Is Kanye Repping for the 99 Percent?

Slate's Culture Blog
April 5 2012 2:37 PM

Is Kanye's Latest a Gold-Leafed Protest Song?

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Kanye West performs at Big Day Out in Australia in January.

Photo by Mark Metcalfe/Getty Images

No one ever said Kanye West was a stranger to contradictions. On his new track with DJ Khaled, “Theraflu,”—which Funkmaster Flex premiered on Hot 97 last night—West spends his verses bragging like the 1 percent and his verses pleading for the 99. UPDATE: You can now stream both "Theraflu" and new G.O.O.D. track "Mercy" from Kanye's official website.

Forrest Wickman Forrest Wickman

Forrest Wickman is a Slate staff writer. 

It’s not a new trick for Kanye: West most famously embodied these contradictions alongside Jay-Z on Watch the Throne. While many recoiled from that album’s gross materialism—the album arrived amid some of the worst economic news since the recession began—Slate music critic Jody Rosen called it “the unlikeliest populist protest record of 2011.”

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In “Theraflu,” the plea comes right in the first line: “Can’t a young nigga get money no more?” You might think this is another strange brag about Kanye’s own success, but he sounds angrier and angrier every time he repeats the question, and it begins to sound like a sentiment the young and highly unemployed can relate to.

For the rest of the song, however, Kanye is all braggadocio. That refrain is immediately followed by the blustery and unapologetic, “Tell PETA my mink is draggin’ on the floor”—a reference to an actual coat of Kanye’s—and most of the verses are spent boasting about Kanye’s high-fashion adventures. Anna Wintour and Project Runway each get name-checked—they’re the latest acquisitions in Kanye’s pursuit not just of capital but of cultural capital. The overlong coat, on the other, also seems to embody Kanye’s own uncomfortable relationship with excess. (This isn’t the first time he’s found fur to be impractical.)

Just about every protest singer since Woody Guthrie has had his own contradictions—they’re usually more generous with their verses than their riches, even though the riches might be more effective. But the morality of those lifestyle choices doesn’t much hurt the music. It’s worth comparing Kanye’s new track to another recent Occupy record, Bruce Springsteen’s Wrecking Ball. While The Boss has opened up about his own contradictions while outside of the recording booth, on album you won’t hear much about the millions he’s made in platinum records and arena tours. West works in a different musical tradition, and partly because of that, he chooses to lay these contradictions down on tape. Is that more hypocritical, or more honest? Frankly, I’m enjoying the new music from each of them, and am happy I don’t have to choose.

Kanye West’s G.O.O.D. Music label is also working on a group album, and they’ve teased that they’ll release a new single called “Mercy,” featuring West, Big Sean, Pusha T, and 2 Chainz this Friday. Friday also happens to be Good Friday (the holiday), so we’ll see whether this kicks off another streak of G.O.O.D. Friday track giveaways, just like West did in the run up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. As that new material comes out, here’s hoping that Kanye—who’s often been at his musical best when he’s angry and open—will continue in the same vein.

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