A few months back I watched an interview with Kanye West where he jokes about white people always using the word “juxtaposition” to describe his music and how he has no clue what the word means. This may be the best example of how hip hop criticism can often come across as a bit of a spectator sport; music critics using the words and tools of the academia to comment on artists who often have never taken a college class. No matter how many polysyllabic words and hip references a young, white liberal drops in their review they will never understand the struggle most rappers have dealt with. The difference between sympathy and empathy is experience, and we can never empathize with Kanye West. Never.
”As long as I’m in Polo smiling they think they got me, but they would try to crack me if they ever see a black me,” he astutely commented on “Gorgeous” from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasty, regarding his changing appearance in the media. I sometimes forget the Ye from a decade back in the pink polo, Louis Vuitton backpack strapped tightly on him, eyes focused but damp from tears as he performed “Jesus Walks.” Within that decade he’s become the most universally loved and hated artist out today simultaneously, not to mention the most magnified rapper in the media. There has never been an artist who has dealt so strongly with both the pros and cons of the new media and its twenty-four-hour celebrity binoculars. Despite his lack of understanding of the word, there truly is no better word to describe his life and music than “juxtaposition.” From the duality of hatred and adoration he experiences everyday outside of him, to the arrogance and insecurities it has manifested within him, Kanye West is truly a walking paradox. And these contradictions are what have made him the most interesting and contentious artist of the past decade. He’s despised for his arrogance, castigated for his outbursts, and hated for his self-pity. This is all despite the fact that not a single one of his detractors know what it’s like to be Kanye West.
As I plainly stated in the first paragraph there is simply no way I can empathize with Ye; all I can do is posit assumptions based on what knowledge I have of his personal life, which is quite a lot seeing as how publicized it is. It seems to me that when you are as strongly hated and loved as he is, with little to no middle ground and even less privacy, it can be quite easy to not know who to trust. “Am I really this good? Am I really this bad?” It fuels nothing but simultaneously growing ego and insecurities, and, ultimately, you end up trusting no one but yourself. You look inward constantly, become self-obsessed, overly self-aware, and even more overly self-conscious. Now add extreme wealth to this already tumultuous mindset. All you get is more arrogance from yourself and more hatred from others, but, as the old aphorism of the art goes, “mo money, mo problems.”
This brings us to “New Slaves”, the first song premiered from his upcoming album Yeezus. In it Ye frustratedly contemplates issues such as the privatization of prisons, rampant materialism in hip hop, but, most endearingly, what it means to be a rich, famous, black man in 21st century America.
“You see there’s broke nigga racism, that’s that, ‘don’t touch anything in the store,’, and then there’s rich nigga racism, that’s that ‘come back and please buy more.’ ‘What you want a Bentley, a fur coat, a diamond chain? All you blacks want all the same things’.”
You can toss it aside as first world problems and vexing self pity, but it’s important to remember Kanye wasn’t born into wealth. This isn’t to say because he earned his money he’s also earned the right to whine about the problems that come with it, but rather an attempt to better understand his perspective. Before all the money he was alienated in high-end stores due to his lack of wealth, surmised to be a thief; however, now that he’s rich he’s experiencing a new form of alienation brought upon by the infamous stereotype of being “nigga rich.” But how is it a capitalist country so consumed with materialism can criticize him for living the American Dream? So he’s forced to ask himself, what must he do to be accepted by white America? Scrub himself entirely of his blackness? Wear polos and smile?
Why are some forms of excess tolerated and yet others are not? In America we have an accepted status quo of what is proper and what is not, and that status quo has been entirely shaped by social constructs. Why is it when a white woman wears a Gucci handbag it’s fashionable and desired, yet when a black rapper wears Gucci he’s perceived as flashy and “nigga rich?” What makes gold chains immoral excess and country clubs morally acceptable excess? A similar parallel would be how names are perceived in America. Names like Bob, Jeff, and Chris are considered normal, proper and of the status quo, yet “black names” like Imani, Aaliyah, and Shanice are considered laughable. Names are entirely arbitrary. They are just arranged phonemes. What makes some conventional and others not? The answers would be historical context as well as the idea that the history of what is conventional in America has been decided by white people.
“My momma was raised in an era when clean water was only served to the fair of skin.”
White people hate nothing more than when black people bring up the past. And while it is true that we have moved forward it would be a complete fallacy to suggest our past does not still affect our present, as seen in the above paragraph by what is deemed conventional in American society. So I don’t view this particular line as “a black man still whining about the past” but rather much needed historical context.
“New Slaves” doesn’t just deal with black culture’s difficult relationship with American consumerism, but also ideas of hip hop as a commodity bought, sold, and traded by corporations. De La Soul’s Posdnuos famously quipped, “I am Posdnuos. I be the new generation of slaves here to make papes to buy record exec rates” commenting on the power relationship between artist and management. Kanye shares in this belief of professional musicians being viewed by record labels and corporations as commodities rather than artists. But with hip hop and its culture being sold to kids by corporations that are, for the most part, run by white people we experience a vicious hypocrisy. Kanye West may be seen by these corporate CEOs as “nigga rich”, however it sells so they run with it. The very culture they critique is the one they peddle to grow their wealth. New Slaves.
The opinions and views expressed here are the opinions of the designated author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or views of any of the individual members of Dead End Hip Hop.