Donald Trump is losing momentum. You can feel it in his latest press release after losing Wisconsin to Ted Cruz, who finds himself only a couple hundred delegates behind Trump in the Republican primaries. Trump, only a couple weeks removed from saying he wouldn’t support Ted Cruz in a general election after what he saw as underhanded tactics used against him by the Republican establishment, and then backtracking after a meeting with Republican leaders, backtracked yet again, calling Cruz a “Trojan Horse” used by the establishment to derail his nomination.
While the bluster and attacks on Cruz might bump his poll numbers back up ever so slightly, it’s a step back for Trump, who has ever so slightly crept back towards the middle after he came out of Super Tuesday with a commanding lead. There was reneging on certain promises regarding women and abortions. There were protracted denouncements of KKK leaders. There was congratulating foes for their victories, a stark contrast from his “scorch the Earth” debate tactics. Ramping up the rhetoric and vitriol might give him a nudge in the Republican primaries, but it certainly won’t help his chances in a general election should he reach it.
But all of this is hardly new for a camp whose strategy has quite literally been “let Trump be Trump.” Trump’s arrogant, bombastic posturing on the biggest stages has been his greatest strength, with even his staunchest opponents noting that the man has charisma. Even when the man blatantly makes up facts, shouts down opponents, or seems to be generally blowing one of his many gaskets on national television, he is still in control of his audience, and more and more followers flock to him. Which brings me to Kanye West.
This article will not be the first to draw comparisons between Kanye and Trump. The two run their personal brands almost identically. Single-name recognition is one of their most important tools. A famous, attractive, put-together family is put on display. There is not only a want of success in areas outside their expertise, but a demand for it. And then there’s the ego. Both men are endlessly upheld by their own relentless self-confidence, propelling them forward in spite of any word against them. When Kanye released his latest fashion line, Yeezy Season 3, he accompanied the show with songs from his new album The Life of Pablo, including a previously unreleased song in which he rhymes “Kanye” with “Kanye” twenty five times in forty five seconds. Both men are always right, they are always the best, they are always the answer, and they can never lose. So why is Donald Trump, despite his bluster and comical, non-existent policies, still seen as perceptive and strategic, while Kanye is just an asshole?
Rap music, while gaining firm mainstream acceptance over the past two decades, still inspires more ire than any other musical genre—particularly amongst white America. People don’t like rappers using the n-word. People don’t like rappers bragging about their cars. People don’t like rappers’ misogyny and homophobia. People don’t like how vulgar the entire rap culture seems to be. And while some of those concerns are legitimate to varying degrees of importance, one thing in particular seems to rub non-rap fans the wrong way: blatant, over the top arrogance.
Boasting and bragging is a central feature of rap music. Nearly every single rapper, whether they’re universally loved or hated, at one point or another talks about how great they are and how much better they are than everyone else. Kendrick Lamar is the critical darling of the rap moment, where Drake has fused his hip-hop game with a radio-friendly pop sensibility. Both rappers generated massive headlines in the past couple of years with their respective verses upholding their own status as king of rap to the detriment of others. Drake, in his well-publicized fall out with Meek Mill, puffs himself up before letting some insults fly Meek’s way in his song “Back to Back”: “Back to back like I’m on the cover of Lethal Weapon / Back to back like I’m Jordan ’96, ’97 / Whoa, very important and very pretentious / When I look back I might be mad that I gave this attention.” Kendrick goes even further with his verse on “Control,” calling out just about every other contemporary rapper to get on his level: “I’m usually homeboys with the same n— I’m rhyming with / But this is hip-hop, and them n— should know what time it is / And that goes for Jermaine Cole, Big K.R.I.T., Wale / Pusha T, Meek Millz, A$AP Rocky, Drake / Big Sean, Jay Electron’, Tyler, Mac Miller / I got love for you all but I’m tryna murder you n— / Tryna make sure your core fans never heard of you n— / They don’t wanna hear not one more noun or verb from you n—.” Boasting and big arrogant personalities have always been a part of rap music, and they always will be, because it’s vital to the genre.
People who don’t know better tend to only hear the boasts and taunts. NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” was just a middle finger to the establishment instead of an honest appraisal about how the people of Compton felt they were being treated by local law enforcement. The line in Kendrick’s “Alright” that says “We hate popo, wanna kill us dead in the street fo sho” prompted Geraldo Rivera to say that lyrics like these have “done more damage to young African-Americans than racism in recent years.” The fact that “Alright” is actually about encouraging African-Americans to persevere through racism seems to have missed Rivera entirely.
And then there’s Kanye West, who has certainly made braggadocio a key part of his public and artistic persona. There’s that Yeezus claim, of course: “I am a God.” And then his repeated references to being like Pablo Picasso on his most recent album. Picasso, it’s worth noting, is quoted as saying “If you are a soldier, you will become a general. If you are a monk, you will become the Pope. Instead, I was a painter, and became Picasso.” And if that doesn’t lend some legitimacy to the Kanye/Pablo comparisons, nothing will. Like Picasso, Kanye’s claims to greatness have basis in reality. Boasting transcends artistic genres.
It always has. Epic poetry is filled with heroes announcing themselves by means of who they have defeated, how they did it, and what they will do to anyone that stands in their way. For reference, here are a few things Beowulf says in Beowulf, the ancient, old English epic: “[My people] have seen my strength for themselves, have watched me rise from the darkness of war, dripping with my enemies’ blood.” “I drove five great giants into chains, chased that race from the Earth.” “I’ve never known fear, as a youth I fought in endless battles.” “I, alone and with the help of my men, may purge all evil from this hall.” Beowulf is the very opposite of a humble hero. Instead, he makes sure everyone knows what he has done and how great he is. This is boasting as a literary device, and it performs a vital function within the genre, the same as rap music.
Kanye and Trump move this trope to the public sphere. Their respective rants on Twitter, television, and elsewhere keep them in the headlines, while their money and fame allow them the pedestals to keep making these public comments, but their origins couldn’t have been more different. Kanye grew up in Chicago’s south side, an area now more famous for its murder rates, and rose to prominence on the back of his musical talent despite his meager beginnings. Trump, on the other hand, is renowned for his “small loan of a million dollars” with which he started his business ventures from his father. If the matter of earning is determined by net gain in relation to their respective starting points, Kanye looks as shrewd a businessman as Trump considers himself to be, in many respects. Moreover, Trump has arrived where he is on a string of failed business ventures and advantageous bankruptcies. Kanye has arrived where he is on the strength of College Dropout, Graduation, 808s and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, Yeezus and The Life of Pablo: a nearly unprecedented run of game-changing albums.
Beyond overcoming a low income background and the challenges that face any young black man in Chicago, there’s the accident that nearly took Kanye’s life and the more recent death of his mother, about which he has spoken with bracing honesty. Whatever Kanye’s shortcomings or much-discussed emotional issues, he’s speaking from a place of triumph over significant obstacles. If merit is any indication, it seems Kanye deserves as much leeway as Trump in public discourse, if not more.
Which brings us back to our point of contention: why do so many people see Trump as charismatic, while these same people dismiss Kanye? Is it a matter of America’s racial divide rearing its head once again? Classism? A reverence for the political machine?
Or is Kanye punished for excelling in an art form that is still seen as lesser than? Is his bombast less acceptable because it does not contribute to a “worthwhile” cultural movement? And are we more likely to accept Donald Trump’s personality as a political opportunism, and Kanye’s personality as indicative of his true self because we trust politicians more than rappers, or rappers more than politicians?
How can the people who insist that Kanye West be a “better” person accept Trump’s persona on his own terms? Why is Trump just saying what everyone else is thinking and taking a stand against “political correctness” while Kanye needs a heaping slice of humble pie? Maybe we’re quick to diagnose Kanye when he says “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” because it’s easier to dismiss him as stupid or insane than consider where those comments come from. Maybe our personal comfort is the ultimate goal we pursue when we evaluate the figureheads dominating the news.
But I might just be blowing hot air.