A letter to Matt about civil rights and misogyny
It’s pretty common for rappers to rep hard for the American civil rights movement. I mean, it makes total sense. Hip-hop considers itself, if not the vanguard, then at least the PR wing of the contemporary civil rights struggle. (You know, the one about how 1 in 3 American black men is going to be in prison sometime during their life.) The topic is approached with respect: there’s samples from Dr. King on old Common songs, a Ghostface song that is kind of about Malcolm X. There’s even somewhat-playful references, like in Kenrick Lamar’s “Backseat Freestyle,” where he elaborates a dream that has less to do with the content of his children’s character than the eiffel-tower-like proportions of his own penis.
While Lil’ Wayne may have blazed the trail when it comes to making sex jokes out of the historical suffering of Black americans, there’s something especially… systematic about Kanye’s approach on Yeezus. I mean, one reference is a crass joke – the kind of thing I’d expect out of a man with a borderline sense of humor and a nonexistent sense of propriety. But this shit happens repeatedly on Yeezus. I’ve already talked about the dubious use of the “Strange Fruit” sample on “Blood on the Leaves,” a song that also compares the separation of wives and mistresses to apartheid. But “I’m In It” really is the worst. You don’t just have “Your titties, let ’em out, free at last / Thank God almighty, they free at last!” (context), but also (I swear to God I’m not making this up) “Black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.”
There’s no purpose denying this that the lyrics on Yeezus are gross. Brie Walsh, one of our dozen readers, wrote a piece over on her (excellent) website expressing basic disgust at the misogyny, materialism and general human shittiness on display at the album. Justifiably pissed off at the lyrical content Kanye drops on Yeezus, though mesmerized by the music, she argues that whatever gratitude we have for this record should be directed towards Kanye’s bullpen of genius collaborators and not the misogynist at its center. This is a fair thing to say.
But for me it’s not the last thing to say. I’ll admit that as a man, I have the privilege not being fundamentally shocked by overt misogyny. It’s so obviously grotesque that it basically fails to disturb me. Like, when I hear misogyny on record it’s like I’m peering at an excised tumor behind plexiglass. I end up just wondering what kind of defect could have produced this specimen.
So I just end up wondering what Kanye is trying to do with this stuff. Part of it, I think, is that the only way he could manage to make his album more revolting to his listenership, and a more honest airing of his problems, is by mixing in the last sacred element of Black culture, one that even rappers won’t fuck with. If the aim of the album as a whole is catharsis (an aim that makes sense given the way “Bound 2”, which finishes off the record, provides an ambivalent ode to romantic commitment), maybe Kanye is trying to come to grips with his profoundly fucked-up attitudes towards women by just giving them the ugliest possible articulation. Maybe this gives him a little too much credit.