Kanye West and Rudy Giuliani might have never shared the same breaking news banners, trending alerts and “Saturday Night Live” taunts last week if it weren’t for another master self-aggrandizer, President Trump, paving the way.
Kanye, the “Black Skinhead” rapper turned Kardashian turned fashion designer, and Rudy, “America’s mayor” turned Fox News pundit turned Trump lawyer, were on separate comeback tours last week — one to promote his forthcoming albums, the other to crow about his new proximity to the president (and clear up some Russia thing).
Both chose safe-space TV outlets — TMZ for Kanye, Sean Hannity’s Fox show for Rudy — to do what they love to do most: talk about themselves.
But something went terribly awry on the road to former glory.
Like the president they both support, Yeezy and the old Loose Cannon, as their peers have been known to call them, talked too much. But unlike the president, they didn’t get much help cleaning up their spill-it-alls from a White House damage control team — “I would refer you to Rudy Giuliani to respond to any of those questions,” a deflecting Sarah Huckabee Sanders said on Monday — and they wound up making national headlines for all the wrong reasons.
Within minutes of sitting down in the TMZ studios last Tuesday, West’s first television interview since he withdrew from the public surrounding release of his 2016 album “The Life of Pablo,” the Grammy winner rattled off dozens of odd, tangential and inflammatory remarks that appeared designed to offend: “When you hear about slavery for 400 years .... For 400 years? That sounds like a choice.”
The bizarre hits kept coming: “The mob tries to make all blacks Democrats for food stamps,” he said.
Asked about the Make America Great Again hat he wore in a photo posted on Twitter the previous week, he answered: “There’s infinite reasons to why an artist does something.” None of which he explained during the scattered, race-baiting interview.
Author Ta-Nehisi Coates captured the anger West incited in an essay titled “I’m Not Black, I’m Kanye”: “West is a narcissist, ‘the greatest artist of all time,’ he claimed, helming what would soon be ‘the biggest apparel company in human history.’ And, like Trump, West is shockingly ignorant.”
The following day, it was Giuliani’s turn to alienate his base. He stunned Fox News viewers — and Hannity — by voluntarily mentioning, almost as a side note, that Trump had funneled personal attorney Michael Cohen $130,000 to repay money that Cohen paid porn star Stormy Daniels for her silence over an alleged sexual encounter with Trump. The problem: Trump had already denied such a transaction. Giuliani’s casual claim added to a heap of White House scandals deep enough to overwhelm “Scandal’s” Olivia Pope.
“SNL’s” Weekend Update characterized Giuliani’s Fox appearance and his ensuing backpedaling statements — that his references to timing did not represent the president’s knowledge, that the payments didn’t violate campaign finance laws, and wait, maybe the president did know — as the Kings of Dementia Comedy Tour.
Both men clearly felt at home in the tribal media environments they chose — one conservative, one liberal, both supportive platforms from their past — and delivered reckless, ego-driven monologues. It was a page from Trump’s playbook: The message is malleable, even inconsequential, as long as you get the crowd’s attention long enough to sell whatever it is you’re selling — i.e. yourself.
The outcome of their folly isn’t just their own damaged reputations — and perhaps irreparable damage to once-brilliant careers. The willingness to say whatever it takes follows a frightening, immoral and democracy-eroding precedent, and how they’re considered from here by an outrage-addicted media and public could serve as a barometer for how far off course we’ve gone or the measures we’re taking to correct course.
Giuliani’s aspirations to be seen as a true Beltway player and West’s desperation to remain a game-changing hip-hop figure (the music, not his mouth, got him there) are cynical and irresponsible pursuits of self-promotion that erode trust in the democratic ideals both of these men have championed — be it Giuliani’s career upholding the law or West’s tireless commentary, on and off album, regarding racial equality.
TMZ senior producer Van Lathan rose up as a voice of courage and reason when West was in the studio. He shamed the musician with razor-sharp potency when he rose from a desk on the set and declared: “While you are making music and being an artist and living the life that you’ve earned by being a genius, the rest of us in society have to deal with these threats to our lives.”
“We have to deal with the marginalization that’s come from the 400 years of slavery that you said for our people was a choice, “ continued Lathan, who is African American. “Frankly I’m disappointed, I’m appalled, and, brother, I am unbelievably hurt by the fact that you have morphed into something to me that’s not real.”
West’s over-the-top brand of showmanship has always been a mix of artistic credibility, hard-earned hip-hop swagger and a pastiche of provocative and often confusing sentiments on race, fame and American politics. But in 2005 when he blurted live on air during a Hurricane Katrina benefit that President George W. Bush “doesn’t care about black people,” it wasn’t polished or graceful, but it came from a heartfelt desire to expose a horrific truth: People were dying across New Orleans and the government was doing too little too late.
I interviewed West a week or two before that, on the eve of his career-changing “Late Registration.” Even back then, he was super cocky but had the talent to back up most his boasts. Not all of them, though: " I think this is the best-produced record — ever,” he said.
But for all his bravado backstage at that video shoot, he hovered nervously outside the door of a dressing room as some of his confidants listened to his new album for the first time. He kept popping his head in the room: “I saw you talking over the first verse of ‘Dear Mama,’ ” he said. “You need to hear it again, because you may have missed something.” Later, he grilled each listener: “What do you think? I mean, really, really think?”
Under all that swagger was a healthy amount of self-doubt — that need to be better that drives all of us to be better.
Whatever is eroding West’s basic sense of human decency, causing him to align with the bigoted hatemongers he once railed against, has undoubtedly destroyed his credibility as an artist. There is no coming back from this, unless it’s as a reality show host, Fox News personality or perhaps presidential hopeful. West and Giuliani in 2020.
West’s mother-in-law Kris Jenner, the ruler of the Kardashian enterprise, even appeared defeated when she tried to defend his TMZ comments during an appearance on Ellen DeGeneres’ talk show. “He has a lot of love for his fans, and he will explain himself in his own way,” claiming that West always does things “with good intentions.”
Trump sort of defended Giuliani, telling reporters after the Fox News gaffe that the 70-year-old attorney “just started a day ago” and still is “working hard” to learn his subject. The president’s comments may redeem Giuliani among his base, and he may even have a second shot at the Oval Office now that that once-unreachable bar has dropped below sea level. Giuliani and West in 2020.
Wherever they go from here, both men exemplify a tragic fall from grace. And if we choose to keep listening to their desperate pleas for attention, they may just take us all down with them.