The internet is ablaze with varied dissections of the misogynistic agenda present in Kanye West’s latest album . Yet upon first listen, I had to note that there are Lil’ Wayne tracks with as many derogatory shots taken at women as are contained in the entirety of Yeezus. So what I’m grappling with is, 1) reconciling my love of hip-hop and my favorite artists’ fantastic turn of phrase with what they are often turning those phrases into, which is something violently anti-women, and 2) why this particular album by this particular artist is being finely tooth combed for its gross misogyny in the media. I’m pretty conditioned to hearing “bitch,” “girl,” and “female” as the predominant choices for referring to women in hip-hop. Why is this Kanye West’s problem? Why now? And how can I sit at home and lecture my boyfriend on the male gaze and how his casual use of the word bitch is just as inappropriate as The Word That He Would Never Use, but not bat an eye at lines like, “Black dick all up in your spouse again?”
That’s actually a good line to kick us off. What I find even more disconcerting than images of forced fellatio is this idea of the women in his world as property. It’s not that I mind the objectification of my body parts per se, as in this line from the same track, “On Sight”: “No sports bra, let’s keep it bouncing.” But this notion of ownership is highly prevalent in rap music, as outlined brilliantly in this article by Cord Jefferson that focuses on race relations as viewed through Kanye’s lyrics. In the fraught dynamic between black men and white men since forever in this country, white women have played an historic role in each side’s point of pride. This concept, while completely gross, does make psychological and historical sense, and Kanye is not the first, last or only rapper to espouse the virtues of getting down with white women, therefore touting his own virtue by proxy. In reading Jefferson’s article, all I could think was, “Man, growing up a black man in the United States of America is a totally messed up experience that I will never be able to truly comprehend. But WOMEN ARE GETTING THE SHORT END OF THE STICK HERE, GUYS!” In his dying breath at the hands of a white man who stood no consequences Emmet Till gasped, “I’m as good as you are. I’ve had white women.”
In one sentence, white women are reduced to livestock while black women are reduced to nothing. And that theme carries on today in rap lyric after rap lyric. I’m fine with clever riffs on the female body, but when the lyrics contain notions of women as playing cards to be traded hands, specifically when it gets racial in nature? That’s depressing, Kanye. Use me for sex, fine. That’s presumably what I’m using you for. But don’t use me as a status symbol. I AM a sexual being, but I am NOT a symbol.
But again, as I pick apart what is essentially a very sticky and centuries-in-the-making relationship between race and gender in America, I have to ask, why Kanye West? Why Yeezus? As a rabid Kanye fan, I’m inclined to file all complaints under “H8Rs!” But I understand why writers and pop culture analysts of a certain intelligence are fascinated with the man and his music – it’s because Kanye himself is a pop culture analyst of a certain intelligence. This album, despite its storied completion – laying down five tracks, three of which were without lyrics in the two hours preceding the Kimye baby shower – wasn’t a mistake. None of his albums are. Not even his gaffes are; not even “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” or Taylor-Swift-Gate. What we have in Kanye is a socially conscious, successful, young, black artist who puts his foot in his mouth every now and again – and his foot goes straight into his mouth because he has a lot to say. His lyrics have always carried a sharply self effacing quality, expounding on the damned-if-you-do-damned-if-you-don’t plight of the black man in America. This was first rapped about expertly in Late Registration’s “All Falls Down” and comes to a cynical head in “New Slaves” on Yeezus, summed up beautifully halfway between the two in Graduation’s “The Good Life” with the line, “Having money ain’t everything, not having it is.”
Essentially, Kanye knows his words and his work do not exist in a vacuum. Even his relaxation times are tinged with an aggressive self awareness, as though everything about his life exists in a much larger context. Which it does. His casual sexism sounds aggressive when spat in the same breaths he uses to completely dismantle racism. “It’s broke –gg- racism that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store!’/and there’s rich –gg- racism that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more!’ ” cannot possibly come from the same artist who uses “300 bitches/Where the Trojans?” as a hook. I understand, sadly, that White America has set up a system where you ending up in jail is more profitable, and therefore more desirable, than your vote or your education. So of course you want to take away all of White America’s things. But women are not things! This man is so attuned to civil and human rights, but he doesn’t notice he’s being sexist? Not likely.
And it is for that reason, I presume, that his lyrics come off as aggressively sexist and violently misogynistic. He’s doing it on purpose. Is he the worst offender? GOD. NO. But he is, by his own count at least, the best. He named his album YEEZUS, so he better be the best. (Before you argue, turn your speakers up really loud while sitting alone in a dark room and try to not vibe violently to this album. It is, sonically speaking, empirically better than whatever you were listening to before.) He’s done a lot of work over the past decade to raise the bar up to the highest heights of creativity in the realms of production, style and persona, wearing leather skirts and speaking up for gay men while producing records with Daft Punk that are truly – sorry, Lena Dunham – the voice for our Adderall-riddled generation of cynicism. Yet simultaneously he regurgitates an antiquated attitude towards women. It does not compute. You set the standard for creative consciousness, Kanye. Hold yourself to it.