“New Slaves,” Class, and Kanye’s Identity:
by Henry Gorman
(image credit: hypetrack.com)
A few days ago, Kanye West’s face appeared on the walls of the world’s great cities. And like another great apparition-on-a-wall, the hand that wrote at Belshazzar’s feast-hall, it transmitted words of doom. Yeezus, our new, self-proclaimed messiah told us of “blood on the leaves” to come.
Meeting our gratuitous art history quota: John Martin’s Belshazzar’s Feast
As Will noted in his last post, this message only appeared in a few cities, to the one-percenters who could gaze upon the walls of Prada shops and Williamsburg brownstones. He argued that this choice indicates that Kanye has grown fundamentally distant from the masses and thrives on the support of one-percenters as he spits on Middle America.
And there is something in the lyrics of New Slaves that supports this. The song’s first verse quickly becomes a series of take-thats to critics of his fashion line, and the second opens with a proudly proclaimed “I throw these Maybach keys!” and laments his inability to escape from the papparazzi. For Kanye’s non-super-rich fans– most of us– there is something distancing about all of this. Most of us will never own a Maybach or open a fashion line or have strangers want to take pictures of us. And so, these moments– like Kanye’s choices of place to issue his revelation, make it feel like Kanye is trying to tell us that he’s not one of us.
A Maybach Excelero, which you will never own (wikimedia commons)
But the song’s class politics are also intensely hostile to the propertied class Yeezy is a member of. Kanye’s song seethes about social injustices. He invokes discrimination against his mama’s generation. He laments blacks’ higher rates of imprisonment, driven by the selective prosecutions of the DEA and the greed of private prison corporations like the CCA. And the 1-percenters who operate these institutions are not his friends, not one bit. To them, he declares “Fuck you and your Hampton house!/I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse!/Came on her Hampton blouse!/And in her Hapmton mouth!” He sees “the blood on the leaves.”
Perhaps then, he chose his broadcast locations not so that he could identify with his inhabitants, but so that he could warn them. West comes like a Jonah, warning the wealthy sinners of the world’s opulent metropolises to repent before he starts “going Bobby Boucher” on their asses.
But as he chides and admonishes the rich, he remains one of their Maybach-driving number Alexander Wang-wearing number. The song presents a paradox– how could one who chides the rich also spend so much time (in this song, other songs, and the twitter feed where he proclaimed himself “THE LOUIS VUITTON DON”) talking about being one of their number?
If we are to understand this paradox, we have to thoroughly examine Kanye’s discussions of his lifestyle. At first glance, they appear to be simple genre-conventional bragging and image-making. Like warriors in old-Norse poetry, rappers are obliged to assert their skills with epic boasts and denigrate their opponents in order to assert their identity as badasses.
Jay-Z, Kanye’s one-time patron, friend, and collaborator is a master of this sort of contemporary flyting. He manages to turn almost every aspect of his self-narration into an assertion of his own worth. On the opening track of The Black Album, “December 4th,” he even traces it back to before his birth: “I was conceived by Gloria Carter and Adaness Revees /Who made love under the sycamore tree/Which makes me/A more sicker M.C.” His whole body of work acts to present a carefully cultivated persona.
Kanye, however, is far looser than Jay-Z. We need only consider the body of songs where the two men rap together. Sometimes, as on “Monster,” where Ye proclaims “Stop it, stop it, n*ggas I got this, EVERYBODY KNOWS I’M A MOTHERFUCKING MONSTER!”, and Jay bemoans the “vampires and bloodsuckers” who have followed him into fame, Kanye’s boasting style seems aligned with his mentor’s. But in “N*ggas in Paris,” where Jay-Z starts off the track with much more conventional boasting (“I’m gonna go Michael/Take your pick/Jackson/Tyson/Jordan, Game Six”), Kanye takes the track to a weirder and more delightful places, most memorably when he talks about how he would one-up Prince William (“If I was him I would have MARRIED KATE AND ASHLEY!”). The contrast is even sharper on the remixed version of “Diamonds in Sierra Leone” on Late Registration. In his plaintive opening verse, Kanye talks about civil war, conflict diamonds, and the high human cost of bling (“I thought my Jesus piece was so harmless/ ‘Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless”). Jay-Z focuses instead on his own capabilities: “Difficult takes a day/Impossible takes a week.”
Kanye’s discussion of his wealth is not simple rapper image-building. It’s just a facet of the single most important thing about him. He states plainly states that fact in “New Slaves” after declaring “I throw those Maybach keys!”– “I wear my heart on my sleeve.” Kanye’s music and his public persona are mostly-unfiltered expressions of his emotions and experience. This is a guy whose first two albums featured songs about his love of Jesus, his anxiety about kids dying for his bling, his sorrow at his grandmother’s death, and his unrestrained love for his mother. These are not songs recorded with the intention of making you think that he’s a badass. And Kanye hasn’t fundamentally changed in recent years. Even “Power,” a self-celebrating tune about fame, he displays a characteristic vulnerability: “How’s Ye doin?/I’m survivin’/I was drinking earlier/Now I’m drivin’/Where the bad bitches, ha?/Where ya hidin’?” Even in a song highlighting the peak of his fame (which he has complicated feelings towards, wryly referring to himself as “the abomination of Obama’s nation”), he paints a picture of himself as a sad, tipsy man trolling about town in his car seeking bad bitches that just won’t come to him. He’s willing to reveal himself at his most vulnerable and pathetic even as he celebrates his high status.
If we read Kanye’s discussions of his wealth and success in light of this total emotional openness, we really see that they are mostly just statements about his experience of his life as a rich and famous person. “New Slaves” is uneven because it reflects an unevenness within Kanye’s own experience. He lives as one of his society’s wealthiest and most powerful people, but remains conscious of the plight of the people he grew up with. He still feels their pain, and throws it, and all the anger he feels about it into his music. A friend of mine suggested that he really is a confessional poet, much like Anne Sexton or Sylvia Plath. It is fitting that Kanye, the champion of American poetry’s most popular genre, is also the heir of one of its most respected literary forms.
Anne Sexton, ready to lay down some rhymes (wikimedia commons)