Like Eazy E, Douglas Martin has the last werdz.
On 2011’s Watch the Throne — that year’s favorite hip-hop album of many a white person who only listens to (at most) three hip-hop albums in any given 365 — Kanye West co-starred with Jay-Z in an expensively produced piece about being self-made black men in the loftiest of tax brackets. Of course there was a little bit of racial subtext, as that’s been one of the sub-themes of Kanye’s work throughout his career, which sort of undercuts the frightening display of rap tokenism that is displayed whenever Kanye comes out with new music.
At first glance, it seemed like the debuts of “New Slaves” (via guerilla marketing) and “Black Skinhead” (via the opposite of guerilla marketing, Saturday Night Live) was Kanye’s way of injecting arty black militancy into the mainstream. The former made allusions to frivolous black consumerism, decrying “that rich nigga racism, that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more!’” The latter is mostly a fascinating snapshot of post-millennial racial tension, referencing the King Kong Complex (black man, white woman, the famous last scene of that movie) and demanding society to “stop all that coon shit.” But then those pieces were clouded by Kanye’s usual latter-day fixation on sex, which make those songs feel like a blown opportunity to make a real statement.
The richer he gets, the more Kanye West becomes an island, and that’s what Yeezus is about more than anything else. Sure, there’s the satirical line, “All you blacks want all the same things,” highlighting the first verse of “New Slaves,” but all over the album, ‘Ye is found name-dropping clothing labels and car brands, decrying materialism but unable to escape all the nice things he’s surrounded by because he’s rich.
And while he is well-aware of the ills of structural racism, he uses one of the most harrowing portrayals of being black in America (Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”) to spend half the song singing about a drug-fueled hotel tryst and the other half rhyming rapper goomars. Not to mention the line “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” would have anybody who fought and died for the rights of people of color turning over in their graves.
Of course, the rampant misogyny evident on Yeezus is the one black male stereotype he just can’t shake. Throughout the record, he posits himself as the type of black alpha male white-led society points to — with all its treatment of women as souvenirs and conquests and transactions — and says to their daughters, “This is why you shouldn’t date these men.” On the album’s two best songs, “Send It Up” and “Bound 2,” his sexual and romantic relationships are treated with a sense of levity and charm that doesn’t really show up on the rest of the album.
It’s also telling that the only rapped guest verse on the album comes from King L on “Send It Up,” who offers up a coldly charismatic take on young knuckleheads growing up in the ‘hood, delivering lines like, “It was real if you made the news” and “Dropped out first day of school / ‘Cause niggas got cocaine to move” in an icy monotone. A lot has been said about the violence that has plagued L and West’s hometown of Chicago, and the fact that L paints a picture of that world without stepping outside of himself is a fascinating (and equally terrifying) way to navigate the subject.
While I’m writing this from the perspective of a “Smart Black Dude in America,” it’s paramount for me to say that — at least as far as mainstream pop standards go — this is a pretty musically adventurous album. Upon hearing the one-two punch of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” (not to mention Yeezus opener “On Sight”), I thought this was going to be Kanye West’s exorbitantly expensive version of a Death Grips album –the Sacramento group, like ‘em or lump ‘em, is kind of the platonic ideal of an arty-black-dude-fronted hip-hop group right now.
Of course, listening to the album now brings up a mishmash of different styles, most of which Jeff brought up in his on-the-money MTV Hive piece on Yeezus. The forward thinking of the production makes the album feel like Kanye was only treating the Arty Black Dude as an aesthetic boost. Lyrically, between the focus-grouped approach to verse writing, the primitive approach to the opposite sex, and its anti-establishment commentary-by-numbers, it all smacks of trying to be all things to all people (particularly all people who only listen to pop music) and dilutes the potency of the message.
The image of Kanye wearing a ski mask (an unknowing nod to genuine shit-stirrers Pussy Riot) is a striking image, but essentially, it’s another tight-jeans-like fashion statement. It’s easy to put a pair of leather black jeans on and call yourself a “black skinhead,” but it’s a different task to really throw a brick through the window of the establishment that essentially propped you up with the money they’ve offered you.