Be great at your craft if you’re gonna have a God complex. Kanye West satisfies both conditions. Because of that, his song “New Slaves” makes more sense to audiences.
West released “New Slaves”, in all its bitter, butter bars and glory, last weekend. Projections of him rapping were displayed in 66 cities. Viewers quickly posted his performance on the web, and those who were not physically beside one of West’s chosen buildings, joined the discussion. He took to Saturday Night Live to perform it, along with “Black Skinhead.” Both songs are on his upcoming album Yeezus to be released June 18.
“New Slaves” conjures old school Kanye with its relevant social commentary. He raps about becoming a new slave because of his success. That success seems to contribute to divisions regarding the performer.
The anti-mainstream camp accuses Kanye of selling out. Did he become the beast he attacked? Did he revive, reroute, and hyper-Rolex the revolutionary and relatable rap that garnered him respect on his first album College Dropout?
In broadening his base, did Kanye compromise? What of the arrogant-insecure juxtaposition that reminds listeners of that loud guy—yelling about why he’s so great more to convince himself, not other others many who already know? Did Ye’s audience increase because his art became more universal?
On “New Slaves”, West sharply critiques the prison industrial complex, in which disproportionately black and brown inmates work for mere cents per hour to produce for private entities. “They tryina lock n**** up. They trying to make new slaves.”
He draws parallels between himself and others who buy into the perpetual cat-and-mouse game of chasing dreams. He lashes out at corporations, refusing to submit his autonomy. (Y’all n***** can’t control me.”) He barks about contracts (“Y’all know that n***** can’t read.”), and legalisms used to keep his talent fattening as many other pockets as possible.
Some argue that peppering the track with the n-word muddies the message and invites non-blacks to join an n-word fest in the name of music. Controversy resulted when Gwyneth Paltrow tweeted the song title “N***** in Paris” while onstage with Ye and Jay Z during a Watch The Throne performance.
Others are concerned with the sexual imagery in “New Slaves.” Ye essentially says that he would rather be serviced than servicing. Amid critiques, his fans remember that the rapper still appears to be a heartbroken young man who lost his mother, forges ahead in a controversial familial dynamic (Kimye) and fights the system that feeds him. By giving corporate America and naysayers the middle finger, he plays right into the system of consumption and production that butters his and its bread. He throws pretty profitable tantrums.
The College Dropout was born into a conscious family. His mother Donda West was a professor whose civil rights activism began in her childhood. Her obituary in The Oklahoman stated that she participated in the first sit-in for public accommodations for people of color. Kanye often rapped about Donda and the lessons that she imparted.
So when he opened “New Slaves” with “My mama was raised in an era when clean water was only served to the fairer skin,” listeners knew that hip-hop’s gaudy, gold encrusted contradiction was coming with his politically incorrect truth. Throughout the song, he vacillates between black community and elitism.
“All you blacks want all the same things,” alludes to the notion that despite wealth or its lack, some view blacks as a homogenous group. Then he name-dropped Maybachs, the Hamptons and reminds people of wealthy women he can and has bed. Some perceived hip-hop purists struggle to classify his consciousness, rhymes about what he has, and his wealthy white significant other.
As the album title Yeezus reminds listeners, Ye’s rap god schtick is still very much present. God and being godlike consistently appear in Ye’s art. “Jesus Walks” bridged a divide between gospel and secular music that is sometimes lost in religious or ratchet translation. The bragging in “New Slaves” feels like “New God Flow”, where he toyed with a holy triad by aligning himself with a hip-hop great, civil rights icon and police brutality victim. West said that he was living three dreams, that of Biggie Smalls, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and Rodney King.
Kanye West is a victor, victim or villain depending on who’s asked. However, few can deny that through his lyrics, whether operating as rich people must-have lists, referencing environmental justice, correlating capital and courtship, snubbing invasive reporters or calling out modern day lynching, he continues layered discourse.
“I know that we the new slaves. I see the blood on the leaves.”