Kanye West has spent the past 14 years filling our world with indelible vibrations of air and on Thursday afternoon we heard a new one: the sound of a once-centrifugal pop star sucking up to President Trump in the Oval Office.
West had been summoned to Trump’s desk to discuss prison reform and gun violence, but really to help froth the empty-calorie cable television smoothie that seems to provide this administration with its only source of nourishment. Proudly wearing his customized MAGA hat, West spoke about criminal justice, mental health, hydrogen-powered airplanes and “an alternate universe” in a profane swirl of malformed ideas while still managing to transmit his fundamental intention early in the speech.
“I love Hillary,” West said. “I love everyone, right? But the campaign ‘I’m with her’ just didn’t make me feel — as a guy that didn’t get to see my dad all the time — like a guy that could play catch with his son. It was something about putting this hat on that made me feel like Superman. . . . You made a Superman cape for me.”
And that’s why he was there. West hadn’t come to the White House to talk issues. He had come to audition for regular rotation in Trump’s orbit.
We’ve listened to enough of West’s speechifying to know that this was a different kind of blah-blah-blitz. “Trump is on his hero’s journey right now,” West declared, praising the president in the same flattering tones that we usually hear from the mouths of Vice President Pence, Sean Hannity and the cast of “Fox & Friends.”
If you’ve spent years listening to West’s music, you know that he usually only talks this way about himself. But on Thursday, West was speaking Trump’s love language, couching his obsequiousness in a particular type of macho bluster that the president admires. Between breaths, two narcissists smiled at one another across the desk as if looking into a mirror.
This pivot still feels like a bad dream for those attentive Kanye West fans who have always been able to hear streaks of altruism in the rapper’s most volatile trash-talk. West’s televised response to the government’s mishandling of the fallout from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” — still stands as one of the most startling truth-to-power moments in pop history. And when West interrupted an MTV telecast in 2009 to suggest that a prize won by Taylor Swift should have gone to Beyoncé instead, he was railing against the institutionalized racism that permeates every corner of American life, even the music awards shows.
The point is, West’s big mouth used to stand for something greater than himself. But that started to change in 2013, when West began derailing his live performances with meandering speeches that felt deeply aggrieved and completely unscripted.
He seemed to be on some kind of script at the White House, though, peppering his loud thoughts with right-wing talking points. He doubled down on his proposal to abolish the 13th Amendment. He suggested that the black community only supports the Democratic Party because of a dependency on welfare. He blamed gun violence on “illegal guns,” and said that he stood for the Second Amendment. By the end of the day, the National Rifle Association had tweeted that its “members are glad to see a celebrity who gets it.”
Did West believe what he was saying? Does he realize how dramatically his new politics nullify his old lyrics? Does he understand that his contrarian attitudes about the left have allowed him to be exploited by the right?
It all felt beside the point. West just wanted a hug from the rich man in the red tie. He wants to be Trump’s guy. You know, the kind of guy who feels like less of a guy when he sees a woman running for president — a guy willing to align himself with the small-minded, small-hearted worldview of every guy who has ever shouted, “Lock her up.”
At the end of West’s remarks, Trump looked a little dizzy, but pleased. “He can speak for me anytime he wants,” the president said to the swarm of journalists hovering around his desk. And that was that. Done deal. When you’re a global superstar aspiring to become the tool of a wannabe autocrat, the audition is easy to ace.