Ben Zand is a documentary maker who has spent most of his career following drug wars and central Asian dictators. Earlier this year, however, he entered a different kind of world: the alleged sex ring run by R Kelly (which he denies). By speaking with those who have worked with the R&B artist over the past two decades, Zand attempted to delve into the cloud of allegations surrounding the singer to unveil some kind of truth.
He is now pursuing a similar technique in Searching for Kanye (BBC Three, from Sunday), striking at the moment in the rapper’s career when even his most loyal fans are beginning to turn against him. West, of course, is no stranger to being incredibly wrong. He once said he was “a proud non-reader of books” because “I would never want a book’s autograph”. In 2016, he tweeted that Bill Cosby was innocent. But for all his Dapper Laughs ramblings and Lee Ryan philistinism, Kanye could be wondrous. He is a master of language who can create commanding prose; his interviews could be as captivating as his verses. Often the delivery of his monologues was more impressive than the information within them; as he himself once said: “I’m not saying I have answers, these are just my current opinions.”
Most importantly, his musical output was unparalleled; one of the greatest artists of our times. Kanye’s unbearable side was like a bad hangover, a potential risk but one that could be mitigated through moderation.
This year he became hard to avoid: a loud, consistent support for Trump and a man who made bizarre comments about slavery. At the same time, he released a string of albums of varying quality, and this month dropped a track on the posthumous XXXTentacion album. The lyrics received criticism from those who felt he was questioning why female accusers of harassment don’t receive more blame (“Now your name is tainted, by the claims they paintin’ / The defendant is guilty, no one blames the plaintiff”).
In order for Zand to insert himself into the Kanye saga, he visits Chicago to interview the people he grew up with as well as collaborators and targets of his ire, to try to understand the rapper’s views on race, politics and mental health. The BBC could not make previews of the documentary available to us but Zand has spoken to West’s cousin Tony Williams, Chicago rapper and childhood friend GLC, conservative campaigner Candace Owens, and the son of the late Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, Fred Hampton Jr, to “try and unravel what is really going on in his head”.
Like Asif Kapadia’s Amy Winehouse documentary, perhaps Kanye’s upbringing will provide answers to his current situation: both his parents were active in the Black Panther movement; could this help us understand his confusing political stance? Whatever is unearthed will be an improvement on the current confusion surrounding the rapper. Right now, Kanye is such a mess of contradictions, hopefully the people who know him will be able to shed light on his move into rightwing politics, when West himself seems so unable to explain his actions.