Kanye West serves as a particularly fruitful starting point for examining the intersection of race, masculinity and misogyny. Intentionally or unintentionally, he’s always reflected Americans as they truly are. When he needs attention he whines on Twitter. He defends Bill Cosby, a rapist. He tells us he’s going to make clothes a poor kid can afford and releases shoes nobody can afford. He’s politically incorrect, he’s too politically correct, he’s too black, and he’s too white. His jeans were too baggy, and then they were too tight. He wore shutter shades.
I’ve argued in the past that West’s character has been disproportionately attacked because of his skin color, and that his defiance has only made his critics all the more able and eager to call him a crazed black man. Whenever I make that argument, I always append a very bold asterisk at the end. Someone’s skin color should never place them outside the realm of thoughtful and well executed criticism, particularly a public figure as thirsty for attention as West. However, the fact remains that all people of color are always, always placed under a different sort and severity of scrutiny when expressing dissent. Indeed, their presence to many is automatically read as dissent. (See: Obama). By claiming West is under attack only because of his belligerence is to peel the brown skin off his bones and pretend he’s judged purely on merit in a world where none of us—men and women, whites and blacks, rich and poor, whatever—are judged plainly on the sum of our ideas and actions. It’s post-racialism—dangerously regressive and flatly idiotic. I won’t waste any more words on it.
But I’ve always neglected to reflect more on Kanye’s relationship with women. For West, women are objects in the most square and angular sense. If they have any roundness and depth to him, it’s sparsely represented in his music. There’s an overflowing well of misogyny in Kanye West’s mind, and he loves to splish splash around in it like some kind of horny deviant. For a man who loves his mother so much he attributed years of his misbehavior to him being torn by her death, and who was so moved by her passing he named an entire company after her in her memory, to be so stunningly anti-woman in his music is hard to understand.
2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, created after he was castigated for stealing Taylor Swift’s moment, was supposed to give us a humbled Kanye. In hindsight, it was a phony apology tour played over some nice beats—an overrated exercise in damage control, as evidenced by what’s come since. On 2013’s Yeezus, he gleefully stood for patriarchy. That album, which to me represented the beginning of West’s creative decline as a lyricist, was praised for its brutal rejection of white supremacy. That angle was and remains a timely and empowering statement. Unsurprisingly, it was also enough to distract from the wickedness scattered elsewhere on the album:
Black Timbs all on your couch again
Black dick all in your spouse again
And I know she like chocolate men
She got more niggas off than Cochran, hah!
Here West trophies a white woman. In trophying her, he silently sets black women on the bottom shelf, again. Then he discards the white woman after he’s done with her, calling her a slut as he kicks her out the door. Clear cut misogyny. In doing all this, he also sinks into the muck of one of America’s most resilient and despicable tropes–that black men, like rapists, fiend after white women, and that white women revel in it. Then he laughs it all off like it’s clever commentary. All this in four bars.
Disturbingly, Kanye seems to understand his sickly view of women to be an admiration. Not even his wife Kim Kardashian, whom he seems genuinely head-over-heels for in interviews, is excluded from his nonsense.
On Bound 2, a track he dedicated to her, he says:
She asked me what I wished for on my wishlist/ Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?
This mess plays out alongside critiques of racial disparities all over the rest of the album.
On New Slaves:
My momma was raised in the era when
Clean water was only served to the fairer skin
Doin’ clothes you would have thought I had help
But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself
You see it’s broke nigga racism
That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”
And it’s rich nigga racism
That’s that “Come in, please buy more”
First, a few lines reminding us of America’s historical devaluing of black life, his only mistake here being that he didn’t realize we still can’t get clean drinking water. Next, a condemnation of the fashion industry for shutting him out. Then, he points out how not even wealth makes him immune to racism, though not as deftly and memorably as he did a decade earlier on All Falls Down. When The Life of Pablo dripped out into the internet in February 2016, I readied to cringe. Instead, I was awed. The opening track, Ultralight Beam, is stunning. It’s an expression of black faith, black power and black joy made for everyone. None of the actual verses, the meat of the track, are his though. They all come from Chance the Rapper. Kanye just adds a hook.
When Kanye does speak up on Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1, the album leaps backward:
Now if I fuck this model
And she just bleached her asshole
And I get bleach on my T-shirt
I’mma feel like an asshole
Ugh. Later, on Part 2:
For all my Southside niggas that know me best
I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex
Why? I made that bitch famous
I made that bitch famous
A 39-year-old man trashing a woman 13 years younger than him, again, just to push album sales. Gross.
Kanye West obviously isn’t the only musician guilty of putting out baldly misogynistic music. Drake, whose career thesis is that getting a moment of his attention should be a bullet point on a woman’s resume, constantly gets a pass. Oh, and remember that time Drizzy, in buff Drizzy mode, said he’s ready to stab one of his own trophies if she crosses him? I do. And how about Kanye on violence against women?
Black girl sippin’ white wine
Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign
And grabbed it with a slight grind
And held it ’til the right time
Then she came like AAAAAHHH!
Kanye prides himself on being 100% Kanye at all times. If he’s a rapper who’s donned a persona, he’s done it expertly. There’s little insulation between West and his music, or so he’d have us believe. This is a man-child’s id calling itself high art. It’s frustrating. When I hear Kanye say disgusting things over gorgeous production, I’m torn and disappointed. His words put an expiration date on music that otherwise could have been timeless. In 20 years, after we’ve had at least one female president (and Kanye’s daughter and son are adults), will his tastelessness still be treated like genius? Hopefully not.