Five years ago, West scored a hit with "Gold Digger," a cheeky single about how money can get in the way of love. Now the characters in his songs break up over issues of art connoisseurship. The "I like-art-type girls" line might seem throwaway, but it's central to West's erudite conception of himself and, more generally, to the way he's revised hip-hop's narrative of upward mobility, putting a premium on the amassment not simply of capital but of cultural capital. West isn't the only rapper to collaborate with and reference art- and design-world bigs like Takashi Murakami, Marc Newson, George Condo, and Phoebe Philo, but he does so the most, and the most loudly—it's hard not to see his influence in this regard even on his erstwhile mentor, Jay-Z.
Which is only fair, considering that West is the most influential hip-hop figure since Jay-Z. Avowedly middle-class, West breaks wholesale from the MC-as-hustler mold that the Notorious BIG hashed out and that Jay-Z evolved and made paradigmatic. (Here's Jay-Z in 2005, recalling his early skepticism towards West's rapperly ambitions: "We all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work.") As a lyricist, West's capacity for emotional oversharing is audible in moody heirs like Drake and Kid Cudi, successes who don't merely shun the hustler origin myth but threaten its mainstream dominance. As a producer, West was key in pushing hip-hop back toward sampling and, later, in opening it up to indie-music sources and sounds. And he's a fashion icon, synonymous with the plastic-slatted sunglasses that flooded malls and street-vendor stalls a couple of years ago and the slimmed-down silhouettes of today's hip-hop wardrobe.
All of this, so to speak, is on the man's one-sheet. What's sometimes lost in discussions of West, however—perhaps because of his association with the redolent but reductive term "hipster rap"— is his conviction that hip-hop is supposed to be a place where politics happen, where black identity can be explicitly affirmed. West himself tries to downplay this on occasion—interviewed about the movie Runaway, he insisted that the choice to stage an all-black dinner party waited upon by an all-white staff was "based off of color palettes … not racially charged at all"— but My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is, to put it mildly, racially charged.
Throughout the album, racism inflects all sorts of interactions. There's the porn star who tells West that "her price go down, she ever fuck a black guy," the TSA agents who "check all through my bag and tell me that it's random," and the government that "treats AIDS" the way West treats "the cash": "I won't be satisfied till all my niggas get it—get it?" That second "get it?" puts a little wink between West and the conspiracy theory he's referencing (and has referenced before, on 2006's "Heard 'Em Say"). It's almost as though he's sampling the rhetoric of '80s gangsta rap, borrowing some of its outsider's fury without taking complete ownership of it. On "Power," though, there is no wink when West describes his success as ominously contingent: "In this white man's world, we the ones chosen." It's a stunningly bleak thing for a pop megastar to say.
This is how West's sense of injustice makes things interesting: He invariably sucks the wind out of his own sails, offsetting some grandiose declaration with its unflattering flipside (sometimes in the same breath), and his perspective changes constantly, moving from me to we to them. The charges that West is an insufferable egotist are accurate but ultimately unsatisfying: As big as he fancies himself, his best music is bigger.
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