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What started out as Kanye West's return to Twitter has become far stranger and more unsettling

What started out as Kanye West's return to Twitter has become far stranger and more unsettling
Kanye West at the MTV Video Music Awards in 2016. (Chris Pizzello / AP)

"It shows what I would refer to as disregulated thought."

"The things that he's saying are irresponsible, and they're ignorant."

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"I've seen where he has said on multiple occasions that he doesn't read."

Sounds like Rachel Maddow laying into President Trump on MSNBC, right?

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Nope — this was Dr. Phil dispensing his wisdom at TMZ's behest as part of the network's wall-to-wall coverage of The Great Unraveling of Kanye West.

Just weeks ago, few would have seen a role in this story for America's most trusted mustache.

But that was before West went off the rails with a series of increasingly out-there pronouncements regarding Trump's "dragon energy" and how slavery was "a choice."

What started out last month as West's return to Twitter — a characteristic play for publicity, many assumed, ahead of the June release of not one but two new albums — has become far stranger and more unsettling, not unlike Trump's winning the presidency after some speculated that all he really meant to do was sell some condos.

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Now, just as we do with Trump, we're turning to anyone who can find order in West's supposed disregulation. Fans want badly to believe that there's a doctrine at work here, and that includes me.

I'll admit I'm holding out hope that West's solo album, which he's said is due June 1, will make clear how he came to view the president as his "brother." I'm eager to hear him explain the improbable embrace of right-wing thinking he's signaled by tweeting admiringly about the black conservative commentator Candace Owens and by wearing an autographed Make America Great Again hat.

But that outcome is beginning to look less and less likely — a glum realization familiar to anyone who's spent the past year and a half watching cable news for some sort of reassurance that Trump has a plan.

One reason to believe in West's vision is because he's repaid that trust before.

Prerelease hype is one of the rapper's specialties, as he demonstrated in early 2016 with the wild rollout of his most recent album, "The Life of Pablo."

Rather than performing a concert or throwing a party, he premiered the record during a live-streamed fashion show at Madison Square Garden; then, instead of making the completed work available to stream or download, he kept tweaking the music even as it circulated online, cleverly enacting the album's message about the instability of modern celebrity.

Before that, there was his memorable outburst at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards — the notorious Taylor Swift interruption that set up the next year's proudly villainous "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy."

Yet this time it's harder to see the path toward great music, in part because West has put some out already, and it's … less than encouraging.

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Last week he released "Lift Yourself," a jokey bit of gibberish evidently designed to troll his critics — "Poop di scoopty / Scoopty whoop" are the key lyrics — and "Ye vs. the People," a somewhat more realized duet with T.I. in which the two MCs debate West's endorsement of Trump.

Well, I should say T.I. debates that point; he gets in some vivid lines about how West "wore a dusty-ass hat that represent the same views as white supremacy."

But West's part in the song might be the least convincing rapping we've ever heard from him: stilted, tentative, uncommitted to a beat that itself feels like something he pulled from a forgotten Dropbox stash.

Asked by T.I. whether he feels an obligation to his audience — the folks, T.I. elaborates, to whom Trump and his cronies "seem crude and cold-hearted" — West says he feels an obligation "to show people new ideas."

Except he doesn't offer any.

"Make America Great Again had a negative perception / I took it, wore it, rocked it, gave it a new direction," he raps, "Added empathy, care and love and affection / And y'all simply questioning my methods."

Despite the president's insistence on the contrary, merely saying something doesn't make it true. And nowhere over the past few weeks has West demonstrated how he's remade Trump's polarizing campaign slogan as an expression of love; at no point has he lent any credibility to his claim that the upcoming album is in the vein of "Real Friends," a deeply empathetic cut from "The Life of Pablo" in which he tallies the weight he's allowed himself not to pull in various relationships.

All he's shown is that he shares Trump's instinct for provocation.

Which isn't without value, of course. Pop stars should provoke us; the shock they create often provides the space through which new understandings emerge.

But in contrast with the past, when West floated dubious theories about Bill Cosby and the CIA, this time he appears not to have done the thinking to support any of his controversial and downright dangerous stances — he's just lobbing stuff out there, then ducking when people rightly throw it back at him (as when he insisted in a now-deleted tweet that his comments about slavery were misconstrued).

And that marks a worrying shift for West, who's long been one of pop's biggest brains on matters of race, sex, money and stardom. If his arguments weren't always airtight, at least he presented them within a grander artistic framework that allowed for doubt and dissent.

In other words, I'm not disappointed to discover that a musician's politics may be different from mine; I'm disappointed to find that, as a willing thought leader, West seems to be operating with about as much deliberation as Trump has put into his flimsy positions on North Korea and the NRA.

Still, there may be a chance he's contemplating things more deeply on his own — and possibly explaining himself in the music he's working on.

Tuesday, the same day he dropped the slavery bomb on "TMZ Live," West posted a carefully edited video interview he'd conducted with the radio host Charlamagne Tha God, who questioned West on his 2016 hospitalization, his various business dealings and his enthusiasm for the president.

Many of his answers still feel shallow and evasive — not enough on the signal, too much on the noise.

"I love challenging the norms," he says of Trump's win, adding that "it proved that anything is possible in America."

But West also seems to be listening in a way that suggests the wheels might still be turning.

Asked by Charlamagne how he can love a guy "who's clearly trying to marginalize and oppress … people that look like you," West ponders the question for a full 17 seconds.

He even says, "Hmm."

I hope somebody else can make Kanye hmm again.

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Twitter: @mikaelwood

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