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It had to happen sooner or later.
Yesterday, Slate posted a profile of Kanye West — written by its pop critic Jonah Weiner — that reads like a prolonged glimpse into the obsessions and everyday extravagance of the rapper's inner life — quotes about fur pillows and private jets next to self-boosterism that seems to reveal a deep-set insecurity. West says he's "working on being a doper person," and Weiner witnesses casually intimate moments: a young woman from Stockholm — one of two visiting West's apartment, into which a 13 foot-wide projection-screen television has recently been installed — showed West a photo of her mother.
Except Weiner wasn't actually in the room when West tried to kick it to the Swedes. And as far as this profile is concerned, he never exchanged a word, or a handshake with Kanye. Never set a micro cassette recorder on West's Louis XIV credenza. He didn't have to, because West did it for him.
In a brilliant bit of era-defining satire, Weiner's entire profile is actually based on quotes from West's blog, his Twitter feed, and those promotional appearances at the offices of Facebook and Rolling Stone that quickly made their way to YouTube.
Weiner subtly gives up the game in his article's second paragraph:
Interviews with Kanye West have become increasingly rare over the past few years. For a time, the Chicago rapper was unavoidable — on the cover of Time in a blazer and jeans, on the cover of Rolling Stone in a crown of thorns — but the late 2007 death of his mother Donda knocked him off the radar.There are only a small handful of print interviews West has given since her passing. His silence was presumably — at least in part — a function of grief, but West has also communicated his general ambivalence about journalists. "This is my problem with interviews, you know? What if you did music, and someone else could come in and change your words around and then release it to the radio? And you ain't even get a chance to listen to it before they dropped it to radio? That's how interviews are! You say what you say and then you get paraphrased," he's said. "I wanna get approval over the s***."
Journalists generally don't give their subjects final approval over their stories. But through West's own pronouncements on his various social media platforms, Weiner found another way to get the story, and to look on the bright side:
As conditions go for writing a profile, these are extremely favorable. No, I don't get to ask any questions, but I do get a constantly updating record of West's thoughts, whereabouts, cravings, jokes, meals, flirtations, bon mots, and on and on. In the face of a mountainous info dump like West's, isn't the basic work of profiling—building from the raw material of everything someone says and does toward a more focused sense of who they are—as relevant as ever?
Slate cheekily calls the article "an all-access, totally non-exclusive interview with the would-be king of hip-hop," and Weiner does a remarkable, hilarious job of deconstructing not only the artifice of the standard celebrity interview — which is predicated (as the Village Voice's Zach Baron points out) on perhaps a few hours of access to the subject that the average reader will never have — but also of pointing out the inanity of the unfiltered stream of information West has been dumping on the public in recent weeks, and the salivating response of bloggers who treat each tidbit about new songs or designer jogging attire that West dishes out as news. (Whoops.)
Baron makes a number of great points in dissecting the article, but his view of Weiner's piece ends up swerving toward the depressive. "Slate may have intended to write an entirely new kind of profile. But what it looks like from here is a eulogy," he writes.
It's hard to argue with Baron's assertion that artists can reach their fans without going through traditional media outlets, or that those fans seem to have decided that the relatively direct (and certainly cheaper) access afforded by Twitter and YouTube is preferable to paying for a magazine that sends a writer across the country to spend a couple of uncomfortable hours in a restaurant in a hotel lobby with a star who is about to put out a record that few in the public have yet heard.
Slate's certainly positioning Weiner's article as a new kind of profile (the headline on the site's homepage that links to the story is "Kanye West Has A Headache," a twist on the groundbreaking 1966 Gay Talese article "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold," which was based on interviews Talese conducted with those around Sinatra after the singer declined to be interviewed). Weiner's profile is a stunt, and a great one. But it's not going to change journalism. Journalism has already been changed by social media, and pieces like Weiner's simply signal the shift and let us talk about our era in a new way.
We all know how closely Kanye follows the internet (especially when the conversation is about him). I won't be shocked if the next time he decides he actually wants to turn to a journalist to get his message out, he turns to someone willing to take a creative risk — someone like Weiner.