At the very end of his Video Vanguard acceptance speech at the MTV VMAs on Sunday night, Kanye West paused. "As you probably could’ve guessed by this moment…" he started, and for that moment I was certain that he was going to reject the honor, leave his moonman statue on the ground, and walk off the stage.
Instead, he announced he'd run for president in 2020. This, of course, is headline-making news. Would Kanye be a good president? I have no idea. Will he actually live up to this proclamation? I don't particularly care.
What's frustrating is that, in that single sentence, West undermined a truly brilliant point that he spent the first 10 minutes of his speech building to: Award shows are bullshit.
"I feel conflicted," Kanye says in the speech. Here he is, one of the greatest rappers of our generation, standing on a nationally broadcast stage to accept what is essentially MTV's version of a lifetime achievement award. Below him, Taylor Swift stands with her arm around West's wife Kim Kardashian. But all of it, to Kanye, means absolutely nothing. He makes it clear that not only is he apathetic at best about winning the award, but that he's incredibly frustrated with the way award shows value art.
He's shown this frustration to the American public over and over again, but his point—his moral reaction—is often clouded by a stigma that wants to place his points within the confines of a "rant" or being "crazy."
In 2004, he stormed the stage at the American Music Awards to claim that he had been robbed—he wanted to win New Artist of the Year. The artist who won that award was Gretchen Wilson, who has almost completely evaporated not only from public consciousness, but from the industry as a whole.
In 2009, a much younger, less eloquent West stormed the stage at the VMAs to rip a microphone out the hands of a newly popular Taylor Swift and announce to the world that "Beyoncé had one of the greatest videos of all time."
He wasn't wrong. Eight years later, it's pretty obvious that "Single Ladies" was in fact a more memorable and much more artistic creation than "You Belong With Me," a video that—while solid—was hardly impactful.
It's too soon to tell whether West's claim that Beyoncé deserved the Grammy for Best Album over Beck's Morning Phase was right, but it's also too soon to claim he was entirely wrong.
All this is to say that when Kanye West admitted last night that it was probably a mistake to interrupt Taylor Swift in 2009, he didn't say it was because he was wrong to do so. What he said, in so many words, is that he regrets jumping up on that stage because that action made it easy for people to dismiss his point.
Kanye West is one of the best musicians working today. He is an incredible producer with a resumé laden with brilliant work. As a rapper, he's evolved the genre more in a single decade than maybe any other living artist. Regardless of commercial success, West's work is almost always critically acclaimed. In other words, West is an artist, and he knows good art when he sees it.
There's an anecdote that West used in his speech that probably could have been huge news if he hadn't announced a run for president. West told a story about the 2007 Grammy Awards, an event that happened only a few months before the Swift incident at the AMAs and probably set the stage for his actions there:
I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing. I just… I sat at the Grammys and saw Justin Timberlake and Cee-Lo lose. Gnarls Barkley and the FutureLoveSex/Sexy Back album. And bro, Justin, not to put you on blast but I saw that man in tears, bro. You know? And I was thinking like, he deserved to win Album of the Year!
Here, West has told a story about two incredible musicians who poured life and love and talent into their work to share with the world. They lost the 2008 Grammy for Album of the Year to the Dixie Chicks' Taking the Long Way.
And that's because, as West points out, the Grammys are bullshit. Every single music award show is. Not only are they racist, but they don't value art at all.
The American Music Awards are so inconsistently awarded they barely matter at all. The Billboard Music Awards are determined entirely by chart performance, which can be but often is not the indicator of a great artisan. The MTV VMAs are voted on by fans, which means that the only artists who win are either 1) already superstars or 2) teen bands.
The award show that's supposed to be serious, the Grammys, simply isn't set up to honor art.
The Grammys give out 83 awards every single year. They aren't exclusive by any means. Becoming a voter for the Grammys is also incredibly easy (basically requiring only a $100 payment and proof that you work in the industry), which means the people behind the awards hardly represent a critical elite.
On top of all that, there's a strange Grammy illuminati committee that was quietly created in the mid-1990s by the Recording Academy. This committee goes over the nominations for the top four categories, plus the Country, R&B, Latin, Gospel, Jazz, Classical, and Music Video categories. Then they adjust if needed. Basically, all of the categories that drive television ratings, as well as categories in specialty genres, can be rigged by this undisclosed private committee.
The most important award of the year—the Grammy for Album of the Year— is almost always decided by whichever genre has the least splitting of their votes. If two pop albums, two R&B albums, and a rock album are nominated, for example, and the rock vote goes undivided, then that album wins. In 2014, Beck's Morning Phase was the only rock album. In 2007, the Dixie Chicks were the only nominated country album. It just doesn't seem fair.
And this is how the winners of the most esteemed award in music are decided. Think about that for a second. If you win an Oscar, that's something to be incredibly proud of. Same with a Tony, or a Pulitzer. But a Grammy? Kanye himself won three in one year. They barely mean anything at all.
It would be easy to have a great time at the VMAs and accept it as the drunken kegger of award shows if artists felt like they could be honored honestly and with esteem somewhere else. But they can't.
"I don't know what I finna to lose after this," West said near the end of his speech. "It no matter though, because it ain’t about me. It’s about ideas, bro. New ideas. People with ideas. People who believe in truth."
Kanye West didn't use his award speech to praise himself or thank the people close to him. He didn't play into the mechanism laid out in front of him. Instead he stood up for artists. He stood up for art, even though no one else in the industry can be bothered to.
Kelsey McKinney is a culture staff writer for Fusion.