- On June 3, 2013
Evolution isn’t always a good thing.
In less than a decade, Kanye West has gone from penning “Gold Diggers,” to actually becoming the guy who leaves your ass for a white girl. His fall from conscious fans’ grace has at times been so dramatic, that his entire career is beginning to resemble a shoddily wrought morality play—a socially aware son of hardworking parents drops out of college, finds fame, leaves his fiancé, impregnates a reality star, and in the process eschews all of his values in exchange for wealth and celebrity. All his tale needs is a pinch of rape and a dash of HIV, and the storyline would be Tyler Perry’s wet dream of a cautionary tale for every good, Christian boy dreaming of one day becoming a rapper.
Hip-hop fans have been losing faith in the sanity of their most promising star for a while now, but it looks as though Roc-a-fella’s Sleeping Beauty has finally woken from his celebrity-induced coma to put out some G.O.O.D. music. Kanye threw a much needed wrench in our lower-than-ever expectations with his release of a defiant, politically charged black anthemon Saturday Night Live, of all places. In “New Slaves,” there is a glimmer of hope for the redemption of conscious rap’s prodigal son.
Personally, I’m not even mad at “New Slaves”’ obvious contradictions. I get the criticism. This isn’t the first time Kanye has looked like he’s facing a severe case of bipolar disorder, but it is the most flagrant. The man who can’t go longer than five verses without mentioning a Maybach or gold chains is crying foul about capitalism? The product placement king of hip-hop now wants to bite the hands of the corporations who have fed his Louboutin wearing appetite for the past decade? Yeah, that shit is a little cray.
But people are going in on Kanye’s new single like he just started living within this paradox. If you’ve been listening to Ye since The College Dropout, he has always admitted he is conflicted—cue to “Breathe In, Breathe Out”:
Always said if I rapped, I’d say something significant;
But now I’m rappin bout money, hoes, and rims again
Kanye has always been consumerism’s loyal disciple with a guilty conscience. His parents, a former Black Panther and a former HBCU professor, presumably instilled in him a healthy dose of pro-black, anti-establishment sentiments, yet he was never far enough removed from middle class prosperity to spurn the American Dream. As a result, his listeners get an uncommonly successful, quasi-activist single with “Diamonds” one album, and two years later on “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, we hear him casually lament his complete and utter failure to overcome his materialism:
I feel the pressure, under more scrutiny
And what I do, act more stupidly
Bought more jewelry, more Louis V, my mama couldn’t get through to me
As his fame and infamy grows, critics claim his devolution has only continued.
The critics are wrong. Or maybe more accurately, they aren’t entirely right.
Those who listened to “Watch the Throne” and rolled their eyes, only hearing conscious rap’s possible mainstream savior slowly reduce himself to a one-dimensional hedonist, weren’t listening to his records in entirety. Hidden in one of his lesser noted cuts, “Murder to Excellence,” was an explanation for his schizophrenic fluctuations between the forces of good and the perils of excess. In its first three minutes, Kanye chronicles the hundreds of victims of violent crime in Chicago, at one point rapping, “It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power, 41 souls murdered in 50 hours”
Then comes his verse on excellence:
I’ll be a real man, take care of your son
Every problem you had before this day is now done
New crib, watch a movie, cuz ain’t nothing on the news but the blues
Hit the mall, pick up some Gucci, now ain’t nothing new but your shoes
Kanye recognizes that America’s obsessive consumerism (and a racist system that excludes impoverished people of color from that consumption) has endangered black bodies, but he also can’t see the black community’s salvation in anything other than access to more money and more consumption. From such a gifted and creative talent, it’s a depressing failure of imagination. Rare, though, it is not. Any educated, financially stable black bystander who claims to have never felt ambivalence between shunning this racist, capitalist country, and milking the shit out of it, is lying to themselves.
So yes, much of the scorn levied on “New Slaves” by black liberals and overly eager white writers is undeserved. There is, however, a problematic theme in his music that has rarely been the primary focus of recent critiques. Within Kanye’s latest soundoff to corporate America and defense of the black man lies this small nugget:
Fuck you and your Hampton house
I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse
Came on her Hampton blouse
And in her Hampton mouth
While pundits continue to indict Mr. West for the crime of being undecided, we have been giving him and supposedly conscious rappers a pass on actual oppressive behavior for years. An obsession with black men’s abuse apparently powers up people’s ability to abuse black women. Whether it’s Lupe Fiasco patronizing bad bitches, Talib Kweli teaching us how to be allied, or Nas publicly blaming his divorce on his wife’s daddy issues, the “good guys” of rap seem a lot like the lowlifes they instruct young girls to steer clear of on their albums.
And as Kanye’s controversial new hit illustrates, conscious rap’s history of patriarchy does not just end with well-meaning condescension. Though “New Slaves”’ ire may be directed at wealthy, white women, its most abrasive bars are still directed at women, and that decision follows the well tread path of hip-hop’s intelligentsia. Despite his assertion that he has always been an ally of women, Talib Kweli’s 2011 album Gutter Rainbows has only two mentions of women, besides friends and family, that do not involve using them as social currency. In the conscious black utopia of Kweli’s world, women are still only used as bartering tools inflating men’s egos. Stripping away the quaint euphemisms, it is impossible to distinguish lyrics like “Your queen is riding with me, she always sliding with me,” from more obvious misogyny like this. As in much of black advocacy, women have gotten lost in the shuffle of conscious hip-hop. Kanye reinforcing this oppression while decrying his own should have been the first and most obvious hypocrisy under scrutiny.
Considering his exceptionally close relationship with his learned and well-respected mother, the most disappointing aspect of Kanye’s musical evolution has not been his descent into decadence, or the fair-skinned mother of his child, or even his promoting a grown man who calls himself “Titty Two Necklace.” His true lost potential is in his unfulfilled status as hip-hop’s most talented and influential, male, feminist ally. Yes, Mr. West needs to do better, but the first lesson in his reeducation should be women’s studies—not economics. Ignore the tortured apologies for his twelve gold chains; learning to revere all women with half the fervor he revered Donda West would be Kanye’s ultimate redemption.
– Ajene “AJ” Farrar
AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion U