Leonard Cohen wrote a poem called ‘Kanye West Is Not Picasso’ back in 2015. Does it help us explain what the rapper is up to in 2018?
Absolutely everyone’s got an opinion on Kanye West these days; he’s – quite possibly – the most controversial man in modern music.
He built a career as one of the finest rappers of his generation and then, in recent years, he veered off into a confounding world of right-wing politics and jaw-droppingly baffling Tweet storms.
And as the world tries to make sense of Kanye’s meeting with Donald Trump in the White House yesterday, everyone’s reading this poem from ‘Hallelujah’ music legend Leonard Cohen.
Cohen, who died in 2016, was best known as a prolific music writer but he also wrote poetry, including this lyric, entitled ‘Kanye West Is Not Picasso,’ which appears in a newly-published posthumous collection of his work called The Flame.
Here’s the poem in all its glory:
The poem, dated 15 March, 2015, was more than likely written in response to Kanye’s address before Oxford University students a couple of weeks earlier, when he said: “My goal, if I was going to do art, fine art, would have been to become Picasso or greater… That always sounds so funny to people, comparing yourself to someone who has done so much, and that’s a mentality that suppresses humanity.”
Many saw the poem as an attack on Kanye and, essentially, a diss track from beyond the grave.
Leonard Cohen taking Kanye down in a diss poem from beyond the grave is too much for me. My brain is broken and what is life.— Kevin Morby (@kevinmorby) October 11, 2018
And, indeed, the line “I am the Kanye West Kanye West thinks he is / When he shoves your ass off the stage” sounds like a direct slam on Kanye’s behaviour during the infamous Taylor Swift 2009 VMA incident.
But perhaps the story’s not that simple.
Before writing the poem, Cohen praised Kanye in a 2014 interview with the Wall Street Journal, in which he praised the rapper’s “energy, resonance of truth, of person, of real experience.”
“Doesn’t really matter what the guy’s saying. A lot of, say Jay Z or Kanye West ― you don’t have to identify with every position they take, especially if you’re white,” he said. “It’s not necessary to identify. It’s the energy, it’s the resonance of truth, of person, of real experience. When we are exposed to someone’s real experience, it resonates and it invigorates.”
And much of this complex poem feels ironic and over-the-top. Perhaps then, with this poem, Cohen is making a larger point about the out-of-control ego that so often accompanies art, artists, musicians and innovators.
So is Cohen suggesting we need rethink Kanye’s behaviour? This might actually support another theory that all of Kanye’s antics are in fact an elaborate piece of performance art.
However you read this poem, I think we can all agree on one thing: we really miss Leonard Cohen.
So here he is again, one more time…