Kanye West is well known for his high-profile marriage to Kim Kardashian, his infamously narcissistic demeanor, his rash on-screen outbursts, and most importantly, his thriving career in music. West was born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1977 before spending his childhood in the South Side of Chicago, notorious for its violence and gang activity. Life in this high crime neighborhood made Kanye privy to criminal activity in his youth. After graduating from high school, Kanye went on to study at Chicago State University until the age of twenty, when he dropped out to pursue a musical career. Despite his disadvantaged upbringing, Kanye was able to transform his experiences into music that would have a tremendous impact on society. His words about racism, consumerism, religion, and education have served as a force for change in the U.S.; his impulsive, highly disputed opinions have ignited important debates among Americans.
After producing for Jay-Z and Roc-A-Fella Records, Kanye released his first album, The College Dropout, encouraging listeners to make their own decisions rather than allow their lives to be dictated by their circumstances. Songs on the album like “Jesus Walks,” “Spaceship,” and “We Don’t Care” have transformed hip-hop. Kanye uses his Chicago childhood as inspiration for his lyrics. In the song “Jesus Walks,” Kanye discusses the hardships faced by typically impoverished African-Americans living in urban environments and criticizes the government for not addressing these problems: “I walk through the valley of the Chi where death is,” “Getting choked by detectives, yeah, yeah, now check the method. They be askin’ us questions, harass and arrest us.”
This particular Kanye album was a such a massive success because of his lyrics, discussing political and social issues as opposed to the typical sex, drugs, alcohol, and money themes that rap usually centers around. These important social issues continue to be present throughout the rest of Kanye’s work. His second album, Late Registration, continues to portray his ideas about race and social class in America. In the song “We Major,” West paints a picture for his audience of life as a child living in the inner-city. “Projects to’ up, gang signs is thrown up” references children who grow up in projects making the natural transition into the gang lifestyle as they grow up. He discusses how he raps today as a method of escape: “Why else you think shorties write rhymes just to blow up?”
Late Registration takes a step further than College Dropout, discussing how Kanye himself was able to break free from poverty. However, Kanye acknowledges that the problems he faced are, and will always be, relatable for many Americans. Kanye’s lyrics are comforting and empathetic towards people in these situations, making them feel as if someone is helping them through their hard times.
On the album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, songs such as “POWER,” “Gorgeous,” and “Who Will Survive in America” feature lyrics that expand upon Kanye’s aforementioned feelings. He references the unfair treatment of African Americans in various contexts: “Based off the way we was branded. Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon,” “And at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me that it’s random.”
However, his music took a turn as he began rapping extremely narcissistic lines on Yeezus. For example, in the song “I Am a God,” Kanye literally calls himself God, completely contradicting the content of his prior music. Kanye officially spiraled downwards when he released his album The Life of Pablo. As he gained popularity, he felt the need to change his persona as well as his lyrics in order to satisfy his following. He strays away from discussing any social issues and instead depicts partying, money, and sex in his lyrics.
In addition, during Kanye’s Saint Pablo Tour, his announcement in favor of Trump outraged his fanbase. However, Kanye did not back down, even urging African Americans to stop focusing on racism, saying, “this world is racist, OK?” This statement completely contradicts his original musical messages.
In his early work, Kanye West blamed the corrupt American government for racial profiling and hardships faced by low-income citizens, spurring political and social awareness amongst hip-hop listeners. However, as he gained greater support over time, fame and fortune overpowered his original artistic intentions. His work from recent years has reflected this change in intention. Although his music is still popular today, it is no longer the force for change in America it once was.
COVER PHOTO: Time Magazine