At some point last decade, Kanye West the striving, talented everyman with the chip on his shoulder, convinced of his deserts but distrustful of his desires, became Kanye West the testy superstar, lashing out with random abandon from within a bubble of hedonistic torment. “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” might just be that moment–hell, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” may even intend to document that moment. Regardless, I haven’t been able to root wholeheartedly for him ever since.
After two ground-breaking, idiosyncratic, classic albums, Graduation showed Kanye working behind the curve. So eagerly did he burrow into others’ production styles, it was as if he sought to reclaim underdog status, like Rocky learning to swim so he could beat Clubber Lang. Impressively, though, West leapfrogged past his influences. Just as “Stronger” beefed up Daft Punk to a radio-ready girth, and “Good Life” buoyantly lifted T-Pain off his barstool and into the pop heavens, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” invested the ominous, slow-cruising lope that is DJ Toomp’s trademark with a sense of introspective doubt.
But feigning underdog status when you’re already heavyweight champ takes its spiritual toll, and the double meaning of the song title encapsulates Kanye’s personal aesthetic dilemma. Every loser wants to reach that point where his onetime betters can’t order him around anymore. But to be capable of such an achievement, Kanye has had to entrench himself within his own stubbornness, to interpret the best advice of others as hateful criticism. His need to be heralded on his own terms, incessantly, ensures that he’ll never enjoy the unflappable security of the masterful genius. And his gruff abuse of the word “nothing” sums up everything that’s both brilliant and pitiable about him.