Love him or hate him, Kanye West is back, and this time he’s not playing games. He’s going straight for the jugular on race, dropping lines that reflect on basketball star, Lebron James’ game jersey being burned by fans in Cleveland after James decided to play for the Miami Heat. How he’s been particularly judged by the media due to his relationship with Kim Kardashian, a white woman. Saying that even thought he’s attained this status, he still has to be careful of who he brings home with the media laying in wait at his doorstep to turn around a news story that will tell the world who he’s seen with.
His lyrics also contain references about how corporate America can’t control him or what he does, despite the money and the contracts thrown at him. He’s just going to continue running at warp speed and making his way in the life the only way he knows how. There’s no turning back. You’re either going to watch him or you’re not, but if you do, then get ready because he’s not going to play by the rules as they are set by others – specifically corporations, white society and media.
Without question, it’s arguably one of the most powerful songs in Hip-Hop today. It’s a game changer in terms of style. substance, beats and instrumentation. Whatever happens, this track is going to be hard to follow. I’m not going to say it’s equivalent to the legendary Public Enemy track, Fight The Power, chiefly because Kanye is talking about himself and his view of how the world treats him, while Chuck D. is looking at it from a “we” and not “me” perspective.
In Kanye’s world view, it’s always all about him – what they’re saying about him, how they are trying to bring him down and how he is going to still be standing. While his argument is absolutely valid and real, his continued focus on himself as the catalyst for others to hate him because of his skin color and what he does plays into an ego that, while touching on the issues of others, always comes back to what is being done to him and how he is living and dealing with that everyday. The question, is it unfair? Many times, absolutely. But if you’re an artist and you live in the spotlight, you’re certainly asking for attention and you must live in the glare of the spotlight that feeds the beast – the media. With it comes all the trappings of wealth, fame and success, but it also comes with media scrutiny and public reactions to moments when what you do is not perceived a unacceptable, regardless of who you are, what you do or the color of your skin. Like the time when Kanye decided to interject himself into the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards presentation for Best Video by taking over the mic during the presentation to the winner, Taylor Swift, and announcing that Beyonce should have won for her video, “Single Ladies.”
If you’re Kanye, is it always because you’re black in an unfair world? Or, is simply because you’re Kanye and the ego that drives your talent is so outsized, you only can see things the way you perceive them to be? It’s definitely a little of both, but if you listen to this new track, the perception is that Kanye will always be himself and others will judge as they do, but he’s keeping it moving in the only direction he knows how and whatever they do or say, they can’t stop him. As a black man in America, he makes a strong case, but he never wants to be judged for what mistakes he makes in the process, which is unfortunate. Because everyone, at one time or another, has to step back and take a look at their actions and ask themselves, am I doing the right thing, regardless of the color of my skin?
Anyway, it’s worth a listen. It really is that good. In Kanye’s world, his perceptions are real for him and that’s all that matters. It takes an artist of incredible strength to be able to light up the mic with as tough as these lyrics are to digest. It’s a portrait of our society – one that is as real, brutal and honest as an artist can get. Hard to digest for most for sure, but give it to Kanye for saying what needs to be said.
UPDATE: After listening to this track again, let me restate my position on the “we” vs “me” comment I made in this post. Maybe I missed something and it took the lyrical scientists over at Rap Genius to school me.
In this verse, Kanye shines the spotlight on kids in urban communities, especially Chicago, where Kanye is from, acting like “goons.”
It’s a reflection on how kids are joining gangs and trying to be tough by killing each other in the streets of Chicago. It’s a call to all those listening that their way of life is, in fact, cartoonish and silly.
In another new track also peformed on SNL called, New Slave, Kanye raps about some black Americans buying into the culture of spending on luxury goods. Despite the success of black American’s in Hip-Hop and the trappings of wealth and acclaim it has brought them, in Kanye’s view, it’s still subservient to buy into the consumer culture, because black Americans who have attained wealth continue to enrich those who are in power by buying these luxury goods. That, no matter how you slice it, slavery still exists – but, it’s now mental slavery that he equates to profit taking from the purchase of luxury goods by the black community that continues to enslave the community, in place of the physical slavery experienced by those who came before them. It’s a powerful, raw and controversial statement, because its some in Hip-Hop that perpetuate the idea that if you make money, you should spend it on bling and display your wealth. That begets the question, if you are critical of that culture, then why buy an $11M mansion in Beverly Hills? It’s a hard question to answer, that’s for sure. One one hand, don’t be part of the machine, but on the other, live within the machine. It all depends on whether it’s on your own terms. There’s a level of hypocrisy in the statement that undercuts the message, but the message is important nonetheless.