Feminism / Music / Race / Sex

No One Man Should Have All That Power: a Close Reading of Kanye West’s Yeezus

Lou Reed recently reviewed Kanye West’s latest album Yeezus. In his critique, Reed says: “There are more contradictions on ‘New Slaves,’ where he says ‘Fuck you and your Hamptons house.’ But God only knows how much he’s spending wherever he is. He’s trying to have it both ways—he’s the upstart but he’s got it all, so he frowns on it.”

I’ve heard this criticism before, but it feels short sighted. I would make the argument that in this case, the word “slave”  is a synecdoche for the exploitation of black people in a post-plantation America.

Kanye is aware of how racism touches different classes of black people

You see it’s broke nigga racism

That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”

And this rich nigga racism

That’s that “Come in, please buy more.

What you want, a Bently? Fur coat? A diamond chain?

All you blacks want all the same things.”

New Slaves

What Kanye is saying is that the slavery is now symbolic where successful black people are still subject to racism that keeps them economically disadvantaged. Money doesn’t erase racism. It just changes the way it looks. Black people have a place in the entertainment industry, which includes sports, music, TV, and movies, where they’re incredibly visible. But they can only earn their place there by being exploited. Let’s take sports stars as an example. 78% of NFL players go bankrupt or broke almost immediately after retirement. They also have health problems from old injuries, and are at an increased risk for depression. A number of NFL players come from low-income areas and schools that are underfunded and overcrowded. They come into the NFL. A wealthy white man signs their checks and they get paid more money than they could ever conceive of. Just to give some perspective, a minimum salary in the NFL is $225,000 a year, and a minimum wage salary is roughly $15,000 a year. Most people from low-income areas, especially people who can only afford to live paycheck to paycheck, don’t know how to plan for financial independence in the future because to somebody who previously survived on minimum wage, an NFL paycheck looks bottomless. So by the time they’ve retired, it’s all gone. But by then they’re no good to the NFL anymore. They’re all used up.

Kanye goes on to describe how corporations and record companies take advantage of black performers, saying, “Y’all throwin’ contracts at me. You Know that niggas can’t read.” Whether you interpret this as literal illiteracy, or the illiteracy of legalese involved in reading contracts, it comes down to the same thing in this case. They are in a system designed to view them as investments instead of one that protects them. It echoes Chris Rock’s observations about wealth:

“Wealth is not about having a lot of money; it’s about having a lot of options.”

In an older track, “Murder to Excellence” Kanye states “314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago” and he echoes this again, this time in “Black Skinhead” when he uses the term “Chiraq,” a not-so-sympathetic word for Chicago, with its gang activity and high crime rates. We get it. George W. Bush doesn’t care about black people. And nobody else in a position of power does either.

Yeezus is about the acquisition of power

Kanye outlines the inherent power disparity in America’s race and class issues: wealth is power; whiteness is power. In fact, Kanye’s Yeezus is all about his fixation with power: who has it, who doesn’t, where it comes from, how to get it if you have none, and how to keep it once you’ve got it. In Yeezus he explores the many ways of becoming powerful as a black man in a white man’s world. The first method of acquiring power is found in the dichotomy he outlines for himself: “There’s leaders, and there’s followers, but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” Easy peasy: Kanye can become a leader by being an asshole.

Kanye calls himself a king in “Black Skinhead,” or a god in “I am a God.” The album is titled Yeezus as a shout out to Jesus, but despite his previous attempts to liken himself to the guy, it’s interesting that this time he chooses to identify with the Old Testament God, the demanding, unforgiving God that requires constant worship, reverence, and attendance. He acts the role too when he commands, “Hurry up with my damn massage. Hurry up with my damn ménage. Get the Porsche out the damn garage. I am a God.” He establishes himself with a religious symbol and makes God his spirit animal.

Kanye acquires power through fear

In “Black Skinhead” Kanye spits a verse with the words, “They see a black man with a white woman; at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.” The King Kong imagery is that of the barbaric, dark ape coming to destroy the innocent white woman’s purity. Its image has long been a source of criticism for being, you know, pretty racist.

king kong imagery

But instead of trying to disprove this stereotype, Kanye attempts to confirm every fear that white folk have about black men. In this case, he capitalizes on white men’s racism to tell them they were right to be afraid. Why? Because he’s occupying your home (“Real nigga back in the house again”), he’s claiming his space and putting his feet up (“Black Timbs all on your couch again”), and he’s having sex with your wife (“Black dick all in your spouse again”), and what’s worse—she wants it (“And I know she like chocolate men”).

So maybe he can’t live in the world as a powerful black man where he is routinely respected by whites and never taken advantage of. So maybe he can never be looked at as a benevolent king. But he can be King Kong. King Kong is a racist symbol, but the image is also the ultimate powerful black man nightmare. With the power of King Kong, he doesn’t need anyone to like him. He can take whatever he wants by force.

Kanye acquires power through exploitation

Kanye West also acquires power by paying the exploitation forward. He rails on about the mistreatment of black people and the lack of attention and empathy they get. But meanwhile he’s railing any number of “bitches” without a shred of empathy or humanity. In most rap music, objectification is old news. There’s a lot of ass shaking and variations of “Lemme see you shake that ass.” There’s lots of commentary on how she’s shaking her ass, and how it’s making him feel to watch that ass shake. But in these songs, and even in the videos, there’s always at least an implication that it’s consensual. That she’s shaking her ass and going, “Here’s my ass! Here it is, shaking for you, baby!” This is not the case for Yeezus.

In “I’m In It” it becomes evident that sex for Kanye is a power trip. The imagery is SUPER violent. He describes a woman as a “black girl sippin’ white wine,” and continues, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” He’s literally fisting her (but the way he performs it, I imagine it more like punching her in the vagina) and getting off on the idea of Black Power. He describes his wang, as a “reptile,” and if you’ve been on this earth long enough to pick up euphemisms, you can make an educated guess what kind of reptile he’s referring to.

It’s Kanye West’s penis, you guys. Wait, this DOESN’T turn you on?

Even as he describes her orgasm it doesn’t seem pleasurable at all. It’s a banshee-type wail that makes you wonder if she is actually in pain. Is this even sex? In “Black Skinhead” he raps: “I keep it 300, like the Romans. 300 bitches, where the Trojans?” Hey, so there’s a joke. I get it. But it’s less cute because it sort of implies that he’s going to run these women down and impale them on his dick. It sounds painful and exhausting for both parties. But what does Kanye get out of it? The power fantasy of having conquered “300 bitches” like “the Romans.”

Actually in almost all the sex scenes, the narrative shows that Kanye seems to deliberately mistreat the woman he’s with because he knows he can still get sex from them with the minimum amount of attentiveness. They sleep with him because he’s the powerful, famous Kanye West, not because he’s a good guy. So why should be have to waste all that energy being good, when being powerful works so well?

She say “Can you get my friends in the club?”

I say “Can you get my Benz in the club?”

If not, treat your friends like my Benz

Park they ass outside ’til the evening end

When I go raw, I like to leave it in

When I wake up, I like to go again

When I go to work, she gotta call it in

She can’t go to work, same clothes again

And her heart colder than the souls of men

Send it Up

No, this is not about sex. How can it be? The beat is oppressive and threatening. The lyrics are abusive and angry. There’s nothing sexy about it. You often hear the adage that “rape is not about sex, it’s about power.” This is dubious because it implies that it can’t be both. But rape is definitely about power, and it is about entitlement, and it’s about dehumanizing women. These motifs are all recurring in Kanye’s latest album, and the danger feels imminent. I’m not suggesting Kanye is a rapist, or that a guy even needs to be in a dark place like these lyrics to rape someone. It’s just something to think about because Yeezus has an obsession with power and what it means, and where it comes from. The lyrics definitely have a “rapey” quality. And honestly, Yeezus paints sad pictures of women. “Send it Up” is one of the first songs to make me feel very sad for the woman in it since I first heard Immortal Technique’s rape rap, “Dance With the Devil.”

Who are the new slaves? Kanye says it’s black people taken advantage of by white America. But who else is it? Is acquisition of power inherently exploitative? There’s a good case of this in Yeezus. I was drawn to the album at the first listen because of how experimental it felt. It had that kind of agitated, industrial sound that alienates so many listeners, and it discussed politics I was already interested in. He took the typical themes you see in a lot of hip-hop (the “I’m so great,” “I’ve got a lot of money,” “I’ve got a lot of women” sort of themes), and took them down a dark, dark road. Doing a close reading of it has made me appreciate it even more, but it also makes me more cautious of his messaging going forward.

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2 thoughts on “No One Man Should Have All That Power: a Close Reading of Kanye West’s Yeezus

  1. Also pretty uncomfortable listening is Kanye West’s verse from “Birthday Song”:

    Ah, Yeezy Yeezy how you do it huh
    It’s my birthday, I deserve to be greedy huh
    She holding out, she ain’t giving to the needy huh
    You go downstairs and fall asleep with the TV on
    Ya’ll been together ten years, you deserve a ménage
    Especially if you put that BMW in the garage
    Especially if you paid a couple payments on her Mamma crib
    Went to her niece’s graduation, man I hate those kids
    Last birthday she got you a new sweater
    Put it on, give her a kiss, and tell her do better
    She said how bout I get you jewelry from the West End
    How bout she hit the Westin and get her best friend
    I’m joking, I’m just serious, I asked her
    Don’t be acting like no actress, if we preaching then we practice
    Don’t be reaching, don’t be touching shit
    We in Kanye West’s Benz
    Cause I will turn you back to a pedestrian

  2. Pingback: Rap Music is Gay | Be Young & Shut Up

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