A projection of Kanye West's face performs 'New Slaves'…
New Slaves: ***1/2 (out of 4)
Black Skinhead: *** (out of 4)
Kanye West's face appeared on 66 buildings across the country last Friday to premiere his new song, "New Slaves." Just days earlier, Kanye had endearingly declared himself "not a celebrity" at a New York show--now he was stopping traffic while 20-foot-tall projections of his mug spit lyrics of equal proportion: "My mama was raised in the era when/clean water was only served to the fairer skinned/Doing clothes you would have thought I had help/but they wasn't satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself."
Aside from the sound of "New Slaves" (quite a left turn), there's obviously a great deal to unpack here, and the song he debuted on "Saturday Night Live," titled "Black Skinhead," did nothing to lessen the weight of his words or his weekend, which ended in announcing the title of his new album: "Yeezus."
Quite a weekend for a non-celebrity, but that rather ridiculous disconnect is what you've always had with Kanye: the desire to be better curbed by the desires of being human. It's "I had a dream that I could buy my way to heaven/when I woke, I spent that on a necklace" spelled out over the course of a full four minutes, equating modern racism with modern consumerism and other hegemonies. He takes expectations and subverts them, like an attention-grabbing celeb claiming to be nothing of the sort.
The songs' sonics are menacing, minimal and striking: a warped undercurrent of punchy synths on "Slaves" punctuates every condemnation Yeezy offers in his deadpan delivery, much like "No Church in the Wild" (both West songs feature Frank Ocean). "Skinhead" is a bit of theatrical punk-rap, combining a relentless rumble with a shrieking chorus to cast an ominous tone on lyrics like "They see a black man with a white woman/At the top floor they gon' come to kill King Kong."
Veiled Kim Kardashian reference or not, it's an enlightening way to think about the alleged hypocrisy of the Louis Vuitton Don's "new lyrical look." West still is embroiled in conversations of modern race. He dates a hyper-famous white woman, has aspirations of high fashion, etc. Not to diminish the pair, but he's not tucked away in the Hamptons like Jay-Z or Diddy, just as these conversations are no longer tucked away behind chipmunk soul samples and pink polo jokes. And he's had them before--just look at "All Falls Down," "Crack Music" or basically the entirety of "Watch the Throne."
Now, he's forcing us to take notice, calling songs "New Slaves" or "Black Skinhead," which, beyond being startling stylistic changes from one of the world's biggest pop stars, thrust those conversations to the forefront along with Kanye's flaws. It's not a "political phase." It's a musician with enough arrogance and awareness to publicly reconcile the dichotomy of who he is, trying to get everyone else to reconcile with the deeply flawed system that bore him this way.
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