“King of the Assholes, drama queen, Red Bull’d 12-year old, Next Chappelle, strangely relatable Megaman,” Black supremacist, hypocrite, poet, social commentator, superstar: the list of titles and labels ascribed to Kanye West is seemingly endless (Boeck). Yet none of these epithets, in of themselves, successfully describe West as an artist or a cultural icon; he resists simplistic definition, mimetic of the ways in which his art seeks to destabilize established boundaries between genres, high and low culture, and accepted and prohibited topics of discussion. The labyrinthine influences, referents, and drives suffused throughout his works are absorbed from the divergent sources West draws upon for inspiration. His life presents a study of an individual in flux, constantly mediating between, and subsequently uniting, disparate or estranged elements.
This context is visible from West’s earliest years, born to parents Ray and Donda West in 1977. The couple divorced soon after and he would spend his childhood years primarily in Chicago with his mother whilst summering with his father in Atlanta (Boeck). Despite their estrangement, Ray and Donda’s shared background within the Civil Rights movement has exerted tangible influence on West throughout his discography. Ray West became affiliated with the Black Panther movement as a student at the University of Delaware, while Donda West joined the youth council of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) and participated in the first national sit-ins to obtain public accommodation for people of colour in the United States (Boeck). While Ray would go on to become one of the first Black photojournalists, Donda became a Professor of Literature, occupying the position of Chair of the English Department at Chicago State University before retiring to serve as West’s manager (Lewis). This proximity to the world of college and academia informs much of West’s comments on the state of higher education across his first three albums. Not lacking in academic potential himself, “West received a scholarship to attend the American Academy of Art in Chicago in 1997, when he was just 20 years old. He transferred to Chicago State University but left shortly after to pursue his music career” (Lewis).
The abandonment of this possible career path reflects West’s ambivalence toward the institution of the university, embodied by the cover art of his first two albums, College Dropout (2004) and Late Registration (2005), which both feature a mascot type figure known as ‘Dropout Bear’. As Dawn Boeck surmises, the cover of West’s debut album depicts the bear thusly:
Dressed in jeans and a t-shirt, he is slouched on wooden bleachers, conveying an air of indifference. West’s visual construction of this persona is grounded in the lived reality of many college dropouts (and students) in contemporary American society as they continue to grow more disillusioned with the empty promises of higher education.
This anthropomorphic figure draws inevitable comparisons with West himself, as both are ‘dropouts’ who somehow remain connected to the institution: West through his mother’s immersion in the education system and the bear through his physical presence in the confines of the school, appearing in the gym on College Dropout (2004) and a library on Late Registration (2005). This ambivalence towards education is further underscored on these two albums by the appearance of a teacher figure who addresses West disparagingly, belittling his achievements whilst simultaneously hoping to use his creative abilities to impress the ‘white people’ who will attend an upcoming graduation ceremony (College Dropout “Intro”). This figure, who is rendered laughable through his pompous and professorial statements about West’s inadequacies—the dramatic irony being that as we are listening to West’s albums he has already succeeded to some degree—is voiced by DeRay Davis in a style which impersonates the late Chicagoan comedian Bernie Mac. Choosing a voice as distinctive as Mac’s, which draws attention to his and West’s interconnectedness as sons of Chicago, is duplicitous for the audience; whilst the mocked and lampooned figure fosters a negative association with Chicago, West uses his music to boldly state his connectedness to his hometown and its utility to him as a constant source of inspiration. West’s long-time friend and sometime collaborator, the artist Rhymefest, when interviewed by journalist Davey D, asserted:
You can’t study Kanye without studying the history, politics, gangs, social structure and of course the music legacy of Chicago; from the Blues to Curtis Mayfield, and the Impressions, all have informed the music and sound that Kanye is best known for. (Foreword to Bailey)
Rhymefest described West’s art as “blue-collar-black-American-music” (Bailey), another incomplete designation; whilst hip-hop itself is primarily a blue collar artistic product, inextricable from a ‘street’ perspective of urban experience, West’s relationship to his art is more nuanced. Raised in the middle-class suburb of South Shore (Boeck), Neal states, “On his first two albums West cuts the difference (musically and lyrically) between modes of expression that would be legible to both traditional hip-hop audiences and the middle-class sensibilities of Black bohemians,” citing “The contribution of spoken word poet J-Ivy on ‘Never Let Me Down’ (with Jay-Z) from College Dropout [as] one example of West’s affinity for Chicago’s Black bohemia” (Neal). West functions as a mediator and a connective bridge between African-American communities which are becoming increasingly estranged from each other. Prominent scholar Cornel West (no relation) portrays a rather bleak outlook in this regard:
There is increasing class division and differentiation, creating on the one hand a significant black middle-class, highly anxiety-ridden, insecure, willing to be co-opted and incorporated into the powers that be, concerned with racism to the degree that it poses constrains on upward social mobility; and, on the other, a vast and growing black underclass, an underclass that embodies a kind of walking nihilism. (hooks 2512)
Through his engagement with both middle-class and economically disadvantaged concerns, narratives and cultural references, West’s music attempts to shorten the distance between the two groups which have formed his conceptual nexus of art, community, ethnicity.
This attempt at bridging, or unification, can be seen explicitly on West’s debut album College Dropout where he makes extensive use of ‘sampling’. The songs he chooses to sample from are of particular importance; West had made his name within the music industry working as a producer for other artists, most notably Jay-Z, using samples from Soul tracks to great effect throughout his production career. This use of Soul music was not only aurally pleasing, it served a secondary artistic purpose: by employing elements from the near past; West was able to bridge the divide of time and create songs which both his generation and his parents’ generation would have an intimate connection with. Hip-hop pioneers, such as Grandmaster Flash & Kool Herc, have always been interested in the use of Soul; originally songs were harvested for ‘break beats’ which DJs could rework and interpolate into something new. Soul music also holds a specific place within African-American culture, as it contextualises the Civil Rights era, which Otis Redding was keenly aware of at the time he was performing, employing traditional African-American forms and features, some of which had their roots as far back as slavery: “Soul music remains the clearest example of a genre of music that spoke across Black generations—a ripe site to serve the needs of ‘Movement’ politics” (Neal). Thus, West’s choice of Soul not only signifies against a recent past, bringing generations into an artistic dialogue around a cultural product, but it also maintains a thread of continuity which stretches back into the shared origins of Black experience on the American continent. To quote John Dryden’s appraisal of Ben Jonson, West “invades authors like a monarch; and what would be theft in any other poets is only victory in him” (Horace 304). West’s desire to seek universality is also reflected in the artistic persona which he adopted. West chose to portray himself as an everyman figure the majority of people could relate to.
West began making music and taking his first steps into the music industry when he was an adolescent in the early 1990s. At this point the musical aspect of hip-hop culture was dominated by the proliferation of so-called West Coast ‘Gangsta’ rap. Key exponents such as N.W.A, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Snoop Dogg forged a new sonic style filled with lyrics which represented a tough, gang-inflected experience in the working class neighbourhoods and suburbs of Los Angeles. As Eithne Quinn explains in Nuthin’ But A “G” Thang:
[I]t was socially important because it emerged from and voiced the experiences and desires of an oppressed community in a period of economic transformation. In complex ways, the social ills that resulted from deindustrialization and destructive government policies—poverty, chronic unemployment, political disaffection, and (particularly in the LA area) police repression, the drug trade, and gang activity—shaped the sounds and themes of gangsta rap. (Quinn)
This new style tapped into dissatisfaction at diminishing opportunities for social advancement through legitimate work as a result of the regional economic shift from industrial to a post-industrial, service-centred economy. Snoop Dogg, reflecting on his first job at LAX Airport, said “it was what they call an ‘entry-level position’ without ever telling you that there isn’t but one level” (original emphasis, qtd in Quinn). In the mid-1990s, East Coast Rap’s increasing popularity represented attempts to wrestle control of the hip-hop genre back to its spiritual home of New York City. One key area of stylistic divergence between these two predominant coastal styles is different approaches to illicit activities and the archetypal ‘outlaw’ figure that is celebrated as a result; West Coast rap being heavily influenced by Latin gang culture and East Coast being influenced by an organised crime or Mafioso imagery. The cover art for Jay-Z’s debut album Reasonable Doubt (1996) shows him dressed in fedora and business suit and holding a large cigar in his ring-adorned hand. This image, alongside Jay-Z’s boast on the opening track “Can’t Knock the Hustle” that “I got the Godfather flow,” helps to cultivate a strong Mafia connection in the music. Comparing this to the cover of N.W.A’s seminal Straight Outta Compton (1988) highlights the contrast between Jay-Z’s singular mafia ‘don’ figure and the West-Coast group dynamic which has “Niggas Wit Attitudes” (N.W.A) depicted in circular formation; conspicuously young, armed, and unemotional. As Ice Cube flatly declares on the track “Gangsta Gangsta”: “This is a gang, and I’m in it” (Straight Outta Compton). West began recording his album in 1999 and realised that the market had become saturated with images of gun-toting nihilistic young men who purport that their only concern is themselves and their individual advancement. Though there were outstanding records being released at this time, for example Jay Z’s The Blueprint (2001), West views the market as being in need of an injection of vigour. In an interview prior to the release of College Dropout, West stated:
I feel like the public is stupid. You try to force feed them what you think it is that they want. Just put a throwback on, I’m in a fitted hat and let’s get an R & B singer and tell them to rap about guns. And I think it’s a lot of people that’s tired of that. It’s wonderful for me ’cause now I have a market for it. (Houston)
West as Everyman
Eschewing an aesthetic prevalent in hip-hop at the time, West, unlike artists such as 50 Cent and Li’l Kim, consciously avoided the embracing of any kind of gangsta’ or ‘mafioso’ image. As West articulates on his breakout single “Through the Wire,” he “wasn’t talkin bout coke and birds / It was more like spoken word.” This ‘spoken word’ concept reflects his indebtedness to the influence of poetry slams and Def Poetry Jam. He realized that what he, by his own admission, lacked in rhythm he could make up for with dense wording and literary artifice, much in the same manner that a spoken word artist performs independently of a beat (Teixeira). West’s desire to appeal to the ‘average’ person is, ironically, exceptional within hip-hop, a culture famously predicated upon braggadocio and an unmitigated striving to be viewed as elevated above all others. Adam Bradley specifically highlights West as unusual in this regard in the context of “a hip-hop tradition that trades upon the projection of self-aggrandising and larger-than-life images” (138). As West himself articulates:
Once I found out exactly how to rap about drugs and exactly how to rap about “say no to drugs,” I knew that I could fill the exact medium between that. My persona is that I’m the regular person. Just think about whatever you’ve been through in the past week, and I have a song about that on my album. (Bradley 137)
A key aspect of this ‘normality’ was to wear clothes that deviated from the militarised or prison-influenced style of most contextually successful hip-hop artists. Eithne Quinn in Nuthin’ but a ‘G’ Thang details how “the prison dress of baggy clothes, unbelted jeans, denim work shirts, and do-rags was adapted and disseminated in urban communities.” Tim’m West links this explicitly to the art form by describing “the hip-hop uniform” which requires “all ‘real rappers’ to look as if they just left prison.” The importance of clothing to West is well-established, and his personal relationship with designer Riccardo Tisci has led to unsubstantiated rumours that they were lovers (Hilton). Tim’m West, who is one of LGBT hip-hop’s pioneers and one of the culture’s first openly gay artists, critics, and scholars, says of West:
His creative flair for fashion parallels his musical risk-taking, via sampling, which I believe to be his strongest asset as a hip-hop artist. It’s the blending of old and new, couture and street, black power and post-black, street and bourgie, in order to imagine something I believe is more transgressive than any of our categorical imperatives: FREEDOM.
The ‘FREEDOM’ which Tim’m West so rightly lauds in this passage is the key component of Kanye West’s art. Whilst many references to expensive clothes can be found throughout the hip-hop of this period, West consciously cultivated his look to be diametrically opposed to the military, ‘corner’, or prison-influenced style of oversized (be it designer or otherwise) clothing. His use of high-end fashion is unlike that of Sean ‘P Diddy’ Combs, for example, who wore extravagant oversized furs and Versace clothing as an ostentatious moniker of success (Oliver). West instead would be more likely to don a designer polo-shirt and a ‘preppy’ backpack. The influence of this on hip-hop culture can be evidenced by its continued reference; one of this decade’s mega-stars, Drake, on his 2015 track “Know Yourself” acknowledges West’s redirection of hip-hop style: “I had a yellow TechnoMarine / Then Kanye dropped, it was polos and backpacks” (If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late 2015). The embracing of European fashion serves to collapse the previously rigid dichotomy between hip-hop culture and Italian designer clothing; it brings disparate elements into conversation with one another. It also serves to disseminate knowledge, broadening the lexicon of hip-hop scholars and audiences by introducing references and themes which otherwise may remain underexplored or neglected. This diversification of themes within hip-hop reflects the rhizomatic nature of modern culture and serves to foster critical awareness in West’s audience. Whereas it may previously have been accepted as fact that the two entities bear no relation to one another, those familiar with West’s art are given a tutorial of how to draw unexpected connections and resist thematic segregation, cultivating what Antonio Gramsci described as “organic intellectuals”: individuals who nurture critical skills through their appreciation of art and use them in all aspects of their lives (Morgan and Bennett 177-8). It embodies West’s refutation of what he sees as the proscribed nature of modern life: “Society has put up so many boundaries, so many limitations on what’s right and wrong that it’s almost impossible to get a pure thought out […] everyone’s born confident, and everything’s taken away from you” (Bradley).
The College Dropout
West’s debut album College Dropout (2004) reflects his familiarity with, and ambivalence towards, the concept of the United States’ higher education system. The album’s closest stylistic and thematic forebear within the hip-hop culture is The Miseducation of Lauren Hill (1998). In the same way that ‘Gangsta’ rap was influenced by policing tactics, the so-called ‘War on Drugs’, and mass migration as a result of localised economic depression, West’s art is suffused with the anxieties and issues of its generation. The Clinton administration signalled no immediate upturn in the fortunes of blacks in America, but it took away some of the impetus of being diametrically opposed to a government that was seen to be forcibly and deliberately holding blacks in a position of inferiority. The Clinton administration passed legislation to introduce welfare reform and tax credits which improved the perception of equality, although the tangible benefits of these reforms, as they were felt by those in most urgent need of them, is a matter of considerable debate. Even though it was clearly tongue in cheek, in 1998 Toni Morrison described Bill Clinton as the “first black President.” This idea that the abstract entity of the ‘government’ was attempting to redress racial inequality (the promise of the civil rights movement thirty years prior) certainly undercut some of the impetus and vigour which had gone in to N.W.A.’s controversial “Fuck Tha Police” (1988) or more clearly Paris’ “Bush Killa” (1992), which was not only banned by Time Warner executives from being released but also led to Paris being investigated by the FBI. As West can no longer examine or rail against an individual (such as a president like Nixon or Bush) or a seemingly vague construct such as ‘the government’ or ‘the Man’, he directs his attention towards three institutions. First, the drugs trade, predicated on an illicit economy of narcotics, informed from a predominantly lower-class and impoverished urban experience. Second, the institution of the university and the world of higher education, which are predominantly middle-class spheres of influence and are reified and legitimised by mainstream society, holding the ‘promise’ of personal improvement. Lastly, the idea of an over-arching superstructure of capitalism or capitalist society; this often takes the form of a critique of proscribed labour and explores the idea that the concept of ‘labour’ is a unifying subject for African-Americans, as it is the progenitor of their presence on the American continent. Forcibly removed to the Americas as a source of labour, it is their most basic unifying feature, which speaks across other differentiations. In this way, West unpicks the founding ideals of America—or rather the foundations on which it has been constructed—a critique of far greater scope than decrying a racist or oppressive government of a fixed four-year term.
“We Don’t Care”
The opening track of College Dropout, titled “We Don’t Care,” reflects the aesthetic tone of the persona that West attempted to cultivate at the beginning of his performing career. The track utilises a similar structure to “Through the Wire,” demonstrating Kanye’s distinctive use of Soul sampling and a strong beat to create a highly textured and original sound within hip-hop; an atypical focus on harmonising and the synergy of different elements are united by West’s rapping in the foreground. The song is preceded on the album by a skit intro between West and his teacher and is West’s response to the request that he “do something for the kids.” Despite this being his debut album, the audience is given the sense that he is expected to have something to offer the community; as an artist he has a responsibility to give something to the next generation. However, what he and the lampooned ‘educator’ feel is the appropriate gift to pass on are wildly divergent.
The track begins with a high-pitched tingle of strings and whistles—mildly evocative of an innocence connected through childhood stories or cartoons—as Kanye announces confidently, “Oh yeah, I got the perfect song for the kids to sing…” He launches into a harmony which becomes the song’s hook, all accented by the backing track snapping into a kicking beat of drums and hand claps. These hand claps establish a sense of multiplicity; the music becomes a communal endeavour, which is reinforced by a chorus backing track densely layered and deeply textured with samples of reed instruments and punctuation of orchestral brass (“We Don’t Care—Instrumental”). This carefully constructed backing reflects West’s previous role as one of music’s most talented producers; the artifice of its composition is certainly no accident. The rap narrative begins in earnest on the first drumbeat, Kanye singing the first word of the hook—which in its entirety reads “Drug dealing just to get by / Stack ya money ’til it gets sky high”—giving an added emphasis to the word ‘drug’; the explosive beat functions as the aural equivalent of underlining a word on the page. West simultaneously elongates the vowel sound to achieve a dual effect: the elongation allows him to harmonize and sing the word “drug” rather than rap it, but more importantly the length of time it takes West to sing “druuug” results in the word occupying both the front and back drum beats. This may seem unimportant, but it leads to the following word, “dealing,” beginning in what hip-hop terms the ‘pocket’, a technical term meaning the space between drum beats on a track. In this way, West draws attention to both words by using opposing methods: the first word, being sung, is elongated and stressed by its beat backing, while the second is off the drum beat and instead falls onto a handclap producing a different aural register. The ‘ea’ in “dealing” is higher and more melodic as supported by the high-pitched clap, juxtaposed against the low, almost guttural ‘u’ sound in “drug,” underpinned by a heavy drumbeat. In the space of two seconds, West manipulates the nuances of his dense backing-track to draw the ear almost imperceptibly in two directions at once. This awareness of stressing syllables in relation to the beat is continued in the first verse of the song:
If this is your first time hearin’ this
You are about to experience something so cold, man
We never had nothin’ handed, took nothin’ for granted
Took nothin’ from no man, man I’m my own man
But as a shorty I looked up to the dope man
Only adult man I knew that wasn’t broke, man
Flickin’ Starter coats, man
Man you don’t know, man
From an observation of the words as they appear written, there are various figures at work here; there is extensive use of enjambment, caesura, and internal rhyme, typified by the harsh ‘a’ sounds in “granted,” “handed,” and “man.” In the aural landscape of the track, these rhyming words “handed” and “granted” are supported by handclaps on the second and fourth beat of the bar respectively. The repeated “man” at the end of each clause functions both as epistrophe and antanaclasis within the verse; punctuating end lines as an exasperated address to the audience, it is also utilized to describe how all of West’s male role models, bar the “dope man,” suffered financial hardship. The first two lines quoted here sound quickened by the need to compress syllables to fit the line, and the phrase “hearin’ this” is rhymed against “experience,” a seeming approximation of an apocopated rhyme, so that West’s distinctive cadence ensures rhyming compatibility. In this instance, West yokes “hearing” and “experience” together in the audience’s conceptual imagination, announcing that listening to his rhymes will be an experience, which inversely plays on the fact that these rhymes are composed as a result of his own lived experience; we are now consuming them as, ostensibly, a form of commercial entertainment. His life is commodified to tell a story. Whatever we experience, even if the song evokes a visceral response, will be distilled through the speaker’s lived remembrances. West goes on to draw parallels between the drug trade and formal higher education, such as community colleges, suggesting that neither route offers the children of this environment a suitable way out of poverty. This verse is followed again by the repeated hook, with West invoking the children to join the chorus calling “(Kids, sing! Kids, sing!).” On this occasion, West not only speaks of and for himself but also as a representative of a specific community, as evoked by the chorus of children who sing the song’s hook. West seemingly subscribes to Ralph Ellison’s notion that “We tell ourselves our individual stories so that we may understand the collective” (qtd in Bradley 155).
“All Falls Down”
In “We Don’t Care,” West portrays the realities of living in a tough urban experience. This is followed by chastisement and a justification for his behaviour in “Graduation Day.” Then comes “All Falls Down,” which offers a view of materialism from West’s other conceptual nexus: the insecurities of a college-educated, aspirational, middle-class, African-American culture, one which West is intimately familiar with. The attention afforded this particular text outside of its appearance on the album is worthy of note; an innovative and captivating video was created for the song, which further explores the issues raised by West’s lyrics. Alongside this, West performed re-ordered verses of the song on Def Poetry Jam with the title “Self-Conscious,” where deliberate stuttering and an unconfident beginning adds even greater vulnerability to the lyrics regarding material insecurity (SpokenPoetryTV). The song utilises a soulful interpolation of the hook from Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity” (MTV Unplugged 2.0, 2002), performed by Syleena Johnson, daughter of legendary Chicagoan soul musician Syl Johnson. Hill’s original contained a scathing critique of the U.S. political and judicial system, and the choice of its hook for this song enables West to vicariously evoke those criticisms as a background to his own narrative (Boeck). The unidentified woman’s college career offers her no sense of direction, no economic security, and seemingly no fulfilment, but she is prevented from abandoning it for fear of breaking social norms which are reinforced by familial structure. In the appearance on Def Poetry Jam, stripped of the supportive beat and Johnson’s melodic backing, West over-accentuates elements of performance to enable himself to achieve still the desired effect. He nervously stutters and shuffles to portray self-consciousness, then for the lines quoted above he impersonates the subject by throwing his head and arms back in a comedic fashion, eliciting laughter from the audience, caricaturing the archetype he is describing (“Self Conscious,” SpokenPoetryTV). The possible subject of this impression is one of two alternatives: either West is mocking the black middle classes who are trying to preserve some ‘ghetto’ authenticity through misuse of standard English or he is lampooning a vapid and vacuous young woman who throws her arms around in mock hysteria because she cannot get what she wants. Through a manipulation of language, West utilises the inherent power of the literary artist to subject words to his particular will in order to open a discussion about class, gender, and materialism. West’s outlook suggests that the American dream is the accumulation of objects, a capitalist fallacy which prioritises things but does not sustain individual well-being. This engages with a long-standing African-American tradition of decrying the ‘Mammonism’ of America, a concept made explicit by W.E.B. Du Bois in his canonical The Souls of Black Folk (1903). The next four lines then re-specify toward African-Americans:
We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us
We trying to buy back our 40 acres
And for that paper, look how low we a’stoop
Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop
Establishing a ‘them’ and ‘us’ binary through the use of oppositional pronouns, West suggests that African-Americans use money and materialism in an attempt to recoup the lands they were denied during reconstruction after the Civil War. As Du Bois states in The Souls of Black Folk, “the notion of ‘forty acres and a mule’—the righteous and reasonable ambition to become a landholder, which the nation had all but categorically promised the freedmen—was destined in most cases to bitter disappointment” (19). This attempt to overcome the debilitating effects of slavery through purchase is exposed as a fallacy by the homophones “coupé” and “coop” on the final line; a Mercedes Benz can refer to a coupé type of car, but West’s ambiguous pronunciation suggests also “coop” as in a pen, cage, or enclosure. According to West, African-Americans have, in trying to overcome and reverse the effects of one type of enslavement, unwittingly subscribed to another, much more insidious and subtle, method of bondage. In this way, the desire to formulate a consumer class becomes one hegemonic device of what postmodern critic bell hooks termed the “imperialist white-supremacist capitalist patriarchy” (We Real Cool 33). Through these references, West brings present cultural conditions into conversation with historical events and factors such as the slave trade. This historicism forms part of a decidedly postmodern critique that pervades much of West’s cultural output, as Dawn Boeck has stated:
West utilizes the historical past “as a heap of ruins, pieces of which might be used for building a new future” (Therborn). Throughout his career, West has referenced elements of his individual and shared history to illuminate the contradictions within his present reality.
In a society where “for every social ill the panacea of Wealth has been urged” (Du Bois 49), West confronts the uncomfortable reality that, even if African-Americans can “buy our way out of jail,” an oppressive capitalist matrix ensures “we can’t buy freedom.” West subtly plays with concepts of perception within the song, moving from the third person to the first, so that in the second verse “Man I promise she’s so self-conscious” becomes “Man I promise I’m so self-conscious.” West is scrutinising consumer society, ending the song with a declaration which universalises the particulars which precede it: “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.”
The third song on the album which engages with the well-established interplay of ethnicity, materialism, capitalism, and dissatisfaction is “Spaceship.” The song details Westʼs experiences of the other side of the consumer society he laments in “All Falls Down”; on this occasion he is working for the corporation, yet remains unfulfilled and anxious for transformation. Repeatedly, West turns toward the universal experience, a uniting practice that explicitly lauds or documents the experiences of ‘average’ people. The song’s hook—“I’ve been workin’ this grave shift and I ain’t made shit / I wish I could buy me a spaceship and fly, past the sky”—neatly summarises the song’s broad message. The idea of flying past the sky carries implicit connotations of the wishes of captured slaves, who historically dreamed of flying back to their homeland in Africa (Anderson and Jennings). West demonstrates an awareness of the historical cultural importance of ideas of transport and transcendence through the choice of images and the specific vehicles he evokes, particularly within the song’s hook. As with “All Falls Down,” he unites historical fact and present experience to create a nuanced narrative which spans centuries. This comingling of past and present also carries an implicit critique, suggesting that things have not changed so much as to make today’s events unrecognisable from those experienced under de jure slavery. West’s use of the spaceship is also evocative, the concept of a ship carrying implicit ideas and tropes famously explored by Paul Gilroy in The Black Atlantic (1995):
Ships immediately focus attention on the middle passage, on the various projects for redemptive return to an African homeland, on the circulation of ideas and activists as well as the movement of key cultural and political artefacts: tracts, books, gramophone records, and choirs. (2559)
The key area of divergence between spaceships and naval ships is their scope; whilst marine vessels may move between continents, spaceships offer the seemingly endless prospect of intergalactic exploration. Not only suggesting movement along the horizontal planes of longitude and latitude, anchored to the surface of the earth, spaceships provide greater transcendence, to other atmospheres and even upwards towards the heavens. West reflects his position as a child of the late twentieth century; born weeks after Star Wars hit American movie screens, he reinterprets the dreams of exploration and self-realisation promised by the original trilogy (West’s affinity with the franchise can be seen on his t-shirt in the Def Poetry Jam video for “Self Conscious”). In the same way that West acts as a mediator between disparate groups and elements—such as the drugs trade and academia, or impoverished urban youth and a bourgeois Black middle class—in the lyrics and video to “Spaceship,” there is a juxtaposition of the narrow confines of retail work and the endless possibilities of space travel. This desire to bring conflicting ideas and concepts together, which would not normally interact, is the central feature of West’s aesthetic, one which defines him as an artist and also as a culturally-aware figure in the twenty-first century. The visuals revel in a peculiar interaction of the mundane and the intergalactic: banal objects such as Styrofoam cups and water coolers behave as if under conditions of weightlessness; overhead lights become jet blasters; and at one point Kanye has to rein in a pair of jeans that begin floating off while he is folding them. This synthesis of disparate, seemingly incompatible worlds perfectly represents the chiastic daydreams of menial employment, performing the mechanical functions of a job whilst the imagination fantasises something exciting. Again, this relates to West’s “normality” motif for the album; the majority of his listenership are more likely to have experienced working in the mall than a shootout at a failed drugs deal. The concept is reinforced by seemingly random workers at other businesses singing the “Heaven Knows” hook in an absent-minded fashion behind their respective counters, suggesting West’s is just one interpretation of a shared experience in capitalist society. This plurality is racialised; the boss that Kanye threatens is white whilst the singers, including the featured artists and extras, are primarily non-white.
West expresses his dual status as criminalized object of suspicion and useful commodity, both predicated on the colour of his skin:
Askin’ me about some khakis
But let some Black people walk in
I bet they show off their token blackie
Oh now they love Kanye, let’s put him all in the front of the store
West ultimately receives deliverance, walking triumphantly through the store in his spacesuit, mimicking the famous image of astronauts walking to the shuttle pre-launch. This image cuts to a walk down a mall concourse, shot in black and white to highlight the dazzling brilliance of the spacesuit. Kanye throws his arms out in celebration, before turning and gliding backwards toward the camera. The image is visually comedic but, like much of hip-hop’s comedy, it involves a certain cultural awareness for the audience to fully appreciate the joke. Without the knowledge that the dance move—made famous in the popular consciousness by Michael Jackson—has been labelled the ‘moonwalk’, the observer would lose the irony of West’s performing it whilst still terrestrial. There is also the opening of a dialogue here: through music and dancing the African-American male is able to blast off from the rigours of a capitalist superstructure. Once West exits the mall complex, his spaceship is visible on the horizon; once the capitalist superstructure has been escaped, the spaceship is tangible and escape becomes a reality. His two black co-workers appear to be in celebration at his journey whilst the white figures of the store manager, police, and co-worker seem, at best, disbelieving and, at worst, dismayed that he has eluded them.
The concept of artistic production offering an escape route from this oppressive and repetitive retail environment is overtly stated within the song. West himself only says the titular word “spaceship” once, directly after discussing how hard he worked as a producer when he was younger:
Y’all don’t know my struggle
Y’all can’t match my hustle
You can’t catch my hustle
You can’t fathom my love, dude
Lock yourself in a room doin’ five beats a day for three summers
That’s a Different World like Cree Summers
I deserve to do these numbers
“The kid that made that deserves that Maybach!”
So many records in my basement
I’m just waitin’ on my spaceship
It appears that his spaceship is blasting him to success, but only as a result of how hard he has worked. For West, it is a justified and deserved transcendence from The Gap to driving a Maybach Mercedes. The reference to the amount of records West has in his basement is an acknowledgement of his position as one of hip-hop music’s most respected ‘crate diggers’ and the labour-intensive way in which samples are harvested, primarily from Soul records, to be pastiched and re-interpreted in new songs. Creativity and creative acts exist in a sphere outside the rigidity of a proscribed labour existence; West’s act of rapping at the tills instead of serving waiting customers becomes a form of insubordination and disobedience bordering on revolution. He chooses to prioritise his art instead of his job. West’s lyricism and musical style facilitate the drawing together of disparate elements aurally and thematically, as well as the traversing of time via the sampling of soul records and allusions to the slave trade. The sheer size of its scope offers freedom for both artist and audience.
West’s featuring of rappers GLC—a fellow Chicago native—and his friend Consequence establishes the song’s lament as a pluralistic endeavour, where the established micro-community wishes to overcome the rigours of proscribed labour. Through their shared verses they offer the critique of a “minor literature” within a major language, as detailed by Deleuze and Guattari in their study Kafka: Toward a Minor Literature (1451). Deleuze and Guattari explain their terminology thusly: “The three characteristics of minor literature are the deterritorialization of language, the connection of the individual to a political immediacy, and the collective assemblage of enunciation” (1453). Hip-hop orality subscribes to all three of these features through its use of slang and wordplay, the exposition of a minority viewpoint which is often under-represented or unequal, and its focus on the community and representative politics. These features are also outlined in earlier songs on College Dropout such as “We Don’t Care” and “All Falls Down.” As representatives of this minority literature, West and his collaborators signify a wish to escape and transcend which has been extant on the American continent since the first captive slaves were transported from West Africa. The closing lines of the song, performed by another African-American artist, Tony Williams, sing plaintively:
I want to fly, I want to fly
I said I want my chariot to pick me up
And take me brother for a ride
These lines make explicit the link between the ‘spaceship’ and slave escape, evoking the famous spiritual, or sorrow song, “Swing Low Sweet Chariot,” popularised in the American consciousness by the trailblazing Fisk Jubilee Singers (Du Bois 157), and endorsing the claim of Deleuze and Guattari that “the second characteristic of minor literatures is that everything in them is political” (1451).
It is important to note that all of this is taking place at the beginning of West’s career as a performer, having made the transition from behind the mixing desk to in front of a microphone. The ideas, concepts, and aesthetic which form the central elements of this album continue to be interrogated, moulded, and added to over the course of his discography. His first three Higher Education albums reflect an individual in flux, one who narrates his own experience of trying to negotiate a changing world as a strategy to form a connection with his audience. Pre-eminent scholar Julius Bailey described the effect thusly:
[H]is worldview can be seen through the lens of a picaresque novel where the reader encounters a rogue character that uses his wit to overcome follies in a world that is always undermining him. (Bailey, “Preface”)
This argument stands up to interrogation when viewed in the context of West’s further releases. West’s second album Late Registration (2005) is the sonic representation of his attempts to reconcile an increasingly bifurcated life, in which he is torn between stardom and the ‘authentic’ experiences of ‘home’ which underpinned his first album. Progressing from this, Graduation, released in 2007, shows West as having largely resolved this tension; he knows he cannot go back so chooses to look forward instead. In the controversial Yeezus album of 2013, there is a thread of continuity visible through the ongoing critique of American capitalism in songs such as “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves.” On College Dropout, West plants ideas which germinate across his later releases. He establishes a position of social critique which is not reduced to a simple binary opposition of ‘them’ and ‘us’ but seeks to investigate broader ideas of identity, social structure, and institution. Bringing estranged elements into tension, West constantly establishes new and innovative dialogues which circumvent seemingly static boundaries of time, class, race, and nationality. Through the process of rendering these barriers to interconnection malleable and subject to the will of the artist, West demonstrates that concepts are only as intransigent as individuals perceive them to be. His is the art which bell hooks discussed as a possible vector for social change:
Postmodern critiques of essentialism which challenge notions of universality and static over-determined identity within mass culture and mass consciousness can open up new possibilities for the construction of self and the assertion of agency. […] It’s exciting to think, write, talk about, and create art that reflects passionate engagement with popular culture, because this may very well be ‘the’ central future location of resistance struggle, a meeting place where new and radical happenings can occur. (Postmodern Blackness 2514-6)
In the Works Cited below, e-book entries are listed with the relevant file type (.mobi), as per the MLA’s rules in its seventh edition concerning digital files. As location numbers continue to be device-specific and no system as precise as page numbers has yet emerged with regards to this technology, this paper’s citations can be found and confirmed in the identified e-book with the search function.
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