Even more than ideas of race, power and ego, the motivating force in Kanye West's decade-long career has been fear.
Six years after his infamous outburst at the VMAs, Kanye appeared on the Grammys stage earlier this year to show everyone just how far he'd come since the night he learned that speaking his mind could make him lose everything. In 2009, a Hennessy-soaked Kanye declared to the world that Taylor Swift was less deserving of her Best Video award, that Beyoncé should've won instead. In that single moment, he was exiled from the worlds of music, fashion and celebrity—areas of culture he'd spent his life up until that point striving to inhabit. While this was the most famous instance, it was by no means the only time Kanye lost something precious to him.
To truly understand the scope and weight of Kanye's work, you first need to understand all that he's lost in order to make it. And to understand all that he's lost, you need to understand his relationship with awards ceremonies – the Grammys, in particular – and how his presence at or exclusion from these events correlates with his idea of self-preservation, righteousness and fear.
In October 2002, Kanye lost control of his rented Lexus and crashed into another vehicle while driving in Los Angeles late one night. Before the accident, he was Roc-a-Fella's up-and-coming new producer, but was struggling to be recognised and respected as a rapper. After the accident, he was allowed a break from producing and could focus all his energies on writing and performing himself. This accident was an essential building block in delivering Kanye West to the world.
The purest distillation of Kanye's determination to succeed shines in his first ever video for the song Through the Wire, which opens with a title card reading:
“Last October, Grammy-nominated producer Kanye West was in a nearly fatal car accident. His jaw was fractured in three places. Two weeks later, he recorded this song with his mouth still wired shut … so the world could feel his pain!”
That song eventually made it to ‘The College Dropout’, an album about struggle and success that Kanye summarised in its closing track Last Call. “I could let these dream-killers kill my self-esteem,” Kanye ponders on the track, “Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams!” His decision to be obnoxious is the only thing protecting him from believing the words of the people who, even with a Grammy-nominated debut album, tell him he can't make it as a rapper. At this point, he's still scared of what their words might do to him if he lets himself listen to them too closely.
At the 2005 Grammys, he stood on that stage to accept the award for Best Rap Album and declared, “Right now, it's my time and my moment. Thanks to the fans, thanks to the accident, thanks to god.”
After surviving a car crash that very nearly took his life, Kanye was no longer scared of death, because he saw what coming close could do to him.
In 2008, heartbroken over his mother's death the previous year, Kanye arrived on the Grammys stage filled with grief and ferocity. He performed a sombre rendition of Hey Mama with minimal theatrics, not dissimilar to his 2015 performance of Only One. The track, from his second studio album 'Late Registration', was originally written for his mother Donda; YouTube is filled with footage of she and Kanye performing the song with and for one another (and, in one instance, Oprah).
After her shock death in late 2007, though, the song's chorus of “I wanna scream so loud for you, 'cos I'm so proud of you” took on new meaning. It became a tribute, a eulogy, surviving proof of all that she meant to him and all he wanted to do for her. When he took to that stage, Kanye added an emphatic new introduction—“Last night I saw you in my dreams, now I can't wait to go to sleep”—and outro—“This life, this here, this Grammys: all of this is just a dream. And my real life will start when I go to sleep.”
Kanye's fourth album, ‘808s and Heartbreak’, is an ode to Donda and Kanye's life without her. “On lonely nights, I start to fade. Her love is a thousand miles away … It's 4 a.m. and I can't sleep, Her love is all that I can see,” he sings on Coldest Winter. The album is recognised now, in retrospect, as a modern classic; a daring, powerful and experimental tome of someone mending a broken heart. It's drowning in grief, desperation, doubt and fear. At the time of its release, the sentimental subject matter and primarily auto-tuned production approach was slammed by critics. Kanye had fought so long to be a rapper, and here he was forgoing rapping for singing, crying, clawing at his fresh wounds, howling at the moon about how hurt he was.
After spending so long fighting to earn his place in the Mount Rushmore of rappers and trying to make his mother proud, it took losing her for Kanye to realise that the rules hadn't been written, and those that had could easily be broken. By him. He didn't need to be another face on a mountain when he could instead build and conquer his own.
There is a distinct line that can be drawn between Kanye West before and after the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. That night, everything changed. Still grieving the death of his mother and the dissolution of his engagement, soaked in alcohol and feeling outrage at the idea of a disingenuous award process, Kanye chose a form of protest that involved launching himself onto that stage and snatching the microphone from Taylor Swift. In that moment, it all came tumbling down around him. Everything he had fought so long to earn was gone in an instant. He was no longer an obnoxious but endearing egomaniac who made great songs. He was public enemy #1. His upcoming tour with Lady Gaga was cancelled, and on the advice of his early supporter Mos Def, he went underground. He hid away in Paris and Hawaii for over a year while the world rallied against the very idea of him. He was a bully, he was out of control, he was delusional. (He was also right, but that didn't matter in the broader narrative.)
By this point, Kanye knew what it meant to lose everything. “You can’t take anything away from me at this point,” he explained to KDWB 1013 in a 2010 interview, reflecting back on the previous year. “I completely lost everything, but I gained everything, because I lost the fear. I used to pray to god to deliver me from pain and fear. And in a way, he did.”
What Kanye lost—respect, invitations, access—versus what he gained in that moment was never more clear than it has been in 2015, when we're anxiously sitting on the cusp of a new album release at any moment.
“I think without releasing all the fear, all the 'what if this happens?'…I wouldn't be able to make the music,” he told KDWB of his comeback album ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’. “And I'm just at the very beginning.”
When Kanye returned to the VMAs to perform alongside Taylor in 2010, instead of an apology, he offered the world a toast for the douchebags, the assholes, the scumbags. The premiere of Runaway was the anti-apology. It was forceful and grand, and showed Kanye as a vindicated champion. It was also chapter one in the New Kanye West Story.
Losing The Fear gave Kanye the freedom to experiment and go big. He made the Power film clip, the Runaway short film. He projected his face in a threatening close-up against walls of buildings all over the world to tease the release of ‘Yeezus’, and stared down the Saturday Night Live cameras while snarling, “I'd rather be a dick than a swallower”. He built a screen of the heavens and toured it around the world, with his own personal Jesus in tow. By now, he had learned the hard way that “if you say anything, you lose everything,” but it took losing everything for him to be able to say anything at all. He got the girl and became a father, and all of a sudden his only regret in life became knowing his mother and daughter, North, would never meet. He crafted a wedding that was as romantic and intimate as it was a piece of elaborate performance art. He broke down the walls the fashion world had built to keep him out. And he did it all on his own terms.
This past February he returned to the Grammys stage and performed twice. As well as delivering a subdued rendition of FourFiveSeconds with Rihanna and one of the surviving Beatles by his side, he also performed solo, fittingly, the single Only One. Written as a tribute to the women in his life—namely Donda and North—the song took on new meaning when Kanye stood on that stage, dressed in clothes he designed for Adidas, with his wife sitting in the front row, spitting the song's refrain of, “Hear me out, hear me out, I won't go, I won't go,” to an industry of people who have probably wished, at some point, that he would.
The Fear that threatened to ruin him six years earlier was nowhere to be seen when he playfully pretended to protest Beyoncé's loss of the Album of the Year Awards. This time, though, instead of going into hiding, Kanye was offered the chance to explain himself and his actions, time and time again. Faith in him was restored, and New Kanye used it to rationalise his decisions. “I got my wife, my daughter, and I got my clothing line, so I’m not going to do nothing that would put my daughter at risk,” he reasoned, before adding: “But I am here to fight for creativity.”
After losing everything, Kanye was able to build his new life, create the family he'd been missing and release brave and tender work. In Only One, his late mother used his voice as a vehicle to assure his young daughter, “You've got the world, 'cos you've got love in your hands.” At the same time, she is reminding Kanye himself, her Only One, of how much power that love can afford him. He's no longer afraid, and we're about to benefit from that in a very real way when the page to the next chapter turns.