Before the South Park episode, before the Taylor Swift incident, before the tweets, before the marriage made in tabloid heaven, before all these car crashes, Kanye West’s career was defined by one car crash in particular: the one that almost killed him. Already a world-renowned hip-hop producer at the age of 25, his attempts to move into the spotlight with the microphone had been held back by various factors until late 2002 when upon waking up in a hospital with his jaw wired shut after falling asleep at the wheel of his car, he had his recording equipment brought in to his room and immediately recorded Through the Wire. In the lyrics of this song (the first recording of his enormously successful rap career) he reflects that the hospital he lies in is where Biggie Smalls died. With each subsequent album of Kanye’s, this lyric becomes more important, as it does not take a large interprative leap to say not only that Kanye thinks he died and was reborn as a rapper in that hospital, but also that he thinks he died and was reborn as the greatest rapper in history in that hospital.
Kanye’s career after this event makes a lot more sense with this interpretation, as he went from success to success, never having a real flop to his name. His musical talent has never been in question, just the subject matter and taste involved in its execution. The modern Kanye emerged at the VMA’s in 2009, rushing on stage to tell a teenage Taylor Swift that she didn’t deserve the Best Video award. In his mind, he had this authority as the greatest rapper ever, and therefore had to act. He was right about that, Beyonce did deserve the award, but after that the knives came out for Kanye. Never has an album been more eagerly anticipated by music critics than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in late 2010, as they all wanted to skewer and bury him forever. The undeniable fact was that MBDTF was one of the best albums of the year (in my opinion, possibly the decade), and since then there has been a conscious media disconnect between Kanye’s public persona and his musical prowess. Possibly taunting his critics, but mostly indulging in his own narcissism, Kanye directed a film version of the album, “Runaway” for YouTube, a video which at best tests the boundaries of tolerated pretension. His next album, released in June 2013 was called Yeezus, after himself (Yeezy), and features a song called I am a God. This isn’t the typical hip-hop bragging culture schtick, this is something different. While most other rappers boast about possessions, money and their rise from nothing, Kanye focuses on his place in society. This makes more sense when you realise that the man has a deep, dark secret: he is middle-class.
As a male, middle-class white guy I run the risk of ignorance when discussing rap music, but at this point I must stress that I am referring to the difference between Kanye and his peers at the top of the American hip-hop industry. By now, he can feasibly be compared to Tupac, Biggie smalls and Jay-Z , yet his story is so different. The son of an English literature professor and newspaper photographer, his upbringing cannot be compared to the street-level experience of other rappers. While Biggie and Tupac regaled us with stories about Brenda and her baby, and selling drugs to support their baby girls, Kanye’s songs about social issues were all abstractions. We Don’t Care is a memorable track from his first album about the plight of black kids in Chicago, yet the chorus simply repeats a statistic he probably read in a newspaper article.
“We wasn’t s’posed to make it past 25, jokes on you we still alive”
We Don’t Care, Kanye West
Kanye never experienced any of this, he is merely interpreting it for us. He doesn’t mention a personal story, merely the average age a black man survives to in urban Chicago. Similarly, his most famous issues song is Diamonds From Sierra Leone, which he probably researched by watching the kind of documentary that gets American girls to immediately share their outrage in a Facebook status.
“See, a part of me sayin’ keep shinin’,
How? when I know of the blood diamonds
Though it’s thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connect to what we go through today”
Diamonds From Sierra Leone, Kanye West
There is nothing wrong with being a middle-class rapper, but it seems that Kanye’s defining feature (and a feature that any self respecting middle class man) is that he is ashamed of his middle-class heritage, and is jealous of those born humbly with better stories to tell.
What convinced me over the years of Kanye’s middle class issues was, upon shuffling his albums on iTunes, it become apparent that he has that most middle-class of psychological issues: neuroses. His first three albums were The College Dropout, Graduation and Late Registration. His mother was not only a professor, but one of the first black professors at a major university, so education was a motif through his childhood, yet he chose to drop out of college and focus on music. A confident rapper would see this as a good thing, yet The College Dropout is strewn full of ‘skit’ asides making fun of college degrees, and with each listen it becomes more and more obvious that he is trying to convince himself that mainstream education is worthless, rather than making jokes to entertain his audience, as is usually the case in album ‘skits’. The guy didn’t want a degree, yet it took him years to get over not having one. It is not possible to be more middle class than this.
Kanye, with his new Yeezus persona, and his song featuring God (performed by Kanye), is overcompensating for his background with his grandiose, iconoclastic, antichrist behavior. I prefer to think of him in this way, rather than the very believable hypothesis that the man is insane. One thing that probably would make him go insane is that white, middle class men like myself appreciate him and identify with him. Several times in Yeezus, he declares himself the new Michael Jackson, and unbeknownst to him, he has revealed everything about his place in society. Kanye West is Rockin’ the Suburbs, just like Michael Jackson did. He is Rockin’ the Suburbs, and he is talented. He should just get over it.