I’m learning stuff about myself that I never imagined possible. Like the fact that I have a massive man crush on the rap star Kanye West. Though I’ve long been a fan of his albums, I went right off him as a person a few years ago when he headlined Glastonbury and played quite the worst, most self-indulgent, dreary set I have ever had to endure: no decent tunes or hook, just Kanye the egotist and some glaring white lights shining full in your face as if to show how much he despised you.
But then I watched him on My Next Guest Needs No Introduction (Netflix) and I urge you to do the same, especially for the moment when he brilliantly wrongfoots his interviewer David Letterman. Letterman, you may recall, was just about the biggest talkshow host of the Eighties, Nineties and Noughties. Then he retired, apparently to deal with some heart and anger-management problems, grow a snowy beard and reinvent himself as a dignified, nurturing father-confessor figure, looking like a bluesman, dressing like Karl Lagerfeld and acting like New York’s most expensive therapist.
For about 10 seconds I was charmed by this schtick (‘Gosh, I hope I look that good at 72!’) but pretty soon I realized he was the same smug, insinuating, achingly right-on phony he ever was. The key moment comes when Kanye, after discussing his bipolar disorder (which he refuses to treat with drugs, preferring to enjoy what he calls ‘ramping up’), chooses (in his oblique, meandering way) to lament the climate of fear that has been generated among men in the witchhunt atmosphere of #MeToo.
Letterman looks uneasy at this — you can see his cowboy boots jittering nervously — as well he might. Every self-respecting celebrity in the US knows that #MeToo is the pure, saintly and cleansing force that quite properly dragged patriarchal America kicking and screaming by the testicles from the male chauvinist dark ages. So Letterman — warily, for Kanye is black and Letterman certainly wouldn’t want to be caught playing his white privilege card — says: ‘I would submit that it is not equal by any equation to the fear women feel being the other side of that.’
This triggers affirmatory whoops from the impeccably left-liberal New York audience. Letterman knows his crowd: the kind of people who don’t want jokes that make you laugh, just ones that enable you to applaud the politically correct sentiment. It’s a form of bullying, disguised as tolerance. With the subtlest of passive-aggressive menace, Letterman is signaling to Kanye: ‘Sir, you may be exceedingly famous and conveniently African American, but you just entered forbidden territory, so back to the plantation, boy!’
Kanye, gloriously, doesn’t fold but doubles down. He breaks into his shy, gnomic smile and goads Letterman by invoking the name of liberal New York’s Antichrist, Donald Trump. ‘Did you vote for him?’ Letterman asks. ‘I’ve never voted for anyone in my life,’ says Kanye. ‘Then you don’t have a say in this,’ finger-wags Letterman — a fatal error. ‘Oh,’ says Kanye and then — adopting the mannerism of a dumbo from the Deep South — waves his hands and says: ‘You got me!’
It’s the most extraordinary few minutes, a minuet of death. Letterman affects to laugh, the audience laughs, Kanye laughs. But behind the smiles and the apparent bonhomie, a vicious duel is taking place and Kanye is winning hands down. I can’t think of a single other celebrity in the world who would have had the balls to do what Kanye does in this interview: challenge the entertainment industry’s oppressive left-liberal consensus; speak out for Donald Trump; rail against the stifling constraints on freedom of speech that is rendering so much unsayable. Maybe you need to be a huge rap star to get away with such things. But how many other huge rap stars would have had the originality of thought even to try?
This article was originally published in The Spectator magazine.