Nathan S. 's avatar

Kanye West is the Rap Game Michael Jordan

Posted by Nathan S. on 10/14/13 | Filed under Top Stories, Opinion, Kanye West, Rap Game
Michael Jordan Kanye West

If I'm known for any one thing on my death bed, it'll be for cropping the heads off booty models. But if I'm known for any two things, it'll be truly establishing Rap Game as an interwebs institution. I take particular pride in any rapper-athlete comparison; if you're going to throw out something like "Drake is the Rap Game Kobe", you better be prepared to back it up.

Which is why I know reading a headline like Kanye West is the Rap Game Michael Jordan is going to raise some doubts, and frankly rightfully so. If we're talking big picture, the totality of their careers, Jay Z is clearly the Rap Game Michael Jordan, and no one else is even particularly close. Unlike Jay/Jordan, Kanye has never retired, or even really threatened to retire. Unlike Jay/Jordan, who are both extrodinarily careful to present a calculated, corporate friendly image in public, Kanye restraint.

But I was rewatching the Kanye and Kimmel interview this weekend because, you know, that's the type of shit I do to relax, and I had a bit of an epiphany: 

If Kanye delivers one consistent message in that "interview/Jimmy Kimmel just so happening to be there while Kanye talked", it's that Ye still absolutely, definitively views himself as an underdog. It's now been almost a decade since "College Dropout" dropped and in that time he's emerged as one of our generation's unquestioned greatest rappers and producers, yet he's still obviously angry that ten years ago people told him he couldn't rap. After selling millions of albums and becoming one of the unquestioned best rappers of his generation you'd think maybe he would have let that shit go, but no, for Yeezy it might as well have been yesterday that Dame Dash told him to stick to producing.

Every rapper claims to be fueled by hate, but for Kanye I think this idea of himself as the underdog overcoming the odds is so absoutley crucial to his self-identity as a person and as an aritst, that he can't let it go. (Unlike Jay, who's completely embraced his success.) First people though he couldn't rap, so he proved them wrong with "College Dropout" and "Late Registration". But then what? Maintain his status as one of the greatest rappers alive? Nope, he had to re-position himself as an underdog and start singing on "808s & Heartbreak". One problem though, for the most part "808s" worked and the rap/sing/auto-tune sound became completley mainstream. But Kanye couldn't have the majority of listeners agreeing that he was a success, could he? Maybe if he got more experimental on "MBDTF" people would start doubting him again. Nope, shit was a near unamious classic and went platinum. So it's really no surprise that we got 'Yeezus", an album that essentially openly dared people to like it. If "Yeezus" had gone platinum first week, his next album would have just been a double-disc of nothing but  the sound of him pooping.

Kanye's greatness is so fueled by "haters" that without those haters he's afraid he couldn't succeed. That need to be doubted even in the face of overwhelming success has led Ye to have to come up with ever more twisted, complicated, and sometimes even borderline delusional ways to maintain some semblance of the underdog status he needs to thrive. As much as he might complain, I think in his heart of heartbroken hearts Kanye fucking loves that the elite fashion industry hasn't embraced him; Italian haute couture fashion designers are just the new Dame Dash, a gatekeeper to an industry that doubts his skills. It's that same impulse that makes him turn a relatively innocuos and unfunny late night skit into a full blown attack on his genius and his family. The same impulse that leads hm to compare himself to people like Steve Jobs after he had exhausted all the fellow rapper comparisons he could. The same impulse that makes him marry one of the world's most paparazzi-hungry women in the world at the same time he hates the paparazzi. (Watch that interview again and notice him position Kim as an underdog who's being unfairly denied of a star on the Walk of Fame - spousal underdog status!)

You know who was almost exactly same way? As if it hasn't already taken me long enough to get back to the original point of this post, you guessed it, Michael Jordan. Everyone knows the story of Jordan getting cut from his high school basketball team, mostly because it's a story he's told time and time again, but it's not really true. Jordan wasn't "cut", he simply didn't make the varsity team and had to play a year of JV. Nevermind that no sophomore at his high school had ever made the varsity team, nevermind that from his senior year at high school on Jordan would be widely ackownledged as one of the best players in the country, for MJ, he was forever the sophomore who was doubted, hated and "cut". As Thomas Lake wrote in an SI profile on Jordan's high school years:

Over the next three decades Jordan would become a world-class collector of emotional wounds, a champion grudge-holder, a magician at converting real and imagined insults into the rocket fuel that made him fly. If he had truly been cut that year, as he would claim again and again, he wouldn't have had such an immediate chance for revenge. But in fact his name was on the second list, the jayvee roster, with the names of many of his fellow sophomores. Jordan quickly became a jayvee superstar.

With that in mind, it's hard to watch Jordan's Hall of Fame Enshrinement speech and not think of Kanye's interview with Kimmel. This is it, Jordan is being given his profession's highest honor and is essentially unanimously acknowledged as the GOAT. And what does he do? Even after all the praise, on the one day he could have finally relaxed, he still brings up getting "cut" in high school, he still takes a shot at Byron Russell, he still brings up everyone who doubted him:

As Jordan emerged as the an absolutely dominant force in basketball he was forced to go to ever greater, and even borderline insane, lengths to keep that underdog status that fueled him alive. Every glance from an opposing player that suggested anything less than complete and total respect became, in Jordan's mind, a full-fledged assault that he had to mercilessly stomp out. Every sportswriter who dared even question whether he could win another championship became part of a media conspiracy to discount his legacy. Even as a GM, when he was supposed to be tutoring Kwame Brown, he was so driven to win that he routinely demolished Kwame in one-on-one "tutorials", so crushing his top draft pick's confidence in the process that Brown became a bust.

In other words, Jordan's need to be constantly doubted, even when in truth the doubters comprised .01% of the popularion, often made him a complete dick. But it was also his ability to constantly tap into the "hate" that fueled him, even if he had to create that hate himself, to put himself in positions where he could be doubted anew, that made him so great in the first place.

So yes, while there are some obvious differences, I think ultimately Kanye and Jordan share an almost insanely competitive mindset that give them far more in common than they have differences. In fact, Jordan might be one of the only people on the planet who could truly understand Kanye's rants, and vice-versa.

Don't believe me, just wait until Kanye conquers the fashion world and is forced to start playing baseball to keep the haters coming...

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