Kanye West at the VMAS: The Person Vs. the Artist

The musical perfectionist can't help his own nervousness and bashful nature.

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Kanye West took the MTV Video Music Awards by storm last night. During his acceptance speech for the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award (which you can watch here), West admitted to being a little stoned, outed Justin Timberlake as a public crier, and announced a 2020 bid for president, among other seemingly unprepared remarks. Though haphazard, West’s off-the-cuff presence is exactly what made the speech so awe-inspiring.

As we’ve previously discussed, West pursues perfection in his art so uncompromisingly that it is often to his own detriment. As a person, though, West is anxious, nervous, and bashful while still believing he’s a genius. He’s completely full of emotion. The scripted speech doesn’t suit West because he can’t keep his thoughts and feelings in check, so he doesn’t try to give one. The contrast between Kanye the Artist and Kanye the Person is what makes him so compelling.

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West brings a raw emotionality to everything that he does. With music, however, he has time to polish away the roughness. The emotion remains, but the thesis and sound are clear. The major exception in his catalog is 2013’s Yeezus, which was famously rushed to a close, rendering the album an insight into his process, as well as a completed work of art. Although Yeezus lacks the revealing songwriting of his early work, it’s his most vulnerable release because it’s not pristine and technically perfect. Had he taken even a week longer on the album, it’s possible that moments like his fumbled verses on “I Am a God” would’ve been cleaned up. As it stands, Yeezus, musically, is as personal a look as we’ve gotten into West.

On stage, that same vulnerability exists, but without any censor (other than MTV’s three-second delay). He’s not in control and doesn’t really know what he’s going to do, so he builds in his own defense mechanisms:

I don’t know what’s gonna happen tonight, I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow, bro. But all I can say to my artists, to my fellow artists: Just worry how you feel at the time, man.

On record, West sounds confident and is intangibly convincing in a way that separates him from his peers. Watching him assemble his thoughts is a joy. Many artists are only either serious or carefree — rarely both. West is the exception who can be both a nervous wreck and the voice of a generation in the same setting. His VMAs speech brought his personality to the spotlight more than usual (it’s easy to miss his various radio interview monologues). He’s a well of ambition and half-baked ideas, unsure of what exactly he should even say. He looked so scared that he actually came across as fearless.