There are a great many reasons to hate Kanye West.
When he wins awards (and he wins a lot of them, especially Grammys), the Chicago hip-hop star is a braggart. When he loses awards (and he loses a lot of them, especially at the MTV Video Music Awards), he's a crybaby, a malcontent who once stormed a stage and demanded justice during a show in Europe. ("If I don't win, the awards show loses credibility!" he barked over boos.)
West is a hypocrite. On a remix of hit Diamonds From Sierra Leone, he raps about conflict diamonds. He also wears more jewelry than a Gabor sister.
He is offensive. He worshiped the Lord on the incendiary Jesus Walks, then wore a crown of thorns on the cover of Rolling Stone.
There are also, however, just as many reasons to love Kanye, who plays the Ford Amphitheatre in Tampa on Monday.
The 30-year-old rapper and producer is almost pathologically honest, seeming to set free whatever's in his head. During an infamous Hurricane Katrina benefit in '05, West uttered, "George Bush doesn't care about black people" in front of a nation of dropped jaws. Unbelievable.
West is a tremendous musician. His albums are phenomenal shrink sessions, overconfidence and insecurity duking it out in rhyme. He's a master of sampling, blending rock, rap, jazz, funk, you name it, into an encyclopedia of great hooks. He scored a smash with stuttery get-down Gold Digger, built around the hook from Ray Charles' I Got a Woman. Rappers are collagists, homagists. Those are their mediums, and Kanye excels at them.
West famously loved his mother. Donda West died in November due to complications from plastic surgery, and her boy, an only child, honored her at the Grammys, warbling Hey Mama. It was heartbreaking.
So yes, Kanye is a jerk, an opportunist, a egotist. He's also an original, a rebel, a rock star.
• • •
Over the past four years, the motor-mouthed West has been the most polarizing presence in pop music, a million-dollar psych job who inspires love and hate, respect and rage. The debate speaks volumes about Kanye, who grew up in the suburbs and raps about the inner workings of his head rather than guns 'n' ammo.
Me? I'm a huge Kanye fan.
Great chunks of West's three albums — 2004's The College Dropout, 2005's Late Registration, 2007's Graduation, all of which have gone platinum — play like outsider art, artistic visions that don't jibe with societal norms. At a time when music and pop culture are safe and homogenized, when Britney Spears is the most talked-about singer, that's a godsend.
On Dropout, West raps one song with his mouth wired shut (Through the Wire), a result of a disfiguring car accident. On Graduation, he closes the disc with the song Big Brother, on which he kisses, then kicks, the posterior of boss and friend Jay-Z. The track is loving and loathing, a shot of revelation that borders on uncomfortable. All these listens later, I still can't believe he says what he says.
• • •
A few years ago, I had the chance to shadow West at the Grammy Awards in L.A. He looked untouchable, earning that nickname "the Louis Vuitton don." But when he started talking, he sounded naive, childlike even, babbling about his love for music. All of a sudden, his alter ego, the lonely Dropout Bear, a forlorn fuzzy critter featured in his liner notes, made sense. (West dropped out of Chicago State University, a move he's ashamed of, yet continues to make public.)
Along with the loose tongue and the shifting morals, West operates with a giant chip on his shoulder, as if he could win all the shiny trophies in the world and still not be happy. But what drives West to be a jerk is also what drives him to be unique.
And if great art comes with great ego, that's okay with me.
Sean Daly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8467. His Pop Life blog is at blogs.tampabay.com/