What in the fuck was that Kanye?
I told you to do some shit for the kids
You can give me your muhfucking graduation ticket right now
You will not walk across that stage, you won't slide across that stage
Muhfucka can't pull you across that stage Kanye
Who told you, see, I told you to do something uplifting
I'm trynna get you out here with these white people and this how you gone do me?
You know what? You's a nigga
And I don't mean that in no nice way
Had little kids sing about the shit, the joke's on you
You throw your muhfuckin' hands in the air, and wave good-bye to everybody
Cause you getting the fuck out of this campus
Muhfucka what you gone do now?
I'm no longer confused, but don't tell anybody.
I'm about to break the rules
But don't tell anybody.
In 2012 Kanye West introduced most of the world to Chief Keef, via the G.O.O.D. Music remix of Keef's local hit "I Don't Like." (I know, I know, you knew about Keef before Kanye, but most of America can't touch your impeccable blog game.) This was something of a confusing move at the time, at least for me; the remix wasn't an improvement by any means, and it had been a while since Kanye had shown significant interest in preserving his Chicago affiliations, but there he was, shouting out all the local rappers, putting on a 17-year-old kid from one of the most fucked up neighborhoods in the country. But I know why Kanye did the remix now (and I think he knows he didn't improve upon the original either). He needed to confront white America with what they presumed at the time was their worst nightmare: a young black male who grew up in hell and no longer gave a single fuck, who used unfamiliar words and rapped about guns and money and drugs. You know, rapper stuff. (NOTE: When I say "white America" please know I am not being all-inclusive. Like, fuck, I'm white, I get that there are many white people who fully support and understand the racial and socio-political issues at hand here, and that I am being reductive by dichotomizing it into simply "black" vs "white" to begin with. Consider it shorthand for the type of non-black American unconcerned by or complicit in the perpetuation of these issues.)
In reality though, Chief Keef isn't white America's worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him and avoid him.
Kanye West is white America's worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him -- by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him -- you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can't avoid Kanye. He's made very sure of that.
I'm not going to get too deep into breaking down the messages in "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead"; these articles in Salon, The Week and The Huffington Post have done a good job of that already. I'd rather respond to the overwhelming criticisms that have already emerged in response to his premiere of the songs, "New Slaves" in particular, this weekend. Most of these criticisms fall into three categories: "He's A Hypocrite," "This Isn't New" and "He Wants Attention."
Lost in translation with a whole fucking nation
They said I was the abomination of Obama's nation
Well that's a pretty bad way to start a conversation
This is the easiest and most obvious way to attempt to dismantle the messages in "New Slaves." "But how can a millionaire who just impregnated his millionaire girlfriend critique a culture of conspicuous consumption in which he participates?" Let's get the Kim thing out of the way from the start, considering its total irrelevance (I'm going to quote David Turner's tweet from yesterday here: "If You Use Kim Kardashian To Dismiss Kanye's Music STOP AND LOOK AT HOW YOU EVALUATE MUSIC AND PROBABLY JUST STOP DOING IT ALL TOGETHER"). Most of the bitterness and accusations of the so-called hypocrisy of Kanye's relationship with Kim seem eerily compatible with the lyrics of "Black Skinhead": "Enter the kingdom/ But watch who you bring home/ They see a black man with a white woman/ At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong." Furthermore, since when is it acceptable to judge an artist on the merit of who they love? With what kind of partner would you feel comfortable seeing Kanye? Regardless, it doesn't belong in this discussion.
Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, "Well, you're gonna be okay, so what's the problem?" Kanye's wealth and participation in consumerist culture (by selling records and concert tickets and having a clothing line, as though he couldn't possibly be doing these things as a multi-genre artist and restless creative, but instead is surely just trying to cash out -- because he totally needs that extra Air Yeezy dough) cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says "What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things" as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.
Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in "New Slaves," and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide ("throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c'est la vie"). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people, via the "DEA teamed up with the CCA" compounded with "broke nigga racism vs rich nigga racism." Kanye is not a "new slave" in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren't enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him. Here is where Kanye's most misunderstood quality is of great significance: for all the talk of his inflated ego (a good deal of which is accurate), Kanye hates himself more than he loves himself, and his self-loathing has only grown as he has accumulated wealth -- the very thing he'd once been deluded into believing would be the answer to everything. When "Power" was released as a single in 2010, I don't think too many people (myself included) saw the line "No one man should have all this power" as much more than another grandiose rap boast. In fact, he was being literal.
And for as miserable as his wealth has made him by this point (see "Hit the mall, pick up some Gucci/ Now ain't nothing new but your shoes" from 2011's "Murder to Excellence"), he anticipated this back in 2003 in the College Dropout days. Despite being more narratively framed and mildly worded, "All Falls Down" is very thematically similar to "New Slaves" a decade prior: "Shine because they hate us/ Floss cause we the greatest/ We tryna buy back our 40 acres," and yet -- and yet! -- after you succeed in buying back those 40 acres, "Even if you in a Benz you still a nigga in a coupe," "Because they made us hate ourself and love they wealth," "And the white man get paid off of all of that." Sounds pretty familiar -- yes, gasp! in the "good old days" before he "sold out" and "lost touch with himself" Kanye was talking about the same things! Not to mention it acknowledges and does away with accusations of hypocrisy on its own: "I ain't even gon act holier than thou/ Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou..." Like, duh guys, he's painfully aware that he's part of the problem. He hates himself for it. He's still trapped in it. And now he's going to try and find a way out.
Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon
And at the airport they check all through my bag
And tell me that it's random
But, we stay winnin
(As a side note: I'm very interested to see what happens with regard to Kanye's corporate ties as "Yeezus" starts to pick up speed. Because let's look at what's happened recently when a black man starts saying shit that makes his sponsors uncomfortable -- and yes, it's cheap to compare Lil Wayne and Rick Ross' recent loss of sponsorships with what Kanye's doing right now, but simply for reference: they will snatch that endorsement and that check away with the quickness, but not before they capitalize on your "urban" appeal without really knowing shit about your music to begin with. Because up until the point that you start to make people nervous, as stated in 2005's "Crack Music," "This dark diction has become America's addiction/ Those who aren't even black use it." Real trap shit.)
A lot of critics of "New Slaves" seem perturbed by the fact that Kanye is not the first to espouse or rap about racism and political ideals. I feel like "...and?" is a sufficient response, but to elaborate: this criticism suggests not only that it is not worthy to revisit topics initiated by, say, the Black Panthers or Public Enemy or Gil Scott Heron (all of whom Kanye is intimately familiar with -- let's revisit "Crack Music": "How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan has the answer/ You hear that? What Gil Scot was Heron") because, you know, been there done that, but also that the context and platform of Kanye's approach are unremarkable and precedented. They are not. No figure in mainstream culture, with as universal and inescapable and unremovable a presence in the average person's life, has challenged that very culture so blatantly in decades. The ideals of Public Enemy are as relevant today as they were in the 80s, but hip-hop was nowhere near as dominant and omnipresent a cultural force as it is at this moment; to compare the reach of their messages is silly. Upper-middle class white families did not have to deal with Public Enemy if they didn't want to. Similarly with politically-minded "noise rap" artists that have been name-dropped in reviews of Kanye's new material -- it's all well and good for Death Grips and Blackie and even Killer Mike to espouse similar messages and sounds (and honestly, the sonic qualities of "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" are hardly at the top of the list of why they're important), but none of them have anywhere near the amount of visibility and influence as Kanye, even if they did hit it first. The position from which Kanye is delivering his message is essential to the message's power; for this same reason, while it may seem crass that a pop star be the one delivering these messages, from a logical perspective it's perfectly effective (returning to "Crack Music": "And we've been hanging from the same tree ever since/ Sometimes I feel like the music is the only medicine").
Tell me how do you respond to students
And refresh the page and restart the memory
Respark the soul and rebuild the energy
We stop the ignorance, we kill the enemy
Many people seem to think that Kanye's gestures are ultimately empty because, you know, he's an asshole, remember, and an egomaniac, and he's clearly just reaching for new ways to get attention. People in current positions of comfort and stability are so willing to dismiss the transgressive thoughts of an angry black man that they will use any convenient excuse to diminish from them; if someone says something that makes you uncomfortable, why not immediately change the subject to his girlfriend's ass or that time he yelled at a papparazzi or that time he got drunk and embarrassed a white girl? When was it exactly that Kanye shifted, in the eyes of the mainstream, from lovable polo-wearing backpacker to perpetually and unanimously An Asshole? When, precisely, did everything he said get immediately categorized as a "rant" or "controversial" regardless of the actual content? I want to say it was around the time when he said that George Bush didn't care about black people on live tv. Hmm. Odd.
Accusations of desperate grasps at attention and relevancy -- that "Yeezus" is just Kanye's "politcal phase," like how "808's" was his "sad phase" -- completely ignore the political undercurrents that have characterized Kanye's music from the very beginning. On "We Don't Care," or in other words the mainstream world's introduction to Kanye, literally within the first four bars he taunts, "We wasn't supposed to make it past 25/ Joke's on you, we still alive," referencing the same forced entropy from institutionalized racism that he's dealing with in "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead." And while Kanye's discography in general is usually acknowledged as more personal interpretations of racism, this isn't entirely accurate. The fairly explicit political themes of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were largely ignored due to most of its standout singles being more inwardly focused (the star-studded yet thematically unremarkable "Monster," the intensely personal "Runaway," the fictional narrative of "All of the Lights"). Yet "Dark Fantasy," "Gorgeous," "Power," "Hell of a Life," and "Who Will Survive in America" are aggressively political and lay a very clear foundation for the messages of his new songs. In fact, it's very easy to look at his career and accumulation of a padding of super-celebrity as a preparation for this very moment with "New Slaves." He had all the ideas before; he just wasn't yet in the position to fully unleash them, because not enough people would be forced to hear him in 2003, or even in 2010. In "Power" Kanye asks, clearly to himself, "You got the power to let power go?" but it goes unanswered, the clock ticking. "New Slaves" is him affirmatively answering that question ("Black Skinhead"s bridge, "I'm doin 500 I'm outta control now/ But there's nowhere to go now/ And there's no way to slow down" is the sound of him letting that power go and free-falling), which is in itself a sort of follow-up to the questions posed in one of his first singles, "Jesus Walks." That is, if I get the balls to make music about something that is actually important (in this case, unabashed belief in god), is anyone going to respond, and will I hate myself less? ("Well if this take away from my spins, which'll probably take away from my ends/ Well I hope it take away from my sins.") Except ten years later, money is not an issue, and neither is the prospect of heaven -- it's clear that by this point Kanye no longer believes in a god anymore at all. And that's why he has to become one himself.
Human being to the mob
What's a mob to a king?
What's a king to a god?
What's a god to a non-believer?
Who don't believe in anything?
We made it out alive
("No Church In The Wild")