Democracy in the 2010s, aka the decline of Kanye West-ern civilization

In which we theoretically track the concurrent downward spirals of our great nation and hip-hop's Yeezus

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published December 22, 2019 3:30PM (EST)

Kanye West wrapped in an American flag (Brad Barket/Getty Images/Fast Company/Salon)
Kanye West wrapped in an American flag (Brad Barket/Getty Images/Fast Company/Salon)

At some point nearly at the beginning of November, an as-yet-unidentified prankster replaced a photo of Uncle Ruckus from "The Boondocks" with a picture of Kanye West wearing a red "Make America Great Again" hat. Twitter responded with a tidal wave of ROFLMAO emojis at the subtlety of this commentary; you could only find it if you Googled “Boondocks characters,” something few people would have done for any series that’s been off the air for more than five years.

But the gag said everything without a caption. Ruckus is a symbol of self-hatred and ignorance, a caricature of willful, inwardly directed racist degradation.

It’s no accident that the cartoon version of Ruckus bears a slight physical resemblance to Clarence Thomas, but in mindset he’d also find kinship with Herman Cain, Ben Carson . . . and according to some enterprising joke vigilante, Kanye.

In the proximate past, the gag makes sense. This is end-of-the-decade Kanye. Possibly even End Times Kanye. This version visited the Oval Office to deliver an adulatory rant in praise of Donald Trump, tweeted in support of conservative wingnut Candace Owens, and lately has thrown in with prosperity gospel charlatan Joel Osteen, telling his fans that merch sales count as tithing.

How easy it is to forget that, biologically speaking, this is the same man who in 2005 went off-script during an NBC fundraising telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief, leaving presenting partner Mike Myers utterly speechless.

I’m talking about the Kanye who stared into the camera and told America, “I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. You see a white family, it says they’re looking for food.”  He goes on to passionately ramble for a bit about his own shortcomings before delivering the famous line, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Remember that Kanye? “Down for the people” Kanye? What happened to him? The same thing that happened to all of us: the decade that began with 2010.

All art that stands the test of time is informed by the social and political shifts with which it moves, hence the everlasting frustration that is Kanye West, a man who began his career as a hip-hop artist and has since styled his life to be part of the artist palette, much to our fascination and revulsion.

Ten years after that landmark moment Kanye would grace one of five covers to commemorate Time’s 100 Most Influential People accompanied by a blurb written by Elon Musk, a tech titan who as it turns out doesn’t exactly have the best track record with black people either.

The Kanye of 2015 is dramatically different from 2005 Kanye – as different, in fact, as 2010 Kanye is from the 2019 model, i.e. the “come-to-Yeezus” performer who declared before Osteen’s congregation, “The greatest artist that God has ever created is working for him.”

Over the last decade Kanye evolved to become a fashion influencer, brand-defining entrepreneur, an all-American hustler-turned-huckster. Now he’s the guy who got on Twitter to beg Mark Zuckerberg for a moment in the name of bringing “dope sh*t to the world,” the black guy who will happily pose in photos for white dudes who need a picture that proves they have a black friend.  Looking at him thusly makes his late registration to the #MAGA tribe a predictable element of his strange progression.

But as we look back over the last 10 years or so, we had to wonder how closely Kanye’s evolution mirrors that of our political culture. Had we been paying attention to the subliminal messaging underneath the nutty bluster, could we had been better prepared to head off the political and social breaking point at which we find ourselves? Spoiler alert: Lord no. But let’s look back anyway.

2010-2012 and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”

One line from Season 1 of Comedy Central’s “South Side” basically sums up the general feeling about the Chicago-born rapper. "I could kill that man!” a frustrated worker spits through her teeth, adding more quietly, “ But I could also kill for that man."

No doubt these days many more people agree with the first statement than the second – but if the latter sentiment holds true at all anymore it is largely due to the resilience of Kanye's fifth album as an extraordinary work, even a decade after its release.

The Best Rap Album winner at the 54th Grammy Awards is still considered by many critics to be one of the best albums of all time due to its sensational production value, but also due to the thread of reflection throughout the ostentatious and boastful lyrics about the emptiness of excess and fame.

Think of where we were in 2010, when the recession had ended but the average person wasn’t feeling any financial lift, while Wall Street was getting bailouts. Behind the lyrics about partying thrummed a disillusionment at the state of a world that delivered America its first black president, only to saddle him with a financial crisis that made promises of hope and change impossible to deliver upon.

“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” is very much a self-portrait and, like his other albums, a gloriously indulgent one. At the same time, tracks like “Power” acknowledge the absurdity of his good fortune in the midst of a time when the unemployment rate hovered at around 9.6 percent. Then came  2011, when a record number of restrictions to voting introduced in state legislatures around the country, many of which have histories of voter discrimination.

“The system broken, the school's closed, the prisons open/We ain't got nothing' to lose, ma-f**ka', we rolling,” he raps on “Power,” “Huh? Ma'f**ka', we rollin'/ With some light-skinned girls and some Kelly Rowlands/ In this white man's world, we the ones chosen.”

The setbacks suffered by the many weren’t necessarily being felt by the few, and this is Kanye embracing the essence of the cold life lesson.

HIs libertine homages to opulence extend through his 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z, “Watch the Throne,” a mutual ego-massage that bounced in the background to the 2012 election’s run-up, a test of America’s faith in a black president who endured birtherism smears perpetuated by then-reality TV host Trump.

Incidentally, one of the main themes of “Watch the Throne” concerns the weight of wealth, power and celebrity upon black men, and how these apparent boons also make them the focus of unwanted attention.

Also incidentally, 2011 happened to be year that President Barack Obama famously skewered Trump’s ego at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner on the same night he would authorize the Navy Seal operation that resulted in the death of Osama bin Laden. And in 2012, Obama repeated on the record his previously expressed opinion that Kanye is a jackass.

2012-2016: The age of Kimye and being blinded by the lights

While it seems that Kanye and Kim Kardashian West have been a celebrity chimera since the dawn of civilization, they only began in 2012 while Kardashian West was still legally married to NBA player Kris Humphries. Kimye had their first child in 2013; the year also brought the inspired bombast of “Yeezus” and the tour to match.

Kardashian West and West married in 2014, in a private, celebrity-studded ceremony in Florence, Italy. The following year brought the successful launch of his lucrative Yeezy fashion collaboration with Adidas. But the merger that matters most to the public dialogue is that of a rap star’s celebrity DNA with that of a reality TV star. In the public’s eye they represented everything we love and loathe about celebrity, particularly as Kim’s social media presence exploded.

It’s around this time period that Kanye really started to lose the thread, as did America. For 2014 also marked the year of the Ferguson uprising sparked by the shooting of Michael Brown. Subsequent investigation by the Justice Department, uncovered a long-standing pattern of a militarized law enforcement system targeting poor and largely black communities to squeeze revenue out of them by imposing needless fines.

But this also occurred in the context of a highly polarized political atmosphere and a midterm election that turned all of Congress over to Republicans, the result of the lowest voter turnout in 70 years. This turn on the national stage set up what happened in 2016 in an important way; but the public was too entranced with the rise of social media and immediate access to unfiltered celebrity.

If Kardashian West focused on cheesecake stunts to break the internet, her husband became the master of antagonizing nonsensical beefs or taking stances that seem wildly unpopular, seemingly for the attention. One destined to go down in the Oddballs Hall of Fame is his series of 2016 tweeted pleas to Silicon Valley billionaires to “invest 1 billion dollars into Kanye West ideas.” He then chastised them for wanting to build schools in Africa instead of funding his "dope" projects.

2016-2020: Prosperity Gospel of Kanye, aka Bringing the Ruckus

This is post-Trump descending the golden escalator, but pre-Trump upending the expectations that the 2016 election would turn out as many expected, and the lesser of two evils would prevail. Somehow we all hypnotized ourselves into thinking the right was on the fringe, not taking over.

But, no. The much greater evil won — the loud, crass, misogynistic, racist reality show host everyone underestimated. Surely Kanye saw much in common with Trump and so, on November 18, 2016, when he told fans during his show that he didn’t vote, but if he did he would have voted for Trump, we should have seen it coming.

Because Kanye 2005, the rapper who made Middle America’s middle class comfortable enough to buy his albums and play his tracks on their stations, was never going to be Public Enemy or KRS-One or any version of a hip-hop star with political fire in his belly. Therefore, despite what you see in that legendary Katrina benefit video he was never entirely comfortable with throwing in with drowning people . . . unless it somehow profited his image. Just as Trump was never successful at being a businessman, until he could massively profit off of the televised fictional version of him that hoodwinked America into believing he was.

America bought what both of them were selling because each spent the decade priming the market.

So even in 2018, after Kanye rebranded himself as a “free thinker,” tweeted photos of himself wearing a MAGA hat or dropped by TMZ just to say hi and tell the viewers at home that slavery was a choice, people still bought his albums.

Even after his famous post-taping rant on “Saturday Night Live” where he took over the stage and yelled, “They say I’m in the sunken place . . . Follow your heart and stop following your mind,” people still praise him.

Even after that Oval Office visit in 2018 and this year, when his reputation hit Uncle Ruckus status and his record “Jesus Is King” was released to a mixed critical reception, it became the first to ever top the Billboard 200, Top R&B/Hip-Hop Albums, Top Rap Albums, Top Christian Albums, and Top Gospel Albums all at once.

People still forked over $55 for one of his Sunday Service branded brunches . . . consisting of, as described by Consequence of Sound,  “a Styrofoam plate of lukewarm pancakes, bacon, sausage, and grits.” How could they expect anything else?

That said, although Kanye professes to share the same "dragon energy" as Trump, he's also savvy enough to cut bait when the ship is sinking.  In the same week that Christianity Today released an editorial calling for Trump’s removal from office, Kanye announced his opera “Mary” would be opening at Lincoln Center‘s David Geffen Hall on Sunday, Dec. 22.  He has demonstrated genius levels of creativity in the past, and working with his artistic collaborator Vanessa Beecroft may ensure some additional cohesiveness in its execution.

Trump’s reputation may be shot after this decade, along with the democratic norms we previously took for granted. But Kanye’s will likely remain in a number of people's good books well past 2020 no matter what he does and who he abandons in order to do it.

On the flipside, Kardashian West channeled her husband’s support and her own celebrity to persuade Trump to grant clemency to Alice Marie Johnson, a grandmother who was serving a life sentence without parole for non-violent drug offenses, and support her criminal justice reform advocacy efforts. So at least as we head into 2020, one member of the West family still cares about justice and black people . . . even if sometimes her attention isn’t always welcome.

In even better news: "The Boondocks" is coming back in 2020 — and this time, appropriately to our era, Ruckus is the star.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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