Kanye West’s Top Five Conscious Moments

This week, Kanye continued in the great tradition of other Gemini musical artists before him (Prince, Tupac, Andre 3000, Cee-lo) by launching an artistic phase that for any other artist, would seem like a complete contradiction to the earlier part of his career. The same rapper that recorded “Jesus Walks” on his debut album The College Dropout is now using the Mark of the Beast in his marketing by releasing an album on 6/18 (18= 6 x 3) and premiering the video for his new single “New Slaves” in six U.S. cities (10 total) on 66 screens (someone pointed out that 66 is also the number of books in the Christian Bible. Ahh, that clever Gemini two-sidedness strikes again!) Kanye’s new album is called Yeezus and his team announced that he’s launching a Tumblr dedicated to art, fashion and the occult.

I’ll allow the hip-hop illuminati conspiracy theorists to cook on all of that. They don’t need my help. Rather, this post reflects on the duality that has always existed in Kanye’s music and image. The child of educated black parents who were active in the civil rights movement, from the beginning Kanye has tried to reconcile the floss with the struggle. Even the Louis Vuitton backpack he donned in the beginning of his career was a nod to these two sides. Can a conscious rapper want designer labels, cars, jewelry, women and the other trappings of fame? Kanye said yes, and made it clear that he wasn’t going to pick one side over the other.

The Kanye of 2013 is both completely different from the one of 2003, and oddly familiar. Today’s Kanye is post-tragic passing of his mother, post-Taylor Swift media crucifixion, and post-acquiring all of the things the 2003 Kanye pined for. Fame has lost its luster, and as Kanye notes, doesn’t protect you from racism. On “New Slaves,” Kanye explains that whether you are a black man who’s perceived as poor or rich, racism and capitalism work to undermine your humanity.

You see it’s broke nigga racism
That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”
And this rich nigga racism
That’s that “Come here, please buy more”

Throughout his catalog, Kanye has sprinkled in social commentary in his music, sounding like Dead Prez in one breath, then fiending for dead presidents in the next. Now, Kanye’s political consciousness has spilled out of clever double entendres and samples and now takes up full, angry sixteens, referencing lynching (I see the blood of the leaves– nod to Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”) and the prison industrial complex (Meanwhile the DEA, teamed up with the CCA/They tryna lock niggas up, they tryna make new slaves/See that’s that privately owned prisons, get your piece today/They prolly all in the Hamptons, bragging ’bout what they made). 

While Kanye’s new music is angrier, it’s not a complete 180.

Below are some of Kanye’s most standout conscious moments (Shoutout to rapgenius.com for the lyrics):

5. We Don’t Care (The College Dropout)

Issue: Cuts to funding for public education.

You know the kids gonna act a fool
When you stop the programs for after-school
And they DCFS, some of em dyslexic
They favorite 50-Cent song “12 Questions”

4. Murder to Excellence (Watch the Throne)

Issue: Skyrocking murder rates in urban centers, especially Chicago.

Is it genocide?
Cause I can still hear his mama cry
Know the family traumatized
Shots left holes in his face about piranha-sized
The old pastor closed the cold casket
And said the church ain’t got enough room for all the tombs
It’s a war going on outside we ain’t safe from
I feel the pain in my city wherever I go
314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago

3. Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Late Registration)

Issue: Diamonds sold for weapons to fund civil wars and armed conflict in African countries like Liberia and Sierra Leone.

See, a part of me saying: “Keep shining”
How? When I know what a blood diamond is
Though it’s thousands of miles away
Sierra Leone connects to what we go through today
Over here it’s a drug trade, we die from drugs
Over there they die from what we buy from drugs
The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses
I thought my Jesus-piece was so harmless
Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless

2. Crack Music (Late Registration)

Issue:  Under Ronald Reagan’s administration, the CIA and Contras flooding urban streets with cheap cocaine to fund rebel forces in Nicaragua.

How we stop the Black Panthers?
Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer
You hear that? What Gil Scott was “Heron”
When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin
Crack, raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland
We, invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill Lynched

1. Who Will Survive in America (My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy)

Issue: America’s contradictory messages of freedom, equality, democracy, colonization, and oppression.

Sample of a poem by Gil Scott Heron of the same name. Lyrics here.

Much like other rappers that share his sign (Again, Tupac, Miseducation-era Lauryn Hill, Kendrick Lamar) Kanye’s more political songs are also examples of how an artist can address serious issues in their music and make it palpable to the music fan, with no heavy after-school special aftertaste. Though some are skeptical of the punk-rock flavor of Kanye’s recent offerings, I will say that as a Kanye fan, musically, he has yet to disappoint me.

Talk to me in the comment section. Are you feeling the (not-so) new Kanye/ his music?

What do you think?