On the track “Feedback”, from his latest album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye West dares listeners to show him a genius who isn’t crazy. Maybe it’s just braggadocio rap or maybe Kanye is just excusing his behavior and antics from the last few years. I’m no medical doctor, but it’s clear Kanye is going through some things. Rhymefest, his friend and long time collaborator suggested West needs counseling. And that was before Kanye asked Mark Zuckerberg for a one billion dollar investment.
It’s too early to tell how The Life of Pablo stacks up against Kanye’s other albums. But it’s safe to say that it’s the album most like him. His previous projects followed a cohesive theme, showcasing one artistic side after another. For example, The College Dropout was soulful, Late Registration was grandiose and cinematic, and Yeezus was Spartan and rough. Pablo however, sounds like the amalgamation of all of Kanye’s styles. It sounds more like a Best Of than a thematic album. It’’s disparate, soulful, jarring and controversial, like the Kanye West of the past few years.
Jon Caramanica of the New York Times says these “…styles that don’t play well together, but Mr. West’s synthesis is almost seamless.” So Kanye may be crazy, but it works for him.
One major fallout though from this circus though, is that his antics and behavior are perpetuating the dangerous archetype of the “misunderstood” or “mad” genius. My fear is that people will mistakenly believe that being crazy is a prerequisite to doing work. Just go to any loft party in West Hollywood or in Williamsburg. You’ll talk to the frustrated creatives who act out and excuse their behavior as part of their art. They’re complicated for the sake of being complicated and confuse the artist lifestyle with the artist life.
Except there is a big difference. Unlike Kanye, they’re not actually doing any work.
I’m not just picking on the “creative” class either, as I see it often in the tech field. Years ago I met this guy in Palo Alto who was all about the Startup Lifestyle. He told me about how he dropped out of Cal to pursue his idea, how was meeting with investors and how he was living in a tech house with 16 other hackers. On paper, the guys was living the romantic, tech entrepreneurial lifestyle, the one that could fill the intro pages of a rags to riches book. Except that he had no idea and no product. He was doing all the ancillary things of a startup except actually building a startup. Again, confusing the lifestyle with the life.
We delude ourselves in thinking that we’re doing the work by going through the motions. If you’re at a startup and you’re “hustling” from meeting to meeting, yea, you’re doing something, but are you accomplishing anything? When I first told my mentors that I wanted to write, I thought I was being a writer by being asking for advice, reading books on writing etc. Sure, these things may have helped. But I wasn’t actually writing, And this self-delusion and procrasturbation can can leave us trapped. We think we’re being productive but in reality we’re just on the proverbial treadmill.
Millennials have this tendency to Romanticize the “struggling” individual. We like to see people suffering for their work, acting out and letting their emotions dictate their decisions. It’s what makes for a good drama or biopic. But from the viewer’s perspective, it’s also self-defeating. Because what we’re telling ourselves is “since I don’t have the crazy gene or that visceral something, I can’t do good work.” We tell ourselves that we can’t succeed.
In BJ The Chicago Kid’s 2012 track “Dream II”, he opens up and closes with a Will Smith sample. As the song concludes, Smith chimes in saying:
“Greatness, is not this wonderful, esoteric, illusive, god-like feature that only the special among us will ever taste. You know? It’s something that truly exists, in, all of us.
Sure guys, like Kanye might have a craziness about them. But it’s not a prerequisite to being successful. Good work ethic is, however. Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of meeting several of my idols across different fields. And although they’re all very interesting individuals, they lead pretty boring day to day lives. I found that reassuring. It showed that you don’t have to be bat shit crazy to make your art or do your work. I used to think that there was something wrong with me because there was nothing wrong with me. Did I have to go out and create chaos for the sake of chaos? I’m glad I didn’t, would have really messed up a lot of things.
What one needs to do is sit down and work. The people we admire, the ones whose success we study and analyze had an immense work ethic and an unwavering discipline. Alexander Hamilton, one of the most important founding fathers of the United States said:
“Men give me credit for some genius. All the genius I have lies in this; when I have a subject in hand, I study it profoundly. Day and night it is before me. My mind becomes pervaded with it. Then the effort that I have made is what people are pleased to call the fruit of genius. It is the fruit of labor and thought.”
What irks me about the Kanye release is the attention his antics are receiving. It reinforces the incorrect notion that we have to be crazy or misunderstood to do something worthwhile. But it’s not the case. Sure, it may help fuel someone’s work, but this erratic or chaotic behavior isn’t a prerequisite. It’s a shame that we’re going to remember Kanye’s Twitter rants and VC pitches. Because although his latest album is erratic, jarring and controversial, like Kanye, it’s also possibly brilliant. Like Kanye.
Eric M. Ruiz is a writer and strategist for Waze, the Social GPS and Navigation app that was acquired by Google in 2013. A native of Modesto, Calif., Eric currently resides in New York City. Views and opinions are his own.