What is Kanye West's calling card? Different fans (and critics) will have different answers. Is it his sample-heavy production techniques? The eclectic pop-cultural references in his rhymes? His emotional vulnerability? His outlandish fashion sense? His oversized ego?
Here at Shmoop World HQ, we'd argue that Kanye's real calling card is something that ties many of those attributes together—a distinctive attitude that we might call "smarta-- narcissism."
In other words, Kanye West is a genius—and he knows it, and he wants you to know it. He's the smartest kid in class, an insufferable know-it-all—but he's also the class clown. He can usually get away with it because, well, he's hilarious. And, again, he knows it. His ego is ridiculous, his self-absorption legendary—except that he usually gives us plenty of reasons to justify his own monumental self-image.
This is a guy who quotes his own lyrics and then compares himself, in all seriousness, to Gandhi. "Everything I'm not made me everything I am," he once repeated to an interviewer
(that's the chorus to his song "Everything I Am"). "In my humble opinion, that's a prophetic statement. Gandhi would have said something like that. Picture somebody going up to him saying, "This is bad about me, blah, blah, blah." And Gandhi would come back and say, "Everything you're not made you everything you are. Leave, my son."
What kind of person compares his rap lyrics to the wisdom of Gandhi? What chutzpah, you're probably thinking. How arrogant can a person be?
But then, you do have to admit that that lyric actually is pretty good. Think about it for a second. Maybe Gandhi actually would
have said something like that.
Kanye's unique brand of smarta-- narcissism is on full display in "Through The Wire."
There's the multitude of showy allusions in rhyme, half of them seemingly dropped just to impress us all with the breadth of his cultural knowledge. (Okay, we admit that West's easy thematic jumps from the tragedy of Emmett Till
to Michael Jackson's fiery mishap in a Pepsi commercial to the plot of a relatively obscure M. Night Shyamalan film actually did
There's the utter lack of humility, the unapologetic declaration that "this right here is history in the making, man." (Okay, we have to admit that the record actually did change the direction of hip-hop—if not the history of the world in general—in a fairly dramatic way.)
There's the relentless self-mythologizing, casting his recovery from a simple car wreck as some kind of heroic triumph of good over evil: "I'll gladly risk it all right now / It's a life or death situation man"; "I'm a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that's fire, spit my soul through the wire." (Okay, we have to admit that it actually is pretty cool for someone to drop a killer vocal track despite having his broken jaw surgically wired shut.)
So there it is: smarta-- narcissism. It would all be incredibly obnoxious… if only the music weren't so d--n good.