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Kanye West: New Slave, Brilliant Schemes, and Old Tantrums

Written by: Ray Ford

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Listening to Kanye West’s “New Slave”

Make no mistake about it, Kanye West accomplished most, if not all, of what he intended to when he projected the video for “New Slave” on to sixty-six buildings across the globe and performed it along with “Black Skinhead” on Saturday Night Live. The entire gambit was one of the most original, artistic, ingenious, and slightly disturbing multi-level marketing schemes hip-hop and popular culture have seen in quite some time. Kanye West made a deliberate and strategic chess move—one that he knew would seize global and domestic media attention by using two of the most emotionally charged and controversial words in the English lexicon—slave and skinhead.

Think about it, West projected the video for his song “New Slave” against the exterior walls of sixty-six buildings across the globe. Walls are, in fact, symbols of mental and physical barriers and restrictions (The Berlin Wall, The Great Wall of China), which speaks directly to the theme of “New Slave” – the state of being controlled by another (physically and mentally). Moreover, a foundational element of hip-hop culture was born on the buildings and walls of Philadelphia and the South Bronx in the early 1970s—graffiti. The dilapidated buildings and inter-borough mobility of subway trains allowed taggers and the more expansive train writers to project their voices to the masses. Whether inked on the interior of a subway car, marked on the exterior wall of a bombed out building, or spray painted along the outer surface of a subway car, artists sought to broadcast their message and existence to a world (Forman 225). West also chose to project the video on to exactly sixty-six walls, which may have something to do with the title of his forthcoming album – Yeezus – a creative, yet crude amalgamation of his own moniker, Yeezy, and Jesus. Biblically, the number 666, in the book of Revelations 13:16, refers to “the mark of the beast,” which if removed from its biblical context and inserted into the hip-hop culture aesthetic, projects Kanye West as the best that ever did it.

It goes without saying that Kanye West single-handedly added an aesthetic depth to rap music and arguably hip-hop culture. He is, without a doubt, a genius in his own right—he is intelligent (his lyrics have proven to be thought provoking), and he is extraordinarily creative (he revolutionized the art of sampling in the public sphere). However, every genius has his or her own quirks and idiosyncrasies–Mr. West is no different. While listening to West’s “New Slave,” I was reminded of his 2005 song, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” when in the second verse he said, “What more can you ask for? The international a******e – who complains about what he is owed – and throw tantrums like he is 3 years old – you gotta love it though, somebody still speaks from his soul.” Then it hit me, “New Slave” is a by-product of two psychological stimuli in Kanye West that traditionally act in accordance with one another–inspiration and motivation, which is why the song rings of social truth and emotional disturbance.

The inspiration for West to write “New Slave” is clear because the lyrics reflect the repressive state of America—the big business that is today’s prison system, which “ironically” corresponds to an over-inflated number of non-violent crime convictions across the nation (an appropriated form of chattel slavery). Moreover, West laments about a form of mental slavery that imprisons the mind and soul and is extremely prevalent in society – the tendency to place a higher value on superficial things and less value on spirituality, morals, and content of character.

However, there also seems to be an underlying motivation for the song as well—somebody, somewhere, at some point, told the self-professed, complaining, international, tantrum throwing Kanye West, NO, and that person or group of people just happened to have a certain controlling power over him. Which is arguably why West says, “I throw these Maybach keys – I wear my heart on the sleeve – I know that we the new slaves – I see the blood on the leaves…they throwing hate at me – want me to stay at east – f**k you and your corporation – y’all n****s can’t control me” in “New Slave.”

Notwithstanding the truth lodged between Kanye West’s lyrics and considering his predisposition for emotional outbursts (Taylor Swift, George W. Bush and Hurricane Katrina), the questions that West needs to consider answering is: What now? What is the proposed solution to the problems exposed in “New Slave?” Remember in the mid-90s when Prince wrote the word slave on his cheek in protest of his record label, Warner Brothers, and then changed his name to that squiggly symbol? Prince wanted ownership of his music and when he could not secure it, he stopped performing his popular tunes in public—songs from Purple Rain, 1999, Around the World in a Day, Parade, etc…He would eventually get emancipated from Warner Brothers, gain ownership of his music, which he celebrated by releasing the triple album Emancipated in 1996, and then he started his own New Power Generation Music Club–securing legal control of his music and artistry. If Kanye West is as fed up as “New Slave” sounds, what measures will he take, if any, to better his situation? Only time and his next album will tell.

Works Cited

Forman, Murray. “Hip-Hop, Space, and Place.” 2004. That’s the Joint: The Hip Hop Studies Reader. Ed. Murray Forman and Mark Anthony Neal. 2nd ed. New York: Routledge, 2012. 225-227. Print.

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5 Comments on “Kanye West: New Slave, Brilliant Schemes, and Old Tantrums”

  1. Brian J Stevens June 7, 2013 at 3:28 pm #

    Ray,after over 10 years of mega star status,if Kanye would start and thus own his own recording conglomerate,Kanye would answer to himself only. With his $$$ and popularity, he has become a brand. If Michael Jordan can be the first black owner of a pro. basketball franchise in a “good ole’ boys” network, isn’t it conceivable that Kanye should follow Berry Gordy as in being the sole owner of his own product?

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  2. Brian J Stevens May 29, 2013 at 12:22 pm #

    What’s ironic about the essence of “New slave” is that the “war” is about the haves verses the have nots. Kanye is a HAVE!

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    • Ray Ford (@rayford23) May 29, 2013 at 11:29 pm #

      Excellent point, Brian–and I agree with you. There does seem to be an underlying irony in Mr. West’s perspective, but I think it may go slightly deeper than Kanye simply being a HAVE. For example, If we were to compare my salary to his, he certainly is a HAVE, but he has little to no power on a macro industry level. In the grand scheme of things, power belongs to the industry executives. So we must also consider a sort of inverted irony within the context of the song, where Mr. West actually takes on the role of a HAVE NOT to the industry.

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  3. Bones May 24, 2013 at 9:25 pm #

    This is a very interesting read. Although Kanye irritates me on a number of levels. I find it hypocritical of him to use the term “slave” when he seems to be pushing for it. And how can he lament spiritual and moral decay when exacerbates it? (Think No Church inherent Wild”) in all honesty Kany seems to want his proverbial “cake and to eat it too”. I agree Ray, he’s a smart and talented musician, but maybe that’s all there is to him in the end.

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    • Ray Ford Jr May 25, 2013 at 1:16 am #

      Thanks, I appreciate that. I agree with you because Kanye’s use of the word slave does hold a sort of contradictory duality that on the one hand portrays him as being controlled and restricted and on the other shows him reveling in the excessive lifestyle that being controlled and restricted affords him.

      “No Church in the Wild,” in my opinion, is more of a cautionary tale, not necessarily an exacerbation — think of Lindsay Lohan, Amy Winehouse, Marvin Gaye, Jimi Hendrix, etc… Kanye’s verse tells the story of a person maneuvering through the jungle that, for some of us, unfortunately, becomes our life’s reality. A dark place where we try to run from our pain by seeking out pleasure.

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