Kanye West is well known for his “delusions of grandeur.” From his bizarre interruptions at awards show (“Imma let you finish!”) to that unforgettable charity pledge drive announcement (“George Bush doesn’t care about black people”), Kanye seems completely unable to understand how the rest of the world will view his actions. He sincerely thinks of himself as one of the greatest artists ever and honestly believes his porn-star turned reality-star wife deserves a Hollywood square. In this sense, Mr. West appears absurdly disconnected with reality and oblivious to who he really is.
On the other hand, I’ve always seen Kanye as a shrewd observer of his true condition. I’ve thought this since his first album, The College Dropout, where he raps:
“Man, I promise, I’m so self-conscious
That’s why you always see with at least one of my watches.
Then I spent 400 bucks on this,
Just to be like ‘N****, you ain’t up on this!’
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some Ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team.
We shine ‘cause they hate us,
Floss ‘cause they degrade us.
We trying to buy back our 40 acres.”
In this same song, he adds:
“We’ll buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need em,
Things we buy to cover up what’s inside
Cause they made us hate ourselves and love their wealth.”
Kanye recognizes that his extravagant spending and ostentatious self-adornment is actually an attempt to cover up low self-esteem and insecurity. He recognizes this need to show off is silly since he can’t even go to the grocery store without wearing expensive clothes. He also acknowledges much of his style is meant to make others feel inadequate. Even more insightfully, he sees his lust for clothing as a kind of self-hatred rooted in envy and feelings of inadequacy. This self-analysis is really quite deep and reflective. Mr. West is more cognizant of his own motives than most people. And, in his critique of his internal motives, he holds nothing back.
So what happened next? Did these reflective verses lead Mr. West to abandon his extravagance in favor of a healthy lifestyle and reasonable spending habits? Unfortunately, no. Kanye remains unwilling or unable to make any significant change.
In a way, Kanye seems to be in the early stages of King Solomon’s journey through debauchery and materialism:
“I enlarged my works: I built houses for myself, I planted vineyards for myself; I made gardens and parks for myself and I planted in them all kinds of fruit trees; I made ponds of water for myself from which to irrigate a forest of growing trees. I bought male and female slaves and I had homeborn slaves. Also I possessed flocks and herds larger than all who preceded me in Jerusalem. Also, I collected for myself silver and gold and the treasure of kings and provinces. I provided for myself male and female singers and the pleasures of men—many concubines.” (Ecclesiastes 2:4-8)
Doesn’t that sound like the bragging of a rapper? Of course, for Solomon, this was only the beginning of his journey towards a deeper understanding of the nature of the world, the source of true happiness, and the peace of wisdom. On the other hand, Kanye seems stuck in this first stage of miserable decadence.
Curiously, Mr. West is aware, and even critical, of his inability to change. In the song, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” he raps about his discovery of conflict diamonds. He spends an entire verse describing the horrors suffered by those who mine diamonds for us wealthy westerners. He explains how the plight of those in war-torn Sierra Leone relates to the plight of inner-city residents in our own United States. But then he says:
“See, a part of me saying, ‘Keep shinin!’
How? When I know what a blood diamond is
People asking me am I gonna give my chain back,
That’ll be the same day I give the game back.”
Kanye recognizes the moral problem of owning and wearing diamonds but he just can’t give them up. He knows this is incongruous but finds it impossible to do what he knows to be right. Kanye muses on this subject in a more recent song, “New Slaves.” Here, he describes the racism experienced by many black people who go to high-end stores and find themselves immediately under suspicion of theft. Even black celebrities experience this often. Kanye calls this a form of new slavery, de facto instead of de jure. But, then he goes on to describe his own experience in this same stores where he finds himself courted to spend huge sums of money. He describes this addiction to clothes and jewelry, enabled by store owners and corporate executives, as another kind of “new slavery.” Just as Christ warned in the gospels, Kanye finds that money has become for him a master.
Confronted with this enslavement to money, the obvious question is, “Why doesn’t he just stop?” I can’t respond for Kanye. But I can respond for myself: “I don’t know. I. Just. Can’t.” I don’t have a weakness for watches, cars, or diamonds. But I have my own vices. And, like Kanye, I try to “cover up what’s inside” with things I know can never satisfy. Sometimes I have NO IDEA why I do the things I do. Other times, after serious self-examination, I can see the root of my sins. But, still, it’s so difficult to stop.
Kanye and I cry out the ancient lament with St. Paul, “For, the good that I want, I do not do, but I practice the very evil that I do not want”( Romans 7:18)! This struggle is not unique, although, it may find a unique voice in Kanye West. But we must do more than complain. Acknowledging the weakness of the flesh may be a legitimate excuse but it doesn’t bring us any closer to a good life. Or, at least, self-awareness is only the first step. Fortunately, Paul is not speaking rhetorically when he asks,“Wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from the body of this death?” (Romans 7:25) Paul has an answer. And he has a name: Jesus. For Paul, the answer to our enslavement to our selfish desires is simply and paradoxically this; we must enslave ourselves to Christ, true God and perfect Man. We must allow him to bind our wills to his, to work in us, and finally transform us. Only then will we be able to go to the grocery store without “Ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team.” Only then will we be truly free.