Kanye West and Why the Myth of “Genius” Must Die

“As soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you,” declared Kanye in 2013. Many of us were still taking pleasure in this celebrity-contrarian game then, myself included. But it’s 2018, and nobody wants to play. The world feels dangerous enough without watching a man flirt with immolation for his own amusement. Maybe playing with fire is harder and hotter when people’s lives are being ruined by a faithless man’s whims by the hour, and maybe we are watching Kanye getting disfigured by these flames. Trump debases everyone he touches, and his latest convert is also his latest victim.

The irony is that none of his recent behavior necessarily breaks new ground for Kanye. Remember when he asked us to imagine how Chris Brown felt, with Rihanna’s horribly beaten face fresh in the public imagination? Or when a mere two years ago he tweeted that Bill Cosby was innocent? Fans rolled their eyes and rubbed their temples and waited for him to shut up. But we didn’t have a madman in the White House then, and it all seemed bearable as long as he eventually stopped.

We were indulging him, in part, because of our unwavering belief (and his) that he is a Genius. Every disheartening development during the last few weeks—the MAGA hat, the TMZ interview, the doubling down in the face of heartfelt pleas from those close to him—is a devotional performed at the altar of genius. Kanye has placed himself in a lineage of unconquerable men: Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Howard Hughes, Michael Jordan, Pablo Picasso, Albert Einstein. This idea has fueled him and absolved him in the past, but it is killing him now.

Genius is by nature troubled and unmanageable. “Name one genius who ain’t crazy,” Kanye demanded on The Life of Pablo’s “Feedback.” Genius is the only yardstick by which he measures himself—“I’m doing pretty good as far as geniuses go,” he insisted on Graduation’s “Barry Bonds.” But maybe geniuses make for bad role models.

A genius is by definition inexorable. Kanye has insisted that he remains in control of this wild narrative, but he has been elbowed offstage by a series of passionate critics, from T.I. to John Legend to TMZ producer Van Lathan. Watching him stand there blinking as Lathan dressed him down, I saw someone shoved to the kids’ table of his own debate, struggling and failing to reassert dominance over the conversation. Naturally, Kanye took to Twitter shortly after the bizarre appearance to defend his right to present “new ideas,” but nothing he said did much to shift the tide of reaction. He has crossed over the final cultural Rubicon, where what he thinks he’s doing and saying is no longer relevant to its reception. He stands completely outside of the conversation he has tried to start, and every time he opens his mouth he looks lonelier.

But he can’t stop, because geniuses don’t stop. What would Steve Jobs have been if he never returned, victorious, from his ignominious exile to Give The People iPods? If West is a genius, then no matter what’s on his mind, he is Onto Something.

A genius can only be misunderstood. A genius can never be wrong, and can only assimilate criticism as “opposition.” A genius is always male—not just a male, but a Great Man, as “genius” has always been more bellow of patriarchal conquest than any kind of descriptor.

Not coincidentally, capitalism loves genius. After all, genius is productive. We locate genius within people, a fixed quality, which makes it a matter of possession and ownership, much like a patent. Feed genius enough money, give it enough space and grant it endless permission, and it will hum along nicely for you until it overheats and breaks down and you can scrap it quietly. Already this morning, there were some signs that is next for Kanye: Adidas, which makes Yeezys, opened lower on the stock market, and the CEO referred ominously to “conversations” he was intending to have with his brand ambassador.

Watching Kanye hurl himself into the gears of social media this month, I found myself fervently wishing for the death of genius and the birth of something more adult and humane. What is “genius,” after all, if not societally celebrated madness? To be clear: I am not speculating on Kanye’s mental health, which remains his business. The larger cultural insanity of genius twists all of us. To believe in genius is to believe in saviors. It is to lie in wait for cult leaders to arise. Elevating geniuses automatically subjugates the rest of us. At what point do we cease recognizing genius and start diagnosing it?

There will be no Kanye album good enough to wash out the taste of the last two weeks. The circumstances are too ugly, the human stakes too high. When you have worn a MAGA hat and suggested 400 years of slavery represents “a choice,” no matter your intentions, there are no clear paths back to grace. As someone who loves Kanye’s music and loathes what he is making of himself, I would love to see the fever of genius lift. He has chased the myth of his own genius to its logical end—exile. Geniuses tend to die alone and unhappy.

So let’s kill genius, please.

We stand to lose nothing. We can have still have all of Kanye West’s albums without his “genius.” We can have the sun ray that is “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1,” the cascading coda of “Lost in the World,” and the celestial trumpets of “We Major.” We can have the terrifying digital squeals of “I Am A God,” the taiko drums of “Love Lockdown.” We can keep all of it.

Killing genius doesn’t rid the world of beautiful ideas; it clears the air for inspiration to take its place. To inspire is, quite simply, to draw breath. It taps into abundantly available resources without draining them. Inspiration doesn’t require unwavering belief, in one’s self or in anyone else. Inspiration, like grace, simply visits us. It is communal and cannot be weaponized.

If Kanye’s albums were simply products of inspiration, rather than of “genius,” then perhaps we could all pull out of this spiral. “Genius” might just be a permission slip you write yourself to knock things down at will, and likely “genius” has done as much to raze our cultural landscape to the ground as it has to build it. Creativity can flourish without genius. You can leave your mark upon this earth without scorching it.

source: pitchfork

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