“The person who experiences greatness must have a feeling for the myth he is in. He must reflect what is projected upon him. And he must have a strong sense of the sardonic. This is what uncouples him from belief in his own pretensions. The sardonic is all that permits him to move within himself. Without this quality, even occasional greatness will destroy a man”
– Frank Herbert, Dune
“Ghetto children, do your thing
Hold your head up, little man, you’re a king”
– Nas, “I Can”
If you haven’t noticed, I’m fascinated by Kanye West’s “Power.”
And that’s just a preview. Here’s the entire song.
It’s a fantastically produced song. The lyrics are rich with imagery and irony. It’s accompanied by a video that you could write a thesis on. And it made headlines when Kanye performed it on Saturday Night Live earlier this month.
Why? Because the second verse begins: “Fuck SNL and the whole cast.”
Want to know how it turned out when he performed it live?
First, here are the original lyrics to the second verse:
Fuck SNL and the whole cast
Tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass
More specifically, they can kiss my asshole
I’m an asshole? You niggas got jokes!
You short-minded niggas’ thoughts is Napoleon
My furs is Mongolian; my ice brought the goalies in
Now I embody every characteristic of the egotistic
He knows: he’s so fucking gifted
I just needed time alone with my own thoughts
Got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault
My childlike creativity, purity and honesty
Is honestly being produced by these grown thoughts
Reality is catching up with me
Taking my inner child, fighting for it, custody
With these responsibilities that they entrusted me
As I look down at my diamond-encrusted piece
Aside from that weird line about Napoleon – dude was short, but he got shit done – this isn’t hard to interpret.
First: Kanye’s calling out Saturday Night Live for having made fun of him in the past. He is bringing complex lyrics, high production values and an army of fans to the battlefield. All SNL has in response are “jokes.” As far as rap songs go, devoting a few lines to dissing your haters isn’t too surprising.
Second: Kanye is talking up his own greatness. He owns imported furs and lots of diamonds (“ice”). Again, par for the course in rap music. We’re almost running down a checklist here.
Third: Kanye is questioning his own greatness. For everything you might criticize, Kanye has always had a great sense of irony. He talks up his own merits, then downplays them with ironic comparison in the same verse. He pairs boasts against takedowns, humility against vanity. He calls himself “egotistic” and “gifted” in the same breath. He talks about “responsibility” (a grown-up virtue) and a diamond-encrusted watch (a sign of immature ostentatiousness) in the same sentence.
The entire song walks that razor’s edge of irony. The production is bombastic: sharp beats, women chanting, heavy bass synths and a catchy rhythm. The official video overflows with arcane imagery: Tarot symbols, the Sword of Damocles, Kanye made up like a pharoah with the eyes of a god. The song itself is a triumphant anthem. It fires up the blood.
And yet how does the chorus begin?
“No one man should have all that power.”
Wow. Kind of a buzzkill, Kanye. Say, where does that line come from?
Spike Lee’s Malcolm X examines the nature of power with both a covetous and a cautious eye. In the movie, Malcolm X preaches a gospel of black nationalism, bringing a message of hope and unity to a beleaguered black America. But as Malcolm X gets further embroiled in the Nation of Islam, he clashes with its leader, the Rev. Elijah Muhammad, and comes under threat of violence. He learns that power can only be used as a platform to preach the truth for so long. Then, power starts becoming an end in itself. He distances himself from the isolationism and rhetoric of the past, but not in time to keep his former allies from feeling threatened.
(Note: the above is meant to be a high-level summary of the Spike Lee movie, not an evaluation of the Civil Rights movement or the meaning of Malcolm X’s life and death)
Kanye feels the same way. He recognizes the power that has been thrust upon him: a Twitter feed with one million followers, multiple #1 albums, a career producing some of the biggest names in hip-hop. He wants to use this power for good. But he also recognizes the tendency within himself to revel in power for its own sake – a recognizable urge. He bounces between dissing his haters (“Fuck SNL and the whole cast”) to talking up his own talent (“so fucking gifted”, “treasures in my mind”, “childlike creativity”) to questioning his success (“reality is catching up with me”).
He’s all over the place. He is in fact a 21st-century Schizoid Man.
On October 2, 2010, Kanye performed “Power” on Saturday Night Live.
It would have been relatively trivial for Kanye to change a few words in the second verse to make it palatable. He already showed himself willing to edit himself for broadcast play (replacing “mothafucka, we rolling” with “everybody, we rolling”). So he’d only need to change one line to avoid offending his hosts.
Here, I’ll show you:
“To all my haters and their broke ass
Tell ‘em Yeezy said they can kiss my whole ass …”
Ta-da! Someone give me a Grammy.
That’s option one. Option two: Kanye sings the verses as-is. This would be more than a little daring, telling the whole cast of the show you’re on to kiss your asshole. But we’re talking about the same man who’s thrown a temper tantrum at two separate MTV Video Music Awards (once in 2007, once in 2009). Playing the court jester isn’t beyond him.
Option three: change up the first four lines. Given that the rest of the verse takes a more introverted tone, there wouldn’t be much loss in lyrical integrity.
Option four: see for yourself.