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Kanye West: New Wave of Rap

Published on December 14th, 2019 at 01:49 am

By Elia Martin

Kanye West is one of the most influential people of the twenty-first century; he has been at the forefront of popular culture for the last two decades. West, an African American Chicago native, raised by his single mother, burst onto the scene as a rapper in 2004 with his first album, College Dropout. Around the time of the release, the actions and policies passed by the Republican-led government drew high amounts of praise from the Republicans and an equal amount of criticism from the Democrats. Finding common ground between the parties was harder than ever before. The increasing partisan polarization seemed to also fall along the lines of race in America, reinvigorating the racial divide that has persisted since the times of slavery. The album was a new kind of hip hop to most people. The beats and instrumentation incorporated funk and soul, musical elements that are deep-rooted in the African American culture of the last half-century. His lyrics included a socially conscious message with street "swagger" and credibility. In an industry that focused on lust and materialism more than any other, West's music offered a new, more realistic voice for the music, and specifically rap, industry. West's lyrics about societal issues reflect the ideals fought for by the African American civil rights advocates of the twentieth century. West illustrates in his songs "We Don't Care," "Jesus Walks," and "All Falls Down" how the systemic racism that African Americans face in the United States has led to the ultimate hindering of the community with issues like black on black crime and illegal actions.

In "We Don't Care," the 2004 opening song on West's first-ever album, he brings to light how African Americans have to circumvent, most of the time illegally, the oppressive forces in society to get by. In the very first line, West opens the song with, "For all my n******, that's drug dealin' just to get by / Stack ya money till it gets sky high" (line 1-2). Write off the bat; West opens up with praise for African Americans selling drugs. He shows his support for this illegal activity almost ironic in his openness and welcoming of this frowned upon action. His support illustrates the fact that in America, leaving poor black citizens no other option than to deal drugs to get by because they aren't presented with the same opportunities as other citizens in higher socioeconomic brackets of the country. He continues in the second verse with "The second verse is for my dogs working 9 to 5 / Cuz a n**** can't shine on 6.55 / And everybody sellin' makeup, Jacobs / And bootleg tapes just to get they cake up" (line 31-34). West is stating again that the poor people of America, mainly African Americans, have to work sketchy, second jobs because their primary jobs only pay a minimum wage, which is just not enough for them. West is showing his disdain for the government to take care of the more impoverished citizens of the nation as he shows his displeasure with the minimum wage, implying that it isn't enough for people to live comfortably on. As a result, those on minimum wage are forced then to "hustle" or perform, by society's standards, illegitimate jobs to get by because the system holds down the poor, historically African American members of America. It leaves them with no choice except to work multiple jobs to live comfortably. Not to mention a pun he uses in "makeup, Jacobs" that refers to both the sale of makeup and the work of the jeweler Jacob Arabo. However, he is implying that they are selling fake or "made up" designer clothes from famous Louis Vuitton designer Marc Jacobs. West is reiterating that the African Americans and other needy Americans are forced to do illegitimate jobs to reach financial security because they aren't offered enough help from others. Lastly, West puts his wordplay on display with these lines in the second verse, he raps, "Couldn't get a job, so since he couldn't get work / He figured he'd take work / The drug game bulimic, it's hard to get weight / A n****'s money is homo, it's hard to get straight" (41-44). West again uses a pun to illustrate that African Americans are impoverished and as a result, have to turn to work hard and drug dealing with living. Subsequently, they are then not making honest money anymore; West raps this with the use of some non-politically correct wordplay. In all three of these quotes, and throughout the song, we can see West pointing out how the African American population doesn't receive enough help to make enough to live honestly. Subsequently, they are forced to other methods to make money for themselves because the system doesn't provide them with enough opportunity to live legitimately comfortably. As Regina N. Bradley writes in her 2016 publication for the University of North Carolina that Kanye West's music is used to show the lingering oppression of African Americans in society that started with the enslavement of their ancestors. She outlines in the article, "Re-Imagining Slavery in the Hip-Hop Imagination" how West manifests the systemic racism that African Americans face in society through the instrumentation and humorous rap lyrics that were quoted. Bradley writes that West and his music are a prime example of how today's art is pointing out the terrors of slavery and its lasting effects on the nation and its people. Bradley uses other artists like Quentin Tarantino to further her point; however, she does make mention of the work of Kanye West as a prime illustrator of the horrors endured by African Americans in slavery and now in the system. "We Don't Care," and Bradley's piece both illustrate how West utilizes puns, wordplay and humorous diction to reveal a thematic message. The message that African Americans remain to be oppressed in a system that doesn't provide them with enough opportunities to adequately live, and are then rendered useless unless they find a way to make more money illegally.

Secondly, off the same album, in the song "Jesus Walks," West suggests that it is because of the systemic racism that has led to the black community in America to hinder its growth. At the beginning of the song, West says, "We at war / We at war with terrorism, we at war with racism, but most of all we at war with ourselves" (2-3). He continues in the first verse with the lines, "Young and restless [black communities] / Where restless n***** might snatch ya necklace / And next these n***** might jack ya Lexus" (9-10). Lastly, West writes about the physical oppression African Americans face from the government workers, in this case, police officers. He raps, "Try to catch it, it's kinda hard / Getting choked by detectives yeah, yeah, now check the method / They be asking us questions, harass, and arrest us / Saying 'we eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast'" (14-17). West uses the repetition of the words "we at war" to show the seriousness of the actions taking place in society right now. The black on black issues are the serious ones that West is suggesting were started from the acts of the government, as he refers to President Bush's "War on Terror" just before the war within the black community. This reference can then extend to the theme that systemic racism and government action has led to the oppression of African Americans and forced them into holding themselves back. Later on now, West uses synecdoche to describe the people within the black communities as restless. The restless community represents members of the community, looking for any way out of their situation. This concept is what West is trying to elaborate on for the listeners. He shows that the American Africans within their communities are looking to get out by any means necessary, even the oppression of their people, which ultimately is the entire point of the song. African American communities have experienced abuse that stealing jewelry and cars from one another has become the result of the restlessness within said communities. Finally, we see the point of police brutality and the reduction of African Americans to fecal matter in a powerful metaphor that West uses. He uses this to make the point that the government has oppressed black citizens in America and leave them with no place to better themselves except within their communities. Again appears, West's overall theme that African Americans have experienced systemic racism in America, which has then led them to alternative routes to circumvent the disadvantages they face, in this case, that route is the issue of black on black crimes.

Lastly, and also in West's College Dropout album, the song "All Falls Down" suggests how the African American population and all the American people take part in a system that only the wealthy thrive in while everyone else struggles keep up for as long as possible. In the second verse of the song, West raps about the pressure placed on the people of lower socioeconomic statuses, mainly African Americans, to try to adhere to standards far beyond their capabilities. He declares, "The prettiest people do the ugliest things / For the road to riches and diamond rings" (line 33-34). There is a precise antithesis that shows a struggle for an unattainable goal within an immutable system that leaves African Americans trying everything, including black on black violence and illegal action. Next, West brings the racial aspect into the verse; he declares, "We trying to buy back our 40 acres / And for that paper, look how low we a'stoop" (36-37). Again West illustrates the willingness for African Americans to strive to meet societal standards; however, in these lines, he uses an allusion to the 40 acres, and a mule promised to every freed slave during Reconstruction by the American government. It is again tying back the theme of the inadequate opportunities given to African Americans to succeed and as a result, are left with no other option but to illegally strive to meet the societal standards. Lastly, West elaborates on his compulsiveness to try to remain within the rules. He exclaims, "I wanna act ballerific like it's all terrific / I got a couple past due bills, I won't get specific / I got a problem with spending before I get it" (53-55). This time West uses humorous diction to illustrate how African Americans, himself included, are making poor financial decisions and harming themselves to maintain an external standard set and held in place by a system that forces them to commit wrong-doings. An English professor at Ferrum College, John Kitterman, points out that in "All Falls Down," "[West] packs a whole history of racism..." and goes on to say how the song illustrates the systemic oppression that African Americans have to overcome to achieve acceptance into society. West brings forth the point that African Americans have to circumvent systemic racism through illegal and self-harming actions in "All Falls Down" and the other songs mentioned prior.

Kanye West is more than a rapper; he is a bringer of social awareness to issues that America, as a nation, struggles to resolve. His message of systemic racism echoes those of civil rights advocates like Malcolm X; however, he did so through music and lyricism. The idea that African Americans to get around the systemic racism they face have to commit illegal actions is brought forth by Kanye in "We Don't Care," "Jesus Walks" and "All Falls Down." These songs brought social awareness to the issues that the polarizing nation may have been forgetting about in heated political time.

Works Cited

Bradley, Regina N. "Re-Imagining Slavery in the Hip-Hop Imagination." South: A Scholarly Journal, vol. 49, no. 1, 2016, p. 3+. Gale In Context: Biography, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A497271428/GPS?u=paci91811&sid=GPS&xid=71d55aa5. Accessed 11 November 2019.

Kitterman, John. "'The College Dropout' Speaks on Campuses." The Chronicle of Higher Education, 18 March. 2005. Gale In Context: U.S. History, https://link.gale.com/apps/doc/A147099213/GPS?u=paci91811&sid=GPS&xid=d61efc8f. Accessed 11 November 2019.