Is Kanye West the next John Lennon?

Pointless activism, an experimental phase, McCartney collaborations -- Yeezy's becoming more like Lennon every day

Published February 12, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (AP/Zacharie Scheurer)
(AP/Zacharie Scheurer)

Kanye West is pissing everyone off. Again.

I can’t speak for other people, but when I tune in to awards shows like the Grammys, I’m doing so for three reasons. One, for the live performances. Two, for the actual awards, because I’m hoping, against hope, that the voters will get it right this time. Three, to watch something go wrong on live television. And on a night when the first two motivations were lacking, at least my third motivation was fulfilled. Sunday night, Kanye shook up an otherwise dull ceremony with a bit of spontaneity. For the viewers who saw it live, it seemed like a joke — a self-deprecating send-up of his Taylor Swift debacle. Jay Z, his mouth gaped in horror, laughed and clapped when it was all over. Beck, who played along, even gestured for Kanye to come back onstage.

But later, in a post-show interview, Kanye gave one of his infamous, stream-of-consciousness rants. It was unrehearsed and real, and over the course of several minutes, it became clear that what looked like a parody of a self-absorbed, insular artist was actually the real deal. Internet users raged. Even Shirley Manson got involved, posting a vitriolic open letter on her Facebook page. Apparently, the irony of posting an open letter, about childish behavior, on social media, is lost on her.

But then, Kanye has always been about contradiction. He embodies a weird, push-and-pull dynamic – claiming authenticity while appearing on the E! Channel, demanding our love while provoking our hatred  – and it’s maddening to watch. To understand what makes this duality so effective, it’s best to look at a man who pioneered and popularized it to great effect. Like Kanye, this man was the pinnacle of popular music during his prime, and he had a preoccupying self-absorption that made him compelling. Kanye even alluded to it this morning in an interview with Ryan Seacrest, where he talked about his new collaboration with Paul McCartney: “Hey, everyone, America, I’m not comparing myself to John Lennon, I’m just saying I’m angst a bit like John Lennon. And the [tension creates] a new magic. The pressure creates the diamond from the coal.”

There’s no need to qualify that comparison. Kanye West is the new John Lennon, both professionally and personally; their career arcs, motivations and approaches to fame share a great deal in common.

Is this comparison a sacrilege? Some people might think so, because they don’t respect hip-hop or rap as a legitimate art form. But that notion gets weaker, and sillier, with each passing year. Legitimacy is the death of an art form’s relevance and vitality, not its high water mark. Hip-hop’s been thriving for decades at this point, and Kanye, as a purveyor of this art form, is both critically and commercially lauded. By either metric of success, he’s respected. And if any person, in 2015, is still holding on to the notion that his genre is irrelevant or socially meaningless, then that person is either willfully missing the point, or hasn’t been paying close enough attention.

But is it sacrilege to use a Beatle, let alone a dead one, in such an analogy? John Lennon has been deified, after all, in mainstream Western culture. Death, particularly tragic death, has a tendency to scrub wrongdoing — all is forgiven, and in some cases, is re-remembered.  It happened to Jim Morrison, it happened to Michael Jackson, and it happened to John Lennon. Lennon himself would be irked by such a spotless legacy.

Lennon was assassinated at 40 — right at the cusp of middle age, before he had the chance to grow old. To the lay public, Lennon is forever young and vital; the musical visionary and genius; the peace activist with the heart of gold; the most clever Beatle, with the most brilliant songs. But more knowledgeable Beatles fans know that Lennon was perfectly capable of writing horrible songs, and that personally, he was a pretentious ass with an ego. And it’s a shame that more people don’t know this, because John Lennon, the flawed, contradictory individual, is so much more interesting than John Lennon, the peace slogan.

The Lennon/Kanye similarity was explicit last Sunday, when McCartney and West performed their latest collaboration together — one of many, if reports are to be believed. But beyond the obvious, the similarities between Kanye West and John Lennon are numerous.  Both had intense relationships with their mothers, and both were traumatized by their deaths. Lennon wrote “Julia” and “Mother,” and Kanye wrote an entire album, “808s and Heartbreak,” not to mention the McCartney collaboration “Only One.” Both artists initially attended college to study art (Lennon was kicked out, and Kanye dropped out) before pursuing music careers. Both artists are confessional songwriters, drawing upon real events from their lives, rather than singing/rapping as role play. Both dabbled in multiple mediums — Lennon was into drawing and poetry, and Kanye is into fashion.

Both artists, more recently, married controversial, disliked wives. Yoko Ono was portrayed (unfairly) as a talentless hanger-on who was beneath Lennon’s station and exploited him to further her own career. Kim Kardashian has a similar reputation of being famous for being famous and bringing nothing substantial to the equation. And both artists were open about their love for their wives, expressing their marriages’ sexuality for a curious, if repulsed, public.

After meeting Yoko, Lennon’s musical output grew erratic and inconsistent; he became less engaged in the Beatles during the latter part of their career, and when he contributed tracks, they were increasingly formless. On "Abbey Road," the song “She’s So Heavy” was overlong, disjointed and grating to the ears. The snippets of “Mean Mr. Mustard” and “Polythene Pam,” his contributions to the closing medley, were middling at best. Lennon was an avant-garde and primal scream therapy enthusiast, and although the latter led to the superior "John Lennon / Plastic Ono Band," the former led to disastrous experiments like "The Wedding Album," during which Lennon abandoned form entirely.

Kanye’s music, like Lennon’s, has also become increasingly inconsistent and experimental. At the beginning of his career, Kanye could do no wrong – he was the brilliant mastermind behind Jay Z’s "The Blueprint," and many critics hailed his debut album "The College Dropout" as a classic in its own right. Since "Graduation," however, Kanye has mostly abandoned the sped-up soul samples that made him famous. He got new toys — he started playing more with synths, strings and Autotune. And although this led to an undisputed masterwork — "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" is widely considered to be one of the greatest albums of the 00s — it’s also led to some bizarre creative choices. Like Lennon, Kanye doesn’t half-ass things — he’s either going to sail or go down with the ship.

He struggled through his own version of Lennon’s primal scream therapy – "808s and Heartbreak" was a disjointed heap of ideas, and Kanye, dealing with the death of his mother, distorted his voice through Autotune to create a detached, numb tone. "Yeezus" took the opposite approach to therapy — it’s outward rather than insulated. It’s a raw, stripped-down howl of an album, the equivalent of screaming into an echo chamber, especially when held up to the lush, orchestrated production of his earlier works. Buzz-saw synths and bedroom gasps abound. The album has more in common with Marilyn Manson than with the baroque instrumentation Kanye is famous for. Say what you will — the man doesn’t lack guts or ambition.

The lyrics are deliberately repetitive, dumb and ripe for chanting – the better to scream at the top of your lungs. Kanye is America’s stereotyped, post-racial nightmare – in “New Slaves,” he’s a predatory brute let loose in the Hamptons. In “Blood on the Leaves,” he samples Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” as a counterpoint for discussing fame’s pitfalls – it’s a bizarre, tone-deaf comparison between a literal 1920s lynching and a celebrity’s insular impression of one. From its sound, to its lyrics, to its album art (there is none), "Yeezus" is aggressively anti-commercial. And artistically, that would make a hell of a lot more sense if Kanye wasn’t dating the biggest fame magnet on the planet.

There was also a dissonance between Lennon’s artistic self and his actions – he advocated for women’s rights, but he physically abused and cheated on both of his wives, immortalized in songs such as “Run for Your Life” and “Getting Better.” He advocated for peace, but he went about it in grandstanding, ineffective ways – staging bizarre bed-ins, Bagism, and performance art rather than doing the grass-roots work necessary to attain progress.

Kanye shares a common thread of misogyny and ineffectiveness with Lennon. Neither rock nor hip-hop has been known for its feminist stance, but Kanye is endlessly inventive in portraying women – particularly women of color – in an unflattering light. In Kanye’s world, women are easy lays, or gold-digging sluts, or both – with the exception, of course, of his mother. It’s a madonna-whore complex that is creepy, yet fascinating. Kanye’s impulsive attempts at political activism, like Lennon’s, are unhelpful. From propagating extreme myths in his lyrics that “the government administered AIDS,” to blurting on a pledge drive that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” Kanye is an inflammatory, reactionary id — his shit-talking would go over in the barbershop, but not on national television.

Why this self-destructiveness? Why the compulsion to rile and bait people in this manner, courting disdain over support?

At the heights of Beatlemania, Lennon, assuming that his screaming fans couldn’t hear what he was singing anyway, would change his lyrics during performances to include sexual innuendoes (“hold your gland” rather than “hold your hand,” for example). In subsequent years, Lennon relished any opportunity to screw with a compliant audience – an audience that hung on his words, and would have willingly given him their unconditional approval, if only he let them. The “bigger than Jesus” incident is well known and taken out of context, but there were numerous, smaller incidents where Lennon was provocative for its own sake. From posing naked with Yoko on the cover of "Two Virgins" to posing naked with Yoko on the cover of Rolling Stone, he was what people today would call a “troll,” giving us more of what we never wanted to begin with. And “Revolution #9”? Enough said, though it does achieve a vulgar sort of grandeur — like Kanye, when Lennon failed, he always failed in full view of his fans.

To Lennon, inciting a reaction – even a negative reaction – was preferable to the general adoration he would otherwise receive. It propped up Lennon’s self-image as a difficult artist, it rationalized his obscene wealth, and it ultimately affirmed his greatness — he was willing to risk himself for his craft, even if it meant that he overstepped himself at times. Lennon’s worst actions were proud and public – glorious catastrophes that alluded to his successes rather than overshadowing them.

Kanye West is on the same path. He relishes the antagonistic role, and like Lennon, Kanye is refusing to let us like him. Personally and professionally, Kanye’s reputation is a train wreck, but he’s the one who quite deliberately drove it off the rails. He believes, like Lennon and the self-styled geniuses before him, that provocation is a necessary ingredient for greatness – that to be universally appreciated is a sign of bourgeois complacency. Kanye is chasing greatness, one douchebag action at a time, and he seems to be getting closer. And meanwhile, we, the audience, continue to watch and read about his every movement. And thus, we’re contributing to the very thing we claim to hate.

“All you need is love?” Recent history has shown that to achieve greatness, all you need is attention, at all costs. Be it positive or negative – anything but dull, pedestrian love.

By Kevin Wong

Kevin is an AP English Language teacher and freelance writer from Queens, NY. His focus is on video games, American pop culture, and Asian American issues. Kevin has also been published in VIBE, Complex, Joystiq, Gawker Media, PopMatters, WhatCulture, and Racialicious. You can email him at and follow him on Twitter @kevinjameswong.

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