Kanye West is obsessed with Napoleon. For much of the past year, the rap star has been lying low following a series of egotistical missteps that culminated in his now infamous interruption of Taylor Swift's Best Female Video acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards (VMAs). According to the Hollywood playbook, he should have returned to the public stage as a humbled, remorseful man. Instead, like Napoleon after Elba, he's on the march. In recent weeks, Kanye has launched an unapologetic single, "Power" (on which he name-checks the 19th century French autocrat), and gained a following on Twitter (through which he shares pictures of Napoleon's furniture). Self-identifying with a narcissistic military genius is not your typical celebrity-image overhaul. But then again, Kanye West is not your typical celebrity.
Once a producer for artists like Jay-Z and Mos Def, Kanye makes an unlikely rap star. When everyone else wore low-slung, baggy pants, he was popping the collars on his designer polo shirts. When 50 Cent bragged about how many times he'd been shot, Kanye bragged about how amazing he was. And while his music was often deeply personal 2008's 808s & Heartbreak directly addressed the grief he felt over his mother's unexpected death and his broken engagement to his then girlfriend in public he came across as hip-hop's version of the obnoxious guy who makes rude comments at a dinner party. He showed up late to concerts. He claimed on live television that George W. Bush "doesn't care about black people." He wrote long, all-caps diatribes on his Kanyeuniversity.com blog, like the January 2009 entry that started "YOOOO WHY WON'T YOU LET ME BE GREAT!!!" before derailing into a discussion about how "fresh" his suits looked. For many viewers, the VMAs incident solidified a long-held suspicion: Kanye West was unlikable. Even President Obama called him a "jackass."
After a grudging apology to Swift on his blog and a prime-time haranguing from Jay Leno, Kanye canceled his tour and spent the next nine months out of the public eye. Now, nearly a year since the VMAs debacle, he's emerging from his self-imposed exile with a new album slated for November. But this is no introspective, baby-I've-changed comeback. Kanye still wants everyone to know that he's awesome. As he raps on "Power," "Goddamn it I'm killing this s___." When he performed the song at the BET Awards in June, he did so standing atop a fake mountain and wearing a dinner-plate-size gold medallion.
Normally, "redeeming yourself through arrogance is like smoking with cancer," says celebrity-image consultant Michael Levine. "It's not a wise strategy." But the secret to Kanye's appeal is his ability to balance his egotism with humor, and in his fallow period he rediscovered that equilibrium through Twitter.
Since he began tweeting on July 28, Kanye has amassed more than 700,000 followers with his occasionally astute and often bizarre updates on his lavish lifestyle. He coined the term babymama jets embarrassingly small private aircraft that "billionaires give to they baby mamas or they 1rst 2nd or 3rd wife." He's posted photos of his new Versace sofa, his 13-ft. (about 4 m) home-movie screen and a horse he hopes someone will buy him. He drinks wine out of gold goblets and eats cereal out of a turquoise chalice. He claimed to have replaced his bottom row of teeth with diamonds. "I specifically ordered persian rugs with cherub imagery!!!" Kanye bemoaned one Thursday afternoon. "What do I have to do to get a simple persian rug with cherub imagery uuuuugh." Three hours later, he showed off a picture of Napoleon's throne.
He has now written more than 300 tweets, ranging from the insightful ("Don't you hate it when you say bye to someone then yall get on the elevator together and it's like, now what?? Awkwaaard") to the spiritual ("God is good all the time") to the probably intoxicated ("all these tweets are sponsored by Grey Goose!!!!!!!!! Hahahahahaaaaaajfftujgcjcg"). To read his tweets is to see what it's like being Kanye. And it turns out that being Kanye is really, really fun.
Despite this breezy Twitter persona, Kanye's music remains very serious. He has collaborated with artists ranging from Beyoncé to folk band Bon Iver's Justin Vernon. With musician John Legend, he's organized a series of private concerts under the name Rosewood Movement, for which guests are required to wear formal attire. The music video for "Power" is an expertly conceived and executed installation by visual artist Marco Brambilla in which Kanye stands at the center of a neoclassical mural, with a sword hanging like Damocles' over his head, as seminaked goddesses writhe around him in slow motion. "Kanye was very interested in larger-than-life icons," says Brambilla. "He wanted to explore the idea of building up an image of power and then how the world can tear it down."
It's entirely possible that this is a calculated act on Kanye's part that he knows we're tired of overscripted apologies and feigned celebrity humility, so he's not even going to try. But it's also likely that after a tough year, Kanye is just being himself. As he mused on Twitter, "Fur pillows are hard to actually sleep on."