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Kanye West: The rise and fall of the American rap icon - explainer


 Kanye West attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party following the 92nd annual Oscars at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on February 9, 2020. (photo credit: JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Kanye West attends the 2020 Vanity Fair Oscar Party following the 92nd annual Oscars at The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills on February 9, 2020.
(photo credit: JEAN-BAPTISTE LACROIX/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Kanye West is one of the most successful musical artists in human history, but he has become embroiled in political and celebrity controversy while also suffering from mental illness.

Kanye West, who in 2018 legally changed his name to Ye, is one of the most successful musicians in recent history, and his long career has seen him accrue a vast number of awards, accolades and chart-topping songs and albums.

He is so successful that the rap icon has been estimated by some to be the single wealthiest musician on the planet, withForbes estimating in 2022, that he has a net worth of $2 billion in 2022.

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Despite his success, however, West has become an increasingly controversial figure in recent years due to his outspoken views and incendiary remarks. 

His tendency to make controversial remarks started in the early 2000s, with unpopular statements made about other celebrities, but over the years it has slowly developed into more questionable and criticized comments and actions relating to not just celebrities but to individual people and politics as well.

So what happened to Kanye West? What turned this global rap icon into the controversial figure known for his tendency to spout right-wing talking points? And, what are some of his most notable controversial moments?

: Kanye West performs during Harper's Bazaar's celebration of ''ICONS By Carine Roitfeld'' presented by Infor, Laura Mercier, and Stella Artois at The Plaza Hotel on September 9, 2016 in New York City (credit: JAMIE MCCARTHY/GETTY IMAGES FOR HARPER'S BAZAAR): Kanye West performs during Harper's Bazaar's celebration of ''ICONS By Carine Roitfeld'' presented by Infor, Laura Mercier, and Stella Artois at The Plaza Hotel on September 9, 2016 in New York City (credit: JAMIE MCCARTHY/GETTY IMAGES FOR HARPER'S BAZAAR)

Here is everything you need to know.

"He's a jackass."

Then-US president Barack Obama on Kanye West in 2009

A short history of Kanye West's celebrity feuds 

The 45-year-old rapper has been active in the music industry since 1996, although did not make his own musical debut until 2002, and his first album debut in 2003. Already at the time, he had a good reputation in the music industry as a producer. But controversy followed him shortly after his first album dropped.

In 2004, Kanye infamously left the American Music Award after Gretchen Wilson won the award for Best New Artist, beating out West. And this was just the first time he caused a scene during an award ceremony.

For example, in 2006, West jumped on stage during the award for Best Video at the MTV Europe Music Awards, saying he should have won - something that garnered considerable criticism internationally, eventually causing him to apologize.

One of the most infamous moments, however, didn't involve him at all. In 2009 at the MTV Video Music Awards, Taylor Swift was awarded Best Female Video. However, as she was giving her speech, Kanye, who had no connection to the award she had just won, got on the stage, grabbed the microphone out of her hand and said the following:

 Kanye West (L) jumps onstage after Taylor Swift (C) won the ''Best Female Video'' award during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on September 13, 2009 in New York City. (credit: CHRISTOPHER POLK/GETTY IMAGES)Kanye West (L) jumps onstage after Taylor Swift (C) won the ''Best Female Video'' award during the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards at Radio City Music Hall on September 13, 2009 in New York City. (credit: CHRISTOPHER POLK/GETTY IMAGES)

"Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you, I'mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!" 

"Yo, Taylor, I'm really happy for you, I'mma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the best videos of all time! One of the best videos of all time!"

Kanye West

The controversy and pushback from this was so severe that it sparked criticism from not only celebrities and the public, but from sitting and former US presidents, with Barack Obama saying of West: "He's a jackass."

It also became an entrenched part of Internet culture and spawned countless memes and parodies. 

Just six years later, at the 2015 Grammy Awards, West did something similar to Beck, who was awarded Album of the Year. 

While it is true that West apologized for all of these incidents, these are just a few examples of his drama in the world of celebrities. The incidents were newsworthy and notable when they happened, but more importantly, they serve to illustrate that controversy has followed Kanye throughout his career and into his own personal life.

Personal life: Kanye West, Kim Kardashian, Pete Davidson and Julia Fox

West married reality TV star Kim Kardashian in 2014, and the couple was the subject of considerable media coverage due to both of them having such high celebrity profiles and having four children together. 

However, things became complicated for the celebrity couple in 2021, when Kardashian filed for divorced. The process itself was very long and difficult, and eventually, Kardashian had to be declared legally single in 2022. 

 Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West are seen onstage during the WSJ. Magazine 2019 Innovator Awards sponsored by Harry Winston and Rémy Martin at MOMA on November 06, 2019 in New York City. (credit: BENNETT RAGLIN/GETTY IMAGES FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE INNOVATORS AWARDS)Kanye West and Kim Kardashian West are seen onstage during the WSJ. Magazine 2019 Innovator Awards sponsored by Harry Winston and Rémy Martin at MOMA on November 06, 2019 in New York City. (credit: BENNETT RAGLIN/GETTY IMAGES FOR WSJ. MAGAZINE INNOVATORS AWARDS)

However, West seemed to be making constant U-turns on the issue, sometimes saying that he wanted the divorce, while also saying that he didn't at other times.

In January 2022, West started dating actress Julia Fox, although this lasted for just a month. A meme that has circulated the Internet, but which is false, claimed that this was due to West disliking when Fox went "goblin mode."

Meanwhile, Kardashian began dating comedian Pete Davidson. This relationship lasted nine months, but for much of it, Kanye made numerous references to the couple that have been widely criticized as threatening and as constituting harassment. These actions included lyrics in a song stating that he wants to "beat Pete Davidson's ass" and making an animation of Davidson being kidnapped, buried and decapitated for the accompanying music video.

Kanye West political controversies: Donald Trump, Candace Owens, White Lives Matter and antisemitism

However, Kanye West's greatest and most infamous controversies have all been in the realm of politics. 

Despite being vastly overshadowed by more recent events, West's political drama actually goes back to the very early days of his career. 

In 2005, Kanye West performed at a benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina relief efforts, after the hurricane devastated New Orleans and other nearby areas. Here, West went off-script and slammed the way in which the media and government portrayed and responded to the Black Americans that suffered through the hurricane. The most infamous quote from West's speech, which targeted then-US president George W. Bush, has followed him throughout his career: "George Bush doesn't care about Black people." 

This phrase in particular sparked widespread controversy almost immediately, and Bush himself even stated that it was one of the worst and "most disgusting" incidents to happen during his tenure in the White House. 

However, not everyone took these remarks poorly, and some even supported West for his comments.

But this was just the start for West. In the first half of the 2010s, West made numerous financial contributions to the Democratic Party, including Barack Obama and Hilary Clinton. 

In 2015, while accepting an award at the MTV Video Music Video awards, West, while under the influence of narcotics, gave a short speech before announcing that he planned to run for president in 2020.

After Donald Trump was elected president in 2016, West revealed at a concert in San Jose that he didn't vote, but if he had, he would have voted for Trump, expressing his admiration for "the man's genius."

West maintained his support of Trump over the course of the Republican president's time in the White House, even meeting with him several times. 

 Then-US president Donald Trump meets with rapper Kanye West in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, October 11, 2018.  (credit: SEBASTIAN SMITH/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)Then-US president Donald Trump meets with rapper Kanye West in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, DC, October 11, 2018. (credit: SEBASTIAN SMITH/AFP VIA GETTY IMAGES)

Through Trump's presidency, West began to voice support for an increasing number of right-wing policies and views, becoming pro-life rather than supporting the right to an abortion, and also further embracing his Christianity after becoming a born-again Christian. He also began to voice his respect for the views of controversial right-wing commentator Candace Owens.

However, Kanye eventually decided to run for president in 2020 and immediately declared his candidacy for the 2024 presidential elections as soon as he lost.

Outside of his attempts to break into the political sphere, controversy has continued to follow him in more recent years, coinciding with his association with Owens.

At the beginning of October 2022, Owens was spotted at his fashion show in Paris alongside Owens, the two of them wearing matching shirts with the phrase White Lives Matter written on it, something widely believed to be a white supremacist slogan formed as a reaction to the Black Lives Matter movement. 

West himself further clarified his views on Instagram, writing: "Everyone knows that Black Lives Matter was a scam now it's over you're welcome."

"Everyone know that Black Lives Matter was a scam now it's over you're welcome."

Kanye West

Just a few days later, West made several comments against Jews, accusing them of controlling the rapper Diddy and saying he would go "death con 3 on Jewish people."

These remarks caused Kanye to lose access to his social media platforms, but the saga only continued to grow, as a few days later, when unaired segments of Kanye's interview with Tucker Carlson saw him say that Planned Parenthood was a eugenicist-Ku Klux Klan conspiracy to control the Jews, and clarified that by Jews, he was really referring to Black people. This comment is believed to have stemmed from a conspiracy theory that Black people are the original Jews.

Details were also revealed about previously unseen comments made in a TMZ interview tin which West said that he "loved Hitler and the Nazis."

Rapper Kanye West makes a point as he holds his first rally in support of his presidential bid in North Charleston, South Carolina, US July 19, 2020. (credit: RANDALL HILL/REUTERS)Rapper Kanye West makes a point as he holds his first rally in support of his presidential bid in North Charleston, South Carolina, US July 19, 2020. (credit: RANDALL HILL/REUTERS)

And later, West would say on the Drink Champs podcast that he was being targeted by the Jewish media and Zionist Jews, while also claiming that George Floyd died of fentanyl rather than police brutality, as was shown in Owens' documentary.

Kanye West and mental illness

One issue that has also followed Kanye has been his history of mental illness. 

Back in 2016, some of West's songs referenced his use of antidepressants, and he also revealed later that he had become addicted to opioids. 

In late 2016, West abruptly ended a concert early with a strange rant about Jay-Z before being committed to a hospital for hallucinations and paranoia for 11 days.

West has also struggled with suicidal ideation and revealed in 2019 that he suffers from bipolar disorder, a condition that can cause mood swings and mania. West has also discussed his symptoms, working through them in performances and doing well in his high moments while suffering in his low moments.

In its own right, this alone is very notable, as Kanye West may be the most famous person in the world to openly admit to being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. This condition, along with other mental illnesses, faces a high amount of stigma and many people believe that someone with as large of a platform as West being so open about mental illness is extremely significant. 

However, does that mean West is free of any accountability for his controversial actions? 

On a legal level, the answer is no, because mania is not typically seen as a valid defense for not being responsible for one's actions. 

But on a personal level? That's a difficult question, and many people who suffer from mental illnesses, and from bipolar disorder in particular, may sympathize with West. However, others, including those who suffer from bipolar disorder, are also quick to comment that this does not in any way exempt Kanye from accountability. 

In short, Kanye is a complicated figure. He is one of the most successful musical artists in recent history and has achieved things that many can only dream of. He is a controversial figure who has been rude to his peers, espoused antisemitic statements and seemingly embraced elements of the far-right of the political spectrum. He is a man struggling with a mental illness that often does not get enough attention and sensitivity in terms of treatment due to the stigma surrounding it.

These are not necessarily mutually exclusive, nor are they necessarily wholly dependent on each other.

 

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