But as a performer and lyricist he (Kanye West)’s got nothing. The celebrity thing is annoying, but it’s his music that brings out the ass-suckery.
He has, in my opinion, no flow as a rapper and no skill as a writer. Nothing really important to say. No clever word play (which is arguably one of the foundations of rap). Nothing.
–sarielthrawn, April 17, 2009
Are we even surprised that he (Kanye) may have never seen any ‘Robocop’ movies? He probally [sic] thinks anything by Tyler Perry is genius!
–CyanideSmoker, April 17, 2009
After my last article for this site, in which I discussed the disjuncture between the Robocop films and the Kanye West song of the same name, a few of our readers left the comments that you see above, calling into question the very premise that Mr. West is worth Overthinking. Chief among the complaints were that Kanye’s skills as a rapper are sub-par and that his lyrics are as vacuous as the most banal of his peers. I had been planning on jumping in on the discussion, but by the time I had gathered my thoughts (and refreshed my memory of several of Kanye’s songs), several days had passed (which amounts to years in internet time), so I just let it drop.
Then, last week, the internets were abuzz with the leak of the new Clipse single, “Kinda like a Big Deal,” which features a guest verse by Kanye. Hearing him rap (rather than autocroon) made me think again about the debate about Yeezy’s merits as a lyricist and rapper. In particular, my attention was captured by this quatrain near the beginning of his verse:
Spittin fire on the PJ in my PJ’s
Fire Marshall said I took it to the Max like TJ
Yeah people I said Marshalls, replay
I guess I’m like the Black Marshall meets Jay
At first glance, it would seem that the haters are right—this guy isn’t saying anything! After all, ‘Ye uses the word “marshall” three times in four lines and apparently just keeps saying the letter “J” over and over to make his lyrics rhyme. However, as Fenzel’s discussion of Dragonball has recently shown, repetition can be a powerful device for creating meaning within works of art. After the jump, I’ll parse the layers of meaning in these lyrics and will show how viewing this brief quote in the context of Kanye’s total output as a rapper challenges the notion that he has “nothing really important to say.”
In the four bars quoted above, Kanye succinctly ties together the three central themes that appear time and time again in his entire body of work: the nexus of race and class in America, the conflict within hip hop culture between conspicuous consumption and social consciousness, and the relationship between the individual and “society”. Let’s “drive slow” through each of these themes, shall we?
Spittin’ fire on the PJ in my PJ’s
In this line, each usage of the abbreviation “PJ” means something different- in the first instance it probably refers to the projects, in the second, he’s definitely talking about Pajamas. Thus with this line, Kanye is recognizing that even in his current position of comfort and luxury, he is still as popular in the hood as he is among hipsters and suburban teens. At the same time, he’s not claiming to be from the projects; unlike some other mainstream rappers, Kanye has never pretended to be something that he isn’t. Throughout his career, he has consistently framed himself as a “Lower-Middle Class Hustler,” in contrast to the more typical image of the rapper as drug dealer/gangster. Take these lines from “Champion”:
I don’t know I just want it better for my kids
And I ain’t sayin’ we was from the projects
But everytime I wanted layaway or deposit
My dad’d say when you see clothes, close your eyelids
Similarly, on “All Falls Down”, one of the standout tracks on The College Dropout, Kanye highlights insecurity due to growing up in low income homes as one of the root causes of the conspicuous consumption that is prevalent in hip hop culture:
And I can’t even go to the grocery store
Without some ones that’s clean and a shirt with a team
It seems we living the American dream
But the people highest up got the lowest self esteem
The prettiest people do the ugliest things
For the road to riches and diamond rings
We shine because they hate us, floss cause they degrade us
We trying to buy back our 40 acres
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop
Even if you in a Benz, you still a n***a in a coupe
This idea of consumerism as being being both the reward for escaping urban poverty and a factor that helps to perpetuate that poverty is the link between the first line of the aforementioned excerpt from “Kinda Like a Big Deal,” and the following two lines:
Fire Marshall said I took it to the Max like TJ
Yea people I said Marshalls, replay
In these two lines, the key allusions are to TJ Maxx and Marshalls, discount retailers known for selling brand name clothes at significant reductions below the retail price. This fits closely with the themes developed in songs like “All Falls Down” and “Champion.” As someone who grew up never getting to buy the things he wanted, owning the most prestigious brands became a key element of “making it”, to the extent that before he became successful, West frequently traded off necessities for consumer goods, a decision he sums up in “The Glory”:
I spent that gas money on clothes with logos
At the same time, Kanye isn’t necessarily proud of the fact that he’s so brand conscious; on “All Falls Down” he comes clean to “having a couple of past due bills,” and in “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” he admits (rather than boasts):
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.
This tension between how he sees himself and the things he actually does is also the subject of the last part of the excerpt from the Clipse song:
I guess I’m like the Black Marshall meets Jay
In this line, Marshall refers not to a dude who inspects the fireproofing of buildings or a clothing store, but one Marshall Mathers, better known to the world as Eminem, while Jay refers the CEO of the ROC—Jay-Z. The comparison with Eminem is especially interesting here. The two most fascinating aspects of the first three Eminem LPs were the ongoing dialogue between distinct aspects of his personality (particularly “Marshall Mathers” versus “Slim Shady”) and the multiple ways in which he used these personas to engage with pop culture. By identifying himself as a successor to Eminem, Kanye is identifying that this tension between introspection and thoughtless, hedonistic mainstream success is as central to his success as his linkage to the golden age of Roc-a-Fella records. Kanye addresses this dualism in a variety of ways throughout all four of his albums, but one of the best treatments of the idea is in the song “Breathe in, Breathe Out,” off of The College Dropout:
Always said if I rapped I’d say somethin’ significant
But now I’m rappin’ ’bout money, hoes, and rims again
In the same song, he apologizes to well known socially conscious rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli for being so materialistic, and mentions both Benzes and backpacks (icons of mainstream and underground hip hop, respectively) in the same line. On the albums that followed Dropout, this tension played an increasingly important role in his lyrics, motivating the tough questions a the heart of “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” and culminating in the deep self-loathing and regret that permeates 808s and Heartbreaks.
If this analysis of the themes developed in Kanye’s lyrics doesn’t convince you that he is a better rapper than many other Top 40 regulars, it is worth remembering just how low the bar is:
Soulja Boy Up In This Ho
Watch me lean and watch me rock
Superman that Ho!
And then watch me crank that Robocop.
Whereas pointing out that Soulja Boy has probably never seen Robocop would be so obvious that it wouldn’t be worth a whole post, West’s history of thoughtful, funny, personal engagement with the popular culture indicates his reference to the action series is indeed worth taking seriously. Even though the specific allusion may have missed the mark, the end result was still several standard deviations above the average hit hip hop song.
I had a lengthy comment taking Kanye to task, but I’ll hold off, since my Thursday post will be about (ahem) a much better artist.
For now – this is some excellent analysis! Though I don’t know that it defends Kanye from the charge of mediocrity.
i dig this stuff, sheely, but are you sure you want to feed the trolls? =)
i dig yeezy as a producer more than a lyricist, but even with his rhymes, he’s more talented than 99.44% of haters on the internets.
…Which is not to say that Kanye is as talented as Mos Def. He’s not. But he doesn’t suck ass.
@perich I’ve seen your Nas post in the queue, I’m really looking forward to reading it.
I agree that we can save this for the comments on your Thursday post (or this week’s podcast), but for the time being, let me quote a little math, courtesy of Jigga:
“Four albums in ten years n***a? I can divide
That’s one every let’s say two, two of them shits was due
One was – NAHHH, the other was “Illmatic”
That’s a one hot album every ten year average
And that’s so – LAAAAAAAME!”
Ultimately I agree with Jay here; even though Illmatic is one of my favorite albums and beats Kanye’s best work (Graduation, in my opinion) head-to-head, over the long run, is Nas that much less mediocre? I would argue that not only has Kanye been more consistent than Nas (both in terms of song quality within albums and in album quality over his career), but that he has actually gotten better over time, as opposed to producing output of widely varying quality, which has characterized Nas, post-Illmatic.
Ordinarily I wouldn’t do this, but if there’s a place for pedantry it’s here–the plural of persona is “personae”.
@Rob- Thanks- Your defense of Yeezy in the comments to the last post definitely gave me food for thought as I was working on this.
I was going to discuss the production aspect in this post, but I ran out of time (and realize that I had a fair amount to say about the lyrics on their own); I may pick it up again in the future.
@Dan-This certainly is an acceptable place for pedantry. As a result, I’ll counter that OED, Merriam-Webster, and Wiktionary all indicate that personas is acceptable (the OED even lists it before personae). Do you have evidence to the contrary?
Merriam-Webster? Wasn’t that the dictionary that included “irregardless”?
Ohhhh, SICK DICTIONARY BURN.
Wrather, you’re our resident usage Nazi, what is your take on the plural of persona?
I have thought Kanye had more going on than met the eye since I caught his collabo with Common on Dave Chappelle Show- nearly every song of his (even the cringe-inducing autotuned ones) have absolutely genius lyrical content, and it’s not even wasted on covering the typical-for-the-genre topics. In fact, even if he raps about “Money Hoes and Rims”, it’s more intelligently discussed than it usually is by his peers (excellent example of this in the post!).
Don’t let the persona fool you- he’s a public braggart who is inwardly insecure but a level deeper, he has the talent to back up the brag. Add to that his appreciation for the classics in his samples, and I don’t know how any fan of music (that isn’t a Baptist) could truly hate the man.
“as opposed to producing output of widely varying quality, which has characterized Nas, post-Illmatic.”
That’s exactly what the Thursday post will be about, funny enough. This should be fun. :D
@sheely Depends whether your speaking Latin or Spanish.
Seriously, though, I think that “persona” is a word that has made the jump into English and doesn’t have to be pluralized in the Latin way.
(FWIW, I think the same thing about the word “forum.” I mean, you’d really look like a douche talking about the different fora you visit on websites.)
Also, I think Kanye is a good lyricist. (There. That’s on-topic.)
Rap’s not really my thing, so I can’t really speak to how much better or worse Kanye is compared to other rappers. I just don’t like his music. It’s just one man’s opinion.
I listened to those tracks up there in the article. I tried. I guess I just don’t get it. Maybe I’m getting to old for this.
Should I be happy or embarrassed that I’m quoted at the top of the page?
@sarielthrawn- Be happy. I put your comment up there because it was thought-provoking and challenging, and lead me to spend some time listening to some of Kanye’s songs and analyzing exactly what I like about his music, which is what writing for this site is all about to me. If every single person commenting had just agreed with me (or if no one had commented at all, which is much worse), I probably wouldn’t have thrown myself at his body of work with the vigor that I did, and I wouldn’t have written this post (and I’m happy that I did). So, I for one appreciate that you disagreed with me, largely because it was still a way more thoughtful kind of disagreement than the occasional folks who just say “Why are you guys overthinking this so much? Just enjoy the music, you losers!!!11!”
Also, no problem that rap/Kanye aren’t really your cup of tea. Even if you’re not going to be won over, I’m glad that you gave the songs up there a spin. But I also think you’re selling yourself short- clearly you have an opinion about things like flow and wordplay. What songwriters/lyricists (rap or otherwise), really do it for you, and what do you like about them?
Im sorry, I guess Im ‘Missing the point’. I’ve heard some things I consider ‘Lyrically profound’, but Kanye? Really? Nevermind the fact I find singers/Vocalists the least talented of all musicians, I’ve never heard a thought provoking song from Kanye. Rap/Hip-Hop I find boring in damn near every facet. Most of the Rap/Hip-Hop acts I like are hybrids, mixing Metal/Rock with it (I.E. Bionic Jive). Or when I need a truly good beat, Industrial (KMFDM)
Personally, I do prefer the lyrics to a minority of the Rock/Metal bands out there. Bands such as System of a Down, who are highly political and make some good points in a majority of there songs, to Mushrromhead and there lyrics which can be interpreted many ways through the words they use and how they are used. I also know these bands dont use ‘Ghost Writers’, a sickening practice in my opinion.
Basically, I just dont see the musical draw to Rap/Hip-Hop. There beats lack an intricacy Industrial Beats do. Lyrics may ‘flow’ better and voices may be better than most metal bands, but this is undermined by the constant use of Ghost Writers and voice filters. And the fact that they often steal (Sorry, ‘Sample’) beats from other musicians really grates on my nerves. And of course, Most Hip-Hop/Rappers inability to finish an Album without having 3-10 ‘guest’ rappers on it bugs me.
Music (IMHO) is meant to be art, and the whole Rap/Hip-Hop scene is so bland and formulated. I have yet to hear something in these scene that made me think differently.
@sheely – Saul Williams, K’naan, The Roots are more my cup o’ tea when it comes to rap/hip hop. Even someone like Jason Mraz has, I think, cleverer (is that even a real word?) word play and a better flow than Mr West (from what I’ve heard). Eminem is definitely a better rapper. NY Oil is pretty good too.
In terms of lyricism though, Saul is up there for me. Prince used to be a great lyricist before he became a Jehovah’s Witness. And for political stuff Rage Against the Machine always had something good to say.
Here’s a quote from Saul’s “Telegram.” Those of you that don’t know, you better ask somebody.
“Telegram to Hip Hop: Dear Hip Hop .(stop). This shit has gone too far. (stop). Please see that mixer and turntables are returned to Kool Herc. (stop). The ghettos are dancing off beat. (stop). The master of ceremonies have forgotten that they were once slaves and have neglected the occasion of this ceremony. (stop). Perhaps we should not have encouraged them to use cordless microphones, for they have walked too far from the source and are emitting a lesser frequency (stop). Please inform all interested parties that cash nor murder have been added to the list of elements. (stop). We are discontinuing our current line of braggadocio, in light of the current trend in “realness”. (stop). As an alternative, we will be confiscating weed supplies and replacing them with magic mushrooms, in hopes of helping niggas see beyond their reality. (stop). Give my regards to Brooklyn.”