Hip-hop's Hamlet.

Pop, jazz, and classical.
Sept. 8 2005 3:04 PM

Hip-Hop's Hamlet

The fascinating contradictions of Kanye West.

To rap or not to rap? Click on image to enlarge.
To rap or not to rap?

While making good beats may net you some fancy jewelry, it rarely lands you on the cover of Time. But Chicago rapper Kanye West's quick ascent has been littered with such improbabilities. He's gone from the minor distinction of being Jay-Z's favored producer to releasing two of the most inspired records of the past decade, last year's College Dropout and the new follow-up, Late Registration. As a lyricist, West has lingered masterfully in the gray area of contradiction. He pokes fun at his (and everyone else's) materialism while celebrating his riches. He writes brash club hits about Jesus. He acts like a rap star and then rhymes about his insecurities. His appeal is slightly mystifying: He's found a large and loyal audience despite a comfortable background short on hip-hop's roughneck signifiers. What, exactly, is propelling his success?

Besides his musical gifts, West skillfully exploits the vantage point provided by his middle-class upbringing. Consider the wardrobe he chose for the Time cover shoot: a turtleneck and sports coat. Always careful about self-presentation, West uses his appearance as a reminder that he's anything but a thug; he's a man of refinement—a dandy, even. In 1957, the sociologist E. Franklin Frazier published the seminal Black Bourgeoisie, a harsh but enduring profile of this emerging community. His conclusion? The black middle class inhabited a world of "make-believe," where "glitter and gaiety" obscured the ennui of their lives. In their pursuit of material comfort, they had cut their ties with the more authentic working-class experience of most African-Americans. West doesn't exactly fit the profile of a black bourgeoisie—his mother is an English professor; his dad a former Black Panther—but he, unlike some of the rappers he's made beats for, appeals to the values of that world. The finely dressed, churchgoing West exudes an air of clean-cut conformity. He corrects his own grammar during interviews and details his by-the-bootstraps journey toward superstardom.

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Most important, West seems safe. After all, one of last year's biggest hits was West's "Jesus Walks," a gospel-tinged, feel-good uplift anthem that was, at core, about a very middle-class subject: self-help. Jay-Z might possess more street clout, and there are plenty of rappers with more interesting flows or story lines. But West is the one who gets invited to mime alongside movie stars for a live NBC hurricane telethon. As he proved last Friday night, when he strayed off-script to blast the federal government's slow-footed response to the swells of black suffering, West isn't as polite as his image would suggest. "George Bush doesn't care about black people," he quivered, ending an impromptu ramble that teased the censors and shocked the executives. Anybody familiar with the Kanye canon, though, shouldn't have been surprised. Underneath it all—and often at odds with his cool and occasionally arrogant demeanor—West has always been a vulnerable and eternally overwhelmed person fascinated by ugly questions.

Because of his background, West sidestepped hip-hop's ready-made, rags-to-riches narratives. His debut, College Dropout, was distinguished by the breadth of its critique. While hip-hop's default mode is to assume a healthy disdain for the powers that be, it rarely turns that righteousness against the self. A true narcissist, West spent every song either broadcasting his own excellence or beating himself up for his shortcomings. "Always said if I rapped I'd say somethin' significant," he shrugged on "Breathe In Breathe Out," "but now I'm rappin' about money, hos and rims again." These self-conflicts fascinated him. "All Falls Down" encodes a Frazier-esque concern with patterns of consumption ("We shine because they hate us/ Floss because they degrade us/ We tryin' to buy back our forty acres") inside a gorgeous, radio-friendly twirl. Having been seduced by hip-hop's twin functions as righteous, conscious uplift (the wage-labor anthem "Spaceship") and anything-goes materialist apologia ("We Don't Care" and its drug-dealing-as-protest subtext), West split the difference. He made an album obsessed with contradictions.

His follow-up, Late Registration, works over the same thematic ground as his debut, only with much less humility. In the overblown "Diamonds From Sierra Leone,"West scrutinizes the around-the-world consequences of his own taste for diamonds. It's a classic West-ian marriage of material hunger and moral confusion: "Over here it's the drug trade—we die from drugs/ Over there they die from what we buy from drugs," he spits after bullying a jeweler about conflict diamonds. As is West's wont, he can't broker a way out of this conflict between the shiny and the righteous. It may be "in a black person's soul to rock that gold," but it doesn't feel so good after you see the pictures of the kids with no arms.

What makes these moral soliloquies all the more provoking is that Late Registration is one of the best-sounding records of the year, thanks largely to the help of the producer Jon Brion. Better-known for his quirky, pop-baroque soundtracks (I Heart Huckabees, Punch-Drunk Love) and his collaborations with Aimee Mann and Fiona Apple, Brion adds his melancholy touch to the gracefully lilting "Heard 'Em Say" and the spaced-out orchestration of "Celebration." Beats are not enough, of course. Few rappers or producers have West's ear for detail; even fewer could get away with peddling his college-educated C.V. over and over. The festive "Touch the Sky" samples the ultimate striver's anthem—Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up"—as West once again recounts his past: packing a U-Haul and setting forth for the big city, pinching pennies and splitting buffets, and verging toward tears after mounting rejections. The precious "Bring Me Down" and "Addiction" shade these story lines in a bit more, while the hospital-room drama of "Roses" and "Hey Mama" purport to trade all his success away for the comfort of family. Like College Dropout, Late Registration is an amazingly intimate album, at once funny and sad and self-obsessive.

Still, a slight change in West's attitude is detectable. First, West was the middle-class beat-maker who made his name working with Jay-Z and the tough guys; now, he's the one-in-a-million rap superstar telling everyone they can do it, too, no matter where they start. "He got ambition baby, look in his eyes/ This week he mopping floors, next week it's the fries," he raps on "Gold Digger," describing an Everyman scrimping and saving his way to the top. West's expansive empathy and pendulumlike swing between arrogance and insecurity have made him into something more than a rapper. He's become a pop star, in the fullest sense of that term: He's someone whom people use as a guiding light, with whom they identify, and whose experiences and ambitions seem universal.

With his could vs. should monologues, West has shown he can be all things to all people, from the nouveau riche who shares his thirst for diamonds to the janitor earnestly working his way up. He possesses a pathological need to ask the impossible, important questions, even if he is the first to confess that he hasn't a clue about the answers. This has worked for two albums, but one wonders if the novelty will dissipate—if his routine of rhetorical posturing, eternal contradiction, campus humor, and middle-class self-doubt will grow tiresome. At some point, he will either have to figure out a way to answer his own questions, or just restart with some completely different ones. For now, though, West's presence restores something that pop music has lacked for far too long: a conscience.

Hua Hsu teaches in the English department at Vassar College and is completing his first book, A Floating Chinaman.