mental health Music Writing

In praise of…Kanye West

The College Dropout

I have loved Kanye since The College Dropout (2004). That summer I went camping with a friend and my only memory of the trip is that we listened to “Spaceship” on repeat. The familiar pitched up vocals on tracks like “We Can Make It Better” from the second album Late Registration (2005) evoke vivid memories of secondary school.  I can recall singing his lyrics to myself while walking the corridors between lessons. After purchasing Graduation (2007) on CD, I played it so much I would often wake with his lyrics in my head: “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven / when I awoke I spent that on a necklace”. Some provoked strong emotions too. The sentiment in “Bittersweet Poetry”, which I would later revisit when considering my relationship with alcohol, was transposed onto my teenage co-dependencies. (He performed these lyrics in poem form at Def Poetry Jam in 2006, but more on that later.)

Graduation concluded Kanye’s triad of college-themed full-length projects. It closes with “Champion”, an anthem for the next generation that also pays homage to his father for teaching him the value of entrepreneurship. The chorus, I have recently discovered, appropriates a Steely Dan sample (my Dad was a Steely Dan fan.) According to West, it was this determination to express his feelings to his father (“a champion in [his] eyes”) that got the sample cleared. When producing the album he was inspired by stadium tours, house music and indie rock. Not all fans appreciated these efforts to bring hip hop to the mainstream, but it paved the way for other artists who did not conform to the conventions of gangster rap to find commercial acceptance. Only “The Glory” retained the “chipmunk soul” production style he had become known for, but I enjoyed it. I can still recite most of the lyrics.

The Postgraduate

The release of 808s and Heartbreak (2008), West’s melancholic synthpop break-up album, coincided with my first relationship. I can remember nonchalantly scrolling through the tracks on an iPod classic in the passenger seat of his car. I projected my teenage insecurities on to songs like “Paranoid”.  “Welcome to Heartbreak” introduced me to the introspective musings of Kid Cudi. I discovered The Black Album (2003) by Kanye’s hip hop “Big Brother” Jay-Z. I became well acquainted with T-Pain (and Auto-Tune) with the release of “Good Life”. By the time I finished sixth form, “Stronger” (the one with the Daft Punk sample) was still the most-played track at parties, having replaced “Gold Digger” a few years earlier. I welcomed the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2009) after his self-imposed exile in Hawaii, which Pitchfork called “a culmination [of his first four albums] and an instant greatest hits, the ultimate realization of his strongest talents and divisive public persona.” Hearing the high-energy Daft-punk produced “Black Skinhead” from Yeezus (2013) still reminds me of when I attended the UK premiere of The Wolf of Wall Street (AKA Best Day Ever), because it was used in the trailer. It has graced most of my workout playlists ever since.

As the self-proclaimed “Louis Vuitton Don” shifted from Kanye to “Yeezy”, with an increasingly hyperbolic public persona to match, my hero worship did not waver. I loved him when, during the 2005 Hurricane Katrina telethon, he remarked on live television, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” – a moment Bush would later call the “all-time low” point of his presidency. I loved him when he crashed Beck’s Album of the Year speech at the 2015 Grammy Awards, which he played off as a joke – six years after interrupting Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the Video Music Awards for beating Beyoncé to best video. I loved him on the self-referential track “I Love Kanye” from The Life of Pablo (2016) for satirically mocking the critics and followers who disliked his post-808s electronic-inspired sound and emotional outbursts: “I miss the old Kanye / straight from the ‘Go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye / set on his goals Kanye”.  I even forgave him when he called it a gospel album, despite deranging it with misogynistic lyrics (he went on to release Jesus Is King in 2019, which actually is “an expression of the gospel”, as West intended).

With The College Dropout, Kanye claimed to be rebranding rap for the next generation, promoting creativity and collaboration in place of rivalry and violence. “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind, a creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns”, he concludes in its closing track “Family Business” – but he overlooked female empowerment. In 808s and Heartbreak, “RoboCop” degrades a “spoiled little LA girl” who won’t let him forget about his womanising ways. In this especially hateful analogy he compares her to Kathy Bates’ antagonist in the film Misery (1990):

“Who knew she was a drama queen / That’d turn my life to Stephen King’s?…Just looking at your history / You’re like the girl from Misery / You said you ain’t take it to this degree / But let’s agree to disagree”.


West went on to reveal his own emotional immaturity by taking to Twitter to criticise ex-girlfriend Amber Rose, for which he has since made a public apology. The album inspired by their break-up was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (with its redemptive yet defeatist second single “Runaway”), which he referred to as a “back-handed apology”.

Misogyny is something of a mainstay in mainstream hip hop music. Admittedly, I could be more educated about hypermasculinity in hip hop culture and how it relates to West’s own misogynistic content. Perhaps this is a subject for another time…or another writer – one not so biased in Ye’s favour. On The Life of Pablo Kanye collaborated with his Chicago-born successor Chance the Rapper, whose uplifting lyrics and gospel influences elevated the album with the song “Ultralight Beam” (Chance is also a feminist activist, social activist and Democratic Party supporter). Kanye had the chance to change the record with this album. Instead he chose to pass the baton on to Chance.

Lyrically, West’s eighth studio album ye (2018) represents a notable departure from the likes of “Robocop” and “Runaway”. In “Wouldn’t Leave” he laments over what he risked losing in his marriage due to past errors of judgement, while in “Violent Crimes” he reforms his perceptions of women now that he has become a father. Even so, he continues to consider women in Madonna-whore terms. West has constructed a complicated misogynistic narrative for himself over the years, which I have largely looked past due to my privilege as a university educated white woman (that, and the aforementioned hero worship).

Others have, understandably, been less forgiving. Channelling her frustration at being continually let down by his lyricism, poet Jessica Mans responded with a spoken word performance entitled “Footnotes for Kanye”, which went viral in 2015. In the poem she accuses him of acting out of alignment with the lyrical trajectory laid out by The College Dropout. She speaks his own words back to him to highlight his hypocrisy, in the same art form (ironically) that he adopted for his early Def Poetry Jam performance.

By this point fans and artists alike were becoming increasingly frustrated by what West was not saying – about women, race, black representation and white privilege. One major source of hypocrisy for Mans was when West received his honorary doctorate at the Art Institute of Chicago, failing to use this opportunity to support Black Lives Matter. Instead he used his platform to make public stunts, like jumping to Beyoncé’s defence at an award show. Kanye the “College Dropout” seemed to be staying in retirement. After releasing Yeesuz, which was in many ways an over-the-top manifestation of his God complex, Kanye married Kim Kardashian and in 2014 launched his first fashion collection – prior to which he had designed sneakers for Nike. Speaking in 2017, Mans cites the Yeezy label as promoting “white careless privilege” and criticises West’s “choice…not [to be] a cultural gatekeeper”, describing him as the embodiment of America’s goal “to make black men lose their way”.

The Campaigner

For the most part, rightly or wrongly, Kanye is known for creating public controversy first and music second. While I have overlooked his objectionable politics because of my subjective adoration, objectively I am deeply disappointed by the direction he has taken.  When he was photographed with Trump in 2016, shortly after he was hospitalised for the psychiatric emergency that led to his bipolar diagnosis, I found it sad and disturbing. If there can only be one image pinpointing the moment Kanye lost his way – the moment Trump seized the opportunity to exploit his illness for the praise of a popular Black celebrity – then this is it.

Writing for the Guardian in 2018, author and speaker Ijeoma Oluo points out that West is “selling out his own people” because it will pay off for him personally; but in doing so he is helping to enable real harm:

“West is betting on anti-blackness to gain him power and notoriety in non-black circles…He is already being rewarded for it with the praise of Trump…[A]nti-blackness will come for him in the end because white supremacy may use him but will never actually love him”.

Oluo cautions non-black people against using West’s words to inadvertently justify oppression and systemic racism, “[which] does not allow for black people to speak their truth without resistance, or to own the stories that they have written.” She reminds the non-black reader that when discussing his support of the Trump administration, “you are also discussing a black man as a non-black person, and the way you do so can contribute to anti-blackness in a way that you may not intend, but will still be very responsible for.”  In other words, such discussions have the potential to play into the hands of anti-black opportunism.

There is considerable evidence for the impact of racism on the emergence of mental illnesses and post-traumatic stress. Racism is one explanation for the ethnic inequalities in mental health care. Should we not be softening the hostility that surrounds him, given these contextual complexities? Sure, we can disagree with his politics, but can we not give him the grace his family asks for? There needs to be more compassion shown to people with experience of severe mental illness. I think we need to choose our words more carefully when we are discussing the mental health of people living in the public eye.

The Mental Health Advocate

Individuals reserve the right to conceptualise their own mental health condition in terms that make sense to them. Kanye reinforced this message when he released ye, appropriating for the album cover the well-known phrase “I love being bipolar its [sic] awesome”. It deals with themes of addiction, family conflict and mental illness. Dark, honest and sobering, ye is more contemplative and introspective than its ego-driven predecessors.  And, as he exclaims in “Yikes”, his bipolar “ain’t no disability, it’s [his] superpower!”

Kanye has always liked comparisons. In an early interview he talks about being able to “see” sound, describing (I decided to look this up) a form of synaesthesia called chromesthesia: “It’s hard to explain…I see colours…it’s almost like a portrait. Like an oil painting in my ear.” In a 2013 interview he draws creative parallels between hip hop producers and fashion designers (he is the “Marc Jacobs of hip hop”, apparently). Kanye has famously likened himself to creative geniuses such as Pablo Picasso and Renaissance polymaths Leonardo Da Vinci and Michaelangelo. Clearly synaesthesia is not enough to substantiate these claims, but it’s not such a great stretch to imagine either.

Kanye’s outspoken opinions over the years have complicated the mental health “conversation”. Individuals living with mental health diagnoses like personality disorders risk being stigmatised when bad politics is pathologised, as we have seen with the discourse that surrounds Trump. It could be very damaging to consider some of West’s more controversial acts within the context of a mental health crisis. Kim has defended Kanye on this in the past, responding to speculation about his illness in relation to some seemingly erratic Tweets in 2018: “mental health is no joke and the media needs to stop spitting that out so casually.”

Uneducated guesses about West’s mental health also have the potential to detract from the real harm his words cause. It is possible to have a mental health condition and still say hurtful things. But problems can occur when the two are conflated. Too often West’s mental health is used by the media to invalidate his beliefs, hopes and ideas. In these instances severe mental illness almost sounds like an accusation, rather than being given the compassionate understanding it deserves.

For freelance writer Nylah Burton, who has bipolar herself, much of the rhetoric surrounding West’s health is ableist:

 “When I see the world relentlessly make ableist statements about West, I am reminded once more how it is both confused and often disgusted by people with severe mental illness like bipolar disorder”.

Whether we call them rants or “visionary streams of consciousness” (as Kanye referred to them in his radio interview on The Breakfast Club in 2013), I have been saddened by what I’ve watched online. I won’t be the only one to have followed the trajectory of his bipolar diagnosis this closely. People look to the media for messages about how mental illness is regarded by society. So when celebrities like Kanye become the subject of numerous negative news stories (and he is often at the centre of a media circus), a huge community of people affected by mental illness will be watching.

The Family Man

At the time of writing, the topic of West’s mental state has dominated yet more headlines. In July this year his wife Kim felt compelled to comment, “because of the stigma and misconceptions about mental health.” In a statement to the press she wrote:

“Anyone who has [bipolar] or has a loved one in their life who does, knows how incredibly complicated and painful it is to understand. I’ve never spoken publicly about how this has affected us at home because I am very protective of our children and of Kanye’s right to privacy when it comes to his health… I understand Kanye is subject to criticism because he is a public figure and his actions at times can cause strong opinions and emotions. He is a brilliant but complicated person, who on top of the pressures of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother, has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar [sic] disorder. Those who are close with Kanye know his heart and understand his words sometimes do not align with his intentions.” 

Kim Kardashian West

I am glad Kim spoke out about this. I, along with my two younger siblings, grew up with the confusion and helplessness of witnessing my Dad’s manic and major depressive episodes. There is not enough understanding about the distress caused by mental illness within families.

Journalist Kate Leaver agrees. She has written an admirable piece for Vogue about how Kanye’s unravelling shows our unwillingness as a society to confront the messier symptoms of mental illness. She articulates how it is harder for our collective compassion to extend to mistakes made whilst under the influence of a mental health condition, or experiences like losing touch with reality (psychosis). If an invisible line exists between bipolar and the person, it is important to respect where that line is drawn. Although it is hard not to jump in and rescue, it is generally up to the individual to find that line themselves – with the appropriate professional support and the help of friends and family members, if it is welcomed.

As Leaver points out, “with someone like Kanye, [it’s difficult] to know where his ego ends and his mania begins”. Kim touched upon this in her statement:

“Living with bi-polar [sic] disorder does not diminish or invalidate his dreams and his creative ideas, no matter how big or unobtainable they may feel to some. That is part of his genius and as we have all witnessed, many of his big dreams have come true.”

Inflated egos are prominent in general hip hop discourse, though I think it’s fair to say that West has explored his own ego more so than most hip hop artists. His arrogance is almost trademarked.  I often questioned whether this was related to bipolar, as I did with my own Dad, but the answer was always complicated. Regardless of whether we have mental illness or not, we all have an ego. Let me illustrate this by taking a trait like narcissism, which sits on a spectrum of personality traits – coexisting with arrogance, overconfidence and self-absorption. Sometimes narcissism serves an important purpose for us. (It has benefited Kanye’s success a tremendous amount.) It can also mask deep-seated insecurities and emotional vulnerabilities, such as self-consciousness and shame.

Speaking to the BBC in October 2019, West called himself “unquestionably, undoubtedly, the greatest human artist of all time” – adding, “God is using me to show off.” Taken to this extreme, it is easy to forget that he has spent close to two decades creating some of the most brilliantly original music of any genre. OK, so he may not be a God, but he is still one of the most commercially successful hip hop artists of all time. And as a human being he is flawed like the rest of us.

The “Self Conscious” Poet

On The College Dropout, the track that most hooked me in was “All Falls Down” – Kanye’s moralistic tale about a woman who is gripped by the “peer pressure” of a capitalist culture, full of “the things we buy to cover up what’s inside”. He first performed these lyrics as the spoken word poem “Self Conscious” – an impassioned critique of his own materialism.

My parents were not university educated, but we lived in a fairly affluent area of Oxford among academics, students and University alumni. In retrospect I realise I was incredibly lucky, but this not fitting in felt uncomfortable at the time. I was also the only one of my friends to really love hip hop. Here were these Motown-inspired melodies mixed with conscious rap sensibilities, full of self-examination and lyrics that talked about family, higher education, individualism, materialism, racism, religion and self-identity. I was enamoured with Kanye from the get-go. For someone who confessed to being self-conscious, he was also curiously self-assured. He had self-awareness as well as self-confidence.  For “Through the Wire”, he chose to record his vocals with his jaw wired shut after being in a near-fatal car accident. In “All Falls Down” he included the line, “we’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it”.

When it came to light that Kanye had been diagnosed with bipolar, my Dad had been living with the condition for a decade or more.  I struggled to articulate my experience of living alongside this illness. It didn’t help that there were very few examples of lived experience to draw from at the time. Stephen Fry was probably my go-to spokesperson. I found a sort of unofficial one in Spike Milligan too. The confusing and sometimes frightening aspects of mental illness are all too often hidden from public view. If there had been as many media representations of bipolar as there are now, I think I would have coped very differently. Thankfully he is doing really well now, but I wonder whether my Dad would have found it far less isolating too.

Luckily there were many people around me who I did talk to – friends and family members who asked questions and listened as I attempted to answer them. But I met no one with experience of parental mental illness. Even if I had known someone, I doubt we would have talked about it. With hindsight I realise that my inarticulateness about this illness was the consequence of stigma colliding with shame. Why do we suffer in silence, instead of risk sharing what’s on our minds?  I have since seized the occasional opportunity to talk about it and discovered my listener has gone through a similar thing.

Eventually Kanye became my point of reference. My intuition recognised certain subtle expressions of bipolar beneath the bravado of his public persona. I marvelled at the self-awareness and lucidity he expressed in his music. I sympathised deeply whenever he lost his way. I essentially projected onto him my innate protectiveness towards anyone with this illness. The commonalities of my Dad’s manic highs and all-consuming lows were mapped onto Kanye’s character. As he went through his ups and downs over the years, I wouldn’t hear a bad word said about him.

When I first read Kim’s statement my heart filled with compassion. It was this part that really got me:

 “People who are unaware or far removed from this experience can be judgmental and not understand that the individuals themselves have to engage in the process of getting help no matter how hard family and friends try…We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole, however we should also give it to the individuals who are living with it in times when they need it the most.”

I recognised my own situation in these words. Whenever this happens – each time a person speaks honestly and openly about the impact of this illness – something inside me shifts and I feel less alone in my experience. As I process it cognitively, there is a felt sensation in the body too. It is a physical unburdening as much as it is an emotional one. Seeking this feeling of recognition is one of my motivations for writing (and the hope that my reader might experience this too is one of the rewards).

The Storyteller

We seek out stories because they help us to create our own. This is why certain psychotherapies are delivered in groups. It is why why peer support often happens in groups too. It is also why I read books, watch films and listen to podcasts. Groups create opportunities for people to tell their stories and have those stories reflected back to them. A similar process happens with writing. In writing our story we attempt to express, as I am now, what we find challenging to articulate out loud. Narrative art forms uniquely and unequivocally support the development of self-identity.

Music is one such art form where stories are found. It is a natural facilitator for connection, to the self and to the outside world. Lyrics tell us stories; but we construct our own narratives around these lyrics too. We often listen together as part of a group; we play music at parties, we go to the cinema, and we hear it live at concerts and gigs. Music can give life more meaning. It is part of our collective experience.

It is no secret that The College Dropout means so much to me because I first heard it when I was a teenager. It was an important time for establishing my own narrative. As teenagers we are becoming independent and experiencing many things for the first time. This is what makes our teenage years so meaningful.  When our memories are stimulated by music, we are not just able to recite the lyrics – we feel strong emotions too.

Robert Snyder at the Art Institute of Chicago says this is because these aspects of so-called “implicit” memory are remembered by the unconscious. This is a more reactive, unintentional form of memory, and “things that can affect us from outside of consciousness are often regarded as powerful”, both in terms of their emotional quality and durability. This explains our tendency to be moved so emotionally by songs from the past.

According to a recent study published in Nature Neuroscience, some memories that are encoded during stress “are so overwhelming and traumatic that [they] hide like a shadow in the brain.” Hidden memories protect the individual from the emotional pain of recalling the event, but they eventually cause debilitating psychological problems. Suppression of the past often leads to anxiety, depression and disassociation in the present. Hearing music can help us to remember complex experiences that the conscious mind cannot recall.

My own memories are fragmented. Some I just cannot access; but I am still left with the feelings. My emotional sensitivity to music can feel joyous, as well as cathartic. I use music to initiate exercise and enhance the endorphin rush. It rewards me with good memories too. In the frustrating landscape of my childhood memories, revisiting Kanye’s music brings some of the blurred experiences into focus. Rappers are storytellers, after all – and Kanye’s story is woven within the fabric of my own.

I have loved Kanye since The College Dropout – and I still do.