I've bought many of Kanye's incarnations, but victim? That's a stretch. 

kanye west snl art
Promo art for Kanye West on Saturday Night Live.

Kanye West is the last old school rock star. Who else will go to the same crazy extremes? Who else measures the extremity of his actions by the number of TVs thrown out the window an act equates to? Coldplay’s Chris Martin and Gwyneth Paltrow got in the inevitable-therapy game when they named their child Apple, but Kim and Kanye chose North and Saint. Advantage Kanye, and there’s no other level at which Martin is in his league.  

Because he is a rock star, almost everything Kanye does is interesting, even when it’s crazy. Especially when it’s crazy. With his latest album, Ye, only three months old, he is teasing the release of a new album, Yandhi, and played a song from it as his opening number on Saturday Night Live last weekend.   

Forget the paranoid soliloquy that took place after the show went off the air about how everybody backstage at Saturday Night Live was down on him for wearing a MAGA hat. Focus on him and Lil’ Pump dressed as bottles of Fuji and Perrier waters while they performed “I Love It.” They looked ready for a minor league baseball team promotion between innings, and later in the show Kanye and Teyana Taylor performed the new “We Got Love” as if they finished the song, choreography, and camera blocking five minutes before showtime. 

Each performance seemed amateurish in ways that Kanye rarely does. The most conventional number was “Ghost Town,” the only song he performed from his recent album, Ye. Like “I Love It,” some of the vocals wobbled in and out of tune, but it never sounded like they slipped by accident. Kanye had something in mind there and throughout the night, even if what he was going for wasn’t obvious. 

The drama that lingered after the episode centered on the speech Kanye delivered after the show went off the air. “Ghost Town” played during the time when the host, musical guest and cast usually hug it out and wave good night. Instead, Kanye and a full band were onstage, him in his MAGA hat. The song’s hook seemed apropos: 

I’ve been trying
to make you love me
but everything I’ve tried
just takes you further from me 

That self-destructive streak has long kept the world from loving Kanye the way he wants it to, and the episode furthered the narrative of instability because Kanye didn’t get across. He was puzzling more than enigmatic, and there was no lingering sense that he was getting at something vital. The very spare, clear beat for “I Love It” was provocative—demo-like, but too authoritative to be half-assed—but paired with the bottle suits, there was no way to take the moment seriously. Since Kanye has rarely shown the ability to deliver a joke, it was hard to know what to do with the number.

Similarly, his claims of being bullied in his “Ghost Town” sermon were perplexing because victim is Kanye’s least convincing stance. He has titled one album Yeezus and has Yandhi upcoming, which makes Kanye the Punching Bag hard to square with his presentation of himself as Kanye the Savior. More than that, nothing about the economic realities of his life and the place he occupies in the culture says “victim.” It’s credible that he feels that way. Being absorbed into the Kardashian Industrial Complex has defanged him and made it harder for him to be the agent provocateur he once was. He has become another subplot in their ongoing soap opera, but he hasn’t found an effective way to articulate the experience of being domesticated. Kanye processes the negatives in his life as persecution and expresses them as self-pity. 

I’ve stayed clear of Kanye’s comments on slavery because it’s not my place to tell a black man what his thoughts on slavery ought to be, and because a lot of white rock stars said—and say—a lot of crazy shit too. The silence of the audience may have been because he was too real, but it may also have been because he rehashed Fox News talking points. Nothing is more surprising—and less controversial—than Kanye parroting someone else’s lines.