I am a God” – perhaps the boldest statement you could make in society today. Kanye West, however, seems to have a penchant for the bold; he proudly proclaims his status as a deity on his most recent studio album, “Yeezus.”
This proclamation has followed West, setting him up for a less than glowing reputation through the lens of the media.
As an avid West fan, every so often I have to sit down a friend for the “Kanye talk.” This talk is reserved for the many misguided people that condemn West for his narcissism and, frankly, God-complex. During this discussion, I enlighten them as to the actual implications of his God statement, and the racial politics intertwined with it and the rest of Yeezus.
However, his stunt at the 2015 Grammys – a feigned stage-crashing a la Taylor Swift at the VMAs – has made convincing the masses that much harder. When Beck won Album of the Year, Kanye pretended to storm the stage, but his comments afterward were entirely serious. In various statements, he calls out the Grammys and Beck for not “respecting artistry,” urging Beck to turn over the award to Beyoncé.
The image of Kanye West that is left in our minds is pretty unflattering – West seems like a big-headed, arrogant celebrity. But when we look at Kanye’s history and his mission, his recent outcry is perfectly in place.
For years and years, West has been ahead of the game both musically and in his message. Songs like “On Sight” off of “Yeezus” unabashedly battered eardrums when melodic rap ballads (i.e. everything Drake) were tearing up the charts; just as trap took over the scene, Kanye released the haunting track “Only One.”
Throughout his discography, West has questioned racial standards in America, but “Yeezus” was the loudest outcry, and clearly the most abrasive. “Yeezus” is angry, and with good reason. The ‘American Dream’, according to West, still spawns from a whitewashed understanding of the Puritan ethic and a white, male Jesus. Slavery, on the other hand, remains by entrapping our idea of Blackness into either a ghettoized stereotype, or the overly luxurious hip hop star.
This idea is best summed up in “New Slaves” – “You see it’s broke n—- racism, that’s that ‘don’t touch anything in the store’/And it’s rich n—- racism, that’s that ‘come in, please buy more,’” he raps. West is the first to challenge the image of the posh-rapper lifestyle that so much of modern hip hop seems to tout.
“Blood on the Leaves” samples Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s song “Strange Fruit,” a classic that describes a haunting metaphor of lynchings. “Black bodies swinging in the summer breeze/Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees,” Simone croons on the track. These lines are juxtaposed with a track in which Kanye continues to pick apart his own lifestyle, subtly reclaiming its message. “Two-thousand dollar bag with no cash in your purse…Now your driver said that new Benz, you can’t afford that/All that cocaine on the table you can’t snort that.”
“Yeezus” producer Hudson Mohawke summed it up best to “Pitchfork”: “Obviously, ‘Strange Fruit’ carries so much political weight, and ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is more about past relationships, but you can draw some parallels between the two. There’s not an overtly political message in the final lyrics, but in some ways that would’ve been too easy.”
Even in the “Bound 2” video, which received a wealth of negative response from its confused viewers, has an underlying message. The video features a naked Kanye West and Kim Kardashian riding on a motorcycle, with grandiose old-Western images and crashing waves. Despite these seemingly superficial visuals, West managed to use these to continue an intended reversal of racial roles. These images – the Western vibes, running horses, etc. – are ones classically associated with white people in those roles. West challenges America by saying that the number one role that America only sees as white is God; by Kanye West saying “I Am a God,” he overturns an America built on hundreds of years of the White God ideal.
I could ramble about the political undertones of “Yeezus” for pages (and I’ll admit that I’m enjoying it thoroughly), but I think I have made clear that Kanye West is a man in pursuit of justice. We have seen this translate into his reality countless times.
For West, the awarding of an honor to someone that doesn’t deserve it is one of those many injustices. He’s given his BET Video of the Year Award to Big Boi & UGK and his Best Rap/Hip-Hop Male AMA Award to Lil Wayne. Beyonce and West have worked together before, and so he felt it his duty to defend her honor on that stage at both the VMAs and the Grammys, as well as call out the Grammy board – especially at a time when many are questioning the racial biases of the committee.
To Kanye, being an artist means “respecting artistry,” and that means giving the appropriate recognition to the musicians that deserve it; he only expects the same of everyone else.
Perhaps Kanye’s only fault is that he regards himself as a factual authority on the quality of music, and is happy to recognize that he is among the best. But with the way he has led the industry for upwards of fifteen years, I, at least, am not inclined to say otherwise.