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Power, pot, and the presidency: breaking down Kanye's VMA speech

'I will die for the art, and for what I believe in — and the art ain't always gonna be polite'

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Jamieson Cox: Kanye West was in rare form at Sunday night’s MTV Video Music Awards. After being handed the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard award by benevolent monarch Taylor Swift — a neat flip of their interaction on the same stage six years ago, when West stormed up to defend Beyoncé’s work at Swift’s expense — West spoke at length about celebrity, media hypocrisy, artistry, fatherhood, and the future. He capped off the speech by acknowledging he’d smoked a little something "to take the edge off," announcing he’s going to run for president in 2020, and dropping the mic. And despite host Miley Cyrus’ best efforts — a parade of dancing drag queens! A phallic glitter cannon! A surprise album! — no remaining part of the telecast could generate the kind of electricity Kanye created the minute he came on stage.

There’s obviously a ton to plumb here, Micah — that’s what happens when you give one of pop music’s boldest, brightest figures carte blanche with a microphone and a joint. Let’s get straight to the elephant in the recap, so to speak: do you think Kanye is actually going to run for president in five years?

Micah Singleton: I don’t think so. I mean, it would be the greatest thing ever to happen in politics, but I seriously doubt Kanye actually wants to run the United States. I think he’s hellbent on conquering the fashion world as he did the music industry, and it’s going to take time before he’s mentioned in the same company as someone like his idol Ralph Lauren. These days, it seems like Kanye’s main desire is to remove the restraints on artistic (and general) freedom and to rid our society of the preconceived notions and #brands that influence our youth (even though he himself is a #brand and married into an even bigger #brand). He wants the next generation to aspire to be greater than even they would consider, which is likely why he said he’s running for president. But will he run and unseat President Trump? No matter how much I want it to happen, I doubt it. You don’t announce a presidential campaign with a mic drop.

JC: Yeah, I don’t think so either. To me, it felt like the kind of thing someone says when they’re excited and a little inebriated and looking to go out with a bang. It made everyone in the room lose their minds, and it ensured that every news organization under the sun — even ones without a vested interest in entertainment — would cover his remarks in some capacity. Unfortunately, it also probably compromised the impact of his more precise and cogent points about celebrity and media. Most people are either joking about the concept of a Kanye presidency, seriously considering the feasibility of a run, or dismissing everything he had to say out of hand.

I know it’s a lot of fun to play with, but I’d like to move on from the idea of a Kardashian-West White House. What was your favorite part of the speech?

There's still a lot of work to do on racial relations in this country

MS: When he spoke about the Sunday night in 2009 when he took the mic from Taylor Swift. He mentioned going to the grocery store with North and talking to other shoppers who ultimately realize he isn’t the raging asshole much of the press has made him out to be over the years.

That night in 2009 had a profound effect on our society. The immense outpouring of hatred was one of the first major moments in our post-Obama America that showed we still have a long way to go before racial relations in this country can truly be fixed. What Kanye did was stupid without a doubt, but he didn’t deserve the kind of backlash he received. To hear that, six years later, he still gets joy from converting one person away from being a Kanye hater was endearing. I think it humanized him a bit. What was your favorite part of Kanye’s speech?

JC: My favorite part of the speech — or the part I thought was most interesting, rather — was what Kanye had to say about artistry: defending it, rewarding it, empowering it. I think he touched on something close to his core when he said, "I’ve been conflicted, bro! I just wanted people to like me more." This is the conflict at his heart: he’s a renegade and a visionary, sure, but he’s also a populist. He wants to fight for what he believes — whether it’s Beyoncé having the best video of all time or Justin Timberlake making the best album of the year or, hell, George Bush not caring about black people — but he can’t reconcile that desire with his desire not to do harm. He makes boundary-pushing, avant-garde music, but he can’t help but spike his most challenging music with bits of radiant melody. (Think of the passage that closes "New Slaves," or the placement of "Bound 2" at the end of Yeezus.)

I think it’s worth evaluating some of Kanye’s other comments and prevailing attitudes through this lens. He may not understand award shows, but it’s obvious he cares intensely about them — more than any other artist working, I’d say. That’s because he views them as vehicles for the popular recognition of his work, and he can’t keep himself from wanting that. It doesn’t matter if the Grammys are representative of an old white people cabal, or if the VMAs are instruments of advertising dollars and nothing else: Kanye grants them with meaning, imbues them with the voice of the people.

And as for Kanye having "died for the artist’s opinion," I think that’s the one statement where he crossed into self-aggrandizement — Sinead O’Connor ripped up a picture of the Pope and asked people to "fight the real enemy" a decade-plus before Kanye dropped The College Dropout, if you want to talk about artists fighting for the right to self-expression. But I think his expression of minor martyrdom fits into the idea I’ve laid out above. It’s why Kanye’s so rankled by being painted as a villain all the time: he’s the hero of his story, one in which he took a hit so that others artists gained the freedom to speak their minds. All of us can say the same, right?

There’s something else I want to pick your brain about. Do you think it’s notable that Kanye didn’t mention his music or visual style whatsoever while speaking? I’m a little surprised — taken together, they’re the reasons he was receiving this award in the first place!

Kanye has guided popular music for the last decade, if not longer

MS: I was surprised he didn’t perform, but then again I don’t think he needed to. He’s arguably the most popular celebrity in the world. At this point there’s nothing left to say. He’s one of the top five hip-hop producers of all time without question and arguably one of the five greatest hip-hop artists. He produced The Blueprint. He’s the reason gangster rap isn’t popular anymore. He’s a reason EDM went from underground clubs to the mainstream (see: "Stronger"). His work on 808s and Heartbreak paved the way for the sonic and lyrical work of Drake and The Weeknd. Kanye West has been the guiding hand behind popular music for the last decade, if not longer. When you’re that good, you really don’t need to talk about how you come up with music video concepts.

JC: I agree that Kanye has nothing to prove, but I’m also surprised he didn’t perform — especially given the awards’ recent history. We know Kanye has tremendous respect for Beyoncé and Justin Timberlake, both of whom put together summative performances for the show. Why didn’t he attempt to create the same sort of musical moment? I think the answer’s pretty simple: he’s just not that interested in music right now. It doesn’t help that the songs he’s released from the upcoming Swish haven’t exactly set the world on fire. Perhaps there’s a parallel universe where "All Day" soared into the top 10 and gave him a shot of musical energy, but that certainly wasn’t the case in this one.

Before we close out, I want to hear from you regarding Kanye’s position in contemporary celebrity culture — first as a commentator, and then as a participant. Let’s start with the first: what do you think of Kanye’s read on celebrity and the media as expressed through the speech? He had some pointed things to say about public opinion and the specific hypocrisy of MTV.

MS: American society has adopted the unrelenting habit of building celebrities and public figures up only to tear them down (it’s been going on for ages, but modern media has perfected it). He was chastised for the Taylor Swift fiasco, but he’s also right that MTV promoted Swift presenting him with his award all week in the lead up to the VMAs to boost ratings.

And when Kanye says he "doesn’t understand" award shows, he’s talking about the incessant need to appoint a "winner" within a group of people who are already living their dreams and didn’t sign up for a sporting event. The "somebody must be the best" approach we as a society take with celebrities is completely contradictory to the "everybody gets a trophy" approach we take with our children. But despite Kanye’s pleas, award shows aren’t going anywhere anytime soon. If MTV — a network that hasn’t shown a music video in 10 years — can’t continue to hold the preeminent music video award show, then America is a lie.

How does Kanye fit into today's celebrity landscape?

JC: I’m also curious about where you think Kanye fits into today’s celebrity landscape. It’s hard to believe — for me, anyway — but he’s 38 years old, a full decade and a half older than someone Miley’s age. Watching him talk about creativity and millennials and the Grammy Awards, I really started to feel that age gap. Do you think Kanye came off dated at all once the speech was finished? How does he fit into a celebrity climate that devalues so many of the qualities he holds dear: authenticity, artistry, uncompromising honesty?

MS: Millennials don’t like to be put into boxes, and that mindset is the biggest thing Kanye West preaches, and practices. Even though he’s not officially a millennial, Kanye is one of our top artistic figures and one of the most influential people young people have today. He told a paparazzo he had nice shoes, and then they sold out. It wasn’t baby boomers buying those shoes. Kanye’s influence is undeniable on anybody that grew up with his music. More than any other generation, millennials are dreamers who will go out, push social norms, and attempt to make that dream a reality. They aren’t afraid of change, and they're willing to put the work in to reach their goals. Even if it means living in their parent’s house. And that’s completely in tune with everything Kanye West is about.