There’s an erstwhile portion of Kanye West’s fan base that hopes, with each passing interview, public performance or album release, that we might get a glimpse of “the old Kanye” — the jovial, insightful rapper whose avant-garde approach to hip-hop changed the genre.
But don’t let the absence of a MAGA hat fool you. West still views himself as a passionate contrarian, “bullied” by liberals and the media (that coagulated mass of critical news coverage) for his support of President Trump. These will almost certainly be the sound bites that make the rounds from Letterman’s interview, but it’s nothing we haven’t already heard.
What sets Letterman’s interview apart from others the rapper has done in the past couple of years is that the former “Late Show” host is largely successful at connecting with West on other topics: his leap from sought-after record producer to chart-topping rapper; his late mother and how her death affected his career; and perhaps most refreshing, West’s views on his own mental health. Letterman isn’t so interested in the old Kanye — he’s trying to understand this Kanye West.
Letterman starts with a few lighthearted questions, such as asking what West sings to his kids at night. The rapper grins. “I just freestyle.”
Letterman asks about West’s parents and about his childhood, which included a stint in China alongside his mother, Donda, a Fulbright scholar who spent decades in academia. Letterman asks whether her death, in 2007, inspired West’s work.
“Definitely,” West says. “And it was a piece of my story.”
“You say the universe has no accidents, and, you know, you want to ask God why this happened, and then you get into this place of acceptance with it,” he adds. “But everything was meant to be, and everything happens at the time that is planned.”
West lights up when Letterman asks about his early rap career, and he talks about listening to his work from those days, prompting a rather stunning admission from a rapper largely associated with his egotism.
“When I listened back I was like, ‘Aww man, I wasn’t really as good as I thought I was,’ but I had the confidence, the delusional confidence, to think that I could rap as good as Jay-Z,” West tells Letterman. “Even to the point of not playing him beats and saving them for myself. People think I’m crazy now? They thought I was crazy then.”
When Letterman asks about West’s lyrical approach to storytelling, the rapper starts to reference a line from “an artist which I will not mention because I’m not allowed to mention him or any of his family members.”
“Now wait a minute, that’s fairly provocative,” Letterman interrupts. “What happened there?”
West laughs. “Well, we had a little beef last year, and uh, but he has this line that I love that says, ‘I told my story and made history.’ " He breaks down the line — which is from Drake’s “Crew Love,” a track on his 2011 album, “Take Care.”
“Like ‘made his story and made history’ — that’s what we do,” West says. “We tell our story, and then people relate to that story.”
“But then people also latch onto that, and if you switch anything to the story of what you’re supposed to do then you get, like, this backlash,” West continues. " ‘No, you’re my avatar. You cannot say this. You cannot think that.’ ”
Letterman could challenge West here, but he opts to listen instead as the rapper brings up an anonymous friend who told him his power was his influence: “And I said, ‘My power is the ability to not be influenced,’ ” West recalls.
The episode takes us out of the studio as Letterman pays a visit to the minimalist Hidden Hills mansion that West shares with wife Kim Kardashian and their children. Letterman is styled, at his apparent request, in head-to-toe Yeezy and shows off a layered look — a windbreaker and trench coat over sleek khakis and clunky boots — to Kardashian and her mother, Kris Jenner, hanging out in the couple’s kitchen. (“You look really good,” Kardashian says.)
Back in the studio, the conversation takes a more serious turn as Letterman asks about the handwritten declaration — “I hate being Bi-Polar its awesome” — emblazoned on the rapper’s 2018 album, “Ye.” After disclosing his diagnosis, West backtracked and said he was merely sleep-deprived while delivering a meandering monologue in the Oval Office last year.
But in his Letterman interview, West openly discusses his treatment for the illness, saying he was first diagnosed two years ago. “I ramp up, and I go high,” West says.
“If you don’t take medication every day to keep you at a certain state, you have the potential to ramp up, and it can even take you to a point where you can even end up in the hospital,” he explains, before not-so-subtly referencing his eyebrow-raising rant at a certain gossip site’s headquarters last year. “And you start acting erratic, as TMZ would put it.”
West alludes to his 2016 hospitalization, during which he was reportedly placed on a psychiatric hold. He recalls being “hyper-paranoid,” with delusions ranging from thinking he was being recorded to feeling that “everyone wants to kill you.” West says he was drugged, handcuffed and separated from his friends and family, leading to a desire to advocate for more compassionate treatment.
“When you are in that state, you have to have someone you trust. It is cruel and primitive to do that,” West tells Letterman.
Following West’s surprisingly forthright discussion of his mental health, the interview wades into familiar territory.
The rapper awkwardly criticizes the #MeToo movement and the fact that “men in powerful positions” have had to reckon with their past behavior. He points to “that level of fear to a place that we as a society are constantly in fear.” Letterman, who publicly apologized for having sexual relationships with several of his female staffers a decade ago, counters that “it’s not equal by any equation to the fear women feel being the other side of that.”
“I’m definitely supportive of the women,” West says. “What I’m saying is we’re not allowed to have any conversation. When you go to court, both sides can talk.”
The subject soon turns to Trump as West tells Letterman, “We don’t have to feel the same way, but we have the right to feel what we feel, and we have the right to have a conversation, a dialogue, not a diatribe.”
Letterman does push back a bit, especially after the rapper acknowledges (not for the first time) that he has never voted — for Trump or anyone else. (“Then you don’t have a say in this,” he tells West.) But the rapper largely disregards Letterman’s suggestion that his allegiance to Trump is confounding not because it’s atypical of a black man but because the president’s policies and rhetoric are widely viewed as detrimental to black Americans and other minority communities.
When West responds by asking Letterman whether he was ever beat up in high school “for wearing the wrong hat,” it’s clear that no amount of pushback is going to change the rapper’s mind.
Sensing this, Letterman switches to more neutral territory: West’s Sunday Service, the spiritually focused weekly event that has combined gospel music, spoken word and impromptu sermons with the glitz and glam of Hollywood.
“What is the objective here?” he asks West. “How will you know when it’s complete?”
“There’ll be world peace,” West replies.
As usual, his music is more telling.
“I didn’t take all this time to become me, to listen to you,” he sings in footage of a Sunday Service. “So Imma do what I want to do.”