‘The Life of Pablo’ and the Myth of Rare Black Genius

Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib on Kanye West.

If you are an artist who has made an entire career out of turning a mirror on yourself, what happens when you become less comfortable with your reflection?

For the past few weeks, much of America has, once again, taken on the task of attempting to understand Kanye West. The task of figuring out if what he sees in his reflection can possibly be true all at once. He’s the last great innovator, a man who has the power to change the world and finds himself denied at every turn, the only artist who can save music — or the one who has ruined it, depending on the day.

Yet, when I read black people writing in praise of Kanye, what is often implicit is the desire to shine a light on our unfathomable potential — to illuminate the place of Kanye West, the artist and personality, in a society that is relentless in its desire to humble anyone who seeks to stretch beyond their station, in a country that demands much of supremely talented people yet expects them to act as if they have no idea how they arrived (Taylor Swift’s particular realm of mastery). What compels us to Kanye is that he consistently delivers on his potential, and does so in a way that allows us to cast a blanket of forgiveness on all else; each album clears the slate of grievance. He regularly delivers something new and irrefutably brilliant to drown out those who question the worth of anyone loud, gifted, and black.

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Assessing The Life of Pablo, like assessing the entire career of Kanye West, means considering the demand for black greatness and the toll it takes on the great. I am not commenting now on West’s mental or emotional state. I have no access to Kanye West, or his life, beyond what he shares through his work. I am talking about the toll it takes on artists in the black imagination, in the spaces where we hold them dear. It is equal parts frustrating and wholly understandable to see the way both white establishments and black consumers hold on to the idea of black genius. The concept is held so tightly and with so little change or evolution in what the black genius can or should represent. This leaves the imagination with so few established and named black geniuses that they must be protected at all costs. I have been guilty of this, both the limited naming and the relentless protection, more with Kanye West than anyone else. The black genius raps with his jaw wired shut. The black genius stands on television while a city drowns, and defies the president. The black genius buries his mother and lays his grief bare. The black genius isn’t sure if he wants to be a “black” genius. The black genius is a maddening contradiction, and yet the black genius is still ours. This logic stems from knowing what comes with the fight against erasure. Kanye West, Beyoncé, Ava DuVernay, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Kendrick Lamar — I know these people are playing a different game than their white peers. I instinctively offer praise, even when I’m being publicly critical of them. My brain tells me that I must defend the black genius because it clings tight to the myth that there are so few of them.

During the long, somewhat sloppy rollout of The Life of Pablo, West infamously re-immersed himself in Twitter. It was unsurprising yet still jarring. I took inventory of this, and I didn’t find it as simple as Kanye West no longer behaving in a manner that I could align myself with, though I understood why it seemed to be that simple for others. I felt less distance from West’s genius in this moment than I previously had. He seemed, in tone and execution, like someone I could know, ranting on Facebook. It was a moment that was both frustrating and deeply humanizing. Much like the artist who turns the mirror on themselves and doesn’t like what they see, what happens when we desire our stars to be human, something beyond the products they produce, but realize we may simply not like the humans they seem to be?

As the tweets accumulated over a few days, I considered this grand myth of the rare black genius and asked myself what I gained from believing in it. The myth has kept me believing that black genius is something untouchable. I no longer just want a handful of black geniuses. I want an entire houseful. I want ones I will never meet and ones I know deeply. I want ones that fail big, that both frustrate and challenge me. I want ones that I kick out of the house sometimes and then warmly welcome back. This is, after all, what we should afford them: the ability to be both genius and human, to make work that is both sacred and profane. To reflect the society that holds them up, at its most glorious and gruesome.

Opening the door of black genius wider so that more people can get into the room doesn’t mean abandoning Kanye West. It means changing the Kanye West in our imaginations. For years, I allowed myself to imagine him as he seems to imagine himself: as both a victim and a hero. Someone easy to take inspiration from, and easier to never apologize for.

For me to stretch the idea of black genius, it means changing the way I respond to Kanye West. Maybe even loosening my grip on his legacy, while still holding it close enough for the days I need it most. He is a once-in-a-lifetime artist, one of the few living who will be talked about years from now. Maybe expanding the idea of the black genius means that we will want to spend less time protecting the version of Kanye West that we don’t know but still love. We will perhaps stop searching for things to save him from, or wondering if there is anything to save him from at all.

Kanye West says The Life of Pablo is a gospel album. What I know about gospel is that it is about survival. Or, more specifically, it is about pulling you from the edge of whatever wreckage waits below your trembling legs and turning your face toward the light, “the light” being whatever makes you remember a life worth living and a death not to be feared. The second half of “Waves” sounds like the sun tearing through the clouds after a long winter has rendered the outside world frozen and untouchable. This is the witness that Kanye West has asked us to receive. He asks us to acknowledge every force that would keep us down, but calls us to rise anyway, and prepares us for the celebration that comes next.