Contextually speaking, Kanye West's broad generalizations about race, wealth & power may be the best we can hope for from a Top 40 emcee signed to a major record label.
As a fan of Hip Hop, I’ve been at least casually interested in both the subject matter and presentation of Kanye West’s albums since his emergence as a soloist in 2004. With roughly a week before his debut was set to drop, my impatience and what was left of my college financial aid refund got the best of me. So my first experience with The College Dropout didn’t come from a Best Buy or some other retail spot, but from a neighborhood bootlegger in the Bankhead section of Atlanta who had a few cardboard boxes with burned CDs including black and white, Xeroxed liner notes. While I have the diminishing hairline and expanding waistline to mark the time between that initial debut and next week’s release of Yeezus, it’s interesting to look back at how West has presented each body of work during his tenure as a soloist.
These days, other than pure entertainment value, I’ve been gravitating toward Hip Hop that looks at common experiences through the larger lens of black culture. The fact that I don’t want or need much else from Hip Hop now is probably about as subtle a hint to move on from consuming and professionally writing about Top 40 Hip Hop as that baby screaming, “Message!” in Don’t Be A Menace. But my interest was slightly piqued when I heard Kanye West debuted songs entitled “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on “SNL.” I guess for my own selfish reasons, I’ve always preferred an angry, slightly militant Kanye. As I look forward to whatever the hell Yeezus is going to be with cautious optimism, I can also look back like most fans on earlier interactions with West’s music.
Yeezus Walks: Kanye West & The Musical Tension Of Contradiction
“But I ain’t even gone act holier than thou / ‘Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou / Before I had a house, and I’ll do it again / ‘Cause I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin’ a Benz / I wanna act ballerific like it’s all terrific / I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific…” –Kanye West, “All Falls Down”
Kanye West, like 99% of the population, is a walking contradiction. I think the fact that he generally embraces the inconsistencies in his ideology makes for some interesting tension within his music. I can’t speak for everyone else, but I originally viewed him as a hybrid. For those of us that grew up on Diamond D, Pete Rock and later RZA and J Dilla, the idea of a producer that also played with the tempo of Soul samples and sometimes purposely rhymed offbeat wasn’t exactly new territory. But time and context can be hugely important.
Comparatively speaking, and when framed within the context of the 2003 Roc-A-Fella Records roster, I thought West was an outlier of sorts. The main acts on that iteration of The Roc were The Diplomats, State Property and co-founder Jay-Z, who was telling anyone within earshot that he was about to retire. Beanie Sigel, Freeway and the rest of State Property offered a brand of hardcore Hip Hop tempered with the self-discipline of Islam. Conversely, Dipset was a slightly more playful brand of the same hustling and pandering that the Chain Gang offered. So essentially—if we’re going to broadly generalize the roster for brevity’s sake—the label was headlined by a couple different variations on the poor drug dealer turned rapper archetype.
Aside from co-founder Dame Dash, who put himself through prep school, I never thought there were any representations of middle class, upwardly mobile black men on Roc-A-Fella Records. From The Blueprint forward, I thought Jay would pick his spots (“22 Two’s,” “You Must Love Me” and “Come And Get Me”), but prior to his retirement, he never went out of his way to incorporate social consciousness in his rhymes. All of the main acts presented themselves as men who made an entry into Hip Hop courtesy of the dope game. As far as Roc-A-Fella was concerned, West changed that perception. He wasn’t a hustler, nor did he denounce hustling or the conditions that made it an appealing career choice. Kanye touted the ethos of De La Soul and Hieroglyphics, but he also extolled the virtues of getting some good head. And just for good measure, he threw Mos Def on a song with Freeway (“Two Words”) to blur the lines between the perception of “gangsta” and “conscious.” Add in the undercurrent of West thumbing his nose at higher education (while making a deceptively smart album), trying to reconcile his hedonism with his faith, and I chalk up Kanye’s debut to a near-classic listen that is only diminished by my personal distaste for “Chipmunk Soul.”
Black And White: Kanye West And The Politics Of Race
“Now we ooze it through they nooks and crannies / So our mommas ain’t gotta be they cooks and nannies / And we gone repo everything they ever took from granny / Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammys / This dark diction has become America’s addiction / Those who ain’t even black use it / We gone keep bagging up this here crack music…” –Malik Yusef, “Crack Music.”
Any hopes I have for Yeezus are at least partially informed by my favorite Kanye West albums, Late Registration and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Two songs aren’t much to go off of, but I get the feeling Yeezus will be somewhat militant and dark the way those albums were. I enjoy how West’s sophomore album lacked the sales battle fanfare of Graduation, the back-story and dramatic genre and tonal shift of 808’s & Heartbreak and the outright opulence of Watch The Throne. But you can also make the argument that the commercial success of Graduation and 808’s & Heartbreak created the perfect climate for the albums that followed it.
I’ve always felt things changed in 2005, when some of the staunchest conservatives begrudgingly joined the anti-Bush movement. West appeared on NBC’s “A Telethon For Hurricane Relief.” Among a few unintelligible remarks about FEMA’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina, West blurted out, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” For the casual fans that skipped Late Registration songs like “Crack Music,” “My Way Home,” and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” I always thought West’s outburst was a jarring reminder that he wasn’t going to play nice. It was satisfying to see his tantrums and random outbursts weren’t just limited to being snubbed for awards. Of course, the larger problem was that West was painting in broad strokes and didn’t appear particularly informed about the inner workings of race and class warfare.
“I think Kanye’s comments on Katrina was a sexy thing to say,” Killer Mike told Mass Appeal in 2006. “Kanye is not going to say ‘poor,’ because Kanye wears couture Ralph Lauren suits. The minute Dr. King walk up and say, ‘This isn’t about race, this about po—’ Pop! Pop! Pop! He was laying there dead before ‘poverty’ even got out of his mouth, because what you’re doing there is fucking up a system of institutionalized servitude. When you start talking about issues of poverty, you go beyond race. Kanye polarized a whole community of poor whites that got killed in Alabama, the Gulf Coast and Mississippi.”
Maybe Kanye’s generalization is one of the reasons his Bush quote didn’t cause as much of an uproar as the Taylor Swift incident. Maybe not. I won’t say West is ignorant to the connection between capitalism and race. Poor whites and blacks under the same systematic oppression have been pitted against each other since the late 1700s. As such, maybe Mike’s quote speaks to ‘Ye winning over large segments of non-black listeners. I can’t help but wonder if that helped him when he geared up for his next two albums.
The minor fiasco surrounding Kanye’s unscripted rant died down. And, looking back, I thought the presentation of Graduation—with its Takashi Murakami-designed, Pop Art theme—was an indicator of where West was headed. The album would eventually sell over two million copies, powered by stadium anthems like the quintuple-platinum single “Stronger.” And as he shot to the top of the A-list, most of the talk about race, class and anything controversial disappeared from his studio albums. I pretty much felt the same way about the Comme de Garcons and KAWS-themed 808’s & Heartbreak. Much like Graduation, Kanye’s breakup-fueled fourth album boasted hit singles (the triple-platinum, “Love Lockdown” and the double platinum “Heartless”). The commercial success of those two albums moved West into the realm of an A-list celebrity; Kanye was no longer just rapper famous, he was “famous, famous.” Maybe things would’ve stayed that way if it weren’t for the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards.
A Swift Backlash: Kanye’s Beautiful, Dark P.R. Nightmare
“I keep that GOAT book on the ottoman / And wrote hooks about slaves that was slaughtered in, the 1800s / Y’all forget that I got called nigger / On Twitter, so many times / Yo, I lived that / Now I’m just tryna find where to raise my kids at / ‘Cause they don’t want niggas next to where they crib at / Hey realtor, I’m lookin’ for a nice park / Twelve noon, she said my family gone make it too dark…” –Kanye West, “Chain Heavy.”
I felt the 2009 Taylor Swift incident—intentionally or not—shifted the focus right back on race. Some of this was self-inflicted on Kanye’s part, since I think the act of a grown, (and presumably drunk) black man publicly embarrassing a young, white woman is a loaded, racial image in and of itself. But then there was the backlash and the ensuing public relations nightmare.
“When a black man speaks rudely in the presence of a younger white woman—and that’s all Kanye really did—and it gets described as an ‘attack’ or a ‘violation’ or an ‘assault,’ you bet that’s playing into centuries of racist tropes,” wrote Simon Vozick-Levinson of Entertainment Weekly. “When a black man does something impolite, making no reference whatsoever to race, and he immediately gets crucified for ‘hating white people’ or ‘reverse racism,’ that itself is a form of racism.”
Blackout: Kanye West Courts & Abandons Traditional Media
“They throwin’ hate at me / Want me to stay at ease / Fuck you and your corporation / Y’all niggas can’t control me / I know that we the new slaves / I know that we the new slaves / I’m ‘bout to wild the hell out / I’m going Bobby Bouchet…” –Kanye West, “New Slaves”
RT @ilovejsun: FUCK KANYE WEST. HIS CAREER NEEDS TO END. IGNORANT NIGGER.
— Mateo Amarei "> Y (@MateoAmarei) September 14, 2009
West took a public relations beating, got called racial epithets on Twitter and essentially gave up on trying to have a traditional exchange with the media. I think that’s a huge part of why we began to see “G.O.O.D. Fridays” and events like Kanye projecting his video performances on skyscrapers. These are promotional tools that allow West to directly interact with fans and bypass the traditional media, promotional cycle. The way we as fans have been introduced to these albums has definitely shaped my experience as a listener. But I also wonder how much West’s poor impulse control factors into the decision to bypass traditional media.
During the 2010 edition of “G.O.O.D. Fridays,” It seemed like Kanye was hell bent on the idea that he could piecemeal his next album to fans for free, track-by-track every Friday. Maybe this was some stroke of marketing genius (since the full product was bound to leak on peer-to-peer sites weeks ahead of schedule). If we’re to believe the tweets that have long since been deleted, then maybe “G.O.O.D. Fridays” was at least partially one long mea culpa both to Taylor Swift but more likely to West’s fans.
“Dark Fantasy” was my long, backhanded apology,” West recently told Jon Caramanica in a New York Times profile. “You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: “Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.”
Through some revisionist history, it’s almost as if West has been taking back the Swift apology. The two subsequent projects weren’t apologetic, but I can’t help but wonder if they were efforts to recapture West’s commercial dominance from the Graduation days. While they produced hit singles such as “Ni**as In Paris,” and “Clique,” I don’t think too many Kanye West fans were completely satisfied with Watch The Throne or Cruel Summer. The former saw Kanye and Jay offering commentary on their blackness through the lens of consumerism and capitalism. And I thought Nitsuh Abebe of New York magazine’s Vulture blog was spot on in calling it an album “about the relationship of black American men to wealth, power, and success.” I’m not sure if West was trying to recapture the communal vibe from those Hawaiian Dark Fantasy sessions, but Cruel Summer was both underwhelming and unfocused. All of which brings things back to June 18 and the release of Yeezus.
Kanye’s Renewed Interest In The Black Agenda
In some ways, I think West hasn’t really solved the internal conflicts he presented on The College Dropout. He performed “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” in front of a glowing, “Not For Sale” sign. Yet he’s still endorsing $300 Air Yeezy’s that are most likely made in sweatshops for pennies. Of course, I’m typing this with a pair of Air Max 95s on and an iPhone in my pocket. The latter was made in conditions so deplorable they install safety nets to keep the Foxconn employees from leaping to their deaths. So who am I to talk? On “Murder To Excellence,” Ye’ laments, “509 died in Chicago,” but he apparently has no qualms about recording with Chief Keef—who is either one of the victims or sources of Chicago’s articulated black, male rage (and the violence it sometimes spawns). In the aforementioned New York Times profile, West compares himself to late Apple CEO Steve Jobs. But based on Apple’s tyrannical business practices, Jobs was more of a new plantation owner than a new slave. So, again the conflict arises. Is West uninformed, or is he trying to reconcile the dichotomy between Jobs as a technical innovator and an aggressive, exploitive uber capitalist?
I don’t think Kanye West is some revolutionary. And I think Hip Hop has evolved (or devolved) to the point where we’ll never get Public Enemy or Amerikkka’s Most Wanted-style commentary from an emcee within the Top 40. So if we’re judging West within that paradigm shift, then the broad generalizations he makes about race, wealth and power in America are about the best you can hope for.
Omar Burgess is a Long Beach, California native who has contributed to various magazines, newspapers and has been an editor at HipHopDX since 2008. Follow him on Twitter @OmarBurgess.
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