Kanye West. The mere mention of the man’s name conjures a wealth of images and associations. There is the mic-snatching-incident that galvanized innumerable suburban tweens against him. Then there are the temper tantrums at the mention of the Taylor Swift debacle, the diamond teeth, and the Twitter outbursts. But to only consider the id-driven, puerile parts of Yeezy is to miss much of his true genius. For someone so seemingly self-absorbed, he has written with amazing clarity about the loss of his mother, painful breakups, and his own insecurities.
Like many rappers, Kanye includes a nod to his Lamborghini Murcielago in “Dark Fantasy”, the first track on his new album. However, unlike most rappers, Kanye’s understands that his conspicuous consumption is psychologically bigger than simply wanting a nice car. As he raps in “All Falls Down”, “...it seems we living the American Dream, but the people highest up got the lowest self esteem.” As much as some would like to, it is a gross simplification to write Kanye off as another hedonistic crybaby.
Mr. West’s much anticipated album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy dropped yesterday to unbelievably positive reviews. The notoriously snobby reviewers at Pitchfork gave the album a 10.0; the writeup filled with the sort of breathless, sweeping praise you’d more typically hear from a 12 year old’s review of the latest Harry Potter installation. Adding my own voice to that chorus, I really do believe this album to be Kanye’s (insert your idea of greatest album ever here).
So, how is it that Kanye simultaneously attracts and repels us so viscerally? I believe that Kanye is simply a (better-dressed) hyperbolic symbol for the grandiosity and insecurity we all experience on some level. And inasmuch as that is the case, there are some things we can learn from him, that we can apply to better our work lives.
Productive Insecurity – I am a firm believer that insecurity is the motor that drives Kanye’s relentless quest for perfection and reinvention. For all of his big talk, he never seems content with what he has produced, and continues to reinvent in what appears to be an effort to quiet his own self-doubt. We all have insecurities, the question is, what are we doing with them? Freud called this sublimation – or the process of having neuroses serve a “higher cultural or socially useful purpose, as in the creation of art or inventions.” Say what you will about Kanye’s means, but the ends are indisputably high quality.
Vulnerability – I know, I know, Kanye can also be decidedly invulnerable, but it his moments of brutally honest self-reflection that keep us coming back. In a genre where bravado and swagger are king, it is telling that the person leading the pack is comfortable letting people inside his head from time to time. It is easy to draw parallels to the business world, which can also over rely on the façade of certainty. However, don’t forget that recent research suggests that emotional intelligence (part of which is self-awareness) is highly predictive of promotion. If you can share without oversharing, you’re headed in the right direction.
Personal Branding – Love him or hate him, it is hard to deny that Kanye has done an excellent job of creating an engaging persona and a strong personal brand. Kanye’s brand is sartorial inventiveness, bombastic speech, and a commitment to perfection. Even those that dislike him recognize him, and that matters in a business world overrun with prêt a porter suits and MBA-speak. If you cannot summarize your personal brand as holistically and succinctly as I did Kanye’s, you have some work to do.
I’m not suggesting that Kanye is a role model in the traditional sense, and I’m certainly not advocating for temper tantrums or the mistreatment of adorable country singers. Let’s just remember that we’re all a confusing amalgam of grandiosity and self-doubt, and that can lead us to make some very beautiful music.
Dr. Daniel Crosby is a corporate psychologist and President of Crosby Performance Consulting (http://www.doctordanielcrosby.com/consulting/index.html). You can also follow him on Twitter @crosbypsych. Daniel is a people scientist, who enjoys applying his craft to pop culture, as well as help organizations realize that soft skills can make you hard money.