Kanye West’s “Bound 2” video is the kind of thing we would normally cover on this blog, but we didn’t, and here’s why: It’s completely unhinged. If Kanye West is a happy, sane person I don’t want to encourage him to continue making videos with the same viral-video template Insane Clown Posse patented; if he’s truly so deluded as to believe the world needed to see Kim Khardashian have poorly simulated motorcycle sex with him inside a Thomas Kinkade painting it doesn’t seem sporting to keep making fun of him, even though he is a fantastically successful artist and entertainer and I have an IKEA nightstand on my desk to stave off repetitive stress injury.
I love Kanye West. I didn’t like Yeezus, which seemed like a desperate formal move by somebody who’s run out of compelling things to say to people like me, with broken desks and no motorcycle, but even there his willingness to try new things left me hopeful he’d find a more productive direction next time around. It’s in that spirit that I’d like to offer this list of 10 Kanye West songs that were not directly, thank god (and sometimes God), about how weird and bitchin’ it is to be Kanye West and how heavy hangs the crown of the guy who won’t stop talking about how much he love-hates being King. I don't tread lightly on these Upworthy headline adverbs--this is important. Okay, a little important.
“All of the Lights” - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
I’m starting from the end because this isn’t one of those posts about how Kanye West needs to be a Conscious Rapper like he threatened in The College Dropout. This is a post about Kanye West’s need to feel empathy toward literally any other human being in the world in at least a few of his songs per record.
“All of the Lights,” where he finally reaches peak bombast in a bombastic album, is storyteller-Kanye at his best. These stories don’t have to be about Issues; they don’t even have to be about sympathetic people.
In “All of the Lights” he tells--in some of his most concise verses ever--the story of a guy who can’t see his kid and is beginning to come to grips with that. It takes the emotions and regrets that are all over his later songs and it transmutes them into a new character, one who’s unemployed and in debt and frequenting Borders. Every story is ultimately about its author, on some level, but the difference between “All of the Lights” and Yeezus is the distance he’s able to get from his hero.
“Big Brother” - Graduation
That distance is equally important in the first-person songs--what’s missing in Yeezus isn’t a bunch of character songs, it’s other characters in the stories that are about him. Yeezus seems devoted to the opposite ideal; lots of the songs are more or less about how little he has to pay attention to the internal life of anybody around him.
“Big Brother,” the last track on the last album before his mother’s death and his rococo period, shows a lot of development in the other direction. The point is definitely “I am in a complicated relationship with my mentors,” but he’s able to look at the position from those mentors’ perspective, even zooming backward to Jay Z’s apprenticeship for the song’s twist ending.
“I Wonder” - Graduation
Okay, I’m reaching for this one, but hear me out.
1. This song has a first-person pronoun in its title, but it also shows the way out of his increasingly deranged solipsism: The hook is about him acting on (and thinking about) someone else. It’s not just “I Wonder,” it’s “I wonder if you know what it means.”
2. In its extended second verse, rather than telling us exactly what he’s apprehensive about in his own life, he gives the same ambitions to a female(!) character who’s unable to fulfill them. Like “All of the Lights,” it’s a reminder of how quickly and efficiently Kanye can paint compelling pictures when he’s not lavishing his attention on his own self-portrait.
3. And against my better judgment I love the ending, here, in which he loudly suggests that the woman in the second verse might trade those nebulous dreams for “a husband and some kids.” You can read it as generically sexist Tumblr-bait if you’re into that, but that sounds like transference to me, just as much as the rest of “her” story. Who could use a low-key home life to spend some thought cycles on more than Kanye West?
“Drive Slow” - Late Registration
“Drive Slow” is far from one of my favorite Kanye West tracks, but it’s refreshing, with a decade of hindsight, to hear a Kanye song in which he gets advice from somebody else and realizes it’s good.
The extended metaphor and the look back to his pre-fortune lifestyle, in which all the Kanye seeds have already been sewn, are just bonuses after that. "Don't rush to get grown" isn't exactly life-changing, but it works.
“Heard ’Em Say” - Late Registration
Okay, okay, now we have gotten to the social stuff. Sorry.
As someone who is not presently convinced that the government administered AIDS, though, what’s great about this song is the way it explains the ostensibly hypocritical look-how-rich-I-am stuff that’s all over the rest of the record. “We Don’t Care” was explanation enough for someone who wasn’t yet fantastically wealthy; on Late Registration, with the amibiton ramped up, he flies over that weird relationship with money, showing us its causes and effects (as he sees them) and watching a few family members as they try to deal with it on a much smaller scale than he’s about to. That’s some good sequencing.
There are worse things than hypocrisy--I’d rather watch a guy feel conflicted over the bad things he does than just watch him do bad things.
“Gold Digger” - Late Registration
I don’t know if Kanye West read a lot of O. Henry growing up, but either way he’s an expert at the Gift of the Not Actually Sexist Magi ending.
“Gold Digger” is maybe his best application of it, and certainly the most famous one. When his hard-working future-Hyundai-driver leaves his long-suffering girlfriend for a white girl “Get down girl, go ’head” suddenly feels completely sincere.
“All Falls Down” - The College Dropout
Another Kanye-and-me lyric, more seamless than “I Wonder” and filled with details that everyone who’s heard the song once can remember--her daughter Alexis, her dead-end college credits, her inability to feel comfortable even with one hairstyle.
The Kanye verse, with its phonetic Versace and bedazzled grocery-store-visit, is just as on point. What keeps it from feeling completely out-of-place in his career, knowing what we know now, is that even then he had the self-awareness to say that he’d probably do it all over again the same way.
“Jesus Walks” - The College Dropout
Back before Kanye was secure enough in his relationship with Jesus to tour with him he was afraid to talk to God “because we ain’t spoke in so long.”
In spite of that, he’s remarkably convincing as a social-justice Christian who needs mercy as much as the murderers and drug dealers he and his new opening act walk with. The direct (but complicated) religiosity on The College Dropout has congealed over time into a vague sense of guilt and a few rhymes per album, but it feels genuine (and powerful) here, where it’s exactly as important to his salvation as selling beats to Jay Z.
“Devil in a New Dress” - My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
Most Kanye Girls just want the spotlight and the money, which makes them easy for him to dismiss; “Devil in a New Dress” is a surprisingly sympathetic portrayal of a girl who gets it, and proceeds to behave… well, about as badly as Kanye does, leaving them both feeling phony by the time Rick Ross stumbles in with a cardboard box full of duty-free catalogue luxury goods for a final verse. (He wants you to look at them with him, so that you will say, “Gee, Rick Ross, you are a very wealthy and strong man who should feel totally validated.”)
You can tell the girl’s sympathetic here because her bad behavior is cloaked in the same “Lord, give me chastity but not ever” Christianity that Kanye uses when he’s wondering about his own lifestyle. “I thought I was the asshole / I guess it’s rubbing off.”
“Blood on the Leaves” - Yeezus
This one rapidly became The Sexist Song on Yeezus when the reviews started coming out, because convincing ourselves that there was just one sexist song on the album made it okay for all good NPR-listening upper-middle-class music critics to label it visionary. It is misogynist, in the most dictionary-definition way imaginable. But its breathtakingly angry final verse is the least “dangerous” sexism on the album, because it’s not the insidious background-level stuff that we ignore in our rush to appreciate everything else.
This one’s a self-contained narrative, and whether it’s telling us the things about his “character” that he hoped it would, it doesn’t stint on detail about the other lead. The different kinds of selfishness that lead to #BadBitchAlert and #MadRichAlert; the “two-thousand dollar bag with no cash in the purse”; the distinctly out-of-place conversation with a pastor.
This is set firmly in Kanye’s preferred hyper-rich-and-hyper-famous universe; how many stories of pure love lost begin with the time the girl “tried [her] first molly / and came out of her body”? But it doesn’t lean on that setting as though it’s inherently interesting or sympathetic. If most of Yeezus feels like a 40-minute sex-drugs-and-more-sex version of Norm MacDonald’s moth joke--
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--“Blood on the Leaves” tells a complete story and gets out of the way. As long as he does that, his unquenchable fascination with himself is manageable.