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Name One Genius That Ain't Crazy
The following is a guest piece written by Kevin Ryan, edited by Justin Robert Young. They talk about Kanye a lot. You can listen to a conversation between the two of them about free speech, life and the unknown on this episode of Politics Politics Politics.
What’s the difference between a genius and an apostle?
The genius creates. The apostle redeems.
Creation is temporary, redemption is eternal. The genius brings something new, but its newness disappears at the very thought of eternity — it eventually becomes part of the zeitgeist. When the apostle brings something new, its newness only multiplies and its paradoxical nature makes it unsolvable, giving it eternal life. A genius is born, an apostle is chosen.
The concept of genius complicates this dichotomy. It derives from the Ancient Greek verb gigno, meaning “to give birth to,” and it connoted an inherited specialness.
In Ancient Rome, Genius was the personalized deity that made each person unique. Birthdays weren’t celebrations of a person’s birth, they were ceremonies honoring their Genius, and they were inherently sacred.
To the Romans, Genius wasn’t something people were, it was something each person belonged to. The protective spirit, the celestial double, that accompanied them through life, from the moment of their birth. Christianity refashioned this figure as the guardian angel and its analogue, the fallen angel.
Secularization, in turn, led to an atheistic version of genius that is political, making it, paradoxically, deeply theological, maybe even apostolic.
Our genius guides us, sometimes to ruin. For which we seek redemption. An interplay as ancient as it is modern.
If this pattern is the definition of “life as art” then the biggest artist of our lifetime is Kanye West and no clearer documentation of his specific journey than Jeen-Yuhs: A Kanye Trilogy, directed by “Coodie” Simmons, a three part documentary streaming on Netflix.
Nothing is sacred in a world without profanity. Profanations kiss us like Judas: a promise of the afterlife, or a signal of betrayal?
As Kierkegaard pointed out in “Of the Difference Between a Genius and an Apostle,” a genius connects to others through emotion and thought, while an apostle’s connection is faith.
A genius is gifted, an apostle is ordinary. What separates them, most of all, is that the apostle receives guidance from a divine authority.
Which are you? Either way, society needs you as one of its performers. Can you handle this impossible task? Do you have the spine to get crushed by unmountable fame? If the entire world pisses on you — because, as Girard observes, this is how mammals mark territory — can you survive the endless humiliation? If society as a whole bans you, turns you into a cultural werewolf, do you have the courage to bleach your hair and say “Fuck you” to the paparazzo at three in the morning? Either you’re a liar or the answer is “No.”
I will never stop defending the genius of Kanye.
Welcome to the Ye paradigm. Would it surprise you to discover that you had already been in it for years? The fascinating thing about the Kanye discourse is the superposition between his reality and unreality. How much he is and isn’t likable. Is and isn’t talent. Is and isn’t like us.
We’re all self-conscious, he was just the first to admit it, after all.
Bragging about humility. These are the themes Ye made his introduction to us with on The College Dropout, which Jeen Yuhs spends it’s most compelling time documenting.
But of course, since it’s Kanye, it only gets wilder from there.
As a society, where do we currently stand on the validity and import of wildness? Don’t we want to be wild?
Welcome to the palace of obscure dichotomies, a land of big-booty bitches under a Gucci Store. Here, fashion swallows whatever the fuck it wants. Sometimes it fucks, too. Fucking, after all, is responsible for all of This, everything in the entire Kingdom of God.
Ye smacks us with this truth in the face. Which I see not as violence, but as an example of the beautiful concept by Emmanuel Levinas, that of humanism as a celebration that happens face-to-face.
His boom and bust journey is maddening, compelling, exciting, heartwarming and cringeworthy. A 24/7 public examination of a remarkable artist and, in the process, the very concept of fame.
In 2021, Kanye West legally changed his name to “Ye,” in the middle of an extended revelation, which arose from a manic episode. Coincidentally, the Middle English 2nd person pronoun “ye,” which has since been replaced by “you,” appears in The King James Bible. Imagine being Ye, the most famous artist alive, the wealthiest musician alive, then you seek refuge in God, the Word, as an escape from the enormities of fame, and when you open the Bible and every page is covered with your name.
For two decades, Kanye West has been both saved and hounded by the notion of Genius. Following his infamous Matt Lauer interview, he took to Twitter: “I can’t be everybody’s hero and villain savior and sinner Christian and anti-Christ!” Then he elects himself God and Satan, villain and savior.
This is roughly the central tension of the Netflix docuseries Jeen-Yuhs. The entire film is shot and narrated by director Simmons, a hometown friend of Ye’s and accidental documentarian who captured the story of how Ye went from the hungriest producer in Chicago to the reigning king of music, “one of the greatest artists resting or alive,” in his own words.
Midway through Jeen-yuhs, Rhymefest scolds Ye, “Who are you to call yourself a genius? It’s for other people to look at you and say, ‘That man’s a genius.’”
Coodie told Vanity Fair that this moment was the inspiration for the title, Jeen-yuhs.
Filming took place over 21 years, with glimpses of family footage. Parts I and II remain focused on the Ye none of us knows. Despite his relentless hustle, old Kanye seems so normal. You see a lot of his devastation. You see him desire the glory of the stage while watching other performers, on platforms that he’d eventually outgrow.
But, for much of Jeen-yuhs, the story returns to the question of Ye’s Genius. It is routinely a topic of discussion in America. We love to talk about Ye. Something else we have in common with him.
And not an erroneous one. Even his own mother — a true star of Jeen-Yuhs and Kanye’s biggest supporter, his great believer, possibly the source of his robust ego — tells the camera that Ye was always self-absorbed.
In the pre-Trump world, you could call Ye a genius or a douchebag in polite company, and the mood would remain light. Add this to the list of simple pleasures ruined by the poison of omnipresent political discourse.
Still, few debates have inspired more coverage.
David Samuels’ iconic 2012 “American Mozart” article crowns Ye “the first true genius of the iPhone era, the Mozart of contemporary American music.” Samuels adds that Ye “is famous for emotional outbursts and rambling excursions, he hates scripts—but he likes being a pop-culture genius even more.”
Others are more blunt about it: “Kanye West — Genius or Asshole?”
Jeen-yuhs proves that the answer to these questions is complicated.
Aristotle said it 2,600 years ago: “There is no great genius without a mixture of madness.” Or better yet, “Name me one genius who ain't crazy,” says Ye on “Feedback.” (He has never compared himself to Aristotle, but he has to Socrates, which is pretty accurate.)
Because, for Ye, contradictions fuel the chaos. God and Monster. Believer and self-idol. Genius or asshole. But underneath the tension of opposites, Ye thrives, mostly without knowing how or why. This is the paradox of Genius: “If Genius is our life, insofar as it does not belong to us, then we must answer for something for which we are not responsible,” writes Giorgio Agamben. “The childlike face of our own salvation and of our own ruin both is and is not our face.”
But here’s what we all want to know: Did Ye deliver himself into fame and power by his own will? Did he hype his genius into existence?
Over the years, takes on Ye have been consistently awful. Gluttonous. Prideful. Why can’t we just let our brilliant artists remain joyful? Why do we have to try to crush their spirit, often with great success? Isn’t it impossible, even abusive, that we demand they be normal while also demanding they be artistic, when their abnormalcy is largely what allows them their transcendence?
Denude them then call them unfashionable?
I say this sort of behavior should be what classifies as deviant behavior. I call this what it is: exploitation, possibly with deeply sexual motivations, dark hindrance originating from the groin of a deviant’s brain. I say fuck anyone who criticizes an artist — because we all know they could never — ever — accomplish anything better.
The speed of his life is so daunting and public that sometimes the scandals change the world around you before you even hear about them. There’s just too much Kanye for any one of us to capture, Coodie does his best in Jeen-Yuhs.
Ye’s life is like an unending asthma attack. You can feel this all throughout Jeen-Yuhs, from the opening scene, as Ye, in a military vest, alternates between rapping and talking into his phone: “Move forward with this running for president and all things needed, full steam ahead on that.”
If you are a fan of hip hop, specifically from the late 90s through 2010, the first two parts of Jeen-Yuhs are absolute must watches. Fly on the wall moments from the (final?) explosion of New York City’s rap dynasty. A disinterested Dame Dash won’t stop watching basketball while Kanye pitches himself as a solo artist. Various A&R suits politely allow Kanye to finish rapping “All Falls Down,” what would go on to be one of his debut album hits.
A lot of grind. A lot of hustle. A lot of people not giving a shit.
This is the most inspirational the documentary gets. “Look at these fools!” You say. They denied true brilliance when it begged them for an opportunity.
It’s also the last moment we are able to fully put ourselves in Kanye’s shoes. Because when he takes off, he never comes back.
Currently, the man is a billionaire, the richest musician in the world, richer than Paul McCartney, the richest black man in American history — and with true Ye absurdity, he contends that he’s actually worth significantly more, $5 billion more. To be fair, a deliberate misrepresentation is entirely possible considering Ye’s confrontations with Forbes.
Now, he is luminous. Not for any supernatural reason, but because his traveling empire includes lighting and endless talent, creatives. On demand, he’s surrounded by artists, comedians, athletes, politicians, pastors, actors, CEOs, gurus, professors, writers, philosophers, any kind of global celebrity. He randomly visited Danny McBride and watched McBride’s kid playing Fortnight. There was his architect phase.
He can hangout with any person in the world. Anywhere. Quick visits to the Oval Office, sporting events, TMZ offices, he’s been hopping around the world at his whim for over a decade now. His life is like a Cultural Conspiracy Theory: he pops up everywhere, stuck in a Truman Show multiverse where he plays Truman in ten different Truman Shows all at once. An amount of fame that can be measured by his level of separation from the rest of human society, a division that only intensifies the pull of his orbit.
“I've reached a point in my life where my Truman Show boat has hit the painting,” he said in a 2013 BBC interview. “And I've got to a point that Michael Jackson did not break down. I have reached the glass ceiling.”
Ye shuffles through the static — he tells himself the static is intentional. That it’s more like pressure eardrums when your jet goes higher.
He typifies Julia Kristeva’s figure of a deject, an exile, a stray, “on a journey, during the night, the end of which keeps receding. He has a sense of the danger, of the loss that the pseudo-object attracting him represents for him, but he cannot help taking the risk at the very moment he sets himself apart. And the more he strays, the more he is saved.” And he strays on excluded ground, “a land of oblivion that is constantly remembered,” caught “in the morgue's full sunlight.”
For the rest of the documentary we are firmly in the perspective of Coodie. First, Kanye becomes distant, then cold. The most heartbreaking scene comes when Coodie is filming an ascending Kanye for the first time in months. It’s a Grammy party celebrating the big win by The College Dropout. Kanye is drunk. He doesn’t remember Coodie’s name.
Never has there been a better depiction of being left behind by the success of a friend. All of it made more tragic because we’ve seen where they came from.
Unlike the work of creation, writes Agamben, “the work of redemption is eternal.”
Inspired by Hoop Dreams, Coodie set out to capture the Monomyth of Kanye’s Genius capturing the candid footage that makes Jeen-Yuhs unique.
The story begins in 1998, at Jermaine Dupri’s birthday party. At the time, people in the industry saw Ye as strictly a producer, although a damn fine one.
It was an exciting time for hip-hop, the last days of the rigid East Coast/West Coast paradigm. Within a few years, Dirty South Rap would enjoy a much-deserved flourish, as a new sound rose out of New Orleans, Atlanta, Miami, and Houston.
Meanwhile, few people had noticed the Chicago scene, highly literate, neatly dressed (both Common and Ye have since partnered with GAP), and full of raw youth energy, rushed flows, samples of old soul tracks sped up like a Chipmunk.
Coodie was running Channel Zero, a local access show which inadvertently documented this new wave. And as he interviewed various rappers and producers, he kept hearing praise for a 19-year-old named Kanye.
That first shot of Ye is wild. If you don’t look close enough, you’ll miss him, a face in the crowd.
There was always something different about Kanye, but in those days, he tried his best to conceal it. Or he had no time for luxuries, only rejections and failure.
This is where his Genius really shows: in the magic of his endless hustle.
A creative energy that Coodie matched. Because Jeen-yuhs is just as much Coodie’s story, the realities of living near fame, of seeing your friend explode and collapse. Coodie’s own stubbornness is crucial, the invasiveness of a documentarian, the ability to capture special moments.
Ye hanging out in Times Square as he buys Black Tail magazine. He and Mos Def perform an Acapella of “Two Words” in the green room of some theater, with Wood Harris who played Avon Barksdale on The Wire nodding along.
Ye shaking hands with Jay-Z in a meet-and-greet, Jay-Z looking as excited as a man at a hotel breakfast buffet.
Coodie does an excellent job of capturing the speed of this, stopping occasionally to sit with Ye. At its best, it offers glimpses into the secret moments without ruining them.
This thing is intimate. The soundtrack is monastic, the sound of ghosts or spirits or breeze. You hear Ye’s thoughts, which used to be much clearer, or else he took more time translating them.
Playful, vulnerable, awkward, funny, wirry, devoted to his inevitable success.
The foreboding of his retainers. And how some good part of him had swerved and missed, only to crash somewhere else, barely surviving, rushed into surgery — they even announced it on MTV, “send out your prayers to Producer Kanye West,” then his sewn-shut jaw, metal through bone, gum in wire, the grimace he must have made after the surge of relief which immediately proved wrong.
In his hospital bed, he decided that he would become “the best-dressed rapper in the game.” Ali Mazrui points out that fashion and dress have served as metaphors for government. Thomas Paine puts it, "Government, like dress, is the badge of lost innocence."
The magic of Jeen-yuhs arrives in tiny glimpses. Like Ye’s trip to a dentist with autographed photos of stars along the walls like a coney restaurant. Ye looks so childlike in the chair, wearing a Reese’s t-shirt, as he starts humming what will become “Through the Wire.”
Later, he plays “Through the Wire” to Pharrell Williams, whose reaction is endearing: “You gonna make it, and when you make it, keep the same perspective. Still keep the same hunger.” He describes Ye as a rare person, a self-contained person: An artist.
He had to earn the industry’s respect, his fight is to be heard, his voice. He was breaking with the existent orthodoxy of the rap scene and industry. He didn’t want to become trapped as a producer, the success of Jay-Z’s Blueprint.
“I may be living your American dream, but I’m nowhere near where my dream is. I got aspirations, I got got big dreams, mafucker.”
He always knew he was destined to be a star. He knew he’d win a Grammy — he has won 22, he sometimes protest-tweets himself urinating on one, and he’s been banned from the ceremony.
But as Noah Callahan-Bever wrote in his profile for Complex, “good music is the key to Kanye’s redemption.” And Ye is a master of redemption.
“By offering a word,” writes Emmanuel Levinas, “the subject putting himself forward lays himself open and, in a sense, prays.”
Ye’s mother Donda liked to say that “Kanye” means “The Only One” Swahili. And there was a time when people didn’t know Kanye’s name. She appears about 50 minutes into part one. Her presence feels angelic. She heals Kanye, milk and white Zinfandel in the fridge.
She raised him alone, divorcing when Kanye was 3. He spent summers in D.C. with his father, Ray West, a former Black Panther and photojournalist who featured Maya Angelou and Ronald Reagan. In 2006, Ray became a Christian marriage counselor, then moved to Dominican Republic, where he runs a charity for victims of sex trafficking.
But Donda is Ye’s inspiration, his guardian. She has a warmth, a beauty.
“The giant looks in the mirror and sees nothing,” she tells him. Perfect silence. She gives him lovely advice. She describes his Genius in mythic terms. She had a special way of lifting his spirit.
Ye’s confidence, his Genius, is the result of Donda’s confidence in him.
As a kid, he used to perform in front of mirrors.
The image of angels recurs. The idea that, as Donda says, you can be in the air and on the ground at the same time. While admiring his angel necklace, she tells him “you need an angel to watch over you.”
After the two drift apart, Coodie is forced to watch his friend from afar. Just like the rest of us.
We see montages of Kanye’s ups and downs. Taylor Swift. George W. Bush. Kim Kardashian.
But, as if God himself knew the documentary needed an ending… Kanye gets back in touch with Coodie.
In February 2016, Coodie attended Ye’s Life of Pablo listening session/fashion show at Madison Square Garden. On the day of, Ye ghosts him, again. But Coodie was content to watch from a distance. Especially because this was happy Ye, dancing to “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” with Kid Cudi and Pusha T.
After the Pablo listening party, Ye toured on the levitating stage, alone, in a studded mask, making news constantly for his onstage breakdowns and walk-offs. November 21, days after yet another rant, about how he never voted, but if he had, it would’ve been for Trump, he sank into a burnout spiral that ended in psychiatric hold at Ronald Reagan UCLA Medical Center in Los Angeles. He was “put in handcuffs and locked up because his brain was too big for his skull.”
A few weeks later, with bleached hair (“I bleached my hair for every time I coulda died”), he showed up at Trump Tower to meet with the newly-elected Donald Trump, they discussed life. A few years later — in the same interview he called slavery a choice — Ye later told TMZ that at the time he was “drugged the fuck out, bro!” that he’d gotten addicted to opioids following liposuction.
Percocets, depression, porn, suicidal thoughts.
The most troubling moment of the documentary comes when Coodie meets Kanye in the Caribbean. It’s the first time we’ve seen this kind of access for Coodie in decades. As the tape rolls on, we can’t help but miss the old Kanye.
Ye is being pitched by two investor types on some real estate project. Kanye rambles. And rambles. And rambles. There is a weariness to it. Like Kanye is vessel who can’t control what’s coming out of his mouth.
Is he trying to end the meeting? Is he showing off for Coodie? Is this a manic episode? You rack your brain for a solution and none of them are fun.
And yet, it’s Kanye.
During an interview with Pete Rose, Ye said that his success was in God’s plan. As he boasted on “Otis,”, his track “Jesus Walks” is so good that it earned him an irrevocable seat in Heaven.
“The world needs saints who have genius, just as a plague-stricken town needs doctors,” writes Simone Weil. “Where there is a need there is also an obligation.”
Watching Jeen-yuhs, you can tell that Coodie hopes that Ye remembers his own words, as spoken by Karl Jaspers: “When everything is lost, but one thing remains: God is. If a life in this world, even with faith in God’s guidance, has failed, this overpowering reality still remains: God is.”
Genius involves the eternal return of the divine. Its singularity relies on the capacity to bring spirit into action, to engulf the Other with love.
The message of Jeen-yuhs is spiritual. Coodie repeatedly pleads with Ye, tries to redirect him to God. Jeen-yuhs is the fight for his soul.
At one point, Coodie, glowing, says: “God is doing this. God is directing this. G-O-D.”
Genius fosters a bond between the human and the divine. Its animating force is creation. Ye knows this, or senses it, and refuses to be ignored, to be abandoned, to lose the world’s belief in his transcendence.
Unable to stop, forever in motion and often unsure why, the Producer in the musical Era of the Producer: meaning that this is his cultural epoch. Simplified as a rapper, sometimes in a bad way, sporadically worshipful or profane, depending on the album. Father, Grammy-festooned, who took a field trip to the actual Oval Office, not some hip-hop film set, to gab and take selfies with President Donald Trump: the most powerful man in the world, and Ye didn’t really even dress up for the occasion.
Because, most of all, Jeen-yuhs reveals Ye’s cosmic significance and spiritual warfare.
In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker tells us that, while everyone is neurotic, the “artist is the most neurotic because he takes the world as a totality and makes a largely symbolic problem out of it.” He uses talent to overcome his crippling inferiority.
At times, his compulsion to create is indistinguishable from his mental illness. “No living person can give genius the powers it needs to shoulder the meaning of the world.” Despite all expectations, the artist’s creative accomplishments remind him that he isn’t a god.
So he views the world as a problem. “Existence becomes a problem that needs an ideal answer,” writes Becker. “But when you no longer accept the collective solution to the problem of existence, then you must fashion your own.” The artist “wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts.” His creative work becomes his “private religion,” it provides him “personal immortality.”
But he still can’t escape himself. “There is no way for him to be at peace with his work or with the society that accepts it. And the artist’s gift is always to creation itself, to the ultimate meaning of life, to God.”
This is the true scandal of Kanye’s life.
So he dwells on the revelations that he experiences in the presence of brilliant art, a capsizing spiritual event that remakes him; born upper-middle-class with the obsessive work ethic of the entrepreneurial Creative, with the survival instinct of a limping wolf, political firebrand responsible for The Birthday Party, which he founded without filing most of the necessary paperwork or campaigning.
Art, to Kanye, is something you live with and dwell inside, like the contemporary minimalist architecture of Italian Claudio Silvestrin, who designed Kanye’s New York loft, like the Yeezy Home or the 12,000-acre future campus of Yeezy University or the “aspirational minimalism” of Yeezus, his overall visionary potential, his technologic Afrofuturism. He incorporates the encapsulating ghosts of James Turrell’s art, like the glowing tunnel which runs under the Museum of Fine Arts in Houston, a portal, a womb of ultralight.