The Compelling Duality of Kanye West: The Participatory Critic in “New Slaves”

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I didn’t get a chance to see Kanye West’s world-wide broadcast of his latest single “New Slaves,” the first track unveiled from his sixth studio album Yeezus.  For some reason, Yeezy chose to bypass Pittsburgh for the 66-building international music video projection (who knows why, but I’m thinking it’s a subtle shot at Mac Miller).  But I did have the pleasure of seeing Kanye’s SNL performance.  There he stood, shouting from the shadows, embracing this new ranting-monster-menace role into which we’ve slowly seen him evolve.  Very much by his own motivations, Yeezy has forced mainstream America to tout him as its very own exiled poet.

Although I’m sure the building premier would have been a fascinating experience, I’m much more excited for the album’s June 18th release.  If “New Slaves” stands as an appropriate preview for the nature of the 14-track work, critics best get their keyboards ready.  The single presents a bold commentary on American race relations.  West assails the racial politics of present-day consumerism, labeling it as a new form of slavery.

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 here, please buy more

What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?

All you blacks want all the same things”

In the first verse, Kanye speaks from his own experience, moving from his status as a “broke” black man in Chicago to his current post among the self-crowned “new black elite.” Regardless of economic standing, he endures consumer racism.  If a black man is perceived to be in poverty he suffers from “broke nigga racism,” consistently suspected of stealing.  If he is wealthy, he’ll find himself plagued with “rich nigga racism,” forever pressured to participate in a decadent lifestyle to prove his escape from poverty.

Already, critics have blasted Kanye on his new single, calling him a hypocrite for participating in the very system he attacks.  Earnest Owens calls him “that one cousin in the family that never tends to shut up at the dinner table” in an article in The Huffington Post.

In short, Owens claims that Kanye spends too much time complaining about present-day racism, rather than putting his efforts towards fixing the problem.  In The Chicago Sun-Times, Richard Roeper dissects Kanye’s lavish lifestyle to argue that the icon spends far too much time (and money) embracing consumer capitalism to have a pertinent voice in its criticism.

There’s no denying that Kanye is an active participant in the scheme of American consumerism, and therefore perpetuates the conventions that he voraciously attacks.  Of course, this isn’t something out of the ordinary for Kanye.  Critique of American racism–through consumerism, mass incarceration, and faulty education to name a few—has always held prominence in Kanye’s work. At every level, he is the first to admit participatory guilt for almost everything he critiques.

Early on, in Yeezy’s debut album The College Dropout, “All Falls Down” portrays materialism’s plague the black community.  In the final verse, he confesses: “But I ain’t even gonna act holier than thou/Cause fuck it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou,” and a few lines later: “‘I got a problem with spendin’ before I get it/We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”

In “Breathe In Breathe Out,” from the same album, Kanye calls himself part of the problem yet again:

Golly, more of that bullshit ice rap

I got to ‘pologize to Mos and Kweli

But is it cool to rap about gold

If I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali?

First nigga with a Benz and a backpack

Ice chain, Carti lens, and a knapsack

Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant

But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes, and rims again

Kanye is compelled to “’pologize to Mos and Kweli,” admitting that he has let down two prominent socially conscious hip-hop artists—Mos Def and Talib Kweli—by succumbing to “bullshit ice rap,” instead of following his initial goal to “say somethin’ significant.” In “Breathe in Breathe Out,” Kanye participates in the “bullshit ice rap” trend by rapping about “money, hoes, and rims.” But the track is also very much a parody of gangster rap, Yeezy’s way of demonstrating how easy it is to fall into the laziness of meaningless lyricism.

Why then, are we just starting to hear about Kanye’s so called hypocrisy?  Perhaps his most recent work is more aggressive than his earlier critique.  Whereas his participant/critic duality was more subtle in The College Dropout, “New Slaves” has very little comic relief, making for a much louder social commentary.    But seriously, do critics really think they’re making an original point by criticizing him for participating in the problems of hip-hop?  If anything, Yeezy beat the critics at their own game by embracing his participation from the beginning of his career. His honest participation complicates the very issues he attacks.  Despite Kanye’s full awareness that he is part of the problem, his continued participation shows that the issues of hip-hop are far too embedded in black culture to simply avoid.  Not to say that we should give Kanye a free pass, or let him stand alone as his own critic.  Instead, we should use his participatory guilt as a prime example of the issues within hip-hop, not simply dismiss him as a hypocrite.

As for the argument that Kanye spends too much effort criticizing rather than fixing the problems, I must question why we place that mountain responsibility on the artist. Should we criticize Richard Wright for not including practical solutions in Native Son?  That’s a bit of an extreme example, but one essential step to fixing the racial issues embedded in our country is to identify, publicize, and criticize these issues in the first place.  Then, it becomes our own responsibility to pursue action for what we believe is right.  Kanye isn’t a politician or social activist.  He’s a world-famous rapper who has a knack for stirring controversy.  We shouldn’t put his face on a stamp, nor should we dismiss him as a hollow hypocrite.  Instead, let’s take him for what he is: a worldwide megaphone of racial tension.  I’m excited to see just how many fires he can ignite with Yeezus.  If “New Slaves” is any indication of what’s to come, I hope critics can come up with a better reaction than simply crying hypocrite.  The issues here are far too complicated and important to mute that simply.

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