Kanye West’s impulse to control the narrative, and reframe our opinions in real-time has made him both a self-aggrandizing megalomaniac, and one of the most compelling public figures of all time. He transformed celebrity into an art form. A performance artist constantly at work, he uses his music, fashion, ideas and cultural tastes to shape the ways we see him. And of course his union to Kim Kardashian was an extension of this. Their union was as much a statement as it was a reflection of Kanye’s taste and influence—and he’d frequently remind us of this in his music, ideas and via the narrative he constructed, and revised, through his public persona.
So it hasn’t been a surprise that Kanye is treating his divorce from Kim as its own act of performance art. A Balenciaga styled, Shakespearean tragedy for the social media age, the dissolution of Kim and Kanye has played out over the past year. It’s largely been a one-man show, with Kanye front and center and soundtracked by his latest album, Donda, a 32 track meditation on the dissolution of their marriage, his longing desire to have his family whole again, and his surrendering to a power greater than his own (though the album, to be clear, is also an unbridled celebration of his powers as a visionary artist).
Donda was Kanye’s attempt at seeking atonement—and reframing the narrative—after a few rocky years in his marriage played out through a confusing presidential run, several seasons of Keeping Up With the Kardashians, and Twitter threads that humiliated Kim and made their demise feel more inevitable with each Tweet. But here he was, falling to his knees and begging the Almighty power of God’s love to grant him absolution from his shortcomings as a husband and making a very public play at getting his wife back.
Kanye presented the record at arena shows that were part art installation, part listening party. We saw him defensive and downtrodden, a man undone by his own unhinged narcissism, fighting for his wife. At the final show he set himself ablaze before Kim emerged onstage in a stunning Balenciaga wedding gown. It was a powerful climax to the Shakespearean tragedy he’d been fleshing out in his music since the Yeezuz era. He used his personal life to create high drama worthy of an arena audience. But there’s theatre and there’s real life, and while it wasn’t always easy to decipher where the line was between the performance and reality of "Kim and Kanye," any semblance of reconciliation between the two has vanished since he rolled out Donda's rollout late last year. We’re still getting used to seeing Kim photographed with Saturday Night Live’s Pete Davidson and Kanye is making sure we see every move he's making with actor and model Julia Fox (who seems quite thrilled to be cast in the ensemble).
The last month has been a blur of drama and confusion. In a particular whirlwind week, Kanye pummeled a man in front of Soho House (the case is being investigated as a misdemeanor battery) and accused Kim of keeping him away from his daughter’s birthday party and banning him from the home they once shared together. He’s eased into the role of aggrieved father being kept from spending time with his kids.
But for all of Kanye’s genius, he’s also shown us time and time again how deft of a manipulator he is. He’s made certain to remain ahead of the narrative—and how we see him—throughout this divorce. They’ve been split for a year, and there hasn’t appeared to be any issues with custody splits before now? What’s changed other than Kim making the decision to publicly move on.
Kanye, better than anyone, knows how critical we can be of Kim and her sisters. We demonize them as femme fatales who curse the men who court them. And he knows a disdain for much of the Kardashian/Jenner fame complex is rooted deeply in how we see them in relation to the Black men that have been in their orbit over the years. It’s where the whole Kardashian Curse is born from. We judge these women for their appropriation of Black features and their approximation to Black men and we shame them when their men are unfaithful or find themselves embroiled in scandals. Kanye knows this. He's spent so much of his time with Kim defending their relationship to us, and pushing back against our judgments of her.
Publicly accusing Kim of keeping him from seeing his child on her birthday felt like a callous weaponizing of the racial politics that have underscored critical conversations about Kim and her family for years. But it was also about power, and Kanye's impulse to control the narrative and reframe our opinion in real-time. If Kanye, an absurdly wealthy man, can be kept from his kids by way of security guards and private birthday parties, what hope did men with less than him have? Because he's always thinking of the narrative, and how it needs to be framed, he's already talking.
"That's what I want everybody to know - don't play with me, don't play with my children," he told Hollywood Unlocked's Jason Lee, "and ain't no security gonna get in between me and my children and you ain't gonna gaslight me and you ain't gonna run this narrative on me."
Kanye’s certainly not the first man to have a jealous fit about his ex moving on. Nor is he the first to use the kids as leverage in a breakup, but it’s disappointing to see him reframe Kim as a petty baby mama keeping the father of her kids away. There are plenty of men being kept from their children—and Kanye doesn’t appear to be one of them. But that's exactly how we should have expected him to move through a divorce, bending the narrative in his favor to serve the story he's telling us—and himself—regardless of the damage it may do.