The 21st century is an amazing place that gave us the disastrous, candy-coated train wreck that was the 2015 MTV Video Music Awards. The awards show aired last night for two painful hours, at the end of which Kanye West was awarded the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. The award, which is basically MTV’s version of a lifetime achievement award, was presented to Kanye by none other than Taylor Swift (if you don’t know why that’s relevant, go do your Googles and come back, I’ll wait). As Kanye gave his eleven minute acceptance speech, I did what any other rhetorician would do, and analyzed it like it was a presidential address (spoiler alert- it was). So here I present you with debate coaching from the front lines of pop culture: The Critical Analysis of Kanye West’s Second Most Iconic Moment of All Time.
Now before we get going on the breakdown of non-verbals, figures of speech, and general awesomeness (as well as un-awesomeness), I want to do a little prologue entitled: What You Shouldn’t Talk About In The Comments Section. This isn’t about Kanye West as a person, this isn’t about hip hop, this isn’t about MTV. This is an objective analysis about elements and skills in speaking. There’s always something to learn every time you watch someone speak, whether your love, hate, or are ambivalent towards the person. As I always say, it would be in your best interest to not miss the big idea.
This is going to be analyzed in two parts. Part one, the transcript and part two, the video. Lets go ahead and read the transcript first. After each section, I’ll either denote this with a Kanye Best, a Kanye Messed, and whether you should or shouldn’t take the Kanye Suggest(ion). Lets get started…
Listen to the kids.
First of all, thank you, Taylor, for being so gracious and giving me this award this evening.
I often think back to the first day I met you also. You know I think about when I’m in the grocery store with my daughter and I have a really great conversation about fresh juice… and at the end they say, ’Oh, you’re not that bad after all!’ And like I think about it sometimes. … It crosses my mind a little bit like when I go to a baseball game and 60,000 people boo me. Crosses my mind a little bit.
He opens with something simple, and straight forward. Listen to the kids. Very sticky. Keep an eye out because he ends up using it as his theme somewhat. He repeats it when he comes to the end of an idea, but it was a tad under utilized. When writing your themes in speeches, definitely go ahead and channel Kanye. Keep it simple, keep it straightforward, keep it memorable.
The next thing he did in that opener was almost use a great figure of speech called an anaphora. Repeating ‘I think about’ and ‘It crosses my mind a little bit’ in those clauses. In order to structure it perfectly as an anaphora, it would have had to be the same exact wording at the beginning of successive clauses. He combined it somewhat with an epistrophe, which is the same thing but at the end of the clause. Bonus points – he said it crosses his mind a little bit in reference to being booed by sixty thousand people. Great usage of a litote (more on this humor later). So this part of the speech was a Kanye Best!
And I think if I had to do it all over again what would I have done? Would I have worn a leather shirt? Would I have drank half a bottle of Hennessy and gave the rest of it to the audience? Ya’ll know ya’ll drank that bottle too! If I had a daughter at that time would I have went on stage and grabbed the mic from someone else’s? You know, this arena tomorrow it’s gonna be a completely different setup. Some concert, something like that. The stage will be gone. After that night, the stage was gone, but the effect that it had on people remained.
More anaphora/epistrophe with the ‘what would I have done?’. The cool part that you might not notice is the climax. He talked about the leather shirt, then the bottle of Hennessy (a brand of Cognac), then taking the microphone from Taylor Swift. He was identifying bad choices of the night, starting with the least relevant one, a poor fashion choice, to the most detrimental one, disrespecting Taylor Swift. It was a growing list that first made us laugh, then made us kind of somber.
He then utilized a synecdoche by referring to taylor swift as someone else’s daughter. This was an artful way to paint her in a different light, by referring to her not by her standard identity, but by something that she represents (her father’s daughter).
Finally he used personification by saying the stage carried a lasting effect on everyone who witnessed it. Some more great figures of speech. My favorite part of his speech and definitely a Kanye Best!
The… The problem was the contradiction. The contradiction is I do fight for artists, but in that fight I somehow was disrespectful to artists.
He did a great job identifying a paradox saying that he fights for artists, but in that he disrespected them. Paradoxes are always a Kanye Best.
I didn’t know how to say the right thing, the perfect thing. I just … I sat at the Grammys and saw Justin Timberlake and Cee-Lo lose. Gnarles Barkley and the FutureLove … SexyBack album … and Justin, I ain’t trying to put you on blast, but I saw that man in tears, bro. You know, and I was thinking, like, ‘He deserved to win Album of the Year!’
He stuttered a bit at this point and used some filler words, and wasn’t quite as to the point as he should’ve been. It was an emotional moment for him, but don’t let yourself get caught up in that. Saying ‘I just…’ and ‘like…’ = Kanye Messed.
And this small box that we are as the entertainers of the evening … How could you explain that?…Sometimes I feel like I died for the artist’s opinion. For artists to be able to have an opinion after they were successful. I’m not no politician, bro!
Don’t say bro in your speeches, bro. Kanye Messed.
Look at that. You know how many times MTV ran that footage again? ’Cause it got them more ratings? You know how many times they announced Taylor was going to give me the award ’cause it got them more ratings? Listen to the kids, bro!
Listen to the kids, bro! Keep your theme, bro! Don’t say bro, bro! Kanye Best/Messed.
I still don’t understand awards shows. I don’t understand how they get five people who worked their entire life … sold records, sold concert tickets to come stand on the carpet and for the first time in they life be judged on the chopping block and have the opportunity to be considered a loser! I don’t understand it, bruh!
I don’t understand when the biggest album, or the biggest video … I’ve been conflicted, bro. I just wanted people to like me more. “…I will die for the art! For what I believe in. And the art ain’t always gonna be polite! Ya’ll might be thinking right now, ’Did he smoke something before he came out here?’ The answer is yes, I rolled up a little something. I knocked the edge off!
At this point we’ve identified Kanye’s speaking style is very anaphora/epistrophe heavy. And if he knew what those things were, he’d probably use them even more. He talked about being judged on the chopping block. This was just great imagery. ‘The art ain’t always gonna be polite!’ Personification is always a Kanye Best.
The end was a Kanye Mess though, because although it made sense on MTV, generally you don’t want to dash your own credibility by talking about the narcotics you used before you got there. On the flip side though, a bit of light self deprecation can be funny sometimes.
I don’t know what’s gonna happen tonight, I don’t know what’s gonna happen tomorrow, bro. But all I can say to my artists, to my fellow artists: Just worry how you feel at the time, man. Just worry about how you feel and don’t NEVER … you know what I’m saying? I’m confident. I believe in myself. We the millennials, bro. This is a new mentality. We’re not gonna control our kids with brands. We not gonna teach low self-esteem and hate to our kids. We gonna teach our kids that they can be something. We gonna teach our kids that they can stand up for theyself! We gonna teach our kids to believe in themselves!”
Figures of speech are an artful deviation from grammatical norms, because grammar isn’t quite as relevant when you’re employing rhetoric. So when Kanye talks about kids believing in theyself, don’t get all upset about using the ‘correct’ pronouns. Save it for your essays. He used more anaphora/epistrophe and wasn’t afraid to break the norms in his own way! Believing in yourself and experimenting with grammar is definitely something I’d Kanye Suggest.
If my grandfather was here right now he would not let me back down! I don’t know I’m finna’ to lose after this. It don’t matter though, cuz it ain’t about me. It’s about ideas, bro. New ideas. People with ideas. People who believe in truth. And yes, as you probably could have guessed by this moment, I have decided in 2020 to run for president.”
This was another one of my favorite parts of the speech. That whole “people with ideas” bit was a combo move. He utilized asyndeton, climax, and anaphora. He gave each one significant meaning by using asyndeton. That’s when you refrain from saying “and” in a list. He grew the impact through climax, by starting with ideas and ending with truth. Closing with something memorable? Definitely a Kanye Best. Is he serious? Who knows, and honestly, who cares.
From what I gather, this speech was not scripted, and it didn’t need to be. I stand by the speech he gave because he stuck to his main idea, and was smart and sharp in his language (sans cursing of course). You can use figures of speech without prewriting them, and you can be artful without being a 30 speaker-point debater. The only difference between you and Kanye West, is that you have the platform to speak without the liability of public outrage. So be grateful for that, and take some risks.
Now, I could talk about this speech forever, but the takeaway is this: you don’t need to speak like a politician to be a good speaker. The power behind a good speaker is being artful, and being true to yourself, and owning your platform.