Kanye to Yeezus: The Art of Political Rap

06/20/2013

yeezus-rejected-cover-art-Bear
Maybe this version of Yeezus’ album cover failed because it was too overt. Kanye killing his old persona. The affable teddy bear that gave us “Gold Digger,” “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” and “Jesus Walks”–is he really dead? At a recent listening party for his new album, Kanye exclaimed “West was my slave name, Yeezus is my god name.” Before you’re aghast, let me direct you to how Matthew Perpetua understands a statement like this:

West’s comments are only off base if you deny that he’s an important and influential artist, or believe that it’s wrong for anyone to speak about their achievements without watering it down with humility, or be honest about their loftiest goals as an artist.

I see this as Kanye stepping beyond the braggadocio of hip hop towards performance art. He’s cultivating controversy to drive discussion. Let’s not be coy: this is both a racial and religious statement that goes beyond the larger than life Scarface-dream that rappers uphold. With Yeezus, Kanye is not only redefining himself but attempting to make Americans rethink our understanding, perceptions and stereotypes of hip hop, and thereby African Americans’ most mainstream culture.

If we critique this album simply on traditional merits of its lyrics and beats, I feel we’re doing it a disservice. (Let me clarify: I am not, and never have been, a believer that Kanye West is the Messiah of rap.) West is more calculated than critics give him credit for. His racy cover-art for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasies caused an intentional stir. While he’s taken political stances before, he’s admittedly diluted his music’s messaging to be more approachable. “‘My niche is that I’m the funny version of Dead Prez,” West said in an interview with Rolling Stone, before likening himself to “the rap version of Dave Chapelle.”

West’s departure from his recognizably lush production seems to suggest one thing: “Enough. If you don’t like what I have to say, this isn’t for you.” West no longer needs the radio to be heard, not when he has millions of fans following his every tweet. He sums it up best on “Mercy” when he raps “Don’t do no press, but I get the most press.” Yeezus is West’s attempt to change the world. During a listening session in Switzerland, West shared this anecdote to introduce the album:

“So when I used to go to fashion shows with my boys and we’d be eight deep, it was almost like a civil rights, like a sit-in. They wouldn’t even let us in. They had no idea what rap would mean to this world, what rap would mean to the art world. Before the Kendrick Lamars and the A$AP Rockys, it was Kanye West in a hotel room at the Le Maurice getting a ‘no, no, no, no’ to every single fashion show.

“But I thought it was so important to get close to the artists who worked so hard on making a usable form of art—like this furniture right here, like everything that is in all these rooms that inspire us so much—and I fight in my position of being a very commercial celebrity boyfriend, I fight to push culture forward every chance I get. And I only frown because paparazzi ask me dumbass shit all the time, and I think about changing the world, and I think about what I can do to make things better. And, without further ado, I want to play you guys my new album. It’s called Yeezus.”

Yeezus‘ departure from West’s soulful samples is rebellious. He’s not only pushing his art forward, but also his listeners. Name another rap album that seems to take influences from the Eurythmics, Marilyn Manson, Prodigy, and Nine Inch Nails. Kanye is claiming new wave, punk and electrogrind as hip hop as hip hop. This is not just to expand the genre’s musical framework, but, especially when you pair these with his lyrics, to rethink our understanding of what’s “black” or “white” music. He’s rethinking political rap. And good for him! Make us question our stereotypes and beliefs on what hip hop is, can, or should be. Who would have imagined that Daft Punk would have produced almost half of a Kanye West album? Certainly, we would never have foreseen N.W.A., Public Enemy, Dead Prez, KRS-1, Immortal Technique or X-Clan (for those older fans) making an album like this.

This album marks the end of the “funny” West. He’s no longer masking political messages like “She got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson / Got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson” (from “Slow Jamz”) for listeners to easily hear. No, on Yeezus, West raps tempestuously on “New Slave,” “You see it’s broke nigga racism / That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store” /And this rich nigga racism / That’s that “Come in, please buy more.”  Even the album opener, “On Sight,” with its saw-like synth suggest, suggests West is cutting the bullshit.


With Yeezus, Kanye’s messaging is seemingly moving towards Malcolm. His anger with economic inequality becomes aggressive like on “New Slave” where he raps “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse /Came on her Hampton blouse /And in her Hampton mouth.” But he isn’t completely comfortable embracing this direction. On “Blood On the Leaves” he falls back on old habits, sampling “Strange Fruit,” a classic protest song by Billie Holliday about lynching, marking a perfect opportunity to make a social critique, but instead opting to discuss relationships.

If West truly wants to make change, he will need to rethink his messaging and how he’ll convey it. As many critics have already pointed out, Yeezus is full of head-scratching references like “Im in It” when West takes Martin Luther King’s “free at last” as a one-liner of a woman exposing her breasts. It’s hard take West seriously at time, when his messaging seems so backwards towards women as he raps “Black girl sipping white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” on “Im in It.”  (ie. “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign). You’d think by now he’d know.

As a listener, Yeezus isn’t as substantial as My Twisted Dark Fantasies, but as a critical thinker Kanye is on to something. In the words of Dead Prez, “It’s bigger than hip hop.”