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Sunday, 5 July 2015

The strange case of Kanye West

He took one of the biggest entourages the festival has ever seen with him to Glastonbury – and then performed virtually alone for almost two hours.

Apart from the sheer irony of that fact, Mr West’s Glastonbury performance was the man’s whole thing right there in microcosm – the sheer ego of insisting on holding a headlining slot at one of the world’s most high profile festivals on his own on an empty stage; the grand statement in artistic minimalism that only partially worked; the disjointed flow of someone insisting on doing their own thing without any concessions to the audience; the fact that he looked rather lonely and painfully like he was trying to prove something amid the grand scale of the set up... and yet - whether wholly successful or not, he undoubtedly did end up having done something really quite unique and distinctive in the history of Pyramid Stage bill-toppers.

Not Fiddy Pence

I admit that I am utterly fascinated with Kanye – equal parts appalled at the oh-so-LA materialism, arrogance and excess, amused by his repeated foot-in-mouth buffoonery and absurd pomposity but, in spite of all that, still grudgingly impressed and intrigued with his originality, balls and, let's face it, strangeness. Whilst his mass populist appeal may belie the fact, it's pretty clear by now that the guy is pretty weird.

Say what you will about Kanye, he does have an artistic vision – I suspect a lot of those who signed the 100,000-odd petition against him headlining Glasto saw him as no more than an arrogant rapper – you know, one of those hiphop types who steal other people’s records and talk over the top about cars and shooting people, whilst being frightfully disrespectful about women and overly impressed with flashy jewellery. Not like a nice "real" band who diligently learnt to play instruments quite well n that.

But oh, though. While there is plenty of hiphop trope-ery in his music (The late Lou Reed was spot on describing some of the more offensive lyrics on his Yeesus album as “it might be (funny) to a 14-year-old — but it has nothing to do with me”) Kanye is so not your typical “Fiddy Pence” hiphop cliché. The man reads up on minimalist architecture and wants to design high fashion in Paris for crying out loud. Pretty much right from the outset he distinguished himself as a bit odd and high-minded in hiphop circles, to the extent his middle-class producer ass really wasn’t taken that seriously as a rapper at first – nowhere near “street” or gansta enough. Until he started selling records. And yes, the Glastonbury debacle, whatever you made of it, pretty much showed that – whether you rated it or not, he’s going off somewhere on his own these days.

Imma mention "Imma let you finish"

I suppose one of the things that keeps me interested in Kanye, despite having written him off as “just a knob” countless times, is the tantalizing explanation for how a man can be so utterly, complacently, self-deludedly certain of his own unique greatness, way beyond even the massive egos of his contemporaries – and the answer is of course, that he clearly isn’t. I have never known anyone so desperate for the affirmation and approval of others, an unquenchable hunger that speaks of a deep, deep insecurity – that if the arbiters of art aren’t saying he’s THE BEST, it can never be true. Other artists rise above, and pooh-pooh the validity of, mere popularity, titles and awards - but it really, urgently matters to Kanye.

The key to understanding his attitude goes way back. He mentions in interviews his eighth grade basketball coach who, without explanation, didn’t put him on the team, making him realize if he doesn’t fight for recognition himself, he will not get it. And no matter how successful he is that seems to remain. Today this extends those he sees as "his people" as well – he has apparently offered to stage “Imma let you finish”-style protests on behalf of others aside from Beyonce (his mentor Jay-Z’s wife) whom he keeps white-knighting for at awards ceremonies.

He also keeps claiming those who don’t immediately bow down to his greatness and let him do whatever he wants must be prejudiced against him. While I’m sure he has a point that there are still race issues in the upper echelons of showbiz, and there is a sneeriness at a rock star trying to do fashion and so on, there is something a bit rich about one of the most rewarded and privileged men in music claiming he’s hard done by – when his success has opened up so many more opportunities than the vast majority of anyone could ever dream of - and to add to that, he happily tramples over and dismisses the efforts of others (Ms Swift, Beck?). He has a persecution complex on a par with a UKIP MP, which he doesn’t seem to realize is only made worse, not better, by his constant fronting.

Whatever, Kanye is an angry, troubled man, and it’s right there in the music. His confidence is hollow and vulnerable, which is never clearer than, say, in the contrast of the messiah-complex lyrics to “I am a God” with the panic-attack screaming and panting that inexplicably accompanies it. Again, in the words of Lou – who, by the way, was actually a fan – Kanye’s last album was full of “I’m great, I’m terrible, I’m great, I’m terrible - that’s all over this record”.

Neither Finn nor Freddie

And it was right there in the Glastonbury set too. The first and last parts were a greatest hits package that at least proved that Kanye is a bit like Crowded House (probably the first and last time he will be compared to the lovely, low-key, down-to-earth Finn brothers) – you know more than you think. There is quite a variety of sound and style there for those who will listen - but overall it was a glimpse into quite a cold, steely, serious world of one man’s angry head-space.

When I tuned into Glasto on the dear old BBC my initial reaction was “OMG, this is a bit of a mess”. Never mind Lee Nelson’s stage invasion (Jarvis Cocker would be proud), there were bits where the momentum just completely dropped: Partly as he insisted on an extended auto-tune ballad section in the middle that just made it plain he couldn’t sing; partly as there were drops and disjoins as it seemed he'd only decided on the set list in the dressing room 10 minutes before going on; and partly due to technical errors (he abandoned "I Can’t Hold My Liquor" after barking out a couple of lines and letting the guitar bit run). It simply wasn’t as slick as you might have expected, given that f***ing entourage.

And, as social media lampooned, it really didn't demonstrate that he was “the greatest living rock star on the planet” as he claimed – he just doesn't quite have the effortless showmanship of say, a Mick Jagger or James Brown or – yes – Freddie Mercury. In fairness, I don’t really think his intention was to sing a cover of Bohemian Rhapsody at all, he was just joining in karaoke-style as he span a bit of the record in the middle of his gig - ‘cos, why the hell not. But never mind his singing, his stage presence wasn't quite Freddie either, though there was something hypnotic about seeing what he would do next - earlier he had abruptly left the audience hanging, stage in darkness, for minutes before reappearing on top of a f***ing cherry picker. This was not Kiss – no pyrotechnics, no costume change, no zip wire. Just Kanye up a crane. But it was when I noticed he had left the stage lit but completely empty during this for two or three songs, that the contrary pervert in me giggled with glee at the audacity – while it might not have been “history in the making” as he meant it, I think he may have been right, in a way - that had probably (certainly) never happened before in a headlining Glastonbury slot.

Where was "Mike"?

More than a week on and the more I think about it, the more I think the whole thing might have been brilliant. People are still talking about it. The image of him in his bleached double-denim under those ludicrous banks of lights is burned on all our mental retinas. It was utterly simple, yet utterly unique. When Jay Z did Glasto, he turned up with a full band, turned on the charm and opened with a deliberately shambolic few verses of Wonderwall in a cheeky nod to his critics which won everyone round. Not Kanye. No, the massive ego took to the stage, barely acknowledging the audience, with only those huge f***-off whirring modern-art-installation lights, an Akai MPC sampler which he used for about three seconds, a fleeting side-stage visit from a man from Bon Iver, and the shady, hidden-away (imaginary?) “Mike” for company. It was bonkers, really, and it split Twitter in two like samurai sword.

He will never endear himself to people who like their rock stars nice and pleasant and down to earth, and I am sure he is quite a horrible human being to do any kind of business with. No, he can’t really sing, he can’t really play and he can’t really dance. He is a deluded cock.

But there is something of the classic, larger-than-life, maverick rock oddball about him - the combination of ego and art, the clash of the crass and the highbrow, striving to reach beyond the confines of his genre with one foot (or two) planted in a fantasy world of his own making, in the vein of a Prince, Bowie, Gaga, Bush or, um, Trent D'Arby. And while the music might not be to everyone’s tastes, I’d go as far as to say I think he is the real deal as an artist – he is genuinely a bit strange, driven to change, full of fire and a-buzz with unusual ideas and creativity - and he has the balls and passion to do his thing, whatever anyone else thinks.

I’m never sure if I’m laughing with him or at him, but I’m quite glad he exists – in world of increasingly styled, tried-and-tested, as-expected, by-the-numbers acts, he’s at least reliably different and interesting. All day, n****.

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