Whether you knock on the front door of a house in inner-city Detroit, a home in wealthy suburban Boston, or a farm house on the sparsely populated plains of Nebraska, if a teenage boy answers the door there’s a good chance you’ll be faced with the reality of hip-hop’s cultural saturation. With youth culture (a demographic segment created and driven by aggressive marketers) fueling and shaping mainstream culture, the unique subculture fueling and shaping youth culture is the urban hip-hop culture and all the values, attitudes, behaviors and styles that are a part of that world. And with radio, television, film, music and the Internet dropping the latest and greatest from the hip-hop world everywhere simultaneously, it’s not at all surprising that it’s not just the kid who has grown up in the urban hood, but the suburban and rural kids who are dressing, talking and acting like they’ve come of age in the hood as well But who currently reigns supreme in the world of hip-hop music? The culture of rap music has always been one where the game of King of the Hill never ends as performers with huge egos fight (sometimes literally) and posture to make their way to the top.As far as youth culture is concerned, hip-hop is omnipotent and omnipresent.
But who currently reigns supreme in the world of hip-hop music? The culture of rap music has always been one where the game of King of the Hill never ends as performers with huge egos fight (sometimes literally) and posture to make their way to the top. Judging from his place on the charts, the mainstream success of his debut album, his accomplishments as a producer, and his 10 Grammy Award nominations (more than any other artist) and three awards in 2005, a good case could be made for crowning Kanye West as today’s hip-hop throne holder.
West and his musical message deserve our attention as they not only reflect the heartbeat of contemporary culture, but because they are a powerful directive force shaping the hearts, minds and worldviews of children and teens living across North America and worldwide. West’s popularity and following are growing with unlimited potential in a manner that’s positioned him as one of the most powerful voices in today’s youth culture. But why? What is it about Kanye West that’s established him as a significant cultural presence? What message and worldview does he communicate through his lifestyle and music? Are his frequent references to Christian spirituality an indication of a deep and orthodox Biblical faith, or is it something else? Is there anything we can learn from West’s ability to connect with and influence kids? Is there anything his music can teach us about the realities of growing up in today’s world? And, does Kanye West issue any necessary challenges or valuable insights to those of us who long to see the heart cries of young people answered by their Creator?
The Kanye West story
Twenty-seven year-old Kanye West was born in Atlanta as the only child of parents Ray and Donda. His parents divorced when he was three and he moved to Chicago with his mother, although he would grow up spending summers with his dad. Unlike many of his peers in the world of rap music, West’s life wasn’t one steeped in poverty and the resulting lack of opportunity. His father Ray is a pastoral counselor. His mother Donda teaches English and serves as head of the department at Chicago State University. West also inherited a heart for activism as his grandparents were heavily involved in the civil rights movement and his father had once been a member of the Black Panthers.
Right from the start, it was obvious West had a creative bent. When he was little he wanted to grow up to be a fashion designer. By the time he was in third grade, he had fallen in love with rap music and was starting to do some rapping himself. After discovering video games he changed his career aspirations, deciding he wanted to design his own games. When he was 14, he got a music sampler in order to make musical soundtracks for the video games he hoped to one day develop. That same year, he also met a man named Willie Scott. West calls Scott his “stepfather” and says he owes his strong discipline and work ethic—something that has certainly paid off for West in terms of success—to Scott’s influence. Once he discovered how to sample and manipulate music in the process of making his own beats, his video game dream died. He was hooked on making his own music. This became his career goal after a chance encounter with a local Chicago beat producer named NO I.D. who was producing rap artist Common at the time. NO I.D. convinced young Kanye to dig into the rich catalog of old soul and R&B music hits to find samples that he could manipulate and rework. West developed the skill that can be heard clearly in his music today.
During his high school years, West continued working hard to create and sell his own beats for $50 to $200 a pop. A good student, he took honors classes and also found time to work at The Gap. He also made some extra money selling Cutco knives to family and friends. His creativity could also be seen in his painting and drawing abilities. In fact, West was so good that he was offered a one-semester scholarship to the American Academy of Art in Chicago. He went reluctantly knowing he was someday going to make it in the world of hip-hop music. He says, “I didn’t believe in school but I didn’t have anything better than that (at the time)” (Rolling Stone, 4/29/04). Eventually, he took advantage of getting a tuition discount at Chicago State—thanks to his mom—and stayed there for a semester and a half before dropping out. All the while he continued to pursue music by taking piano lessons.
West’s big break into the music business came when he did a track for rapper Jay-Z’s song This Can’t Be Life. He signed with Jay-Z’s agent and began to sell more of his beat samples. In 2002 he signed a contract with Roc-A-Fella Records to cut his own album. This came after he had already established himself as a talented and successful producer, having worked since 2001 producing hits for a growing list of artists including the likes of Jay-Z, Ludacris, Alicia Keys, Scarface and Talib Kweli.
Perhaps the most significant recent event in West’s life was his near-fatal car accident in October 2002 that left his jaw broken in three places. Thinking back on 50 Cent’s commercial success after getting shot nine times, West says, “The best thing that could happen to a rapper is for him to almost die, right?” (Rolling Stone, 12/11/03). The accident not only helped West with his publicity, but it gave him a new perspective on life. He says, “You find out how short life is and how blessed you are to be here” (muchmusic.com).
Kanye West stands apart from other hip-hop artists in that his background was void of the gangsta ties so prevalent among many popular east coast and west coast rappers. He admits that any exuberance, overconfidence or boasting that is found in his lyrics is an act to cover up his insecurity. West is a young man filled with self-doubt. He says, “I say in my songs, I’m so insecure. So a lot of times, arrogance is to combat insecurity … facing people telling me I couldn’t do it, I had to build a force field around myself” (Toronto Star, 8/7/04). He also admits that, “I’m so self-conscious. I’m a human being. I got this gap in my teeth that was supposed to be fixed when I had my braces. There are certain pictures where you can see it really well” (Time, 12/20/04).
West’s creative streak extends beyond his production, recording and performing abilities. He’s currently creating and marketing a line of jewelry featuring religious themes. This is partially due to his love for the $25,000 jewel-encrusted head of Christ he designed with the help of a professional jeweler. He’s also developing a line of designer clothing. All this has combined to make Kanye West not only a commercial success, but a familiar pop culture icon who was recently named one of People magazine’s “Sexiest Men Alive.”
Kanye West’s music
Not surprisingly, West writes, performs and produces all his music himself. He’s committed to making good and creative music that is rich in “message and melody” (Entertainment Weekly, 2/27/04).
Melodically, West’s creative musical package incorporates a variety of genres and elements, making it more listenable for a mainstream audience than the sounds of typical hard-core rap music. He incorporates instruments not typically heard in the genre, including an acoustic guitar. He melds the sounds of Gospel, old-school soul and R&B. He is best known for sampling old and familiar soul classics and speeding them up before inserting them into his own songs.
As far as the message goes, West says he wants his songs to be less about the normal rap fare (drugs, sex, violence, etc.) and more about the common man. “It’s more like the person who works at The Gap but still likes nice clothes, or the guy with the regular job and a car payment who was finally able to afford some rims by the summer,” says West (USA Today, 12/23/03). He says, “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” (muchmusic.com). “I try to see how I can express things in my life that other people will relate to and feel like, ‘Man, I’m glad that somebody said that.’ There are so many people that vent through other stuff other than shootin” (mtv.com).
It all combines in a package reviewer Christian Hoard describes as full of “bouncy-yet-soulful hooks” (Rolling Stone, 12/11/03) and Ashante Infantry says is “clever and contemplative enough for smart listeners” (Toronto Star, 3/28/04).
The College Dropout (February 10, 2004)
West’s triple-platinum debut effort entered the charts at #2 and sold over a half-million copies in its first week of release, and has since gone on to achieve triple-platinum status and the 2005 “Best Rap Album” Grammy. He began writing the album in 2001 and says its title refers to his decision to leave college to begin making music.
The cover art depicts West as a costumed high school mascot, dejectedly hanging his head as if he’s given up on school. Inside, a series of photos depict West as one who entered a high school poetry contest that he never won, as a basketball player who never played, as a homecoming spectator who attended a pep rally but never cheered, and a student who never walked at graduation. All of it adds up to paint a picture of someone who doesn’t see much value in education. West says the album is his message to “set your own goals in life. Don’t let anyone dictate to you what you need to be” (muchmusic.com). He goes on, “Every song on this album tells you how you can triumph over something” (Teen People, 4/04).
The liner notes contain a long list of thanks, beginning with West’s praises to God: “THANK GOD!!! Thank u so much, you’ve worked miracles in my life, I always use 2 think, why there no good rappers on GOD’s side??? I know I’m not where need 2 be, matter fact, far from it! But … well u know, when a nigga use the word but, he finna come with an excuse … I don’t got no excuse, you spared my life and I still be on bulls___! AMEN! YOU ARE THE EXECUTIVE PRODUCER OF MY LIFE THANK U!”
The album was met with critical acclaim. Rolling Stone calls it “the most creative hip-hop album since Outkast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below” (3/18/04). Mike Ardelean of RideBMX calls it “a shiny black hovercraft cruising through the disgusting swamp of commercial rap” (8/04).
The album kicks off with a spoken-word skit as a high school administrator/faculty member asks Kanye to “do something for the kids at graduation” that will be uplifting and make them want to jump up and down. Kanye then responds by saying, “Oh yeah, I’ve got the perfect song for the kids to sing.” The skit’s humorous edge is evidence of West’s lighter side. The skit’s message indicates West believes that right out of the gate his heretofore unknown music will be embraced by a generation of young listeners looking for something fresh and new out of the hip-hop world.
West jumps right from the opening skit into “We Don’t Care,” a song that takes listeners into the reality of what it is that motivates youngsters who grow up in poverty. West tells us these are kids who have no money, they’ve been abandoned by their fathers, they’ve been labeled as stupid and destined to fail by their teachers, and the government has cut after-school programs to help them. At one level, “We Don’t Care” is sung to people who rise above this reality and get out of poverty through drug dealing and other various types of hustling (cheating on income taxes, or selling make-up, jewelry and bootleg tapes on the street, etc.). A chorus of children sings, “Drug dealing just to get by/Stack your money ‘til it gets sky high.” At another level, West is singing to those who don’t come from this type of background but who need to see the reality and resulting thought patterns that lead people to see dope money as the way out of poverty. He indicates how easy it is for young children to view drug dealers as role models: “As a shorty I looked up to the dopeman/Only adult man that I knew that wasn’t broke man.” The justification continues as the dealer makes money as a way to provide for his family: “This dope money here is little Tre’s scholarship/Cause ain’t no tuition for having no ambition/And ain’t no loans for sittin on you’re a__ at home/So we forced to sell crack rap and get a job/You gotta do something man you’re a__ is grown.” West tells listeners that even working at minimum wage is not enough and that supplementing a legitimate income is often necessary just to survive. In the end, West says, “we ain’t retards the way teachers thought/Hold up hold fast we make mo’ cash” than the teachers are making by teaching. The song concludes with West singing, “Sometimes I feel no one in this world understands us/But we don’t care what people say” and the chorus of kids singing, “We weren’t supposed to make it past 25/The joke’s on you we’re still alive.” Evidently, crime does at times pay.
On the next cut, “Graduation Day,” the administrator—now angrily ranting at West—throws him out of school while telling him that he can’t graduate with his class. “Pomp and Circumstance” plays in the background. Then, West sings a short autobiographical piece about his post-graduation plans and what he will be doing with his life: “I’m no longer confused but don’t tell anybody/I’m about to break the rules but don’t tell anybody/I got something better than school but don’t tell anybody/My momma would kill me but don’t tell anybody/She wants me to get a gooda___ job just like everybody/She ain’t walked in my shoes I’m just not everybody.” The song encourages listeners to break convention by following your own dreams rather than others’ expectations.
The reality, vicious cycle and emptiness of materialism are addressed in “All Falls Down,” the second single release on the album. West recognizes how entrenched materialism is in our society, particularly in the black culture—a culture he says has been partially created by whites who “made us hate ourself and love they wealth.” He begins by telling about a “self-conscious” and “insecure” girl who thinks that college is the ticket to fortune. After spending three years as a sophomore with no idea what to do with her life, she goes against her parents and drops out of school for a career as a hairdresser. West tells listeners that she justifies the move because she’ll be able to make enough to feed her addiction to retail shopping. West goes on to admit his own self-conscious insecurity and materialism: “That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches.” He admits he can’t act “holier than thou” since he himself paid $25,000 to Jacob the jeweler for a jewel-studded necklace of Christ. West offers commentary on how black materialism not only feeds white pockets, but leaves the materialist feeling empty: “But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem/The prettiest people do the ugliest things/For the road to the riches and the diamond rings … We buy a lot of clothes when we don’t really need ‘em/Things we buy to cover up what’s inside.” The song’s chorus asks listeners a valid and important question: “When it all falls down, who you gonna call now?”
Initially, it seems West points to the one true answer for culture’s cries for redemption in the next cut, a beautiful piano-accompanied rendition of the old Gospel tune “I’ll Fly Away.” But the song that follows seems to indicate West included “I’ll Fly Away” for another reason.
He states his desire to “fly away” from a boring job at The Gap in “Spaceship.” (See lyrics on page 6.) He describes his ho-hum life in retail in words heard repeatedly throughout the song: “I’ve been working this grave shift” and I’m “not making s___.” West also decries racism in the song when he states his perceived role at The Gap as a “token blackey.” He passes time by smoking pot on breaks and looking forward to the day when he will be making his living in the music business with his beats.
The most highly publicized and popular song on the disc is “Jesus Walks,” winner of the 2005 “Best Rap Song” Grammy. (See lyrics on page 6.) Ironically, at one point in the song West indicates that he fears the tune’s spiritual content and God-talk will be the very thing that keeps the song off the radio. How wrong he was. The tune was the third single released from the album and was nominated for a Grammy as “Song of the Year.” West’s vulnerable call to self and others to follow in the footsteps of the Savior who walked and died for them begins with a drug dealer invoking the Lord’s protection while he makes his living selling drugs. In the second verse, West bares his own heart and confesses his need for a Redeemer who will forgive him for his sins. Three versions of the song’s video were made. In the first, West is preaching as angels direct three different people struggling in their lives into his church. Eventually, the prostitute, the street drunk and the drug dealer find their healing and redemption. In the second, West takes a more “artsy” approach. In this version, the main characters are a chain gang harassed by guards, drug dealers being pursued by police, and a KKK member who sets both a cross and himself on fire. In the third version, West himself is depicted as trying to sneak away from Jesus. In spite of that fact, Jesus pursues him and eventually leads him back into the church. Each of the three video versions of “Jesus Walks” is filled with powerful spiritual imagery and fodder for discussion on the life, person and ministry of Christ.
“Never Let Me Down” begins with a guest appearance from Jay-Z, who postures about his rhyming skills, genuineness, faithfulness, rap supremacy and the power of his music in the lives of his listeners: “First I had their ear/Now I have their heart.” When West eventually chimes in he praises his grandfather for passing on the genetic desire to make a difference in a prejudiced world: “I get down for Grandfather who took my momma/Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat/At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit-ins/And with that in my blood I was born to be different.” West goes on to fulfill what he believes to be his created destiny by criticizing the materialistic bling-bling typical of rap music, while saying he wants his music to be music of substance. He also pledges faithfulness to his significant other and confesses that God has been with him, especially in light of the fact that he survived his car accident: “I know I got Angels watchin me from the other side.”
Talib Kweli and Common join West on “Get Em High,” a song that combines autobiography with boastful posturing and a celebration of marijuana and sex. “All the girls pass the weed to your motherf___ing man” is a chant heard throughout the song as listeners are implored to get high and stay high. In the beginning of the song, West talks about his experience dropping out of his first year of college to pursue his dream of success in the music industry: “My freshman year I was going through hell of problems/Till I built up the nerve to drop my a__ up out of college/My teacher said I’s a loser I told her why don’t you kill me/I give a f___ if you feel me/I’m gonna follow my heart and if you follow the charts or the plaques or the stacks you ain’t gotta guess who’s back.” He admits he usually doesn’t smoke marijuana, but still asks for someone to “pass the dro.” West then criticizes other rap music that lacks strength: “That’s why I hear your music in fast forward/Cause we don’t wanna hear that weak s___ no more.” As the song starts to wind down, West talks of how his fame has led girls to pursue him. He tells listeners that a girl is e-mailing him to ask to hook up with him for the first time. When she doesn’t believe he knows Kweli (her favorite artist), West asks Kweli to pick up the phone so she’ll believe him, “Then maybe I’ll be able to give her d___ all the time and get her high.”
“The New Workout Plan” is West’s list of instructions to females. He lustily objectifies members of the gender from start to finish in this song. While the song and infomercial-like video are done as a spoof of the glut of workout tapes on the market, there is a strong message West is sending. He instructs them to perform oral sex: “Get them sit ups right and tuck your tummy tight/and do your crunches like this/Give head/Stop breath/Get up and check your weave”; take care of their marijuana: “Don’t drop the blunt and disrespect the weed”; and random one-night stands: “It’s a party tonight and ooh she’s so excited/Tell me who’s invited you, your friends and my d___ … so excuse me miss I forgot your name/Thank you god bless you good night I came … I came … I came.” He invites a girl to cash in sexually on his fame: “Maybe one day girl we can bone so you can brag to all your homies.”
West’s fantasy in the previous song comes to life in “Slow Jamz.” (See lyrics on page 6.) In this chart-topping single release, West pays tribute to a long list of R&B/soul singers while inviting and engaging a female in sex. Throughout the song, the couple talks back and forth as they are having sex. At one point, she tells West to go faster. At that, West proceeds to showcase his rhyming skills by picking up to a frantic pace.
In “Breathe In Breath Out” West admits the paradox that is his life, his music and his message. He says of himself, “First nigga with a Benz and a backpack/Ice chain Cartier lens and a knapsack/Always said if I rapped I’d say something significant/But now I’m rappin bout money, hoes and rims again.” In other words, West says that on the one hand he’s about substance, depth and intelligence. On the other, he raps in the same materialistic, violent and sexual manner as other mainstream rappers. The rest of the song is filled with sexual banter: “Even though I went to college and dropped out of school quick/I always had a Ph.D. … a pretty huge d___.” He then goes on to invite the girlfriend of another man to engage in sex, oral sex, drinking and drug use with him, while telling her he’s ready to catch it all on tape: “I got a handycam.”
West revisits his feelings about education in the skit, “School Spirit I.” He rants against getting a college education by telling listeners how little the investment of time and money pays off. Instead, they will be destined to a below-entry-level job. As the skit ends, he makes a tongue-in-cheek reference to the fact that a college-educated guy who’s followed the rules may be able to brag that he’s never had sex. Instead, he finds his satisfaction in being able to do some math.
The anti-college sentiment continues on the song “School Spirit.” West tells listeners that when it comes to school “I hate it there hate it there” and that he’s going to walk away and make in the music business. He offers proof of how worthless an education is: “This nigga graduated at the top of our class/I went to the Cheesecake and he was a muthaf_____ waiter there.” He goes on to brag up the fact that even though he didn’t go to college, the sorority girls love him more than they love the college guys.
In the skit “School Spirit II,” West continues to deride conventional thinking by telling listeners that all a life of education has to offer is a wall full of degrees. He sarcastically says that can’t get you money, but it does allow you to brag up the fact that you’re smart.
A man asks a younger man, “Hey Jimmy, where you going?” in the skit “Lil Jimmy.” Jimmy answers that he doesn’t know. The reason? He explains that his dad died and all he left him was a bunch of degrees and no money. As Gospel music plays in the background, Jimmy explains how he’s better than all the other homeless people because all they have to keep themselves warm is newspaper. He, however, stays warm with his dad’s degrees. Jimmy tells listeners that he vows to get smart so that he can die without money as well.
The Harlem Boys Choir is featured on “Two Words,” a Kanye West bragfest about where he’s come from, who he is and where he intends to go. He states his resolve to represent Chicago worldwide “till I f_____ die.” He boldly speaks of what he’s able to wear around his neck and waist: “One neck, two chains, one waist, two gats.” His music has made him “most imitated, Grammy nominated.” His humble beginnings have left him going “from the bottom so the top’s the only place 2 go now.” He blames his background for his lifestyle and then confesses his spiritual struggle: “Two words, Chi town, raised me, crazy/So I live by two word, ‘F___ you, pay me’/Screamin, Jesus save me/You know how the game be/I can’t let em change me/Cuz on Judgment Day, you gon blame me/Look God, it’s the same me.”
The disc’s first single release, “Through The Wire,” won the Video of the Year Award at the 2004 Hip-Hop Music Awards. The song recounts his horrible car accident and the experience of healing and recovery. The song was actually recorded while West’s jaw was still wired shut. At the end of the song, West tells listeners, “I’m a champion so I turned tragedy to triumph/Make music that’s fire, spit my soul through the wire.”
West celebrates family and pledges allegiance to his kin in the upbeat “Family Business.” While he goes through a litany of autobiographical family ups and downs, he focuses on two particular people in the song. First, he speaks of his commitment to his incarcerated cousin. Second, he pays tribute to his recently deceased grandmother who he misses deeply. He also mentions his commitment to non-violence in his music (“I woke up early this morning with a new state of mind/A creative way to rhyme without using nines and guns”), and implores listeners to embrace spirituality (“Keep your nose out of the sky/Keep your heart with God/And keep your face to the rising sun”).
The album’s final cut is the 12-and-a-half-minute long “Last Call.” The boastful song chronicles his difficult rise in the music industry from the time nobody believed in him and his rap abilities, to his recent success. He says he made it by sheer determination: “Last year shopping my demo I was trying to shine/Every motherf_____ told me that I couldn’t rhyme/Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem/Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams/I use it as my gas so they say that I’m gassed/But without it I’d be last so I ought to laugh/So I don’t listen to the suits behind the desk no more/You niggas wear suits cause you can’t dress no more/You can’t say s___ to Kanye West no more/I rocked 20,000 people I was just on tour nigga!” The song ends with a lengthy segment featuring West talking on and on as he chronicles his story of how he got his music deals.
What’s the draw?
Kanye West has very quickly risen from obscurity to connect with kids and find his place on the pop culture landscape. But why? There are several reasons.