Kanye West Is Publicly Struggling. We Need To Give Him Grace.

We urgently need new ways to talk about public figures living with mental illness.

It’s been an exhausting Kanye news cycle, but it’s not like any Kanye news cycle is a fun time. Kanye West promised an album that was supposed to arrive today, but as of this writing, no such album materialized. Earlier this month, West announced that he’s running for president, and shortly thereafter gave an extended interview to Forbes where, among other things, he said he is no longer a supporter of Donald Trump.

The Forbes interview, like lots of West’s public outbursts, is incoherent and does not hold together. The rapper moves between promising to run America like Wakanda and saying the reason he had put the MAGA hat on was because he hates “the segregation of votes in the Black community” and likes “Trump hotels and the saxophones in the lobby.” Forbes described the conversation as “four rambling hours of interviews.” Sorry, it didn’t describe it that way — it promoted it that way.

First, let’s get the practicalities out of the way: West has already missed the filing deadline in Texas and is on the verge of missing it in no-big-deal states like, oh, I dunno, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

This past Sunday, he held a last-minute rally in South Carolina in a bid to procure the 10,000 signatures to get on the ballot in that state. He missed the deadline for the signatures, but made news in other ways: An emotional, difficult-to-watch speech made the rounds, in which West cries about stopping his then-girlfriend, now-wife Kim Kardashian West from having an abortion. “You know who else protected a child?” West asks in between sobs. “My mom saved my life. My dad wanted to abort me.”

The whole thing is painful. No one with a modicum of judgment would say that West — shouting “I almost killed my daughter! I love my daughter!” — was doing well. But predictably, the clip that was most shared from the rally was his profoundly outlandish declaration that “Harriet Tubman never freed the slaves. She just had them go work for other white people.”

And viral it went. From NBC to the Washington Post, Billboard to USA Today, news outlets covered it with relish.

There is, of course, a history here: West has long been an object of intrigue, and readers would (and do) click to find out the outrageous thing the outrageous celebrity said this time. But this a relationship that, as Craig Jenkins writes, “needs reform”:

“The lack of context regarding his [bipolar] diagnosis...in coverage...which questions the viability of the presidential bid but never entertains the possibility that the man giving all the outlandish pull quotes might not be doing so well right now, illuminate our inability to step back and ponder the ethics of the internet content mill…”

This is the push and pull that animates coverage of West. In moments when we watch him fall apart in public — tweeting concerning statements then deleting them, crying about his wife not going through with an abortion — coverage of the events has to make an enormous leap between two Kanyes: the man who has shared details about his mental illness and is publicly struggling, and the singular artist whose measured and intentional unravelings have powered brilliant albums.

The whole thing is painful. No one with a modicum of judgment would say that West — shouting “I almost killed my daughter! I love my daughter!” — was doing well.

On Wednesday afternoon, Kim Kardashian West released a statement on Instagram urging for “compassion and empathy” for Kanye. “He is a brilliant but complicated person who on top of having to deal with the pressures of being an artist and a black man, who experienced the painful loss of his mother, and has to deal with the pressure and isolation that is heightened by his bi-polar disorder,” Kardashian West wrote.

For the past few nights, West has been living in between his deleted tweets. He goes on tweet sprees, only to delete them later. “Kim tried to bring a doctor to lock me up with a doctor,” he posted late Monday night. On Tuesday night, he shared screenshots of him texting Kris Jenner to replies, with the caption, “White supremacy at its highest no cap.” But how do we take a man at his word when we can see enough to know he is going to regret it?

Watching the way West gets talked about is at times sickening and confounding. I’ve never been less sure that he is going to be okay.

The credits for “I Thought About Killing You,” the album opener to Kanye West’s 2018 album Ye, boasts 11 writers and six producers, including West himself. It’s an unsettling and haunting track that features the rapper musing about “premeditated murder.” The second-person perspective throws you off balance: Is he talking to an external “you,” or is it a conversation between the id and the superego in a song about suicide? “I think about killing myself / and I love myself way more than I love you, so…” Kanye recites off the top in a lengthy spoken word portion of the song.

I mention the 11 writers because often when watching Ye move in the world, with all the chaos it invites, we forget that there is a whole economy that goes into the construction of West. Over time, he has cultivated the image of the singular auteur, the artist/genius, the self-made maker, successfully making invisible the machinery that goes into the creation of his best work.

This has plenty of consequences for the way we evaluate West’s art. For one thing, it blurs the line between raw, unprocessed thoughts and the personal excavation and creative process it takes to deal with emotions and turn them into art. “Killing You” comes off as an unfiltered West on a dark day, when it is the meticulous construction of a cabal of writers in the room.

The darkness looms on Ye, like in the album’s second track, “Yikes.” “Shit could get menacing, frightening, find help,” West chillingly sings in a frantic song about a bad trip, and you believe him. The song ends in an elevated state, with West screaming, “That’s my bipolar, nigga, what? / That’s my superpower, nigga, ain’t no disability.” Here, he is referencing a diagnosis he’s talked about often. But “Yikes” has even more writers credited than “Killing You” — 13 writers (including a writing credit to Drake for a verse that was cut from the album).

Eleven writers here, 13 writers there, and soon you have a whole invisible lab whose job is the creation of Kanye West the Genius. But a larger consequence of forgetting the scaffolding that goes into this creation is that we lose the tools to distinguish between Kanye the lone creator and Kanye the lonely broken person. The two become conflated. So every time West is messy in public, we are flung into turmoil. What do we make of the man who so lucidly processes his own life, now saying absurd things in public?

The truth is you have to be rather callous to laugh at the unwell person in front of you. But you don’t need that callousness when you imagine it’s the West who knows what he’s doing, the West who is immensely capable of processing his pain. We forget the gulf between the human and the product, and this is a disservice to West and a disservice to us.

Everything I know about West’s mental health and inner pain has been told by the artist himself, an amalgam of the songs he has released since the death of his mother, Donda West, in 2007, and the interviews he has given.

I am not a mental health professional, and I will not play armchair psychologist. What I will do is offer a professional journalistic opinion, which is that almost none of the public writing about West properly wrestles with the weight of his personal traumas and mental health diagnosis.

West blames himself for the death of his mother, who died after complications from cosmetic surgery. I do not have to guess at this: He said it himself in 2015, and in even starker terms. An interviewer asked West what he had to sacrifice for his success. “My mom,” West responded. “If I hadn’t moved to LA, she would be alive.”

In 2016, around the ninth anniversary of Donda’s death, West was admitted to UCLA Medical Center after what was referred to as a “psychiatric emergency.” The narrative was that the breakdown was triggered by West being unable to move past blaming himself for Donda’s death. The breakdown came a month after West cut a Saint Pablo Tour concert short after finding out Kardashian West had been robbed at gunpoint in Paris — while he was onstage.

Almost none of the public writing about West properly wrestles with the weight of his personal traumas and mental health diagnosis.

That moment should’ve changed how we talk about West. His mental health was so poor that it should’ve immediately invited deep soul searching about coverage of a man who, a few months before his breakdown, rapped that we “ain’t never nothing crazier than / This nigga when he off his Lexapro.”

But no such reflection happened. So in 2018, when West appeared on TMZ to make his “slavery is a choice” comment, the circus machine revved itself back up. Come, they invited audiences, he’s doing it again.

The Kanye Spectacle Machine was inexplicably absent when, three months after the TMZ incident, West went on WGCI radio station in Chicago and wept. He wept about the pain he had caused with his comment and wept about his loneliness. He wept about how he had no one around him that could’ve stopped it from happening, no one who knew him intimately enough to intervene. “Don C is not around as much,” West says in that interview, referring to his former manager and the best man at his wedding. “The people around and were starting to make money just didn’t care about me as much as Don C did.”

The Chicago radio interview is heartbreaking to watch. West tells the interviewers he told Don, “I need him so shit like this don’t happen to me.” In the conversation, West is precisely able to describe the mechanisms that led to his isolation. He contrasts himself with Kardashian West: “One thing we can learn from my wife and the reason why she don’t end up in UCLA is because she has her family with her at all times.”

To be clear: I am not excusing West for any of his behavior. Over the years, he has said some foolish things, and while it’s true that hurt people hurt people, hurt people don’t always align themselves with a president hostile to their people’s interests or dangerously distort history or give platforms to sketchy characters. This isn’t the point of what I’m writing. But it would be equally disingenuous to pretend that West doesn’t wear his trauma and his pain and his diagnosis on his sleeve, or that it should have no bearing on how the media covers him. We urgently need a new public language that pulls all of these threads together — a language that explains but doesn’t excuse, a language that contextualizes but doesn’t absolve.

We urgently need a new public language that pulls all of these threads together — a language that explains but doesn’t excuse, a language that contextualizes but doesn’t absolve.

West’s fans, admittedly (hi!), often err on the side of overcorrection. So the online conversation about the artist devolves quickly into a collision between two rigid moral certitudes. There are the stans (and critics, for that matter) who believe that fandom is for life, for better or for worse. They defend Kanye the genius, the unparalleled creator, and when the internet comes for him, they will shield his name. The other certitude is a reaction to the first: West’s drama — and the unwavering defense of it — is seen as exactly what’s wrong with celebrity culture. This side is disgusted with those who would defend him.

Both certitudes make the error of overlooking Kanye the human, whose own artistic admissions are that he is bipolar, isolated, sometimes not taking his meds, and thinks his illness is his “superpower.” Both take West at his word, when all evidence points to being careful about only taking him at his word.

Kardashian West, who is understood to be furious at West for talking about their daughter, finds herself (again and again and again) having to publicly explain West’s behavior. But there is a notable difference this time: It is the first time she’s appealed for mercy. I imagine it is a plea for mercy from the snide remarks and the shitty trending topics. Mercy from the coverage without context. Mercy, perhaps, on behalf of a person who needs it but does not have the clarity to ask for it.

This mercy is absent from the Kanye discourse. When the internet is mocking him, it feels out of reach. And it’s easy to mistake his fans defending him for mercy, but it is not: It is permissiveness and enablement, a green light to proceed down a road even when it looks harmful.

Mercy needs acknowledgment of wrong and acknowledgment of circumstance. It is less satisfying than the confident Kanye takes that get thrown about every day. It requires a nuance the content factories seem ill-equipped for.

If the passion West inspires seems disproportionate, it might be because the passion West invested in uplifting his people seemed larger than life in his early years. Black people can never forget the nervous Ye, glancing at the cameras, working up the courage to deliver the line, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” That day, a contract was sealed: We’ll have your back because you have ours.

From then on, he reached the kind of heights Black men rarely reach. And he didn’t stop there: He wanted to reach the rungs available to the great white artists, too. The ones on a whole different ladder.

Mercy needs acknowledgment of wrong and acknowledgment of circumstance.

A great deal of West’s career has been spent railing against the limitations of what America expects of Black people. In fact, the central mission of West in the last decade can be read as a protest against those limitations: the feud with Nike over creative control, his frustration with the fashion industry for wanting to confine him to “urban” wear.

Even when West crossed lines that upset his Black fans, he explained himself in the frame of someone doing it for Black liberation. He supported Trump, he said, in part because he rejected the expectation that Black people must vote Democrat.

But there’s a cost to discovering that you can never reach the heights you desire, that you can never be anything more than a Black man in America. “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe,” he once presciently rapped. The higher West climbed, the more forceful the racism got.

There’s a beautiful 2018 episode of the New York Times’ Still Processing where, toward the end, cohost Wesley Morris tearfully describes his read on the pain he thinks Kanye is in:

“I think he really does feel something that he can’t really articulate as a Black person. … He is as close as he’s ever gonna be to whatever it is he thinks freedom is. He has survived being married to the Kardashians. He has aligned himself with this very powerful white man. ... And I just feel like he is tasting something that is rotten at its core. And is having a really hard time articulating how it is poisoning him.”

This week, I’ve been returning to this segment a lot. I went back and listened again after West posted a video from his Wyoming ranch with a visitor: Dave Chappelle. In a tweet, Ye thanks the comedy giant for “HOPPING ON A JET TO COME SEE ME DOING WELL.”

Here is Chappelle, the man who got so close to power and walked away when he tasted poison, coming to the aid of a man who appears afflicted by how his proximity to power turned venomous.

West looks moved that Chappelle made the journey to come see him. Perhaps he felt anchored by a friend who made an effort to sit with him, buoyed by the sight of a Black man who found a way to claim the power but leave the poison. Perhaps he just needed a friend.

We don’t have a shared language for when a celebrity is not doing well in public. It doesn’t look like a snarky tweet or a shitty meme. It sure as hell doesn’t look like a smirking headline inviting you to enjoy the Kanye circus. It looks like weaving compassion and accountability together, and naming what he’s going through alongside what he does.

As Kardashian West wrote in her statement: “We as a society talk about giving grace to the issue of mental health as a whole. However, we should also give it to individuals living with it at the time when they need it most.” The sentiment is right. If it sounds vague and imprecise, it is because we haven’t done the work to articulate what giving that grace means. It’s about time we start. ●

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