Unapologetically Black — Kanye West as Philosopher, Prophet, and God of Self-Love
Kanye West “ain’t even supposed to be here”, and he knows it, even if it was Jay-Z who said it. Like most successful black Americans, his story begins in adversity. One of his early hits, “Through The Wire”, was recorded through his recently shattered jaw — still wired shut — just two weeks after the responsible car crash.
It is rare that an artist has found their voice with their first hit, but Kanye announces his goal from the start with “Through the Wire”:
What if somebody from the Chi that was ill got a deal
on the hottest rap label around?
But he wasn’t talking about coke and birds / it was more like spoken word
Except he’s really putting it down?
And he explained the story about how blacks came from glory
And what we need to do in the game
Being just that “somebody”, Ye smashed expectations — standing in contrast to the gangster rap of the time by reinventing the sound, feel, and scope of rap.
West claimed that the resulting album, The College Dropout, was the medicine to his pained jaw, and it dropped to massive critical success. He has since gone on to win 21 Grammys — the 10th most in history, and the most for any rapper ever. And were that his whole story, we would call Kanye a genius.
Musically, he helped to popularize soul record samples — sped up — to serve as the backdrop for lyrical stories. The revolutionary nature of Kanye’s unique sampling style would be seen again and again, perhaps most notably in his collaboration with Daft Punk on “Stronger”, which ushered in an era of electronica-boosted hip-hop.
It may be easy to dismiss him as just another rapper, but Kanye harkened back to the lyrical roots of rap and hip-hop, the art of using spoken word to illuminate and criticize societal shibboleths. His mother was an English professor, and the family resemblance shows in the incisive and critical nature of his words, probing and questioning our basic assumptions. As he puts it:
I’m Socrates, but my skin more chocolatey
Along the way, he was unapologetically black; a preacher for his own (black) greatness with an eye for the social injustices he had overcome. In the aptly named “Murder to Excellence”, a summary of West’s social arc points out the irony of his success.
In the past if you picture events like a black tie
What’s the last thing you expect to see, black guys?
What’s the life expectancy for black guys?
The system’s working effectively, that’s why!
But there is an important theme in the black American climb from systemic oppression to exemplary success, a theme which must be cleft to with meticulous consistency. If you are the son of a wealthy businessman (or a president), and you go on to yourself be a wealthy businessman (or a president), you can maintain that your success was built on your talents.
On the other hand, if you came from nothing — or are black — it is assumed that you acknowledge your benefactors: the society that allowed you to rise. Nowhere was that more clear in Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling’s rant about his players, which framed them more as his capital than as athletic geniuses in their own right:
“I support them and give them food, and clothes, and cars, and houses. Who gives it to them? Does someone else give it to them? Do I know that I have — who makes the game? Do I make the game, or do they make the game? Is there 30 owners that created the league?”
This benefactor trickle down economics holds that the poor rise to wealth not by a preponderance of talent, but by the benevolence of the wealthy. Far from unaware of this, plutocratic corporate slavery is a common theme in Kanye’s music, most present in “New Slaves”, where he rails against corporations and the prison industrial complex:
Fuck you and your corporation / Y’all niggas can’t control me
So go and grab the reporters / So I can smash their recorders…
Meanwhile the DEA / Teamed up with the CCA
They try’na look niggas up / They try’na make new slaves
See that’s that privately owned prison
Kanye’s clashes with authorities and power were not limited to his music, however. After Hurricane Katrina, while presenting for A Concert for Hurricane Relief, Kanye deviated, going unscripted with a quavering voice and a meandering thesis.
Um…I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days because most of the people are black.
After co-presenter Mike Myers returned to the script for his lines, Kanye blurted out:
George Bush doesn’t care about black people
His awkwardly delivered emotional interjection was only one in a series of actions that might well be considered PR mistakes if Kanye didn’t seem so consistent in his message, and so clairvoyantly prophetic.
His words on racially biased media portrayal only feel more relevant now, with recent attention brought to the double standard for riots against police brutality, or the representation of gunned down black teenagers. Ye wants us to “face it” that “Jerome get more time than Brandon” and “at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random”.
Of course, it is not black America he wants to face this fact. In his mind, the swelling of black discontent is a sort of gestalt wisdom, and gang violence in the inner city is a reflection of the violence inherent in the disenfranchising inception of blacks into America via slavery:
Inter-century anthems based off inner city tantrums
Based off the way we was branded
Just a year prior to that outburst, he had rapped about police brutality, a topic which is increasingly relevant amidst recent light shone on racially-informed hyper policing, violent police reactions to protests, and police brutality like so-called rough rides.
Getting choked by detectives, yeah yeah now check the method
They be askin’ us questions, harass and arrest us,
Sayin’ “We eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast”
In his first album, he railed against the declining value of a college education on “All Falls Down”, suggesting that he only ever went to college because he felt society wouldn’t take him seriously without a degree. However, when he realized that his degree wouldn’t make money anyway, he dropped out of college to pursue music — what he had wanted in the first place.
She’s so self-conscious / She has no idea what she’s doing in college
That major that she majored in don’t make no money
But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny
…The concept of school seems so secure
Sophomore, three years, ain’t picked a career
She like, fuck it, I’ll just stay down here and do hair
Fast forward ten years to questions about the employability of recent college grads and their growing student debt and you have to wonder: should we be listening to Kanye West when he says the system is broken?
The system broken, the school is closed, the prisons open
We ain’t got nothin’ to lose, mothafucka’ we rollin’
While he has occasionally made shows of contrition for the blunt presentation of his views, he rarely retreats from his positions, even in retrospect. While being “real” had come to mean being “street” or “hard” in the rap of Kanye’s time, he sees being “real” as never having to front.
Everything I’m not made me everything I am
I never could see why people reach a
fake-ass facade that they couldn’t keep up
As he put it in an interview after his Hurricane Katrina improvisation:
It wasn’t a matter of being selfish. It’s more like I was being selfless — that I would risk everything to express what I felt was the truth
However, his honesty has met with plenty of resistance. Much as Richard Sherman was branded a thug for aggressively self-labeling himself “the best corner in the game”, Kanye West has been criticized for his ego, an image he seems to not only be aware of, but to actively embrace.
In “Gorgeous” (from the same album as Power), Ye expresses his desire to be the best now. He doesn’t want to rest on his laurels or be compared to the past because even being a Beatle (one of the most loved musical groups of all time) would be tainted by racism.
I was looking at my resume feeling real fresh today
They rewrite history, I don’t believe in yesterday
And what’s a black Beatle anyway, a fucking roach?
However, in “Power”, an aggressive diatribe from the same album as “Gorgeous”, he calls the “screams from the haters” his “superhero… theme music”, absorbing their criticism as confirmation of his greatness.
And I embody every characteristic of the egotistic
He knows, he’s so fucking gifted
This pimp is at the top of Mount Olympus
Ready for the World’s game, this is my Olympics
He has even gone so far as to adopt the name Yeezus (an obvious parallel to “Jesus”), a name he shares with his 6th and possibly most political album. The album starts with “On Sight”, a song which sounds like it owes more to Nine Inch Nails’ screeching riffs than to hip-hop, and sets the tone for any blowback the political album might have, asking
How much do I not give a fuck?
Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up
before continuing with his superhero theme with a Batman reference:
He’ll give us what we need / It may not be what we want
From there, he transitions into “BLKKK SKINHEAD”, a minimalistic drum, bass, and breathing backed rap anthem that would have been right at home alongside Marilyn Manson’s “Rock is Dead” or “Beautiful People”.
“BLKKK SKINHEAD” turns white supremacy on its head with a video featuring a black KKK and snapping German Shepherds shrouded in darkness as an intro for a video that consists solely of Kanye West’s stumbling, jumping, and flailing black body.
While in “Gorgeous” he had lamented the effect of blackness on his critical acclaim, in “BLKKK SKINHEAD” he appears to have found his stride: why try to hide from his blackness when even one drop of blackness will taint his image?
I’m doing 500, I’m outta control
But there’s nowhere to go / And there’s no way to slow
If I knew what I knew in the past
I would have been blacked out on your ass
The imagery of black supremacy is quickly replaced by Ye Supremacy in “I am a God”. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Kanye explained that his motives for his song “I am a God” were simple: by blurring the lines between rap and rock (like Marilyn Manson or Nine Inch Nails) as he did in Yeezus, he is — as he said in “Power” — doing “it better than anybody you ever seen do it”. Ssince “no one man should have all that power”, his sway over the future of music proves his status as a musical deity.
I made that song because I am a god. I don’t think there’s much more explanation. I’m not going to sit here and defend shit. That shit is rock & roll man. That shit is rap music. I am a god…
My ego is my drug. My drug is “I’m better than all you other motherfuckers. Kiss my ass!”
If Yeezus sees himself as a god, what are his teachings? It seems quite clear that he sees hip-hop as having the potential to be a sort of gospel, asking:
Is hip-hop just a euphemism for a new religion?
The soul music of the slaves that the youth is missing?
This is more than just my road to redemption.
It is absolutely irrefutable that Kanye West wants the world to recognize his greatness. However, this is only part of the whole: his dedication to recognizing all greatness. While he is perhaps best known for storming the stage to voice his opinion that Taylor Swift’s music video award should have gone to Beyonce, it’s important to note that he has given up several of his own awards that he felt belonged to other people, even talking over the music that attempted to usher him off stage.
If there is one commandment in the church of Yeezus, it is the recognition of greatness. As he asks in “No Church in The Wild”:
What’s a mob to a king? What’s a king to a god?
What’s a god to a non-believer?
In the metaphysics of Yeezus, there is no point to greatness that is exceeded or unrecognized: a mob may have power, but a king can rule; a king may rule, but a god is supreme. However, a god has no power over a non-believer, and thus greatness must be practiced and lived, not merely rested on. Even in “I am a God”, he acknowledges that he will only retain his position “until the day I get struck by lightning” — that is to say struck down by another god.
Even when he had only produced albums, he had set his sights on being the greatest rapper in the world, telling an early interviewer (well before his first album):
Kanye West is aware that — much like the Clippers’ players — he is an entertainer, unintentionally filling into a historical racial story of “black as entertainer”, but trying to subvert that by defying expectations. He promotes his image as an entertainer knowing that it gives him a platform from which to preach his gospel.
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
I thought I chose a field where they couldn’t sack me
If a nigga ain’t shootin’ a jump shot, running a track meet
Embracing this position, he invokes imagery of King Kong, a story which may allude to the kidnapping of Africans from Africa via slavery, and their historical position in American society as objects of spectacle, especially in violence and death.
They see a black man with a white woman
At the top floor they gonna come to kill King Kong
Middle America packed in / Came to see me in my black skin
It’s not all about recognition of Kanye’s own greatness, however. Kanye West’s music is aimed at recognizing the otherwise invalidated.
I won’t be satisfied ‘til all my niggas get [the cash]
Ultimately, we know what Kanye is about, and it’s the recognition of the unapologetic self. The metaphor he speaks through may be his own, but just like the “she” in “All Falls Down” is actually Kanye, the voice of Kanye is actually just the voice of his audience.
Go listen to all my music; it’s the codes of self-esteem, it’s the codes of who you are. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe that you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.
Kanye West is the voice of self-esteem, the recognition of self-greatness, the voice of an America that has lost its confidence, the voice of a black America that is struggling to hold onto its feelings of validity in an America that seems intent on forcing it out like so many white blood cells hunting after a foreign invader.
When we hear critically acclaimed rapper Kendrick Lamar say “I love myself”, we are hearing a commandment that has been fostered by Kanye West for years: Love Thyself.