Opinion: ‘New Slaves’ Reveals An Inconvenient Truth About Kanye West

News

/ May 19, 2013

Kanye’s anti-consumerist contradictions went down easier before he started to ball so hard

Kanye West is a genius. No denying that. This weekend’s unveiling of his latest record, “New Slaves,” was viral marketing brilliance. It brought together folks of all backgrounds to not-so-hood areas of major cities to consume hip-hop. Bravo! And the song is great, lyrically. It grabs you right from that vivid opening couplet about segregated water fountains. Backpacker Kanye is back! Or is he?

Sonically, “New Slaves” would make a perfect album intro. Its synthesized beat is simultaneously eerie and contagious, his vocals blunt and impassioned. But the message is a bit convoluted. Here’s a giant, scowling Kanye face illuminating 66 walls around the world, grumbling about how Black folks spend too much money on ludicrously priced fashion, and celebrities—himself included—are coerced into signing bogus contracts merely to cash in on luxury car bonuses. Corporations are profiting, while the underclass and rich rappers who refuse to read paperwork are under the psychological spell of materialism. Or as Yeezy puts it, “new slavery.” It’s a direct bridge connecting College Dropout ‘Ye—“I spent four hundred bucks on this/Just to be like, ‘Nigga, you ain’t up on this!’”—to Watch The Throne, only these days, Kanye isn’t just the victim; he’s part of the problem.

You could call it the Kanye conundrum. The Versace that he facetiously mispronounces in “All Falls Down” is now the Alexander Wang that he sports in excess, in turn, making it the lust of fans who might be able to afford a Wang duffle if they skipped a couple mortgage payments. The Maybach that he converts into a go-kart and joyrides for the “Otis” video isn’t in the budget for this writer, despite the heft of VIBE’s payroll (ha!). And have you ever tried to stuff your toes into a pair of Nike Air Yeezy sneakers that are so limited that their $250 retail value reportedly ballooned to $90,000 in an online auction? The truth is, Kanye is contributing to the same materialistic values he shuns on “New Slaves.”

Many great MCs have exhibited contradictory views via art; Nas and 2Pac come to mind. It’s simply human nature. Yet can a man who’s claimed he shops so much that he can speak Italian—the same dude who played mute at an Occupy Wall Street protest while flaunting multiple gold chains—truly be a voicebox for the middle-class man? Kanye’s early work, while conflicted between Benzes, backpacks, diamond chains and blood diamonds, christened him with that distinction. And it fit, mostly because he wasn’t one of music’s most influential sartorial trendsetters and self-proclaimed spitter of “luxury rap.” We could relate to the pressures of rocking fresh, but affordable, Air Force Ones and throwback jerseys that were already the status quo. And then Kanye got his money right. Now, the flashy new money stunts and One Percenter raps that 2013 ‘Ye exudes makes him an unconvincing proponent against consumerism, and an unlikely victim, as he presents himself in “New Slaves.” While the song has protest rhymes about the lopsided Black men in prison statistics, just a few bars earlier he’s flossing for listeners who, in some cases, can’t even afford dental insurance. Def Poetry Kanye seems to be a fading memory.

There’s leaders and there’s followers. Kanye may belong to the former classification, but as a people, where exactly is he taking us? —John Kennedy