“Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you.”
Ye, the musician and mogul formerly known as Kanye West, rapped those words on 2013’s “I Am a God,” but in some ways they’ve served as a maxim for his entire career. Musically, the rapper and producer became famous for constantly evolving his style, beholden not to current trends but his own muse, even if he risked shedding fans along the way.
That philosophy always extended to his public persona – and has largely come to define it. He morphed from a hip-hop super-producer to world-conquering rapper, from tabloid staple to fashion world insurgent, from Grammy-nominated gospel artist to MAGA-touting presidential candidate, with the one constant that he was always brash, self-aggrandizing and always, most importantly, the center of attention. Despite countless controversies, Ye has also always been able to maintain his stature as a revered musician and cutting-edge tastemaker. But his standing as a figure in the greater culture has never felt more tenuous than the past two weeks, which have featured multiple instances of antisemitic statements.
Since debuting a “White Lives Matter” T-shirt at his Paris Fashion Week show in early October, Ye’s latest extended public outburst has caused ruptures that may never be repaired. He was briefly booted from Instagram and Twitter for making several antisemitic remarks, including one saying he would go “death con 3” on “JEWISH PEOPLE”; he appeared in a selectively edited interview with Fox News’s Tucker Carlson during which he ranted against Black Lives Matter and made the bizarre claim that professional child actors had been placed in his home to manipulate his children; he announced he was buying Parler, the right-wing social media site run by the husband of his recent confidante, conservative commentator Candace Owens.
It’s been the culmination of yet another very public spiral for Ye, who had spent much of the summer posting angry comments and threats on Instagram against his ex-wife Kim Kardashian, Vogue editor Gabriella Karefa-Johnson (who had called his T-shirts “pure violence”) and the comedian Pete Davidson.
The corporate partnerships that helped Ye ascend to billionaire status are diminishing on a seemingly daily basis. On Tuesday morning, Adidas announced it would stop working with him, putting an end to the lucrative Yeezy line of sneakers that became a cultural phenomenon. “Adidas does not tolerate antisemitism and any other sort of hate speech. … After a thorough review, the company has taken the decision to terminate the partnership with Ye immediately, end production of Yeezy branded products and stop all payments to Ye and his companies,” the company said in a statement, adding that “Adidas will stop the Adidas Yeezy business with immediate effect.” It’s a decision with major implications for Adidas, with Yeezy generating an estimated $2 billion a year, close to 10 percent of the company’s annual revenue, Morningstar analyst David Swartz said.
Last week, Balenciaga announced it is severing ties with Ye, who opened the opulent fashion house’s 2023 show. The brand’s creative director, Denma, had become one of Ye’s biggest allies in the fashion world, partnering with Ye on his Gap clothing line and the massive rollout of Ye’s Grammy-nominated album “Donda.” In September, Ye abruptly terminated his deal with the Gap. This week, his longtime talent agency, CAA, announced it was no longer working with Ye after his latest remarks.
Kardashian rebuked her ex and the father of her four children on Monday, tweeting, “Hate speech is never OK or excusable. I stand together with the Jewish community and call on the terrible violence and hateful rhetoric towards them to come to an immediate end.”
“I’m exhausted to the point where I’m like maybe it’s just time to move on. He’s unpredictable in a way that I can’t gauge, so it’s not worth it,” said Panama Jackson, columnist for TheGrio, who now counts himself as a former Ye fan. “It’s hard for me to say I’m not fan, but I think the person I’m a fan of doesn’t exist anymore.”
Since he popped into the national consciousness with his 2004 debut album, Ye has been not just one of the central figures in American entertainment culture, but a defining character in the digital age’s attention economy. He’s become his own weather system, which follows a fairly predictable cycle: He basks in the culture’s adoration, then loses it by saying or doing something outrageous or downright offensive, then digs his heels in and makes things worse while fans attempt to excuse his behavior. Eventually, he finds some way to make a comeback, be it via apologizing or releasing a game-changing album.
But the cycle has taken increasingly volatile and dark turns. When he stormed the stage at the VMAs in 2009, President Barack Obama called Ye a “jackass”; his statements over the past few weeks have him now labeled an antisemite. The culture’s adoration is shrinking, and he’s not much for apologies these days. And, for what feels truly like the first time, he’s shedding fans in addition to key business partners.
“I don’t understand why it took people so long to get to this place. Where have they been?” asked political commentator Keith Boykin, who had to scroll back through his Twitter feed to figure out just when he broke with Ye. Was it around time he told TMZ that “slavery was a choice?” The Trump White House rant? Before that?
“There’s so much stuff,” he said. “This is the thing about Kanye, he wants all this attention.”
The moment Ye arguably learned how to garner attention outside of his music arrived in 2005, four days after Hurricane Katrina destroyed New Orleans and much of the surrounding Gulf Coast and three days after he released his sophomore album, “Late Registration.” Standing next to comedian Mike Myers on a live telethon carried by all major networks, Ye went off-script and blurted out, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.”
This incident made Ye something of a liberal hero, but it was never a status he sought nor one that particularly fit. While his earlier work sometimes veered toward social consciousness – with lyrics critical of racial profiling by law enforcement and the drug war – he was never aligned with a political party. Ye’s primary allegiance was always to himself.
If the Katrina moment brought Ye fully into the public eye, it was in 2009 that he became inescapable. At that year’s MTV Video Music Awards, 19-year-old Taylor Swift climbed onstage to accept the prize for female video of the year. Ye disagreed with this turn of events and, donning sunglasses, climbed onstage, grabbed her microphone and said, “Yo, Taylor, I’m really happy for you, I’mma let you finish. But Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time.” By the time he handed the mic back to a confused Swift, everything had changed.
Suddenly Ye was public enemy No. 1. Celebrities including Kelly Clarkson, Russell Brand and Katy Perry excoriated him. Along with Obama, former president Jimmy Carter weighed in, calling it “completely uncalled for.” Ye had the nation’s attention, but for the first time, he didn’t seem to like it.
“I’m just ashamed that my hurt caused someone else’s hurt,” he tearfully said on NBC’s “The Jay Leno Show,” after Leno asked how his late mother, Donda, would feel about his antics. Donda West, a professor who championed his career, was particularly close to Ye, and the depth of their relationship is shown in charming scenes from the recent Netflix documentary “Jeen-yuhs”; Ye debuted the song “Hey Mama” (“I wanna scream so loud for you/ ‘Cause I’m so proud of you”) on Oprah’s daytime talk show with Donda present in 2005. Her 2007 death after a cosmetic surgery operation is often cited as the moment Ye became unmoored.
Ye promised to disappear from the spotlight for a while to “analyze how I’m going to make it through the rest of this life.” He opted for Oahu, Hawaii, where he got to work on his sprawling magnum opus, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.” By the time it came out in November 2010, his image was well on its way to rehabilitation, but the album sped things up immeasurably. A star-studded affair featuring the likes of Nicki Minaj, Rihanna, John Legend and Elton John, “Twisted Fantasy” was a cultural sensation and remains one of the most acclaimed albums of the era.
The quick return to prominence didn’t surprise people who knew him growing up, like Terry Parker, who raps under the name Juice and knew Ye as he became an emerging force in the Chicago hip-hop scene. Ye was always bright, intensely competitive and brilliant – people would “overlook the annoying things he’d say because they wanted his beats,” Parker said.
Ye’s undeniable talent had always been thick enough to smooth over some of his qualities that could rub people the wrong way. Parker saw it as a sort of unfiltered honesty – the kind that would later earn Ye a reputation as a provocateur and a troll.
“Not coming with a filter made him as honest as he could be. He didn’t worry about repercussions. He would say something, and then just deal with the scattered ashes,” Parker added. His talent served as armor and justification for his behavior.
So goes the thinking: He’s a musical genius who repeatedly changed the course of modern pop music, and all geniuses are a little crazy, right? Boykin doesn’t buy it. “The phrase is used to exonerate people of other social responsibility. It’s a way of excusing their inappropriate behavior,” he said, adding that fans of R. Kelly use the same honorific. “But that’s not enough. You can’t be inspiring people on one day and then the next day talking about how much you love Trump and preaching anti-Blackness.”
After the universal acclaim of “Twisted Fantasy” and his Jay-Z collaboration/victory lap, “Watch the Throne,” Ye trained his sights on the fashion industry. Despite having no experience as a designer, he set out to conquer a famously insular world.
Over the rest of the decade, Ye collaborated with established labels and launched one-off capsules, but his collections tended to be coolly received by fashion critics. As The Washington Post’s Robin Givhan wrote recently, his 2012 debut in Paris was “calamitous.”
During his 2013 “Yeezus” tour, Ye spent a portion of nearly every concert airing his grievances in rambling soliloquies. “The CEO of Nike, Mark Parker, wouldn’t get on the phone with Kanye West for eight months!” he complained onstage in Washington that November. “They’ll tell you I’m insane,” he said later in the concert. “That’s because they’re scared of their own dreams.”
But in the latter half of the decade, Ye found massive success with his Yeezy show collaboration with Adidas. Those outsize and unrealistic expectations he had set for himself had actually come to fruition. Yeezy helped revitalize the sneaker industry and became a billion dollar brand unto itself. In interviews, he compared himself to Steve Jobs and Walt Disney, his self-confidence beginning to veer closer to a form of messianism that has evolved to encompass ventures such as a private school in Los Angeles and designs for massive dome dwellings at his compound in Wyoming.
“Everything he said he was going to do, he did it – like that he was going to take over fashion,” Juice said.
Ye also became tabloid fodder when he started dating his longtime friend, reality show phenom Kardashian, in 2012. Their relationship seemed almost predestined, two celebrities for whom attention often seemed like the only goal.
Ye’s artistic credibility helped lend Kardashian, then primarily seen as a reality TV star, broader cultural legitimacy, while Kardashian’s TV franchise helped humanize the divisive rapper.
The family helped sand down his rougher edges and on TV, his persona transformed from bombastic superstar to an overwhelmed husband, appearing shy in the background around his wife’s boisterous family or helping Kardashian adjust to the news when her stepparent, Caitlyn Jenner, came out as transgender. His appearances were rare, but he once sat for an on-camera confessional.
“It was shocking to see him doing a talking head – we’re used to Housewives and Kardashians doing talking heads,” said Ryan Bailey, host of the reality TV podcast “So Bad It’s Good.” When Ye appeared on the show, he said, “There were actual moments of humanity in there that made me understand they were a real couple. Then, unfortunately, everything started going downhill.”
Ye’s provocations grew both stranger and more disjointed. Those onstage rants became a mainstay of the live experience, and 2016’s “The Life of Pablo” tour culminated in Ye delivering a stream-of-consciousness speech at a November show in Sacramento before storming offstage, canceling the rest of his concerts and being hospitalized for stress and exhaustion.
The rapper was unusually quiet until the following spring, when he surprised many longtime fans by announcing his admiration for President Donald Trump. Meanwhile, his friendship with young conservative activist Candace Owens began blooming.
He also publicly disclosed that he has bipolar disorder, saying he was diagnosed after his 2016 hospitalization and calling it his “superpower” in the 2018 song “Yikes,” which appeared on the album “Ye.” The cover art included the handwritten words, “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome.” Ye’s openness in talking about his bipolar disorder has led some to claim it explains his behavior, and experts agree that people with the condition can behave erratically and may at times lose their “filter” and say or do socially inappropriate things.
Another turning point in Ye’s drift toward increasingly dangerous rhetoric came when he showed up at TMZ’s headquarters in May 2018, where he infamously suggested that slavery was a choice – on the part of the slaves. He was quickly rebuked by then-TMZ staffer Van Lathan. A former fan of the rapper’s music, Lathan told Ye on camera that he was done with him – that he could no longer separate the man from his music. But that wasn’t quite true. The two men communicated over email later that summer. Lathan reached out because he felt that Ye’s tendency to speak unfiltered was being exploited.
“The more I thought about it the more I thought, ‘Jesus, man everybody is pointing this guy into whatever direction they want to point him in. I’m thinking I took advantage of him [in that moment],” said Lathan, who added that Ye was a grown man, and he didn’t want to “infantilize him.”
Lathan thinks nothing productive came from that back and forth.
“I don’t think I feel any different than a majority of people who feel ambushed by him every six months when he says something grotesque,” he said. Last week, Lathan revealed on his podcast, “Higher Learning,” that Ye had praised Adolf Hitler and Nazis during that interview, but those inflammatory antisemitic comments did not make it on air.
“I’m done. It’s just like you’re hurting yourself at this point. In two years when he makes ‘F- – MLK’ shirts I’m not going to bat an eye,” said Lathan. But he admitted that it’s still hard to ignore Ye.
“The cultural weapon that we give certain influential people? They don’t build it, we do,” said Lathan. “For years and years we gave [Ye] this enormous bazooka of cultural influence, and one day were looking down the barrel of it.”
With his full embrace of Trump in 2018 – he donned a red Make America Great Again hat in the Oval Office while telling the president he had given him a “Superman cape” – Ye found himself, once again, the target of public ire. (Though he also became increasingly popular with commentators and fans aligned with Trump.) The next iteration of Ye would swap politics for religion, a move he announced and cemented with a wholesale turn toward gospel music and by hosting a weekly musical Christian gathering he dubbed Sunday Service.
“The Sunday Service helped to rebrand him, helped to make people like him again,” said Joshua Wright, who teaches history at Trinity Washington University and wrote the recent book “’Wake Up, Mr. West’: Kanye West and the Double Consciousness of Black Celebrity.”
It led to “Donda,” named after his mother and nominated for Grammy for Album of the Year. Netflix’s “Jeen-yuhs” docuseries was met with mostly critical acclaim. After another turbulent era, it seemed Ye would once again be accepted by the greater public, as he always had been. Ye himself felt untouchable even as the outrage grew this month.
“The thing about me and Adidas is like, I can literally say antisemitic s—-, and they can’t drop me,” he said on the Drink Champs podcast on Oct. 16. “I can say antisemitic things, and Adidas can’t drop me. Now what? Now what?”
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