What Kanye West really teaches us

“We on an ultralight beam. We on an ultralight beam. This is a God dream. This is everything.”

When a sensualist, in the purest sense of that word, glimpses the lights of the heavens and inhales a true salvation, we get an album like “The Life of Pablo.”

Kanye West is defined by his maximalism and sensuality, and the combination of the two hurts. Never before has the world witnessed someone with such a grand spotlight commit so many atrocities. From his assertion that Bill Cosby is innocent to his misogynist references to Taylor Swift, Kanye creates reasons to be disliked frequent enough to generate a steady flow of rage. He somehow takes everything personally while also completely disregarding everyone else. He is the most turbulent and controversial public figure ever. He’s liable to pop off at any moment and go on some baffling rant or make some strange assertion.

Just today I saw someone on Facebook saying they wish they could “spit on Kanye.” Another called him a twat.

If anyone else were to have a Kanye-scale meltdown – I’m talking a Kanye/Taylor Swift MTV Video Music Awards meltdown or a public confession of being $53 million in debt and asking Mark Zuckerberg for money meltdown – his or her career under the spotlight would quickly come to an end. So how does Kanye do it; how is he still around?

In his maximalist nature, he owns up to everything he does. In fact, he stands by his actions immutably. He is not afraid of making mistakes. In a world terrified of a tarnished past, Kanye West basks in his. However, he doesn’t bask boastfully. Instead he admits to his mistakes and understands that they define him just as much as his successes.

He uses these mistakes to make poignant, raw music. In “30 Hours,” he explains his jealousy, “It was my idea to have an open relationship. And now a n***a mad.” He talks us through his emotions, despite how imperfect they are. In “FML,” he opens up about being on Lexapro, and how he has episodes when he’s off of it. In that same song he sings, “Pour out my feelings, revealing the layers to my soul.” He acknowledges these imperfections, but also recognizes that they are only individual layers to his soul. These layers are a part of who he is, and no matter how ugly they can be, they are just as important as the pretty ones.


(Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

But as easily as he acknowledges how important these ugly layers are to his soul, he is equally conflicted by them. On “Wolves,” he sings, “If your mama knew how you turned out, you too wild.” He shows that though he will always stand by what thinks and feels, he is also embarrassed about it. He is an extremely conflicted human. His soul is a rampage that torments him; he must assert himself, but he must also consider his late mother. When Kanye basks in this torment, it sounds like depression. But Kanye realizes that the depression is only a layer, and the last lines of that same song are, “Life is precious, we found out, we found out, we found out.”


(Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

So what is it that leads Kanye to this conclusion that life is precious? What is it that we actually learn from him? Kanye teaches us forgiveness and acceptance. He shows us that it is ok to make mistakes. He shows us that outbursts, missteps and unruly behavior don’t negate love, they never negate love. Kanye finds forgiveness and acceptance in this love. In “Wolves,” he sings, “Cover Nori in lambs’ wool, we surrounded by the f*ckin’ wolves… Cover Saint in lambs’ wool, we surrounded by the f*ckin’ wolves.” Nori and Saint, his two children, are the embodiments of the love he has for his wife and his family. In covering them in lambs’ wool we see his repentance, and in that he finds his acceptance and redemption.


(Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

Kanye named his album “The Life of Pablo.” The album cover suggests we consider to which Pablo he is referring. Perhaps it is Picasso? That would make sense, because Kanye is as revolutionary and conflicted as the Spanish artist. Perhaps it is Escobar? That would also make sense, because Kanye is as boastful and prolific as the infamous drug lord. Perhaps it is a reference to both? After all, Kanye is an egregious mix of the two. But he’s also something more than that. He’s a pure sensualist. And though the comparisons to Picasso and Escobar would bolster his claims of being godlike, sensualists can never ignore their humanity, they can never escape their human nature. The most famous literary sensualist, Dmitri Karamazov, from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s  “The Brothers Karamazov,” exclaims,

“…I’m a Karamazov…when I fall into the abyss, I go straight into it, head down and heels up, and I’m even pleased that I’m falling in such a humiliating position, and for me I find it beautiful. And so in that very shame I suddenly begin a hymn. Let me be cursed, let me be base and vile, but let me also kiss the hem of that garment in which my God is clothed; let me be following the devil at the same time, but still I am also your son, Lord, and I love you, and I feel a joy without which the world cannot stand and be.” (Book III, Chapter 3)

This is the model for the sensualist, and this is the model that “The Life of Pablo” follows. On this album, Kanye is boastful, self indulgent and undeniably a genius. Those things liken him to Picasso and Escobar. But, more than anything else, he is human. He embodies the Karamazov sensualist, and the album stands out the most when he is “kissing the hem of that garment in which his God is clothed.” And when he worships, we find out who the true Pablo is. Pablo is a reference to Paul the apostle (which is Pablo in Spanish). Perhaps what Pablo the Apostle has to say to the church in Corinth reveals the humanity in which this album is rooted,

“Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” (1 Corinthians 14:4-8)

This is the love that Kanye finds in this album. He still falls straight into the abyss, head down and heels up, but this love gives him joy and redemption. Finally, in finding this love, Kanye is able to be free of himself, of his sensual passions, and exclaim to the world in the most weightless and joyful voice, “We on an ultralight beam. We on an ultralight beam. This is a God dream. This a God dream. This is everything. This is everything.” This ultralight beam is the “joy without which the world cannot stand and be.” This God dream is full of love, and love never fails, and this is everything.


From the video game created by Kanye West “Only One.” (Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)


(Photo Courtesy of Flickr Creative Commons)

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Bradley Harrison is a senior at College of Charleston. After a long and painful stint as an engineering student at a university in Georgia which you probably have never heard of, he has decided to come back home to his native Charleston and study Spanish and Education. As a keen observer of pop culture, he loves art house cinema, Pitchfork.com, and the Ringer. FOH Army for life.

'What Kanye West really teaches us' have 2 comments

  1. February 24, 2016 @ 8:40 pm Jack Story

    Great article. I felt like I was in a Literature class and a teacher was scanning Kanye’s album. I enjoy the insight that, for me, has historically been applied solely to works of literature or poems but was here applied to an album, a modern day work of art.


    • February 24, 2016 @ 10:00 pm Bradley Harrison

      Thanks! Yeah the idea that our artists today can be just as important as the ones in the past is something I love to explore. Glad you liked it!


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