Seasons may change, winter to spring, even as the current pandemic brings our world to a grinding halt, but there will always be comforting constants that keep us going during these tough times. The sun will shine, the birds will sing, the Trump administration will find a way to ruin everything, and Kanye West will still be Kanye West.
The rapper and perpetual center of The Discourse is the star of a new profile and cover story by GQ, which focuses on ‘his next frontier’ as a musician, artist, and Silicon Valley-style mogul in the wilds of Wyoming. Will Welch, the magazine’s editor-in-chief, conducted the interview, which gives you an idea of how major this is for the publication. Everything you expect from a Yeezy profile is here: The nonsensical rants; the celebrity butt-kissing, the obscene and near-impenetrable levels of grandeur, and that overwhelming sense of exhaustion that has surrounded West since the earliest days of his career.
Honestly, there are few celebrities who I approach writing about with as much trepidation as I do with Kanye West (ironically, the other major example for me is Taylor Swift.) The labyrinthine intersections one must deal with when even beginning to tackle West, one of the most famous and divisive celebrities of the modern age, are often too immense to consider. Still, I wanted to talk about this GQ profile specifically because I think it’s an excellent example of how, even at his most lambasted, Kanye West still commands the narrative.
Enough ink has been dedicated to the assertion that the celebrity profile is dead over the years, and I’ve never fully bought into that idea. The profile is, to be fair, not what it used to be, partly because even the loftiest of publications don’t want to lose coveted access to the A-Listers by asking tricky questions and many magazines and websites are happy to hand over such assignments to friends of the subjects (see every milquetoast ‘celebrity interviews other celebrity’ puff-piece.) Still, there are amazing journalists keeping profile fresh and relevant in the current age, including former GQ stalwarts Taffy Brodesser-Akner and Caity Weaver. Both women excel in bringing humor and perception to their work and revealing new shades of their subjects in unexpected ways. Think of how Brodesser-Akner dealt with the stonewalling by Bradley Cooper and turned what could have been a DOA interview into a sharp piece on the entire concept of the celebrity profile.
Will Welch is a wonderful writer but his West piece was never going to be truly combative or cynical towards its subject. This is all about how amazing and daring Kanye West is, from his fashion line to his current era of born-again Christian-inspired gospel music to his audacious plans to build an entirely new model of housing inspired by artists like James Turrell. The first half of the piece, written like a traditional profile, focuses on West’s Wyoming endeavors, pitching his grand plans as his ‘boldest’ move yet as a visionary. At a time when every celebrity seems to be starting either their own wellness brand or alcohol line, it is undoubtedly fascinating to see someone whose plans are far more abstract than a mere act of branding. The piece is clearly in awe of West in these parts, setting up the conceit that West may be crazy like a fox. Certainly, the emphasis here is on how nobody but Kanye could pull something like this off. Hell, nobody but Kanye would ever even want to try something like this. In these parts, his uniqueness is positioned as something that everyone can and should celebrate.
that GQ interview with Kanye really hits the ground running, huh? pic.twitter.com/JyvsA3sFe1— chris (@garflyf) April 15, 2020
Interestingly, Kanye’s wife is mentioned twice in this piece and never directly heard from. There’s always been an attempt made regarding West profiles and the like to disconnect him from Kim Kardashian and her family brand in a way that feels both unrepresentative of their collective work and pretty snide. Regardless of what you think of the Kardashians, it seems naïve at best to deny the influence and commercial clout she has had on her husband. Plenty on column inches has been dedicated to exploring how Kanye influenced Kim, especially in molding her into a minimalist-focused style force welcomed more heartily by the fashion industry than she was before her marriage (even her shapewear line, Skims, has its marketing driven by regular West collaborator Vanessa Beecroft.) Cultural commentators as a whole seem far more hesitant to credit the wife in such partnerships and ‘power couple’ dynamics, even when their labor is more evident and often more interesting.
An interesting decision on Welch’s part comes with the second chunk of this profile, where things move from a more traditional narrative to a verbatim Q&A format. How do you contextualize Kanye West’s own words? You can’t, not really. You just have to let him speak. Or at least that’s what GQ does. They’re no fools. They know that the visitors will come from this part of the profile. West will always attract attention but the cold hard clicks are more likely to be found in his Trump quotes and moments of ‘I am Jesus’ grandeur than any of his discussions of site-specific artwork. Some interviewees require pushback from the journalist or more of a to-and-fro in terms of subject and profiler. For some reason, we’ve all just accepted that such things can’t or won’t happen with West. You let him run wild or you don’t get the interview. We all expect him to say weird stuff and that’s why people are here. If it wasn’t then the profile wouldn’t have become a series of uninterrupted Q&As. Ultimately, for me, this hinders the profile as a whole. This thing needed a seriously unforgiving editorial hand, which I imagine the editor-in-chief was not keen to acquiesce to. As with all West interviews, the gems of insight are overwhelmed by the meme-worthy rabble. Then again, a bloated ramble of close to 10,000 words that says everything and nothing feels pretty representative of Kanye West.
Whatever Kanye West says or does will always command attention, for better or worse. At a time when fame has become more homogenous and defined by safety, people can’t help but be drawn to the uniquely Yeezy chaos, even as they’re often repelled by it. That’s why places like GQ keep coming back for more. The problem comes when we give the platform and amplification to the nonsense that sounds like vision, all while pretending we have the self-awareness to define the two. I feel like we lost that distinction with West a long time ago and nobody wants to tell the emperor that he’s wearing no clothes.
Header Image Source: Getty Images.