In 2004 when I was a child, my sister got her first iPod. Inside of the slick, metallic device were 1000 songs that she could listen to, wherever she wanted to, whenever she wanted to.
One evening she let me listen to it. I excitedly put on the ear buds and paced around the kitchen, with the songs playing on shuffle. I must have listened to 20 different songs that evening, but there was one that caught my attention immediately, satisfying deep sonic desires inside of me.
That song was Kanye West’s “Family Business”. Arguably one of Kanye’s most spiritual tracks, it follows the story of a large family, dealing with typical household issues such as death, imprisonment and divorce. Over a gospel inspired sample, he mused about Polaroid shots that took him down memory lane, recollections of taking baths with his cousins, and the pitfalls of being materialistic. His positivity was infectious “I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind / A creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns … Keep your heart to God”. To me, Kanye wasn’t like every other rapper. He was a spokesperson for a whole race, preaching infinite possibility for a people.
Inside of me grew a deep love for his music; I played that song at least five times that day, and drew inspiration from the rest of the album. On “Through The Wire”, he declared that not even a car crash that resulted in his broken jar wrapped in wire could stop him. On Spaceship, he spoke of racial inequalities in the work place and being “thirsty on the grind,” trying to make it as a rapper. On Never Let Me Down, he allied with some of the best rappers of the time to dissect his relationship with God, and his struggles with racism. “I swear I’ve been baptized at least three or four times”.
The beauty of music today is that coupled with technology, we have the ability to follow the growth of our favorite artists. For the following years, I was excited whenever he would release a new project. Whenever “Gold Digger” would play on MTV, my family would gather around the television to dance and laugh.
With the release of Late Registration the next year, he recreated the same magic I was introduced to on his debut album, College Dropout. Late Registration continued to preach the necessity of following your own path, exuding transferrable confidence in typical Kanye Fashion.
As I got older, I stopped listening to Kanye as much, and began to listen to other rappers and artists as my taste expanded.
However, I was aware of his antics and the controversy that seemed to follow him like a constantly looming shadow.
Last week, I was listening to the music on my iPhone and “Real Friends” from Kanye’s “Life of Pablo” came on. On the ultra honest 4-minute track, he raps about hating family reunions, getting drunk at communion, and refusing to go home for fear of interacting with selfish relatives. Later on, he recalled “I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fuckin’ bitches on / Paid that n**** 250 thousand just to get it from him / Real friends”
For years, I stopped paying as much attention to the depth of Kanye’s lyrics, but listening to them that day was a study in stark contrast.
Led by curiosity, I began to take a look at the lyrics in Kanye’s lyrics and how they evolved over time.
As an artist, Kanye West has undoubtedly evolved. On one front, he grew from the Chi-town producers obsessed with what’s been described as a style of “chipmunk soul”, to a master of auditory landscapes, who has perfected the art of sampling a multitude of genres, and crafting a dynamic oeuvre that withstands the test of time. The complexity and artfulness of his productions are unrivaled. He’s shifted the industry by inotroducing the world to great artists like Chance the Rapper and Big Sean. These are observations can be made and agreed upon unanimously within the music community.
On the other hand, Kanye’s lyrics tell a different, darker story.
On Kanye West’s earlier albums, (College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation), the dominant feature of his lyrics was a positivity that preached the value of thinking differently. Track listings were filled with political anthems that sought to send a message of empowerment to the masses. In a particularly unforgettable verse on “Jesus Walks”, Ye’ quipped “ …we at war /We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves”. If it wasn’t about politics, it was about the pitfalls of materialism.
However, his later albums are echo chambers of egocentricity. The change came on Graduation, where he declared himself a champion, and preached about living the “Good Life”. Muses on Louis Vuitton came to replace muses on Louis Farrachan. In the first lines of the opening track, Good Morning, he raps “Mr. Fresh, Mister, by himself he’s so impressed”. The New York Times declared that the album was a letdown. In his CD review, Jon Pareles of the Times lamented, “The bigger problem is that on ‘Graduation,’ for the first time, Mr. West can’t see beyond his own fame.”
Further more, we met an anxiety filled Ye’. On Homecoming, he rapped about being disappointed with Chicago, comparing the city to an ex girlfriend who no longer loved him. This stood in stark contrast with the Kanye who couldn’t stop talking about his love for his city in earlier albums.
On “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, he spoke of his fear that his love for material wealth was coming to overshadow his love of God. “I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace / I told God I’d be back in a second / Man it’s so hard not to act reckless”
The subsequent release, “808’s and Heartbreak” was filled with the same exploration of new sonic and constructive qualities, but it was even more drenched in despair than its ancestor, Graduation. Any person could look at the track listing and see an artist in pain. Paranoid. Bad News. See You in My Nightmares. Coldest Winter. On “Welcome to Heartbreak”, he offers a revealing anecdote, “My friend showed me pictures of his kids / And all I could show him was pictures of my cribs / He said his daughter got a brand new report card / And all I got was a brand new sports car, oh”
The most telling lyrics of the album came at the end of the album, on the song “Pinocchio Story”, in which Kanye West compares himself to the beloved character. “There is no Gucci I can buy / There is no Louis Vuitton to put on / There is no YSL that they could sell / To get my heart out of this hell / And my mind out of this jail” “I just want to be a real boy…”
Perhaps we can blame seismic shifts in the rapper’s life for the pain that comes through so purely on the project. In November of 2007, his mother died following a liposuction surgery that he paid for. At the same time, his relationship with fiancée Alexis Phifer came to an abrupt end. Music, having been a longtime source of comfort for the rapper, became a solution once more. Respected music columnist, Jon Caramanica of the Times declared that Kanye West was no longer flaunting flash, but pain.
Yeezus and MBDTF fell victim to similar short fallings. Steeped in self-grandiosity and vanity, Kanye West declares himself a God on “Yeezus”, almost playing into the persona that the media had created of him.
Even Kanye noticed that he changed. On Life of Pablo, there was a track entitled “I Miss the Old Kanye”. “I miss the old Kanye, straight from the Go Kanye / Chop up the soul Kanye, set on his goals Kanye / I hate the new Kanye, the bad mood Kanye/ The always rude Kanye, spaz in the news Kanye / I miss the sweet Kanye, chop up the beats Kanye.”
The old Kanye West was rapt in distress that more than 600 homicides occurred in Chicago in one year. The “new” Kanye met and took pictures with Donald Trump, a racist demagogue who threatened to send the “Fed” into Chicago if the city didn’t fix itself…
Behind Kanye’s distress is a result I think we could only have expected. Take a sensitive human being, make him a black man, throw him into the spotlight, give him lots of money and women, personal tragedies, and, and a world that will listen… let us see…
The result has been an artist who relies on a grand ego as a defense from a world that seemingly won’t leave him alone. Lashing out at radio show hosts and paparazzi has been a manifestation of the extreme frustration and isolation that inevitably follows fame. When pressure and criticism from the outside world become to great, wealth serves as a great retreat. Perhaps the catalyst to Kanye’s demise can best be explained by another rap great, Jay-Z, who described fame as “the worst drug know to man”.
In a highly informative piece by the New Yorker’s authority on hip hop, Carrie Battan, she argued that Kanye’s ego was a result of constant patronization.
On an episode of Keeping up with the Kardashian’s, West and Khloe Kardashian got into a spat after Khloe assumed a patronizing tone with the rapper. Breaking down the argument, Battan explained why West is always so quick to get upset. “She’s doing the same thing that interviewers like Jimmy Kimmel and Matt Lauer have been doing for years, bringing him on their television shows and addressing him in condescending tones, then treating him like an insane person for being riled by it.”
Recall when Ellen DeGeneres hosted Kanye West on her show last year. Logic says that hosting an eccentric individual like Kanye West on a show that millions tune into would only result in something controversial happening. In that specific instance, he appeared remarkable lucid, comparing himself to Steve Jobs, and offering an impromptu speech about how he thought he could save the world. He spoke excitedly, jumping from one topic to the next, struggling to stay seated.
In one particularly bothersome instance on the episode, Ellen asked Kanye if he believed he should have a group of people who reviews his tweets. How embarrassing must it be to entertain questions such as those when you believe that your ideas are worth much more than they’re taken as?
I’ve written about this specific instance before, but earlier this year, I had a chance to watch Kanye West perform live in DC’s Verizon Center. In the middle of the show, he cut the music and went on about politics, his anger and frustrations with music, and his fear of his life being endangered.
Within a month, he was hospitalized for psychosis.
I believe that all of the anger, sadness and frustration he had been carrying had finally taken its toll. At the end of the day, I’m a fan, just like some of you who might be reading this. It’s not my place to try and ascribe Kanye’s issues to one or two causes, but just like many other fans, I’ve noticed a fundamental change in my favorite artist.
I think Kanye West is the perfect example of the poison that is fame. I doubt any individual would appear sane following the personal things he’s gone through in such a public sphere. The death of his mother, several public breakups, bouts of depression and anger, his wife and the mother of his children being bound, gagged, and robbed while he was on tour. Sometimes the lights get a little too bright.
Several reports have surfaced that Kanye West is somewhere in the mountains of Wyoming working on a new project. I hope that’s true, and I hope that America’s most misunderstood artist is taking a break. Most of all, I hope that Kanye is back to creating the music that I fell in love with, listening to for the first time pacing around in my kitchen, more than a decade ago.