Now that Kanye West is, in real time, conceding to the status of a persona non grata on black Twitter (and, presumably, the black community at large), his timeworn disciples seem to have already departed the Yeezus cult long enough to elect the artist’s successor as the next fixture of black genius in music.
And after the provocative, ultraviolent spectacle of “This is America”—which cultural critics are still poring over and struggling to decipher—it appears the world, and Kanye, has found their next thought leader: Donald Glover.
Get Kanye West out of here. Childish Gambino taking his spot.
— Juwan (@KingTrillaX) May 6, 2018
Who cares about losing Kanye West? We have #ChildishGambino
— Farrah Gray (@FarrahGray_) May 6, 2018
Donald Glover is the kind of genius that Kanye West pretends to be.
— Boogie2988 (@Boogie2988) May 7, 2018
Last weekend, Glover (a.k.a. Childish Gambino) hosted Saturday Night Live, which opened with a segment where Donald Trump announced Kanye West as his new chief of staff. (It was funny, mostly because it wasn’t a far stretch.) The centrepiece sketch of the night, though, was a pre-taped parodic skit called “A Kanye Place,” which offered a cornfield horror movie fantasia wherein a group of postapocalyptic survivors can’t seem to resist screaming over West’s recent Twitter storms and ramblings about slavery. Kanye liked it.
Kanye also liked Glover’s dizzying film for “This is America,” which was released concurrently to the actor/writer/singer’s performance as his own musical guest on SNL. The video features Glover as a depraved serial killer, invoking recent images of black American suffering as he guns down tranquil guitarists and black choirs. Glover’s face, a mask of emotional gymnastics, mirrors his body movements, which contort and morph, some have speculated, into poses grotesquely reminiscent of a Jim Crow caricature, then, as respite care, into the relaxed frames of viral dances. Simply put, the video, as an ambivalent cultural document, is an uncomfortable meditation on gun violence, police brutality, and how both intersect with blackness to produce a uniquely American issue. To be black in America, it suggests, is to be perpetually feared and perpetually afraid.
The irony of West sharing Glover’s work online lies in the dreamlike quality of the image it summons: West, a seasoned rapper, nostalgically glancing back at his discography, ruminating over more inspiring days of fire before his present self-destruction. Kanye’s recent alignment with the alt-right and its reactionary politics—Candace Owens, one of three people he follows on Twitter, is a member of the NRA—and Glover’s steady ascent into lauded black storytelling, feels like a surreal juxtaposition. Kanye mistakes his Faustian bargain for “free thought”; Glover clowns this regression on national television. It’s tempting to compare their art now, when Glover is producing the sort of thought provoking and confrontational content the world has come to expect from West. But to administer Glover as the antidote to The Kanye Problem is to continue the same cycle of mistakes that placed West in this position in the first place—a “god” has nowhere to go but down.
In a piece for Pitchfork, Jayson Greene wrote last week about the dangers of proclaiming male artists “geniuses” (the term feels uniquely gendered in the music realm) and its inevitable poisonous side effects. A genius can waive criticism because they alone are able to understand the intellectual contours of their work. A genius approaches superhumanity; Kanye’s brazen self-positioning in the genealogy of Walt Disney, Steve Jobs, Albert Einstein and Pablo Picasso is a tactic that renders his brilliance and prowess beyond reproach. The very act of declaring artists geniuses is, in and of itself, destructive, and on one hand imposes unfulfillable expectations while robbing them of their human inclination to fail with the other. People are inexorably limited by their humanity, and, in canonizing them the way we have Kanye West, we ruin them.
I completely understand the desire to appoint Glover as the heir to Kanye. Kanye’s reputational collapse is destined to leave a rift (read: gash) in popular culture and how it exists in the American public imagination. Kanye’s nuclear artistry, which once yielded monuments like The College Dropout and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, has taken a backseat to delusions masquerading as “free thought”—and to search for a figure that can restore the balance in the simulation is not an abnormal coping mechanism. Still, we must resist.
Janelle Monae just put out a masterpiece with fresh, new commentary on the Black Queer experience. Beyoncé drowned a damn cop car in Katrina water TWO YEARS ago. Why do y’all wait for Black men to do half of what Black women stay doing??? https://t.co/ktTQ6fFNTW
— Queeriam (@stankofa) May 7, 2018
Donald Glover and Kanye West both make great art deserving of criticism. But Glover is not a corrective to Kanye’s gaucherie. Neither is an artistic saviour; both are simply good artists. To idealize either, and to attach the word “genius” to the male ego, is to position both for inevitable failure (it’s precisely this sort of comparison that leads to the messianic complex Glover has already blushed). Glover is not West’s successor, because West is still here; even if he weren’t, there isn’t a finite number of slots in the stratosphere of musical brilliance that black artists can inhabit. There are plenty of black artists—particularly black women artists—who have showcased equally brilliant art deserving of comparable acclaim. Donald Glover is not the heir to Kanye.