Yeezy the Mechanism of Change:
Rap Game Fabric Softener
In the third iteration of “Ghostface Killah’s 10 Softest Rappers in the Game,” The Kanye West ranked number eight on the list. The article took issue with West for his flamboyant outfits, stating, “This niggas drivin his gender mobile in the middle of the freeway with no regards for which way the traffic is going AT ALL b.” The popular and long-running Comedy Central cartoon, South Park, went as far as to call him a “Gay Fish”. Even, Kevin Kearney of the fifteen-year running, World Socialist Web Site, derisively named him a part of the “black [sic] bourgeoisie.” None of these sources are necessarily wrong. There are many things the man claims to be: fashion designer, art director, producer, rapper, and musical genius, among other things. Hard is something Ye never claimed to be. In an era when the only things selling tapes were raps about crime and criminal accessories, Outkast, Ludacris, and our hero Kanye West were doing things differently. In 2004 Kanye West, the rapper, burst onto the scene with “The College Dropout” [Roc-a-Fella Records/Def Jam]. The fact that he had the opportunity to drop out of college delineated him from an undeniably large portion of hip hop’s target market in 2004. The Yeezy is many things, but disingenuous is not one of those things, for better or for worse.
2005 marks the release of Ye’s sophomore album “Late Registration” which received the coveted score of 9.5 as well as the recognition of “Best New Music” from Pitchfork staff writer, Sean Fennessey, who wrote;
“His self-importance is obvious, but the arrogance that comes pre-packaged with his insecurity is what makes West the most interesting hip-hop figure of the past five years. That’s the reason he landed on “Oprah” and the cover of Time Magazine last week, rather than 50 Cent or Nelly or Slug. It’s not sales; it’s souls.”
Throughout their respected articles, Fennessey and Big Ghost both recognize that West’s softness is not a detractor or character flaw. Kanye is sinfully prideful, like any good rapper, but that’s not all he is…he’s also incredibly fragile and “so self-conscious,” to borrow his favored phrase. The slightest bit of criticism can send him reeling into woeful harangues on social media.
Softness was an element conspicuously missing from the rap game, stunting it’s mainstream success. The Kanye’s decision to show his softer side and to allow his flaws to be exposed and thereby marketed is a driving force behind his monolithic success within the hip hop community and the pop mainstream. Hardness is limiting. As a hard rapper you can talk about selling drugs, doing drugs, promoting prostitution, garish shows of force or money, and maybe sometimes you can mention the struggle. As a soft rapper you can rap about the weather, nefarious government inaction, your strained love life (see; “808s and Heartbreaks”)–the topics are boundless. But Kanye chose to be neither and both, his motto might as well be “so so post modern.”
The rewards of this decision were not merely personal. Since his freshman release in 2004, as a subculture, hip hop has moved in directions unthought of before. Some could argue the massive mainstream success of “College Dropout” coupled with the rise of social media set the stage for Lil B’s anti-violent Based movement which aims only to spread love. It might be overzealous to state that the burgeoning trend of fashionable, gay, cross-dressing, and transgendered rappers would be still relegated to dark alleys and shadowy clubs without the shining light that is Kanye West, but it is an issue to ponder. Clearly it is one of those textbook Wolfgang Peterson Perfect Storm scenarios, where rap music was standing on a precipice, and Kanye West drove it into the 21st century, to become marketable to a demographic of college-educated, gay, downloading, and at times politically active music listeners, while still appealing to the hip hop community at large.
He made rap music that a large majority of rap listeners could finally connect with. Like the famous African American writer W.e.b Du Bois before him, Mr. West exists in a weird but increasingly common juxtaposition of race and class, allowing him a dual perspective. Double-consciousness, or this dual perspective, is an idea first fleshed out by Dubois early in his career. Critics of his early sociological commentary have argued that as a member of academia Du Bois is detached from the Black masses with whom he claims to share his condition of double-consciousness; stating that this claim merely allowed Du Bois to “transform an acknowledged social problem… into a far more esoteric one involving resolution of the supposed double-consciousness of the Talented Tenth (Ciccariello-Maher 31).” On one hand a black man, whose history is firmly rooted in the lower and working class, and before that the slave class,but on the other hand a member of the middle class, those who enjoy the spoils of education and higher standard of living through monetary stature. Additionally Du Bois and West are member’s of Du Bois’ fabled talented tenth which designates for them a leadership role within the Black community. As a critical thinker, and a member of the talented tenth, Kanye is ever aware of this strenuous and material disconnect between himself and the black community at large, rapping in 2012’s hit song “Clique”
“You know white people get money, don’t spend it
Or maybe they get money, buy a business
I rather buy 80 gold chains and go ign’ant
I know Spike Lee gone kill me but let me finish
Blame it on the pigment, we living no limits” [G.O.O.D Music]
Here, the Louis Vuitton Don shrugs off his position as a member of the educated Black community as well as it’s inherent responsibility. Contrary to what Spike Lee may believe, on this track The Kanye displays one his great strengths. He has a broad reach, appealing to fans of Chief Keef’s visceral hood mentality, and the fans of ‘Talib lyrics stick to your rib’ who laud him for his insistently academic lyricism. With Yeezy, the kernels of wisdom are spare and at times over softened, but they function to gently push critical thoughts on a wider demographic.
Clearly, West is not the first Black artist in history to capitalize on his social position to gain popular support. In an essay titled “Critique of Du Boisian Reason: Kanye West and the Fruitfulness of Double-Consciousness” George Ciccariello-Maher makes the claim that double-consciousness does not lead to uncritical apathy but actually to a potential for enhanced understanding of the realities of race, referred to by Du Bois as second-sight. Ciccariello-Maher goes on to state that throughout the course of his literary career, Du Bois transitioned from uncritical to critical double-consciousness and the author draws a parallel from this transition in his writing to a similar transition in the works of hip hop artist Kanye West Ciccariello-Maher discusses how Kanye, sheepishly at first, admits his vices, ones which are typically associated with a lack of formal education within the Black community i.e. unwise investments in jewelry, while simultaneously recognizing the detriments of this type of behavior.
Early in his career Kanye, double-consciously, raps about economic materialism in addition to the constant temptation to validate one’s self through opulent consumption. To state, for instance, ‘I am here and I am valuable because my possessions are here and valuable’. Though later in his career, in much the same way as Du Bois, Kanye turns his focus away from education towards politics, in 2004 rapping “Now niggas can’t make it to the ballot to choose leadership, but we can make it to Jacob’s or the dealership” (Maher 387). Post 2004 Kanye begins to rap about the his personal perils with retail addiction and there greater ramification of it, the long standing failures of Reconstruction, the importance of self-consciousness, and most notably the inaction and ineptitude shown in regard to the aid of the poor in New Orleans in the wake of a natural disaster. What is interesting to note, is that both West and Du Bois, through popular support, were able to transcend Du Bois’ notion of the veil, which separated people materially based on the notions of class or race. As an active example of double-consciousness, and through the aforementioned mainstream support, Kanye West has changed hip hop; through aiding in the turn away from gangster rap, facilitating the crossover between hip hop and mainstream pop music, Mr. West has embraced the need to become a marketable entity and personal brand.
Double-consciousness, softness, critical thought, and most importantly broad appeal were not words associated with successful rappers in the 90s, pre- Outkast. In considering this along with the longevity of Ye’s career, the Michael Jackson comparison first come into play. Kanye himself may or may not have been the first to draw it, but that doesn’t make it any less apropos. On the topic of this connection, Pitchfork staff writer Ryan Dombal writes;
“Like Michael, Kanye’s behavior– from the poorly planned outbursts to the musical brilliance– is wide-eyed in a way that most 33 year olds have long left behind. That naivety is routinely battered on Twisted Fantasy, yet it survives, better for the wear. With his music and persona both marked by a flawed honesty, Kanye’s man-myth dichotomy is at once modern and truly classic.”
Flawed honesty is one takeaway description here. Childlike, puerile, naive are all words the public like to use when referring to Michael Jackson or Kanye West. The relationship between a pop star like Michael Jackson and his fans is predicated on this notion. People want to believe in something iconic and youthful. Something that transcends humanity, that we can aspire to be through talent or practice or sheer force of will, something that will preserve our youth and relevance. In this way, in contemporary American culture the celebrity is elevated above the common man. Celebrities are avatars now or giant Macy’s balloons. Their relevance feeds their adoration and vice versa ad infinitum. In the core of the pop star carbon dioxide and helium are fused together to radiate internet buzz, twitter followers, and other eventually meaningless accolades. You do not know enough about stars to refute that.
No, Kanye wasn’t the first rapper to cross the picket line into widespread popular acclaim, Neptunes did it. Timbaland did it. Outkast did it really well. But -was he the first to insistently demand the title of music genius, the Michael Jackson allusions? Was he the first to actively refuse to leave the limelight, regardless of the general perception of him? “Probably” -intoned in my best Kanye voice. That West’s naivete has survived over 10 years of enormous fame is a testament to his sincerity as well as his personability. However, it is only one of his many enduring traits that have been fleshed out in the realm of music journalism.
The Yeezy’s ability to compensate a lack of technical skills with panache and a talent for levity, his child-like approach to music, paradoxical and inconsistent worldviews, and his ability to stray just far enough away from social norms without actually entering any dangerous territories, are all things that should be viewed as additive pieces to his relentlessly marketable personality.
The fact that The Kanye West has changed hip hop, garnered and maintained mainstream recognition for over 10 years, and become an incredibly human commodity, is academically significant for several reasons. Historically, it means Kanye West will be remembered. In the annals of music history, his lengthy catalogue will be recognized. Additionally, it is noteworthy that our hero Kanye West has more in common with the celebrated thinker W.e.b Du Bois than he does with the constituents who occupy the same sphere of influence and position in contemporary society, i.e. Rick Ross or Weezy F. Baby. In a more economic sense, West’s success is worthy of deconstruction based on the merits of his achievements thus far as well as the idiosyncratic nature of his path to international fame and success.
Borrowing from the playbook of HBO’s ‘The Newsroom’ I would like to once again draw a lofty comparison to Ye, not to any other Michael for the time being but to the economic principle known as “The Greater Fool Theory.” In the season one finale of Aaron Sorkin’s ‘The Newsroom’ the term greater fool was applied to the prideful and stubborn fictional host of a suffering primetime news show, Will McAvoy. At first Will McAvoy was greatly frustrated by having been deemed a fool, as I am sure Mr. West would. However throughout the episode, McAvoy’s incredible confidence in his product and the risks he was willing to take as a result are consistently shown to be of prodigious benefit. Towards the end of the episode, a co-worker of McAvoy’s reveals to him her beliefs and knowledge about the greater fools theory telling him; “For the rest of us to profit, we need a greater fool— someone who will buy long and sell short. Most people spend their life trying not to be the greater fool; we toss him the hot potato, we dive for his seat when the music stops. The greater fool is someone with the perfect blend of self-delusion and ego to think that he can succeed where others have failed. This whole country was made by greater fools (Sorkin).” In studying a few more academic sources on the Greater Fool Theory I found one beautiful fragment which seemed to scream Kanye West; “Investors would be well advised to consider budgeting risk to asset classes where the payoff and confidence in skill is high and concentrated (Muralidhar 266).” This is the part of the essay where I fear I must reveal that my math skills are weak, and my economic knowledge limited, though that is through no fault of the hero of this essay. Nonetheless, the comparison has been drawn.
Kanye was a risky investment. It was a risk to think he could have a successful career in hip hop while still rapping about many distinctly middle-class issues. It was a risk to think he could succeed in the mainstream while maintaining certain hip hop roots and credibility. But as we’ve seen, he believed in himself so adamantly and boorishly that he took huge personal risks without much of a second thought, and as a result has experienced greater reward and fewer negative repercussions. (see; Taylor Swift debacle)
Even still, it is risky for him to stay in constant conversation with his detractors, but he often does through his Twitter @kanyewest. He also uses the social media platform to confront the status quo in hip hop and pop music. For instance, in September of 2012 he asked “Is the word BITCH acceptable, To be more specific, is it acceptable for a man to call a woman a bitch even if it’s endearing?” With these tweets, Kanye aimed to open a dialogue with his compatriots, specifically citing Lupe Fiasco, but leaving the question open to all of his friends, fans and members of the twittersphere. He is always willing ask questions and take risks, because that is something many respond to. The public commends his boldness because that’s how they want to be, at least in one situation or another. Though it’s always risky, people also truly appreciate him for his insecurities, because they are able to anchor him in the realm of humans rather than that of the modern celebrity commodity. As a heavily polarized and highly relatable public figure, Kanye has been been a crucial part of changing hip hop and mainstream music, bring attention to important instances of the institutionalized racism that still exists in our society, and amass enormous wealth in the process. Not unlike a rap game W.e.b. DuBois, Kanye has demanded inclusion in and changed the conversation of equal rights, in regard to race, class, and gender all at the peril of jeopardizing his at times tenuous claims to the throne, because he recognized early in his career that the payout for investing in a greater fool can be quite substantial.
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Disguise?” World Socialist Web Site. N.p., 30 Sept. 2005. Web. 28 Apr. 2013.
Muralidhar, Arun S. Innovations in Pension Fund Management. Stanford, CA: Stanford Economics + Finance, 2001. Print.
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