Commentary: Kanye West’s Most Important Social Critique?

While we wait for Yeezus to arrive on June 18, taking stock of the rapper’s latest, “New Slaves.”

Posted: 05/30/2013 02:36 PM EDT

Despite what First Lady Michelle Obama thinks about aspiring rappers and ballers, Kanye West proves hip hop, and rappers, can hold their own. Earlier this month, Ye debuted his politically driven song “New Slaves” on 66 buildings around the world, followed by a killer performance on SNL where he also introduced the world to “Black Skinhead.”

While the verdict is still out on how the album will sell or sound, it’s undeniable that Yeezy is a prophet of the rap game — a proverbial genius whose predilection for the creative and different meet up with a penchant for constant social criticism. But could he really be a savior? Kanye, or whoever mocked up this art, seems to think so. And if so, a savior from what? “New Slaves” just might be the most biting social critique he’s given yet on an unwavering theme throughout his work: the permanence of racism.

At arguably one of the most hopeful and happiest times in Yeezy’s life, perhaps some were expecting a more feel-good, pie-in-the-sky Kanye. Rather, in typical West fashion, we get more than expected. With more to worry about than just an album dropping in the near future — Yeezy doesn’t hold back in “New Slaves,” in which he hints at moving his family out of the country so “you can’t see where I stay.”

Kanye West is starting beef with white America just as he leaves for Paris? Perfect timing — and with quite the historical precedent. Other Black intellectuals and artists, like the writer Richard Wright, threw in their American towels and ended up in Paris, too. And like Wright so long ago, whose biting criticism of American racism grew more intense when he left the States, Kanye is following suit.

The lyrical reproach that is “New Slaves” leaves little off the hook as West calls out rabid materialism (despite his balling consumerist ways), corporatization of America, racism, segregation, and the prison industrial complex through the lens of “slave” as the sum total  of oppression today.

Not only is Kanye’s new stuff pushing the musical boundaries of rap forward, but his lyrics take us back, giving a stark reminder that no level of riches can stop the permanence of racism. Kanye’s lyrics achieve effectiveness through tapping into the weight of history, with prophetic zeal. He looks backwards to tell us something about the present, such as riffing on the “Strange Fruit” of lynching to proclaim the immortality of racism despite the social status he (or any person of color) attains: “I see the blood on the leaves/I know that we the new slaves/I see blood on the leaves,” Kanye oscillates between seer-like-whistle-blower and victim of a lynching system. Not the hopeful colorblind message some might want to hear.

In typical prophet-like fashion, his lyrical bible is sure to be just as contradictory as other sacred texts — garbled with other social problems that only add to the difficulties his prophecies seek to expose.

So, his response to this racism? Like Wright, he sends us art from across the pond, perpetuating some issues while fighting the permanence of others. Yeezy can’t walk on water just yet, but he can appear like the Virgin Mary on buildings. In an eerie-like projection over an unsettling and haunting beat, the song’s debut keeps Yeezus on the ground and with the people, maintaining a "keeping it real" brand of authenticity as he gets comfortable as a n**** in Paris. A black and white image of a stoic-faced West appears as he begins his righteous rant of indignation. Ye can’t "go back" to the streets but he can send a hologram-like video on his behalf to tell you that even though "broke n**** racism" is on and popping, he still has to deal with "rich n**** racism" where he’s either pimped out to sell a product, or chased down like King Kong holding tight to a white woman.

For now, he’ll keep us waiting in suspense as the charges of blasphemy over the leaked, suspected album cover continue to build.

As we wait for Yeezus to arrive on June 18, remember, he might not end up the savior he wants to be, but his prophecies make it clear why so many people want one.

Monica R. Miller, Ph.D., is the author of Religion and Hip Hop and teaches courses on religion in contemporary culture. Miller will join the faculty of Lehigh University as Assistant Professor of Religion and Africana Studies in the Fall of 2013.

The opinions expressed here do not necessarily reflect those of BET Networks.

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(Photo: Mark Davis/PictureGroup)

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