The sheer number of “think pieces” about Kanye West on the Internet could break the Internet. The media-consuming masses talk about Kanye West (and his chosen family, Kim Kardashian–another bizarre pop culture creature) more frequently and with more fervor than seems possible or productive. But still, beneath it all, the blur of obsessed paparazzi and reality television and public self-praise that construct the myth of Kanye West, there is something worth talking about. Somewhere in the hazy world of celebrity and the artificial, there is a possibility that West might be brilliant, as he professes ad nauseam. And that brilliance might also be betrayed by his own mind. West’s back story, nobody-turned somebody-turned-somebody-else over and over again, is incredibly unique. There is apparent success and prolific recording, serving as undeniable proof of hard work, but there is also an element of craze. In considering Kanye West as a man, and not as a legend, we are not wrong to wonder what it is that might accompany his brilliance.
There is often talk about madness as being romantic, sexy and interesting, something that can create great art and great wildness. This perception, while flawed, is not entirely false. It is worth noting that these created perceptions are sometimes formed and perpetuated by those who do not have first-hand experience dealing with madness. It can be hard to understand, and all struggles with mental health are different. In madness there is brutal suffering, there is fragmentation of the self, there can be countless moments in which reality becomes blurred into something more fiction than fact. There is terror. There is nothing sexy about being handcuffed to a hospital bed, nothing sexy about police escorts and rehabilitation. There is crushing pain, difficult recovery, and a shadowy fear of relapse. A fundamental truth of madness is that it is marked by darkness.
West has alluded to an ongoing fight with mental illness repeatedly throughout his career. On his most recent album, The Life Of Pablo, he becomes transparent about his struggles on “FML,” featuring The Weeknd. Lyrics wind above aching production, “See, before I let you go/ One last thing I need to let you know/ You ain’t never seen nothing crazier than/ This nigga when he off his Lexapro/ Remember that last time in Mexico/ Remember that last time, the episode.” This narrative tells the story of a man troubled, haunted by his own mind, breaking down in paradise. Even the tropics can’t keep instability at bay.
One is reminded of West’s anger-fueled Twitter rants, his spontaneous hundred-photograph floods of his Instagram account, his lone body, standing on a floating stage above thousands in arenas and stadiums across the globe, spitting confused diatribes into the microphone.
“Do you experience nervousness or shakiness inside, faintness and dizziness/ The idea that someone else can control your thoughts/ Feeling others are to blame for most of your thoughts/ Trouble remembering things, feeling easily annoyed and irritated/ Feeling afraid in open spaces or in public/ Thoughts of ending your life/ Feeling that most people could not be trusted/ Poor appetite, heart or chest pains?” West echoes markers of sickness on “All Day/I Feel Like That,” a track that was accompanied by a music video (which has since mostly disappeared from the Internet) in which he runs wildly in an empty warehouse, moving hard, until his breath is ragged and short.
Mental illness has existed throughout all recorded history, but it is now more apparent and acknowledged in society than ever before. There are many potential reasons for this change. The proliferation and public nature of social media has been a major factor. Modernity’s disregard for privacy has certainly played into the equation. But, however you choose to frame it, things are different now.
As we move into the future of both medicine and technology, mental illness will become less mysterious, and hopefully less stigmatized. Halsey is openly bipolar. Britney Spears shaved her head in that bathroom in 2007, in the grips of a major, and wildly public, breakdown. Brian Wilson was plagued by delusions. Yves Saint Laurent suffered from brutal clinical depression. Kanye West, both beloved and hated by the world, is complicated and admittedly haunted. His brilliance is fostered in his darkness and also in his light. Culture can no longer look away from its icons in times of darkness. They are forced to watch. They will be better for it.