Kayne West’s demons have followed him to the heights of celebrity, casting dark shadows on the orange glow of his floating stage. Privacy is a luxury that can’t be bought on Rue de Richelieu; the same exposure that’s brought him fame and riches is turning his private experience with mental illness into a larger than life public spectacle.
The Saint Pablo tour has been plagued by drama and controversy, culminating in the cancellation of 34 remaining shows in a move that could cost the hip-hop artist over 10 million dollars in lost earnings. Headlines and hot takes exploded when he announced “If I would have voted, I would have voted Trump,” to a massive outcry of boos at a stop in San Jose. The onstage drama didn’t end there; a show in Sacramento two days later ended after three songs and another controversial message to the audience.
“You ain’t gotta fuck with me, but you know I got the vision, and you know Imma keep it real with you,” he announced, launching into a paranoid rant that name-dropped celebrities from Beyonce to Mark Zuckerberg. “I’ve been sent here to give y’all my truth, even at the risk of my own life, even at the risk of my own success, my own career, I’ve been sent to give y’all the truth,” he continued, pleading with Jay Z not to send “killers” for him.
Snoop Dogg filmed his reaction to the rant, eyes widening in surprise as he took hits off a blunt in the audience. “I smoke weed. Weed don’t make you do that. What the fuck is he on?” the Long Beach rapper and actor wondered in a video posted to Instagram and shared virally across social media.
Yeezy’s remarks regarding President Obama were especially poignant. “He wasn’t allowed to do this,” he said, demonstrating what he meant by letting loose an unintelligible, garbled scream. “He had to be perfect.”
What we’re seeing is West’s inability, and possibly refusal, to be perfect – to be the model minority, college dropout turned millionaire mogul with cameras trained on his every breath. To simultaneously satisfy the fans of The Old Kanye as well as everyone turning on the radio and wondering why he doesn’t just take off his damn T-shirt. To stand up to the pressures and be twice as good, twice as humble, twice as strong and still cope with the immeasurable demands of his career and reverberations of his history.
The carefully crafted image is cracking under the oppressive weight of fear and trauma, and the real human underneath is showing, flaws intact. When his wife Kim Kardashian was held hostage and robbed by five armed men dressed as police officers while staying in a luxurious apartment in Paris’ Eighth Arrondissement, Kanye immediately postponed two tour dates to be by her side.
Kardashian escaped the duct tape and zip ties badly shaken but unharmed; however, the very real prospect that he could have lost his life partner fueled West’s paranoia. The couple reassessed their security detail in the aftermath of the harrowing ordeal, firing longtime bodyguard Pascal Duvier and questioning how to keep their children (3-year-old North and 11-month-old Saint) safe in a world where when someone as heavily protected as their mother could be successfully targeted.
Kanye is no stranger to losing the beloved women in his life. His devotion to his mother Donda West unmistakably influenced the path of his creative output, inspiring songs like “Hey Mama” during her lifetime and tributes spanning fashion, social media and video games after her 2007 death due to complications from multiple cosmetic surgeries.
Careful observers noted that the apex of his recent mental health episode occurred just days after the anniversary of her death. According to The Associated Press, police responded to reports of a disturbance called in by Kanye’s doctor on Monday, November 21st.
After their arrival at a West Hollywood residence, West was transported to Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles in an ambulance and placed on a psychiatric hold. Reaction to the hospitalization was immediate, with celebrities like Chance the Rapper and Lady Gaga pledging their support.
Not everyone was so quick to send well wishes; Wiz Khalifa managed an epic level of shade in a statement that superficially looked like stoner support, but can be recognized as a savage sneak diss by anyone who knows rap beef history. His use of the abbreviation “KK” to refer to his propriety weed strain Khalifa Kush sparked Kanye’s recurrent delusions of persecution back in January. In a perfect example of what psychologists refer to as “jumping to conclusions bias,” Ye believed Khalifa was using his wife’s initials disrespectfully and let loose on twitter with a volley of below-the-belt insults (“you let a stripper trap you”) and grandiose claims (“I made it so we could wear tight jeans”).
Asked to comment on Kanye’s hospitalization, Khalifa wittily responded “He need to smoke some weed. Smoke some KK, make your day-day all better. Imma send him some to the mental institution.”
On social media, many felt comfortable mocking Kanye and making dark jokes at his expense, given that the expected outpouring of performative empathy came so close on the heels of his divisive and inflammatory statements on stage.
References to mental illness are plentiful in the Yeezy discography, with songs like “Feedback” (“Name one genius that ain’t crazy”) and the G.O.O.D. music collaborative track Clique (“Went through deep depression when my mama passed / Suicide, what kinda talk is that?”). On The Life of Pablo’s FML, he disclosed that he was on the antidepressant Lexapro, a selective serotonin reuptake inhibitor that is sometimes associated with triggering manic episodes in patients who take it.
Kanye is far from alone in living with mental illness within view of the world, and he’s not the first to experience a lack of sympathy. His protegee Kid Cudi faced the judgement, minimization and tasteless jokes of the public at large after entering treatment for substance abuse and suicidal ideation. Most notably, Drake released a diss track referring to Cudi’s “phases” and alluding to the notoriously abused prescription drugs Xanax and Percoset.
Azealia Banks’ undeniable talent has long been overshadowed by her outlandish and oppositional behavior. While she’s been open about experiencing mental illness and severe childhood abuse, she’s alienated fans after using homophobic and racial slurs on Twitter, inviting Trump to grab her by the pussy and allegedly biting the breast of a bouncer in a Chelsea club. It’s impossible to condone her antics; however, it’s also worth noting that, while fans will accept pretty much anything from a white man with a substance abuse disorder (see: Charlie Sheen), the risks are much more precipitous for black women who deviate from the norm.
Kanye has not disclosed his diagnosis, and it’s irresponsible to speculate on what it may be. However, it’s worth noting that 48.8 million people worldwide were living with bipolar disorder as of 2013, and schizophrenia affects 1% of the population. Most of us will interact with someone experiencing a manic or psychotic episode within our lifetime, and it’s important to keep in mind that person may have difficulty complying with social norms as a result of their mental illness.
We struggle to accept that one human can inhabit complex dualities; we crave the simple binary of heroes and villains. We place our idols on pedestals, then rush to knock them down. We’re surprised when someone who has made brilliant music does something less than admirable, and struggle to extend an olive branch of compassion to someone who does something we disagree with deeply. We simply don’t know what to do with someone who exists in the grey area between “good” and “evil.”
Kanye is capable of being a loving father to his adorable daughter while having a troubling relationship with women – remember when he said Tyga was “smart” because “got in early” when then-seventeen-year-old Kylie Jenner was allegedly dating the then-twenty-five-year-old rapper behind “Rack City” and “Gucci Snakes”? Or literally anything he’s ever said about Amber Rose post-breakup?
He’s made countless brilliant statements about the devastating effects of white supremacy in his lyrics; he also collaborates with Vanessa Beecroft, an Italian artist who once attempted to adopt orphaned Sudanese twins to use in her artwork in a move that many view as deeply racist and objectifying.
Viewing Kanye as a whole requires us to see him as a real person who may not always be ready to give us a perfectly metered celebrity facade. We can’t blindly accept his most outrageous views due to his stature; sexism, colorism and just plain untrue statements (Jay Z is probably not trying to assassinate Kanye West) deserve to be critiqued. However, we also can’t forget that he may be operating under the influence of depression, mania, trauma and the pressure of being under constant scrutiny at any one time.
The truth is, erratic behavior is nothing new for Kanye. While problematic statements from someone with power and reach must be challenged before they’re accepted as gospel, we also need to have compassion for those who may struggle with delusions, paranoia, and other symptoms of mental illness.
Twenty-one Grammy awards can’t fill the hole in your heart left when a loved one is taken away; and all the money in the world can’t buy peace.
Speaking of Kid Cudi, here’s why Drake’s diss track about him kind of sucked.
- Lead image: Carlos Gonzales