“Rapper holds grudge” is one of those “Dog bites man” stories that rarely merits reporting anymore. In the heady days of Tupac versus Biggie, hip-hop feuds were passionate and intense, often playing out like Shakespearean tragedies. In the modern era, however, they have become mere rote exercises in braggadocio (more Spenserian than Shakespearean, you could say). A grudge is just another accessory to go along with the cars and jewelery, really; they mostly just give rappers something else to rap about once they get bored of rapping about how good they are at rapping. You know the game is in a pretty sad state when the realest hip-hop feud in recent memory involves Ice-T telling Aimee Mann to eat a hot bowl of dicks on Twitter.
Kanye West is a different matter. He seems utterly incapable of doing anything without a great deal of passion and intensity. He’s genuine to a fault — his complete lack of any sort of filter is what prompts the President of the United States call him a jackass, but it’s also what allows him to create works of genius/insanity like last year’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. So when he holds a grudge, you can rest assured knowing that said grudge is 100% real.
My issue, then, is not so much with the sincerity of Kanye’s grudges but rather with his selection. Specifically: why the hell is he still so hung up on South Park?
Watch the Throne, which dropped last week to record-breaking sales numbers, is basically a summary of all of his and collaborator Jay-Z’s many successes in the areas of getting money and getting paid, set to music. The infectiously fun video for “Otis” features Kanye and Jay-Z rapping about private jets while hanging out with Aziz Ansari and taking a group of very attractive women for a joyride in a chopped-up Maybach (which Kanye has said on record he deserves). I don’t claim to read minds, but he appears to be enjoying himself, free from the neuroses and insecurities that tend to plague him.
Amidst all the carefree flashiness and bold claims to hip-hop kingship, however, a single lyric in “Made in America” stands out:
South Park had ’em all laughing
Now all my boys are designers swaggin’
He is of course referring to “Fishsticks,” the South Park episode that incisively suggested Kanye West may be somewhat full of himself. I understand that having a big ego means there’s more ego to be bruised, but why is it that this particular criticism — one of many in a sea of criticisms tossed Kanye’s way over the years — has continued to stick with him?
“Fishsticks” premiered way back in April of 2009. Since then, Kanye has sold over 1.5 million records. Fantasy earned perfect ratings everywhere from Rolling Stone to Pitchfork and went platinum in an era where the very concept of buying music is completely foreign to a vast majority of the listening public. In that album, too, Kanye made it clear he hadn’t quite gotten over the whole thing:
… Choke a South Park writer with a fish stick
I insisted to get up offa this dick …
remind me of when they tried to have Ali enlisted
Give Kanye some credit: he’s backed off any threats of food-based violent revenge, and he’s no longer comparing being lampooned in a basic cable cartoon to being forced by a racist government institution to serve in an unjust war in direct violation of one’s deeply held religious beliefs. But the fish stick thing is still weirdly, almost disconcertedly stuck in his craw. Over two years and an insane amount of success has been unable to heal all the wounds South Park incurred, despite the fact that the wounds could have been so much worse. The episode did portray Kanye as a tremendously pompous douchebag, but really, he got off easy. In the very same episode, Carlos Mencia is treated much more roughly. Kanye’s storyline ends on an uplifting, positive note, with him finally accepting who he is and leaving behind a corrupted human society for true love under the sea; Mencia’s ends with him being brutally murdered. Kanye is chastised for being a bit of a dick; Mencia is skewered for being an unfunny, joke-stealing fraud.
Consider the source of the insult, too. Trey Parker and Matt Stone pride themselves on going after anyone and everyone. Getting upset over being the object of mockery on an episode of South Park is a bit like getting excited over being pre-approved for a credit card. Besides, they’re ultimately just comedy writers — you’d think President Obama’s jab would hurt a little more, even as an aside and not a concerted creative effort sustained over half an hour. And yet I haven’t heard Kanye wax lyrical on getting dissed by the leader of the free world.
It’s actually somewhat surprising to go back and read that the incident that caused Obama to call Kanye the J-A word — the infamous Taylor Swift stagebomb — actually occurred five months after the episode aired. The one moment that many consider to be emblematic of Kanye’s absurd ego and total lack of self-awareness actually happened after the episode that criticized Kanye’s absurd ego and total lack of self-awareness. If that episode hadn’t been made in April, it most assuredly would have been in September, when Kanye’s approval ratings were at their lowest since the Katrina incident. (Which, by the way, George Bush apparently still hasn’t gotten over.) You’d think Kanye would have learned his lesson after being so skilfully put in his place, right?
Obviously, he didn’t, but I think that’s ultimately why he still can’t get over it. When the episode first aired, Kanye very publicly felt bad — not mad — about it. So bad, in fact, that it made Parker and Stone feel bad. Perhaps their criticisms have continued to affect him not because they were harsh or graphically violent or from anybody important, but because they were simply true. And so every time Kanye does something silly or ridiculous or egotistical, he’s reminded — either by himself or by thousands of Internet commenters — of the show that laid bare all of his flaws. Knowing your failings but feeling powerless to fix them is certainly frustrating, so it’s only natural that Kanye takes that frustration out on the show that summed up those failings so well. If that’s the case, Kanye won’t go an album without mentioning South Park until he truly has an emotional and spiritual breakthrough.
Or maybe he just needed a word that kinda rhymed with “swaggin’.”