Kanye West wants to be heard.
He also wants to be seen, hyped, talked about, gathered around, re-tweeted/tumbled/blogged/televised, experienced. And the man knows how to give us what we want, namely: primary source material. In the era of the chattering classes, when everyone with a BA and a smartphone thinks she’s Roland Barthes reincarnate, 10 minutes of Halftime Beyonce–shit, 10 seconds of “Bow down, bitches”–produces a Talmud’s worth of critical writing.
And into this media environment swaggers Kanye, who knows how to debut a motherfucking album. One tweet:
And then, last Friday, his new video and song debuted in 66 locations across the world–not the country, mind you, but the world–and then on Saturday he was on Saturday Night Live to rearticulate his vision for network TV where your ten-year-old kids could see him, even if on Friday they were already in bed, or, worse, in the suburbs.
As Meaghan Garvey wrote on her tumblr Sensitive Thug (and hers was the best post on the new release, and from it I shall quote heavily),
Chief Keef isn’t white America’s worst nightmare. Because while he scares the living shit out of them in person, he fits neatly into the trope that many racist white Americans need young black men to fit into: violent, uneducated, aimless. They expect this kind of character, and in turn know how to strip him of his humanity, dismiss him, and avoid him.
Kanye West is white America’s worst nightmare. Because as much as one may attempt to dismiss him—by calling him an asshole or classless or deranged or various other adjectives that fill the comment sections of literally every article about him—you still have to turn on your regularly scheduled late night comedy program and stare him in the face. You can’t avoid Kanye. He’s made very sure of that.
And, as Garvey chronicles, commentators high and lo spent the weekend trying to dismiss Mr. West. Garvey sorts their dismissals into three categories: “He’s A Hypocrite, This Isn’t New, and He Wants Attention.” She does a really, really great job of showing how all protestations are leaden with BS – indeed, leave this post now and go leave her post. (And yeah, she beat me to it, and she did a really, really good job.) I’ll summarize her main thesis a bit: Kanye’s been aware of his participation in consumerist culture from the very beginning, all the way back to “All Falls Down” when he rapped, “But I ain’t even gon’ act holier than thou/ Cuz fuck it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’d do it again/ Cuz I wanna be on 106 & Park pushin a Benz” (qtd Garvey).
Now, I’m a little late on the uptake here, so instead of continuing to repeat what others have said I’m gonna direct you to various points in the conversation-thus-far, and then add some thoughts where I can.
In the Chicago Sun-Times, film critic Richard Roeper left me missing Ebert all over again when he wrote, “[S]top bitching….nobody embraces capitalism, consumerism and crass commercialism more than Kim and Kanye.”
Over at The Week, Keith Wagstoff responded to the political content of “New Slaves,” especially its indictment of government and private sector complicity in a failed drug war. Wagstoff also directed readers to similar pieces in the ThinkProgress, Salon, and the New Jersey Star Ledger, and highlighted Michael Moore’s amazed tweet at Kanye’s political forthrightness on primetime TV.
At the Ledger, Tris McCall did a nice job contextualizing Kanye’s politicization among some of his earlier tracks as well as within contemporary rap reactions to the prison-industrial complex.
And Alyssa Rosenberg’s piece at ThinkProgress was most notable for its failed critique of Kanye’s turn toward misogyny at the end of “New Slaves.” After blasting the DEA+CCA, Kanye threatens to come to “Your Hamptons house/I’ll fuck your Hamptons spouse/Come on her Hamptons blouse/And in her Hamptons mouth.” A more trenchant gloss of those lines might have eschewed mere moralizing and instead noticed that in the face of a faceless war on poor people of color by the most powerful Americans, West’s only recourse is to sexist rhetoric. Indeed, given his reference to himself for dating a white woman as “King Kong” in “Black Skinhead,” West’s lyrics are aware that by resorting to threats toward an implicitly white woman he plays into the very sexual-racial stereotypes white America already wants to hold against him.
What I want to add to this discussion is a focus on this video being projected on walls all over the world, and especially on its appearance on the Crown Fountain at Milennium Park, the flashy civic space in downtown Chicago where white-collar workers can go in the summer after work to see Andrew Bird for free, but which doesn’t have a basketball court.
Because it’s almost like this video was made for that park.
I opened this piece by mentioning that the diversity of media experiences this debut created was an innovation made for the moment. What makes Kanye’s “guerrilla marketing technique” so incredible to my eyes is not that the video was played all over the world–it has been well noted by playa-haters and fanboys alike that after the first thing aired in Tokyo or whatever, everyone could stay home and watch someone else’s iPhone footage from their own boring bedroom.
What’s really amazing here, in this era of critical excess, is that these separate viewings unmediated by a centralized TV camera cockpit created hundreds of individual pieces of primary source material for us aspiring scholar writer types to gush over. We can hear kids react to their first sight/sound of “New Slaves” in New York, Chicago, Toronto, in French, English, Japanese, Portugese, and so on, and we can close read all that shit. That’s cultural innovation that’s not arbitrary but directly responsive to the environment in which it functions.
On the Prada Store in Manhattan, as the video opens up with colorful 1950’s-esque graphics with the words SPECIAL $3.99 printed on a green rectancular background, NOT FOR SALE on a yellow circle, $1.75 NEW handwritten over red, NEW SLAVES like a dog tag, NEW MART $21.86 on a lime-green square, a barcode, and we hear a female spectator ask, quite reasonably, “Is that an advertising spot?”
On the side of Wrigley Field, the image projected over Chicago Cubs graphics, the video’s high-resolution imagery seemed designed for this kind of imperfect medium, especially in a white, wealthy neighborhood like Lakeview. As Kanye’s starkly black face faded into the background, the image asked, can you see me? can you hear me? Or aren’t my white teeth and my chain all you see anyway? “See its that rich nigga racism…all you blacks want all the same things.”
And oh, oooohhhhh, on the Crown Fountain at Millennium Park. I remember when this park opened, thinking how dope this fountain was. On either end of a granite reflecting pool in which children play barefoot in the summer are two towers made of glass bricks through which huge videos of Chicagoans play. The videos are one-minute close-ups of Chicagoans of all ages and races, old men and women, kids, teenagers, young people, blacks, whites, Latinos, Asians, looking straight at the camera. At the end of the minute, they purse their lips, and a stream of water comes out of the column where their mouth is and flows into the reflecting pool.
Now imagine that, last Saturday night, in the warm May evening, you stood around the pool under a clear sky and watched this glass tower: a figure of an elderly Asian man appears, then a white teenage boy, then a Latina kindergartner, smiling gently at the camera, blinking slowly, pursing their lips as in a kiss at you, and water pours into the fountain. How delightful.
Then a black man’s face appeared. Oh shit, it’s Kanye West. Kanye does not blow a kiss at you. Kanye starts rapping, and his message is angry. In the context of the Crown Fountain, his language acquires new meaning. It says, “Fuck your pat multiculturalism.” Yesterday the unelected Board of Education, all appointed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel, voted to shut down 49 Chicago Public Schools, all in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. “Fuck your race-blind rhetoric.” Now the mayor wants to build a taxpayer-funded arena for the DePaul basketball team and continue opening privately-controlled charter schools. “Fuck your school-to-prison pipeline.”
I know that we the new slaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves
I see the blood on the leaves…
Get your piece today.
And then, at the close of the song, Kanye stops speaking his own words, which already called on the legacy of black protest music with the quotes from Billie Holliday and Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” and begins lip-synching to vocals which to me sound like, “We can’t get too high, we can’t get too high, again, Oh no, so low, so low…” These words are a clear retort to folks like Richard Roeper who tell Kanye to “stop bitching.” West alludes to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which opens by asking, “Can we get much higher?” Here he seems to answer, “No.”
Meaghan Garvey decodes Kanye’s attachment to black suffering:
Questioning why a rich black man has a right to express anger at the plight of less rich black people is essentially asking, “Well, you’re gonna be okay, so what’s the problem?” Kanye’s wealth and participation in consumerist culture …cheapens his message to certain critics. This is because they are approaching the hyper-consumerist culture Kanye references when he says “What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?/ All you blacks want all the same things” as a force that is very bad, certainly; but not as a force that has enslaved them, personally, into a permanent underclass and then gone on to laugh at them for accepting the ideals and signifiers of this culture.
Kanye has transcended the class that is bearing the brunt of the issues at hand in “New Slaves”, and thus is expected to gratefully shut the fuck up and let it slide (“throw him some Maybach keys/ Fuck it, c’est la vie”). He now belongs to the same social class that has essentially trapped his people…. Kanye is not a “new slave” in the same sense as the victims of the prison industrial complex, but he is still trapped in a world that expects him to not only be complicit with the struggle of his people, but to be appreciative that he is not one of them. And on top of all that, while he gets to exist in the world of the 1%, having the money and signifiers of success still aren’t enough to make his (white) 1% peers actually even respect him.
As always, Kanye is begging us to really hear him. In tapes of his Friday night debuts you can hear kids already singing along with him: “I know that we the new slaves/I know that we the new slaves.” Besides the one official video and the official SNL video, there are dozens of tapes on YouTube of the same music video played against the backdrop of real cities where real people are suffering real injustice. “Niggas is going through real shit, man, they out of work/ That’s why another goddamn dance track gotta hurt.” His video played on Wrigley Field, on a Prada store, on the safely-philanthropy-funded Crown Fountain. But Big Money’s complicity in Kanye’s debut isn’t ironic, it’s the whole point. As he rapped a decade ago on “All Falls Down,” “We all self conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” We’re all guilty, we all know what’s going on, we’re all participating in the systems that enslave us. At least Ye has the guts to stand up there and say it. Not For Sale. Of course he’s for sale. But aren’t you? Aren’t we all?