—who appears on the song, repeatedly questioning why West can’t see the harm that he perceives in his support for Trump—responds in the heat of the moment to West’s assertion that “Half the shit Trump does, I don’t agree with” with an indignant, “What half do you agree with?!” When people make these points, West always makes a show of hearing them—that’s a big part of his “new” enlightened persona, along with retweeting and sharing pretty much everything we’ve quoted here today on his personal Twitter timeline, as though it were now required reading for Kanye 101—but it’s not clear how much understanding Yeezy is actually doing in his sudden rush to be understood.