When no one ain’t around
I think I think too much.
Ain’t nobody watchin’
I just fade away.
Kanye West is a self-proclaimed genius, but is characterized by the general public and mainstream media as having delusions of grandeur or is simply described as “crazy”. In an interview on Inside the Actor’s Studio, comedian Dave Chappelle said:
“The worst thing to call somebody is crazy. It’s dismissive. I don’t understand this person, so they’re crazy. That’s bullshit. ‘Cause people are not crazy. They’re strong people. Maybe their environment is a little sick.”
Chappelle highlights the frequent misunderstanding that can arise between an individual and others’ perceptions, which the individual may struggle to reconcile. The Life of Pablo (TLOP) is Kanye West’s sonic dissertation on this sense of being misunderstood by exploring his own pursuit to resolve the tension between his self-image and how he believes the world sees him (or what is and isn’t in his control). Trying to understand the relationship between Kanye West and the outside world through his music catalogue provides insight on his mental state. It furthermore creates a lens through which mental illness can be examined to evoke greater empathy for those suffering.
I need you now,
It wasn’t until the passing of West’s mother, Donda West, that vivid themes of depression and despair began infiltrating his music. The first verse West released following his mother’s death was on Young Jeezy’s ‘Put On’. His isolation and pain is immediately established when he auto-tunes, “I lost the only girl in the world that know me best” and how “Jesus pieces can’t bring me peace”. Then there was 808s & Heartbreak with pervading themes of mistrust, loneliness and depression from the first chorus shouting, “Don’t say you will, unless you will” to the repeated rhetorical question, “Will I ever love again?” on album closer ‘Coldest Winter’. It was during this time the Taylor Swift incident occurred, which placed West in the pop-culture pejorative and planted the public perception he is still trying to change.
West withdrew from the public eye for over a year before returning with the single, ‘Power’. The song prominently contrasts his experience as the subject of constant criticism with his empowered self-identity on the refrain, “Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it. I guess every superhero needs his theme music.” However, the final lines of the song are a repetition of, “This would be a beautiful death, jumping out the window, letting everything go.” West’s darkest lyrics are often hidden amongst his most aggrandizing and uplifting songs, similar to when people make intermittent self-deprecating comments in the context of a joke. West was also prone to these kinds of comments during his erratic, often irrational, Twitter updates discussing issues from his debt to his inability to realize ideas. These appeared to be very public displays of mania, which occurred during the lead up to TLOP with West increasingly referencing a weakened mental state. Most notably he alludes to anti-depressants and paranoia on Vic Mensa’s ‘U Mad’ when he raps, “That Lexapro got me drowsy, then a heart attack. I think they finally think they got me where they want me at”. These moments are often overlooked by others, or sharply criticized in the case of West, but are likely subtle signs of needing support.
So, why send depression not blessings?
Why, oh why’d you do me wrong?
TLOP’s opening track, ‘Ultralight Beam’ climaxes during gospel singer Kelly Price’s verse as she opens with the two lines above. The same song closes with gospel artist, Kirk Franklin, calling out, “This prayer is for everyone that feels they’re not good enough. This prayer’s for everybody that feels like they’re too messed up.” The motif of mental illness is emphasized from TLOP’s first song, which West reinforces with references to Lexapro again on ‘FML’, a shout-out to his psychiatrist on ‘No More Parties in LA’ and the permeating trust issues across songs like ‘Real Friends’ and ‘Wolves’.
Despite it being quite clear West is suffering from some form of mental illness, the general public continues to portray him as deranged and attack his character, twisting every piece of information into how he is a horrible person. When the media discusses mobile recordings of West’s stream-of-consciousness speeches, they laugh, denigrate and disparage rather than show concern. There is a double standard towards West and his wife, Kim Kardashian. The media’s usual approach to discussions of poorly regarded celebrities would be considered bullying and inappropriate if applied to an everyday person. They hypocritically make arguments against this kind of behavior when reporting on everyday circumstances such as schoolyard or cyber bullying. While a by-product of fame is microscopic attention and there will always be negative criticism from some, misunderstood celebrities such as West (and others in the past like Britney Spears) who are publicly experiencing private turmoil should not be tormented and mistreated. They should instead be used as an example of how to be considerate and sympathetic, especially by the media in the context of de-stigmatizing mental illness.
Skate on the paradigm and shift it when I feel like.
While Kanye West faces his demons, his self-esteem remains high with regards to his level of influence, twice on TLOP calling out his ability to cause paradigm shifts (‘Highlights’, ‘Saint Pablo’). The social and cultural paradigms toward mental illness are where West has the opportunity to instigate the biggest shifts, by continuing to show resilience and collaborating with the media to articulate his story to change the contemporary discourse on an international scale. There is no one as influential as Kanye West that has publicly battled with mental illness and is still alive to finish the story with a happy ending.
Kanye West’s ultimate cry for help occurs on one of TLOP’s most played club songs, ‘Father Stretch My Hands’. His own struggles, touching on how he “lost [his] soul”, are contrasted with those that are out of his control like the mistakes of his father and the bragging of Desiigner in the sampling of ‘Panda’. The sample is mostly confusing for listeners as it appears to replicate the original song, but it can be considered one of the most important moments on the album. Just before Desiigner’s first sampled verse is cut, he raps, “Hope you killers understand me” before Kanye sings the repeated phrase, “I just want to feel liberated”. Within this song alone, Kanye is commenting on the constant need to justify or rationalize his thoughts to others and the sense of confinement and isolation when being perpetually misunderstood. It forces the listeners to contemplate who are these killers? Is it the dream killers? The billionaires? The ex-girlfriends? The media? Or is it you?
Life is precious
We found out.
We found out.
We found out.