(Just a little list to celebrate the fact that a new Kanye song is dropping, “very soon.”)
10. Crack raised the murder rate in DC and Maryland/ We invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill Lynched (“Crack Music”). The idea that black suffering is designed to be highly profitable is a common Kanye refrain (see also: “Drug dealer buy Jordans, crackhead by crack/ And the white man get paid off of all of that” from “All Falls Down”) but there’s something about his succinctness here that elevates this couplet from “Crack Music” into the pantheon of all-time great lines.
9. She got a light skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson/ Got a dark skinned friend, look like Michael Jackson (“Slow Jamz”). I couldn’t leave this off the list, but also couldn’t justify placing it higher than lines about black nationalism, internalized misogyny, or classism. Mostly just here to remind y’all that Kanye has always, always, had a sense of humor, in addition to being enormously self-critical, two facts that many media outlets and individual listeners seem to ignore.
8. The plan was to drink until the pain over/ But what’s worse, the pain or the hangover? (“Dark Fantasy”). Kind of obvious in its phrasing, but here because it works as the thesis statement for My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, setting up in no uncertain terms the unsustainable nature of traditional American excess.
7. I feel the pain in my city wherever I go/ 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago (“Murder to Excellence”). While Jay-Z has been upsettingly quiet about racism and urban violence since joining the ranks of the literati, Kanye has stayed refreshingly honest, continuing to shed light on the violence happening in his hometown, as well as cosigning drill artists like Young Chop, Chief Keef, and King L.
6. I’m like the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary (“Good Morning”). The idea that Kanye’s involvement in fashion is an inherently political statement stretches from before (“Diamonds from Sierra Leone”) and after (“New Slaves”) this moment, but here Kanye articulates the sentiment without any anger or self-aggrandizement.
5. The system’s broken, the schools close, the prisons open (“Power”). Again, not the only time Kanye has spoken out against either the plight of urban schools or the prison industrial complex, and arguably his DEA/CCA line from “New Slaves” is better suited for this list in terms of its specificity, but there’s something frighteningly catchy about the way this bar is worded; it’s nearly impossible to extract from your head, and that’s important.
4. Doing clothes you would have thought I had help/ But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself (“New Slaves”). It’s unfortunate but unsurprising that among the media coverage of Kanye’s “rants,” the actual systemic problem he was ranting about, notably the lack of black designers in high fashion, and the appropriation and exploitation of urban fashion, has been largely ignored. Ye’s lyrical re-purposing of slavery and civil rights imagery, in “New Slaves” and “Blood on the Leaves” in particular, is incredibly powerful and can help clarify what tabloids are choosing to ignore.
3. But is it cool to rap about gold/ If I told the world I copped it from Ghana and Mali? (“Breathe In Breathe Out”). One of the interesting things about Kanye’s choice of imagery is his re-contextualization of themes traditionally written off as “ignorant” — as such, the beginning of his career is also the end of the label “conscious rapper” meaning much of anything.
2. And they gonna keep calling and trying, but you stay right girl/ And when you get on he leave your ass for a white girl (“Gold Digger”). Perhaps the best example of Kanye being smarter than his audience — this song is still used as a strawman critique of gold diggers, but that reading shouldn’t be held against Ye, given that the whole song leads to this last couplet. Here, Kanye shows that although hip hop has enormous standards of fidelity for women, the same doesn’t apply at all to men, elevating a potentially sexist song into a feminist one.
1. Said her price go down, she ever fuck a black guy/ Or do anal, or do a gangbang/ It’s kinda crazy that’s all considered the same thing/ Well I guess a lot of niggas do gang bang/ And if we run trains, we’re all in the same gang/ Runaway slaves all on a chain gang/ Bang, bang, bang, bang, bang (“Hell of a Life”). Although this choice is quite a bit longer than any other selection on the list, it captures perfectly why Kanye West is the premier lyricist of our generation. He notes the demonization of black masculinity first in the porn industry, then in the context of America’s sexual imagination, then in the context of gang activity, and finally links it back to the source of it all — slavery. More than that, he shows that just being black and male is seen as enough of an identity to be grouped together, a mentality that begins when black male bodies are be commodified as slaves and is a trend which continues into porn today.