People make jokes about Kanye West. Jimmy Kimmel, for instance, made Kanye the butt of a sketch that resulted in a heated Twitter exchange, and later a conversation on Kimmel’s show about the nature of genius and creativity, primarily Kanye West’s genius and creativity, and how these are often misconstrued or misunderstood. Indeed, Kimmel’s spoof of West came on the heels of the singer, rapper, producer, and designer’s claim that he had originally approached Fendi with the concept of now-trendy leather jogging pants, only to have been rebuked. And then there was the time James Franco and Seth Rogen parodied Kanye’s visually striking music video for the song “Bound 2," which stars Kanye and a nude Kim Kardashian riding a motorcycle through a screensaver.
Most recently, the online and late night perpetual joke machine is gearing up for Kanye’s latest offering, an ode to his fiancée, Kim Kardashian, on Future's upcoming “I Won." In the song, Kanye tells Kim that “You the number one trophy wife, so it's only right to live the trophy life," adding also “You grew up on J. Lo, Timberlands by Manolo now / Till one day I put an angel in your ultrasound." We know the internet, you and I. And we know they’re going to have a field day with this one.
Because whether you love him, can’t stand him, or feel entirely indifferent to Kanye West, the man does have a vision, and that vision is huge. He has big dreams, big goals. He sings big songs about his big life. His ego and his image are inexorably intertwined. Kanye’s brand isn’t just Kanye, it’s KANYE, it’s Yeezus, and Yeezus is bigger than you, me, or even Kanye himself.
And that’s not unique to Kanye West. Many artists develop a persona to act as the public face of their brand, in rap and hip-hop and pop and country and metal and “art-pop" alike. And, recently, nowhere has this been more evident than in Beyonce’s introduction to her more confident, sexy, ego-driven alter-ego, Sasha Fierce. Stefani Germanotta has Lady Gaga. Vincent Damon Furnier has Alice Cooper. Kanye West has Yeezus. And Beyonce had Sasha Fierce. And now, she has Yoncé and Mrs. Carter.
In fact, Beyonce and Kanye have a lot in common when it comes to their craft and their image. Like Kanye, Beyonce has a few songs dedicated to marital love, the kind of marital love that unfolds in the backs of limos and under Warhols, the kind of love where expensive champagnes ruin designer dresses in the heat of the moment. Like Kanye’s “I Won" or “Bound 2" or, previously, “Clique" (the latter of which, incidentally, features Beyonce’s husband and an aesthetic that predates her recent and similarly-packaged visual album), Beyonce’s odes to her love are rife with too much information. They’re both hyperrealistic, with every groan and bead of sweat wildly apparent, and surreal, taking place in a world most of us only glimpse in, well. Music videos.
So why is Kanye’s show of bravado so often mocked, when Beyonce’s is celebrated?
That Beyonce is a woman has a lot to do with it. She's a symbol, an icon and, often, a role model. When Beyonce says "girls run the world," you almost believe it. While there have long been sexual women singing about sex (of all kinds) in explicit ways and while wearing sexy outfits, Beyonce is all thrust and power coupled with over-the-top femininity and what’s currently representative of “traditional values." She’s a wife in love with her husband, she’s a mother in love with her child, and she’s also a rich, powerful, influential woman in charge of her (supercharged) sex life. And she doesn’t mind letting you know about it.
Female bravado in music, although it’s long been around for those who’ve known where to look for it, doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and it doesn't exist to the extent that male posturing has in popular music. It still feels revolutionary and new and slightly dangerous to people who haven’t been paying attention, whereas male bravado, especially when it comes to sex, seems commonplace, par for the course.
But Kanye’s bravado, while still ringing with well-worn misogynistic tropes (see: Kim, who is already an established brand and successful business woman, as trophy wife, who’s been “given" a angel-baby by Kanye), isn’t a grenade with fallout extending far and wide. It’s targeted, it’s precise, and it’s all for Kim. He may sing about his girlfriend’s infamous sex tape, sitting back and viewing the object of his love and lust as a literal object on a screen, but, then again, Beyonce renders herself both subject and object, performing in lingerie and expertly-tousled sex hair as her husband gazes at her, fully and impeccably dressed in his designer suit. And, after all, it isn’t as if Beyonce is a stranger to being looked at on screens, singing on “Yoncé" that “Every girl in here got to look me up and down / All on Instagram, cake by the pound / Circulate the image every time I come around / G's up, tell me how I'm looking babe."
She’s owning her image, sure, but, means aside, the ends are all the same: We’re all looking at cake by the pound, and it’s all ultimately for the consumption of one man.
Kanye is ostentatious, yes. He talks about material things. He sings about his girlfriend’s ass. He name checks fashion labels and brands that most of us can’t ever hope to afford. He sings about luxury. But he also sings about being in love, and about “winning" the attention of someone with whom he is clearly, whether in character or not we can’t know, enamored. He’s also earned it. This is very much the world he lives in, the world he’s built for himself. If Beyonce can be celebrated for Yonce, then why is Kanye mocked for being Ye?