After heavy boozing and a hands-off approach to academia cut my first college try down to just a year, I left the campus of the University Of Maryland in the Spring of 2004 with my tail between my legs and a heart full of hate. My coup de grace before moving back in with my momma would be something with gravity, something that would show The System that I wasn’t the one to be fucked with: I would steal a handful of CDs from my roommates before leaving for home back in Baltimore. One of those CDs was Kanye West’s debut, “The College Dropout.”
This impulsive act of petty theft would be my first insight into the world of the most wholly American musician of this generation, one whose static-inducing bravado, seemingly endless contradictions, innovative spirit, fierce determination to win and sometimes self-serving introspection and outspokenness are as thoroughly interwoven into the ethos of the nation that birthed him as any we’ve seen in years.
More than simply identifying with West as a fellow college dropout, that stellar first album gave me the closest thing I’d had to a creative hero. But there was frankly no way, listening to Kanye expound upon just how thoroughly he was slept on as a rapper in the last minutes of that album’s final track (“Last Call”), that I or anyone else could have foreseen the trajectory of his career.
The artist has long since transcended his original backpacker aesthetic. And as his sound has evolved with each successive album, his sartorial tastes now leaning more toward couture shit bearing the names of dead Europeans than Dr. Jay’s clearance rack, so too have perceptions (and thus criticisms) of the man, seemingly independent of the fact that he backs up the shit he pops like no one since Ali.
The shift in public perception surely began with the 2005 Katrina telethon outburst. To hear someone, let alone a rapper not named Tupac, say on live national television that our president didn’t care about black people was a legit “Oh, fuck!” moment. Kanye caught plenty of heat from the O’Reilly cabal for his remark, but he was genuinely speaking the truth, if not about Bush The Second, then at least about the apathetic bureaucracy he haphazardly oversaw. The fact of the matter was that a second-tier city’s most vulnerable citizens, overwhelmingly black, were assed out in the wake of a preventable catastrophe, and there seemed to be no cavalry coming to their rescue atop the wave that inundated NOLA.
The spastic declaration reminded us that there is little more threatening to the white male power construct than a black man with a voice, particularly one indicting, through the arts, civil disobedience or both, the Hegemony for its crimes of commission and omission. And while those who speak truth to power are generally shunned and often destroyed, the black male who raises a sword to the throat of the leviathan that is gross social injustice reserves a special place in the incarceration-happy, war-loving hell that is J. Edgar’s/Dick Cheney’s/David Duke’s/Antonin Scalia’s AmeriKKKa.
Snatching the mic out of Taylor Swift’s hands at the VMAs was also a play that certainly soured West in the eyes of a portion of (white) America. It was a drunken, powered-up move that clearly illustrated the arcane juxtaposition of the brutish, threatening black man and the chaste and helpless white damsel. And just when it seemed like he had put both feet in his mouth and shown himself the door, he went and dropped “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” galvanizing his position atop the dais of hip-hop monarchy.
In the wake of that album’s follow up, the surprisingly solid Jay-N-‘Ye Marvel Team-Up “Watch The Throne,” I performed an unscientific survey of a small sample of white male friends to gauge their feelings on the album. “He’s too arrogant” was perhaps the most frequent response to the highly referential, yet meticulously crafted disc, with “He’s too materialistic” following closely behind.
Even today, hearing similar remarks in the wake of the release of his remarkable sixth studio disc “Yeezus,” I can’t help but find it all a bit amusing. The simple fact is that blacks in this country have long had a strange, and at times dubious relationship with materialism. And it is fair to say that a population of have-nots on the come-up will react to sudden riches differently, if seemingly irresponsibly.
Yet, since slave narratives, blacks have touted the elation and affirmation that came with a new pair of shoes or proper clothing. With lines like, “Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe,” West is in touch with the fact that it’s OK to have nice things, as long as nice things don’t have you. Even in the aftermath of the first wave of this country’s “financial crisis,” money, material goods and the accumulation of them still hold a place of paramount importance in American culture.
The wise man knows that pride costs, and having lost his mother as a result of a botched plastic surgery, West surely knows the cost of vanity. And yet, it is hard for me to fault ‘Ye when he swerves a little too hard. Hubris can quite literally be a killer, but with the time allotted him, West continues to innovate and more importantly, deliver on what at times seems like little more than braggadocio.
And I think that’s what’s sealed the deal for me with ‘Ye so many years ago was and is the willingness and ability to stand out front. The man is certainly no freedom fighter and definitely not a role model in most respects. And he cannot claim a monopoly on thought-provoking, tough-pill-to-swallow rap. When Power 105 DJ Charlemagne Tha God wrote off Yeezy as a “walking contradiction” and a “fake revolutionary for profit,” one can’t help but think that West would regretfully agree with him on some level.
This myopic argument, however, seems to be ignorant of the many ways in which blacks and other people of color, no matter the level of success they achieve, can indeed be “slaves,” prisoners of their own minds, straining under the yoke of societal expectations and boundaries (see also William C. Rhoden’s “40 Million Dollar Slaves, which details the veiled indentured servitude of professional sports). As West laments on “All Falls Down,” “We buy our way outta jail, but we can’t buy freedom, we buy a lotta clothes, but we don’t really need ‘em, things we buy to cover up what’s inside.” The fact remains that Kanye has consistently touched on the painful paradox of Black Success, and this indictment of a supposedly egalitarian system is otherwise unseen in the mainstream.
The New York DJ may have a point that referring to one’s self as a “new slave” in 2013 is a bit hyperbolic. Yet, in a country where Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr. was arrested for trying to break into his own home, it’s not hard to tell how even the most accomplished among the descendants of “old slaves” are still bearing the burden of darker times.
Some of a like mind to Charlemagne may say that a brother in Balenciaga high-tops knows little about The Struggle. Admittedly, West is certainly no Stokely Carmichael. But his on- and off-field moves offer an acknowledgement of knowing what it’s like to stifle the visceral, murderous, “I’ma-catch-a-case” rage that follows being called a nigger to one’s face; Or to be tailed throughout the men’s section of a department store by a prejudiced employee; Or to be a victim of one of the facets of the real reverse racism: that of the black-on-black variety.
Though certainly not alone, West is at the forefront of a movement that is beginning to question what it means to be black and male. When Lord Jamar lambasted ‘Ye for (repeatedly) donning a Givenchy skirt onstage, the Brand Nubian MC bore the flag of hip-hop’s (and America’s) old line traditions of virulent homophobia and general intolerance.
Having caught shit for straightening my hair, wearing pink (which West argued in an interview with Fader in 2012s will always be better than blue), dating white women, enjoying reading, having both parents and generally “acting White,” to see an artist serve as a conduit to a major facet of modern blackness is cathartic. He acknowledges the confusion of self as a long-standing and inalienable feature of black existence in America, while also embracing the reality of multi-consciousness that so many “non-whites” have adopted to not only thrive, but to simply survive in many cases.
West’s music reminds us that black is beautiful, but shit, so are the rest of the colors. In a world where, to paraphrase Mike Tyson, we are all fucking each other and starting to look like one another, and white adults are dying more rapidly than white babies are being born, words like “minority” and “color” are taking on different meanings.
The same way gangsta rap’s appeal lies in its portrayal of the classically American image of the virile, dominant gun-toting PowerMan, Kanye’s lyrical tropes of the gift and curse of being Black and Successful in America are about as close to revolutionary radio as we’re going to get right now. That an artist insinuating the cuckoldry of a Fortune 500 exec (see “New Slaves”) can be heard in the same rotation as Ke$ha, Rihanna and Pitbull on stations across the country is a paradigm shift akin to the moment some suit decided that Rage’s “Killing In The Name Of” was radio-friendly.
Kanye, even by his own admission, owes rather a lot to Mos Def, Kweli, Dead Prez, Gil Scott Heron and lesser-known “conscious” rappers, and the Ba$ed God, Yung God and countless others are pushing the envelope of just how far out one can get without being written off as a hack. The fact remains, however, that West has remained commercially and artistically viable, wholly avoiding the stigma of being pushed into the fringes of “conscious” or “weird” hip-hop.
West is not to be exempted from the absurdity that is celebrity or from consideration of the folly of man in general. More astutely, he is to be viewed through the lens of what it is to be American today, flawed and sullied, unsympathetic, impossibly paradoxical and yet, in some ways, beyond compare. To see him as merely a loud-mouthed, style-wild egotist is to miss the point entirely. As evinced by the label-sponsored “New Slaves” projections being shut down by BPD earlier this year, or the scowls I received in suburbia while playing his latest with the windows down for the first time, West speaks to a burgeoning spirit of upheaval that will only grow stronger as those in power further convince themselves that they will be able to poison, steal from and lie to the masses indefinitely. Who will survive in America? Time heals all wounds.