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Kanye West: Planet-sized ego with talent to match

Kanye West performs at GQ Magazine’s 50th anniversary party on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007 in New York.  (AP Photo/John Smock)
Kanye West performs at GQ Magazine’s 50th anniversary party on Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2007 in New York. (AP Photo/John Smock)
Published Feb. 12, 2014

"I'm the biggest of all of them. I'm the No. 1 rock star on the planet."

Kanye West, 2013, Time

Kanye West is a rapper, of course, not a rocker. And yet, the most polarizing person in pop these days wasn't entirely delusional (at least not about this) when he called himself the "No. 1 rock star" in Time magazine.

What he meant, in his typically robust braggadocio, was that the 21-time Grammy winner belongs in elite company with music's brashest iconoclasts. He's that rare "rock star" breed who says what he wants, does what he wants, and yet has the talent and unique vision to back it up.

Just like Bob Dylan.

Just like Madonna.

Just like Miles Davis.

West, who plays the Tampa Bay Times Forum on Saturday, is beloved and berated for the same reasons, a man who has a filter-sized hole in his filter, inspiring jaw-dropping reactions in the incredulous rest of us. He is unfailingly honest, unvarnished, living a life without a harness — and really, who wouldn't want to strut like that, even for a day?

Kanye lives without fear of reprisal. His latest video, for the song Bound 2 from latest album Yeezus, features him goofily riding a motorcycle with topless fiancee Kim Kardashian. He doesn't care if he looks stupid; we do. Everyone's all a-Twitter, of course — not unlike the reaction when John Lennon and Yoko Ono dropped their drawers for a couple Rolling Stone covers.

He is a punch line for late-night comics; at the same time, he is almost universally beloved by cultural critics. "Is there anyone like Kanye now?" Sasha Frere-Jones asked with awe on the New Yorker's website. "Has there ever been? No. Yeezus felt like the album of the year months ago; now the year just feels like it belongs to West."

The man himself couldn't disagree. "I'm going down as a legend, whether you like me or not," West told the BBC in 2008. "I am the new Jim Morrison. I am the new Kurt Cobain."

Kanye West believes he belongs in that "rock star" club.

Just like Lennon,

Just like Bono.

Just like Prince.

And you know what?

He's right.

"I am a God! / Hurry up with my damn croissants!"

Kanye West, 2013, on his Yeezus album

An effective way to enrage lots of people is to compare yourself to the Son of God. Lennon did it on March 4, 1966, saying his Beatles were "more popular than Jesus." U2's Bono, never shy about his messiah-in-shades routine, called himself an "insufferable jumped-up Jesus." Madonna's shows featured a mock crucifixion — with the Material Girl bedecked in a crown of thorns.

West, 36, has indulged in savior shenanigans pretty much from the start. His 2004 breakout hit was called Jesus Walks, a tremendous piece of militaristic pomp that (1) questioned the absence of religion on pop radio but also (2) trumpeted how he was the only modern musician brazen enough to bring it up.

In 2006, he sported a thorny crown on a Rolling Stone cover — oh yeah, that went over like gangbusters. Most recently, he titled his new album Yeezus — his sixth straight No. 1 album, five of which have gone platinum — and recorded an admittedly self-tweaking cut called I Am a God.

Does West believe he's the redeemer of the world? Not at all. One of his most endearing qualities is that West, who cut his teeth as a producer for Jay-Z and others, has always been glaringly honest about his flaws. His 2004 debut was called The College Dropout. On 2005 track Diamonds From Sierra Leone, he weighed his foolish love of jewelry with his lingering guilt over "blood diamonds." He beat himself up good after besottedly interrupting Taylor Swift with his "I'm-a let you finish" debacle at the 2009 MTV Awards; President Obama famously called him a "jackass" for his behavior.

And yet, like Lennon and Bono and Madonna before him, West believes that he is worth worshiping in some respect. He calls himself a genius, but hey, Elton John has called West a genius too. So did 12 Years a Slave director Steve McQueen. The Atlantic writer David Samuels even called him "the Mozart of contemporary American music."

Comparing yourself to Jesus doesn't make you a rock star; having the gumption to do so, and then not caring all that much about the inevitable sacrilegious fallout, does.

"George Bush doesn't care about black people."

Kanye West, 2005, on "A Concert for Hurricane Relief"

A middle-class Chicago mama's boy who raps about arrogance and excess rather than drugs and violence (an early nickname was "the Louis Vuitton Don"), West first showed up on many people's radar post-Hurricane Katrina. Standing next to a stunned Mike "Austin Powers" Myers during a benefit show, West, the son of a photojournalist and an English professor, rambled off-script and dropped that Bush bomb. And just like that, everybody wondered: "Who is that?"

West, not unlike Marvin Gaye on his 1971 What's Going On? classic, immediately became a racial lightning rod, inspiring equal parts pride and vitriol at a time when the country was struggling with questions of what went wrong in New Orleans. To this day, West refuses to back away from issues of racial stereotyping and discrimination. Ferocious new cut Black Skinhead, a monster song Martin Scorsese used in trailers for his new movie The Wolf of Wall Street, talks about West's relationship with wife-to-be Kim Kardashian: "They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong." Subtle, he's not.

He is incessantly divisive, usually for better, sometimes for worse. He brags about wearing leather jogging pants. He markets a $120 T-shirt. He admitted he used to watch Kardashian's infamous sex tape (filmed with another man) when he was with other women. He engaged in a text battle with an amused Jimmy Kimmel. With a straight face, he compared himself to Walt Disney and Steve Jobs in the same breath.

And yet, it's also impossible to dismiss him. In fact, why would you want to? After all, in the 21st century, no artist has produced more honest, thought-provoking music than Kanye West.

"My greatest pain in life is that I will never be able to see myself perform live."

Kanye West, 2009, on VH1's Storytellers

In 2005, I had a chance to shadow Kanye West for a couple hours at the Grammy Awards in Los Angeles. He was both arrogant and childlike, hiding behind D&G shades but in awe of Earth, Wind and Fire. Several times, he uttered the simple line "I love music"; he wasn't kidding or being ironic. People laughed nervously; West kept a straight face.

West is a full-throttle musician; he toils over every beat, every word, a reason why's he one of the biggest-selling digital artists of all time, with more than 30 million songs sold. For all his own nimble-lipped lyrical turns and frequent cameos (for instance, on Katy Perry's hit E.T. and 2 Chainz's Birthday Cake), his ability as a composer to transform samples and bend orchestration is unrivaled in hip-hop, a master of found art. He can be playful, matching Jamie Foxx's Ray Charles impression with the real thing on the outlandish Gold Digger. He can be dark, introspective, inviting alt-folkie Bon Iver on Lost in the World.

Rap royal Jay-Z discovered Kanye, and the master may indeed be a better rhymer than his upstart. But for all Jay's talents, he doesn't have the incendiary fire and charisma of the unpredictable West. Just listen to Jay and 'Ye's duets album, Watch the Throne, an incredibly entertaining tussle of egos: Jay is cool, even Seussian with his rhymes, but West is the centerpiece, his fearlessness of being odd, of being a boisterous street-corner preacher, on full display on such visceral tracks as No Church in the Wild and N----- in Paris.

New album Yeezus is impressively void of obvious radio singles; instead, it is a complete regurgitation of every twisted thought in his head. He's not in it for the hits; he's in it for the therapy. A lot of us merely think bizarre things; West, at a time when he's a new dad and fiance, looses his violent demons to make room for more. Much like John Lennon (who once had the chutzpah to title a song Woman Is the N----- of the World), West creates surging music with one mission: in-your-face honesty. It's the way he records, the way he loves, the way he walks, the way he talks. Love him or hate him, that's the "rock star" way.

Sean Daly can be reached at Follow @seandalypoplife on Twitter.