The evolution of Kanye West seems to have moved him into a realm occupied by Beyonce and Jay-Z, and of course his girlfriend Kim Kardarshian (among others) — a realm where human beings become strictly cash-concerned entities. West now stands erect in a place where brands are firmly established, and once hard edges get turned into harmless curvatures. I don’t think West knows quite how to deal with that — and it’s showing in his music. The expectation of being a Kanye that has already been branded is one that is hard to reconcile with the Kanye that Kanye wants himself to be. For someone whose career has been built in part because of constant reinvention (the song "Stronger" comes to mind), being defined must be terrifying.
In anticipation of his upcoming album Yeezus, Kanye West did the most “Kanye” thing possible and premiered one song, “New Slaves,” on the face of buildings across America, and another, “Black Skinheads,” during the season finale of Saturday Night Live. The background to his performance featured “Not For Sale” signs.
Both songs are West at his most aggressive. The lyrics make no room for backtracking or PR maneuvering. In “New Slaves,” he raps: “Doing clothes you would have thought I had help/But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.”
It only takes one listen to see that Kanye is trying to rebuke any brand he may have built for himself. Both songs serve to dare the Clear Channels of the world to play them. “I know that we the new slaves, I see the blood on the leaves (2X)” is not exactly a set of lyrics that are friendly in any capacity — let alone “radio-friendly.”
At one point in "Black Skinhead," Kanye starts to scream. Kanye the Man is obviously frustrated with the system that created Kanye the Brand. He obviously wants to be himself. He also sees that being himself is not that easy anymore. “I’ve been a menace for the longest/But I ain’t finished, I’m devoted/And you know it, and you know it” ("Black Skinhead").
Both songs are no doubt testaments to being a black man in a White Man’s country – or in an even more contrasting setting — in a white man’s boardroom. Lyrics like “Y’all throwing contracts at me, you know that niggas can’t read” ("New Slaves") — no matter how stupid it is to leave a lyric like that in a song referencing black inequality — allude to the system that West has conquered at a cost to his own creative freedom. The fact that he seems to be at a crossroads can be called into question, but the position becomes harder to defend as Yeezus seems to become more entrenched in this new, overtly rebellious, narrative.
The sentiments in the song are echoed in one of his most recent rants. During a concert in New York City, West dispelled any notion that he welcomes any of his celebrity. “I am not a celebrity,” he repeated over and over. It is unknown whether this was an as-of-yet unreleased song. Kanye the Man seemed to be trying to bust out of the Kanye Brand box — most likely wrapped in Givenchy.
After the songs were released, rumors that West went back into the studio to inject some more audience-friendly material began to surface. If true, this is no doubt a sign that Kanye firmly understands that this is not what people expected from him. The power of the brand holds true in the sense that the brand becomes a formula of sorts. Kanye going back into the studio is a sign that he knows he strayed from it.
Kanye the Man and Kanye the Brand have obviously come to blows, and if the first two songs are any indication, the scars of the conflict have been scattered throughout the music. Where Kanye goes from here is impossible to tell. Watching the battle, however, is impossible to ignore.