You are the best, Kanye! You know who else was the best? Jordan Belfort. Like, not the best guy…maybe the worst guy, really. But he was the best at making lots and lots of money, even if he did it illegally. And he knows he did horrible things. He admits that. Just like Kanye is willing to admit his faults, like the time he tweeted, “I won’t always say the right thing, but my heart is always in the right place.”
But both men are also quick to point out how good they are/were at their jobs. Kanye compares himself to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Howard Hughes, Michelangelo…JESUS EVEN! And he’s not afraid to call himself a genius:
“I’m a creative genius and there’s no other way to word it. I know you’re not supposed to say that about yourself. I say things the wrong way a lot of times but my intention is always positive…I want to help the world. I want to make peoples’ lives easier.”
And then take Jordan, who struts around The Wolf of Wall Street (as Leo, of course) like his dick hangs lower than anybody else’s in the room. He lived life like a king because he believed he was a king. He even writes in his book: “When you live your life by poor standards, you inflict damage on everyone who crosses your path, especially those you love.”
When Jordan watches Matthew McConaughey pound his chest in the restaurant, he’s learning how he’s supposed to act, how he’s supposed to live—Jordan is inspired by his temporary boss, and through acting like him, he can learn to inspire others and produce followers. After all, it’s all about making the sale:
“Act as if! Act as if you’re a wealthy man, rich already, and then you’ll surely become rich. Act as if you have unmatched confidence and then people will surely have confidence in you. Act as if you have unmatched experience and then people will follow your advice. And act as if you are already a tremendous success, and as sure as I stand here today – you will become successful.”
That was from Jordan’s book, “The Wolf of Wall Street.” And that quote really does sum up the film: it’s an examination of Jordan Belfort and how he perceived the world. In The Wolf of Wall Street, Martin Scorsese allows Belfort to control the narrative through narration, allows him to control the environment by painting fairy-tale-like landscapes, and allows him to stand on a stage and speak down to the audience. Make no mistake—Belfort does think he’s better than you. You could almost say he views himself as a…god.
And that’s why Yeezus and The Wolf of Wall Street are so similar. They’re both tales that paint men as gods living among humans. But also: both stories are self aware. And that’s where the subversion comes into play. What’s the absolute worst thing that could happen to Jordan? Again: “When you live your life by poor standards, you inflict damage on everyone who crosses your path, especially those you love.” Being an ordinary person, a drone of society, a poor person. Essentially, anything lower than a god. And that’s why we see everything through Jordan’s eyes in Wolf.
On Yeezus, Kanye builds himself as a god, but he also takes the time to point out the mundanities of life. On the song “I Am a God”, before he can even lackadaisically utter the line “I am a god,” he angrily demands, “hurry up with my damn croissants.” Gods don’t have to wait for croissants. He has a Porsche, but, just like everyone else, needs to get it out of “the damn garage.” The simplest distractions and subtleties of life are placed on the same level as getting his “damn ménage.” He’s a god living among men, but his problems are not divine—they’re depressingly ordinary.
And despite how Jordan sells himself as an untouchable figure, his downfall results from…pretty ordinary stuff. Goodfellas-level stuff (can you believe it?). Domestic problems, self-esteem issues, the inability to keep up an image of divinity.
And that’s where Scorsese and writer Terence Winter (Boardwalk Empire, The Sopranos) come into play. Seemingly (or so I wish) taking plays from Kanye’s playbook, Scorsese and Co. juxtapose Jordan’s god-like lifestyle with the prosaic, domiciliary matter-of-facts of everyday life that prove to be Belfort’s Kryptonite.
The self-awareness here is very key. I know you’ve heard that phrase—self-aware—thrown around a thousand times, usually to defend rappers or actors (or any artist) who own ostensibly too-gigantic-to-be-true egos. People will say the same thing about Drake or Arnold Schwarzenegger or Paul Verhoeven. People will also say the same thing about Tyga or Vin Diesel or Michael Bay. An artist may recognize his or her faults and decide to embellish them…but that doesn’t mean she or he will make quality art. It’s how you use that self-awareness that sets you apart.
Every track on Yeezus addresses the push against ordinariness, the desire to remain a god. He complains about not having clean water, comparing it to slavery. A flashback to being denied the simplest of pleasures equates to slavery in Kanye’s mind! You might find that offensive, and it might very well be. But it’s also good narrative work in the character development department—that line tells you something about Kanye/the protagonist of the story and how much he resents the mundane. It tells you just how much Kanye resents being poor earlier in his life, and every ludicrous, over-the-top action he takes is a reaction to that resentment. It’s all an effort to be as godly as possible.
It also recalls Jordan’s phobia of being poor. This highlights one of the more genius concepts of Winter’s script: we never actually see the people Jordan steals from, aka the poor. The 99%. Us! Jordan stands on a stage and speaks in tongues to communicate with his kind. But he’s also speaking down to the audience in those moments. He is simultaneously trying to connect with the audience and use them. There’s a particular moment when Jordan looks right into the camera, breaks the fourth wall and starts discussing business. But then he cuts himself off, saying, “Ah, but who cares about all that technical stuff. Just understand: we were making money.” In these moments, Jordan recognizes he’s selling a lie. He uses people he considers “below” him, but he also needs them to survive. The self-awareness explored by the filmmakers in this case juxtaposes the absence of the 99% with Jordan’s lies. Ultimately, Wolf is a cautionary tale of what greed can do to a human being, and what can happen if we buy into Jordan’s lies. That’s what makes the final shot so noteworthy: for the first time in the entire film, we see the 99%, we see ourselves. Before that final shot, he’s talked to people on the phone, taken their money, marked them off on spreadsheets, and viewed them as stepping blocks in a quest to become as wealthy as possible. They were nothing more than voices without faces. And then, suddenly, they’re there with Jordan, mirroring us.
This is meant to be a bit of a sarcastic moment, right? A self-aware moment? Jordan has been on stage for the entire film, trying to make himself out to be this otherworldly figure that can change your life. And then, at the end, he’s with us. He’s experienced both extraordinary and mindnumbing problems throughout the film. He lives a high octane life because of his wealth, but, ultimately, he is a man.
That’s why I think there’s more to Kanye than the stage-crashing ego many have come to know and hate. I know he’s been caught in the public spotlight calling himself a genius. I know Justin Vernon claims Kanye calls himself a “god” all the time, off-camera. I think we all know how Kanye feels about Kanye. But that’s what the subtext of his art explores: the Kanye we have, actually, never gotten to know. And that Kanye, according to Yeezus, is very self-concious, very passionate, and very very very afraid of being less than extraordinary.
When I started thinking about how similar Yeezus and Wolf are in exploring this idea, I was almost floored by how specific key scenes in both narratives recall one another. Take the screwbally centerpiece of Wolf: Jordan takes too many Lemmons and then must navigate his way home with a mostly paralyzed body. When Jordan drives that car, he thinks he’s fucking killing it—there’s no way he’s not going to make it home and save the day. He makes it home in one piece, gains Popeye-level strength by snorting up some coke, and then saves his friend’s life.
But we know, as the police wake up Jordan from his hangover, things didn’t go so smoothly: he completely totaled the car and many others on the way home.
Now, take these lyrics from the track “Hold My Liquor”:
Bitch I’m back out my coma Wakin’ up on your sofa When I park my Range Rover Slightly scratch your Corolla Okay, I smashed your Corolla I’m hangin’ on a hangover Five years we been over Ask me why I came over One more hit and I can own ya One more fuck and I can own ya
No need to state the obvious…although I’m going to: these two scenes are insanely similar. And it plays into the idea that these two men believe themselves to be invincible. Drugs, alcohol, money, and sex fuel them, yet driving a car is too much to handle. And watch them both deny it! Kanye just “scratched” the car, and Jordan didn’t scratch the car at all. And…I know it’s not important, but they both wake up on a couch with a hangover—a rock-star level hangover.
From a broader standpoint, both narratives establish themselves/close themselves out in similar ways. Opening track “On Sight” sets up Kanye’s relationship with the listener, with his critics, saying, “How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now before you give it up.” But, as we’ll come to understand, Kanye cares very deeply about what is said about him, about how people perceive his art, and how he affects those around him. He’s attempting to set himself up as a god-like figure that doesn’t need anybody to be amazing, yet he’s completely dependent upon us. In Wolf, the first ten or so minutes feature Jordan speaking to the camera, strutting around his picture-perfect home and golf course, pretending everything is peachy keen.
But of course things sorta suck. He’s losing his family, he’s being investigated by the feds, and he owns a raging drug problem. In both narratives, we see two men setting themselves up as someone they’re not, someone they’re trying to convince themselves they are.
And then both films feature the protagonist settling into the lifestyle they desperately fought to avoid. Chris has a little bit of a more optimistic outlook on Yeezus’ ending: Kanye has definitely experienced growth, learned how domesticity has advantages over being a sex-crazed maniac. But there’s also (I think) an obvious tinge of apathy associated with the way Kanye repeats the word “bound” in the track “Bound 2.” I know he loves Kim Kardash, and I know she’s featured prominently in that weird music video, but for the narrative of Yeezus, it makes sense that the domestic life would seem a less than glamorous thing to settle into after being a rock star.
I wanna fuck you hard on the sink After that, give you somethin’ to drink Step back, can’t get spunk on the mink I mean damn, what would Jeromey Romey Romey Rome think?
Now here it gets interesting. The first three lines are just fucking great narrative-wise, in how Kanye juxtaposes his former lifestyle (fucking and mink coats) with a line like “give you something to drink.” It’s a really pathetic, yet earnest attempt at being a good husband. It’s absurd, but it works on that absurd level. It’s meant to. And then the line about “Jeromey Rome” actually provides some insight into Kanye’s persona in the spotlight, as the line seems to be referring to character Jerome from the TV show Martin. As Rap Genius notes, Jerome is a “character who represents a parody of ‘ghetto’ black virility” and could provide insight into the fact that Kanye is self-aware of the image he projects, which is almost cartoonishly egotistical and masculine. He even closes the album by saying, “Jerome’s in the house, watch your mouth.”
The self-awareness brings Kanye down to a human level, but also doesn’t abandon the delusional man we see parading in the spotlight. I would say the same about The Wolf of Wall Street. Each film ends with the protagonist pretending they’re still great, but really they’re hanging up the hat. Kanye has finally settled down, and, for the first time, Jordan looks into the eyes of the people he stole from.
And not only that! He steps down from his coveted stage, onto the floor, on the same level as them. He has become dependent on us in the saddest way possible, and now probably settles for making thousands as opposed to millions.
Chris is also correct in noting the track “Send It Up” is the “reversion” moment that exists in countless narratives, showing an individual attempting to slink back into their former lifestyle. Jordan realizes he needs to leave his company…but after reliving some fond memories, simply cannot do it (and pays the price for it). And what usually follows reversion? Reality comes rushing back, and the reasons for escaping such a rock star lifestyle become much clearer. Jordan will have to give up his friends if he wants to cut down his prison time, and Kanye will have to settle down with a woman he loves at some point. And, again, I think that brings us to the final scenes in each of these narratives: it may not be pretty, and they may still boast one hell of an ego, but, in the end, they are men and nothing more.