Kanye West: Still the Genius Voice of a Generation?

I’m listening to “Watch the Throne” as I write this article, hoping to draw some inspiration from the album.  Besides wanting to do my best hardcore rapper impression, I’m also drawn to a comment Rakim made about Kanye West and Jay-Z’s particular brand of rap.  In an article for The Atlantic, David Samuels asked Rakim, one of the “founding fathers” of rap, about Kanye and he replied that he’s distressed about the “luxury rap” both Kanye and Jay-Z use.  Once upon a time, rappers talked about things they aspired to, or worked hard to earn.  It was accessible to their audience because these were things they aspired to, as well.  The way this article’s subject drops names of luxury brands and refers to excess no longer reaches the audience, in Rakim’s opinion.  It’s condescending, he thinks.  As Kanye says, it’s “like homie you ain’t up on this!”  But I want explore if this sort of rap actually does capture the zeitgeist of my generation and if that’s what makes him “the genius voice of a generation.”

There’s no doubt Kanye’s flows are impressive.  I can recite the entirety of his first three albums from memory.  These three albums speak to me particularly because they tell the story of a poor kid growing up and enhancing his personal wealth.  That sentiment rings true for me, as well as throngs of other people in the US.  Getting rich has become a truly American aspiration, and many people grew up poor but have come solidly into the middle class through their own efforts and those of their parents.  For people my age, the memories of being poor as a child are fresh because we’re still young.  I remember waiting in line at the welfare office for food stamps.  So when Kanye’s songs reflect back on the same themes, it speaks to me, absolutely.

A little bit more about me:  as I said, I grew up pretty poor.  My parents were very young when they had me and were poor college students trying to manage their budget while raising a toddler.  I learned early that it didn’t matter how much something cost, it would always be too expensive.  Though we lived in a college neighborhood, I spent pre-kindergarten through second grade at an underfunded inner-city school.  At most, there were two other white students in my classes.  I spent a lot of time shuffling between relatives while my parents worked and went to school.  The support system I had was amazing and I feel lucky to have had such a rich family life, in spite of our poor finances.  Things finally turned around when I was in eighth grade; my dad began working as a Physician Assistant and we climbed into the middle class.

In college, Megan and I developed a particular affinity for ‘Ye based on a line from “The Good Life”:  “Having money’s not everything, not having it is.”  This is the absolute truth, we thought.  We still think that.  Hearing that line made me feel like Kanye was speaking directly to me.  It’s a lesson anyone who’s been short on cash is familiar with.  When you have money, you don’t have to worry about it, but when you don’t, money dominates your life.  Near the end of our time as undergraduates, Megan, Heidi and I, along with a couple other friends dropped money we really didn’t have to spare on tickets to Kanye’s Glow In The Dark Tour.  We very nearly did the same when Watch the Throne stopped in Tacoma, but in our mid-twenties, we couldn’t justify spending rent money to hear about Louis Vuitton sneakers.  Is this an example of a rift between the rapper and his audience?

I will admit that hearing Kanye rap about owning multiple Benzes is a bit of a kick in the teeth during this recession.  I still connect to the idea of saving up and blowing every last dime on jewelry, but the ease with which allusions are made to riches in Kanye’s newer work is harder for me to feel.  They’re not the raps of a kid who’s worked hard for the flashy things he’s got now.  They’re the raps of someone with piles of cash and no concerns about what things cost.  There’s definitely a rift between my reality and his now.  How can I connect with these things, when I work a job that only gives me 20 hours a week and ruins my social life?  The way my bitterness allows me to connect with songs like “The Good Life,” it makes me offended at the pretensions of Kanye’s recent work.

The musical genius locked behind raps preaching dripping hedonistic tendencies is still quite unlike anything else I’ve ever heard.  David Samuels’ article discusses the way Kanye’s raps are intertwined with the backbeats, the samples and the backup singers in an inseparable way.  These intricacies take me to a place no other artist can, and I think that’s why I continue to listen eagerly, even when I can’t connect to what Kanye is saying.  He has a gift with words, expressing his vulgar tendencies in a very poetic way.  There’s a difference between the first three albums he released and those following his mother’s death in 2007.  The super relatable raps waned, but the musical artistry increased by several folds.  The opulence displayed in “Watch the Throne” may be a hard pill to swallow, but the infectious nature of the music is palpable.  In the second half of the tour, Kanye and Jay-Z ended each show with 5, 6, even 8 consecutive performances of “Night in Paris.”  It’s this pounding, repeatable, anthem-like quality of Kanye’s music that makes him an icon for my generation.  Even if his message no longer connects, the artistry is so elevated that there’s no ignoring him, no discarding him and no denying that he may well be the genius voice of our generation.

Minnie will always love you, Yeezy.

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5 comments

  1. Kanye is without doubt one of the best producers rap music has known. I just wish he’d stop rapping about his money, his clothes or being the best. IMO ‘Ye is better when he’s being soulful – one of the reasons songs like “Blame Game”, “Heard ‘Em Say”, “Homecoming” and “Through the Wire” are better than most of the tracks on Watch The Throne. We already have one Jay-Z and a whole Young Money crew to rap about the “Good Life”, and even though Kanye may throw out lines like “Having money’s not everything, not having it is” (as you quoted) I feel like he was at his best on his first album, and parts of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Great post though, I nearly forgot how awesome Mr. West can be.

    1. I totally agree with you. When Kanye is talking about something worthwhile, he can be really amazing. But he has lost a lot of his connection to his audience by focusing more on telling us how rich and great he is, vs. really offering insights on the world

  2. I also agree, I think you did a much better job of synthesizing my argument than I did!

  3. Exactly 🙂 The sad thing is that he’s pretty relatable when he’s speaking as a man rather than as a superstar.

  4. I think you did a great job executing your argument. I got so caught up in Kanye as a Watch The Throne artist, rather than Kanye the lyrical rapper – thanks for reminding me of his older stuff!

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