This is the first installment in a series of pieces exploring the lyrics of Kanye West by legendary hip-hop writer Toure. Today, Toure analyzes West's verse on "Smuckers" from Tyler, the Creator's Cherry Bomb, line by line.
In Kanye West's lecture at Oxford University earlier this year he said, "That's one of my favorite ones: to be called crazy." Being crazy is liberating. I (and Kanye) mean that colloquial sense of the term, like the way some people say Kanye is crazy despite knowing full well there ain't nothing wrong with that man's mind. But once you've been deemed "crazy," you're expected to be unpredictable. We know we don't know what we're going to get from you and thus you're allowed to exist outside of societal norms. If you don't care about people calling you crazy, you can get away with whatever you want. And from that exchange comes a sort of liberation. You can live outside the lines, untethered from societal norms. It allows you to be whoever you really want to be.
Because Kanye is considered, by some, to be off his rocker, when he says he's running for President in 2020, people are on the proverbial edge of their seats. Is it that Kanye's so crazy that he just says whatever grandiose fly shit that comes to mind in the midst of a stream-of-consciousness quote-unquote "rant?" Or is it that Kanye's so crazy that he will mount some performance art project that centers around him running for President in his own way? I could believe either one. We have to stay tuned to find out and that's empowering to him as an artist. Having "crazy" as part of his brand means all eyes on Kanye.
All of that and more is why it's so powerful and so compelling when he says, "They say I'm crazy but that's the best thing going for me," on Tyler, the Creator's "Smuckers" (also featuring Lil Wayne.) It's exactly the sort of simply said yet sociopolitically explosive line that Kanye loves. And it made me want to deconstruct the rhymes surrounding it: West's verse is fascinating, and it brings up a lot of classically Kanye contradictions.
Kanye is not a really great rhyme-sayer—his voice is distinct but not buttery or smooth or bassy and he doesn't do the slick, technical elite MC flow and delivery sort of stuff that you expect from Nas, Jay, or Kendrick. But Kanye is an extraordinary writer who never utters a boring verse and sees every line as a chance for a big punchline or a bodacious statement. His verse on "Smuckers" is one of the more interesting of the year. Almost every line starts with the word "I" and/or is a statement about Kanye. It's like an ad for himself, announcing all that's great about him.
Why, why, why? / Why don't they like me?
I love how he begins by invoking the ghosts of disapproval and dislike as if he needs to remind us, "A lot of people don't like me." Being disliked and misunderstood is a central part of the Kanye West brand and it allows him to have an enemy to rage against.
Cause Nike gave lot of niggas checks / But I'm the only nigga ever to check Nike.
He answers his own question by throwing down a gauntlet. Other MCs battle other MCs but Kanye battles major corporations. He even checked MTV on MTV! But because it's Kanye it has other implications; it has baggage. If that line were said by any MC without a fashion contract—an attack on one of the global conglomerates that hip-hop and society are most worshipful of—it could be read as a comment on materialism and consumerism and a critique of how hip-hop and society too often tell us that we are what you buy as if an identity can be purchased. The MC behind "New Slaves" ("Fuck you and your corporation / Y'all niggas can't control me") should also be able to own that reading. But this is Kanye, a former employee at Nike and a current employee at adidas. An elite-level employee, sure, but still he chooses to work for global corporations when he doesn't have to. So is he checking Nike because he has a legitimate critique of their company? Or is he a high-level, disgruntled ex-employee still mad that Nike wouldn't give him royalties for the massively popular Air Yeezy line of sneakers? Or is he repping for adidas by dissing the competition? Is it all of the above? And though it's a provocative thing to say, this is a false answer to the question he posed—I don't think anyone outside of Nike HQ in Oregon dislikes Kanye because of his position on Nike.
Richer than white people with black kids.
That's such an hysterical, writerly, provocative, biting, obnoxious way to say "I'm wealthy! Like Tom Cruise, Steven Spielberg, Brad and Angelina, Madonna, Charlize Theron..."
Scarier than black people with ideas
(Which makes me America's nightmare.)
Nobody can tell me where I'm headin' / But I feel like Michael Jordan, Scottie Pippen at my wedding
He references the unpredictability of the crazy ones and he's right: his music has grown and morphed throughout his career such that we really don't know where he's headed. No one knows what the next Kanye album will sound like or be about. His career, too, has grown in unexpected ways to where we can't be sure what his next moves will be. If Kanye said he was quitting music to direct Hollywood films or design skyscrapers or open a hotel in a city you've never heard of, you'd believe it. Or if he said he was really, truly running for President, you'd buy it. Anything is possible with this guy. He's free in the deepest meaning of the word. Because he's crazy, and...
They say I'm crazy but that's the best thing going for me
Craziness, as we've discussed, is liberating!
You can't Lynch Marshawn if Tom Brady throwin' to me / I made a million mistakes, but I'm successful in spite of em
Not in spite of them but because of them! Kanye's mistakes seem to propel him to new creative highs and new levels of attention. The Taylor Swift moment had even the President calling him "a jackass." And yet he bounced back with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album for the ages, which provided him with a springboard to become a bigger star in the celebrity astral plane. It's like he consumes his mistakes and grows larger and more powerful.
I believe you like a fat trainer takin' a bite or somethin' / I wanna turn the tanks to playgrounds
A beautiful idea, the sort of thing a parent would think of. So many Black neighborhoods seem occupied by the police and too often in the last year we've seen military vehicles creeping down streets in the hood after being used in Iraq, but Kanye envisions turning those tanks into jungle gyms for the little ones. I can see it now, parked at a standstill, painted in fun and bright blues and pinks, a gaggle of kids inside.
I dreamed of Tupac, he asked me, "Are you still down?" / Yeah my nigga, It's on, it's on, it's on, it's on
There is no historical figure who hip-hop holds in higher regard than Tupac. He is our Jesus. For me this line recalls all the people who have claimed to have had visions of Jesus, who said He came to them and spoke to them. Pac comes to Ye in a dream and asks him if he's still committed to the mission, if he's still carrying on the legacy. Kanye offers a resounding yes, and that's a very dope idea for a lyric, but c'mon. If the ghost of Pac had autonomy, do you think he'd slip into Kanye's $20 million mansion in southern California and speak to him? Don't you think he'd rather go find Nas? Or Kendrick? Or Jay Elec?
I know they told their white daughters don't bring home Jerome / I am the free nigga archetype
We talk about house slaves and field slaves, but Kanye is on another plane. He's free.
I am the light and the beacon, you can ask the deacon
In John 8:12 the Bible says, "When Jesus spoke again to the people, He said, 'I am the Light of the world.'" So here Kanye is quoting Jesus and saying, once again, he is Jesus. Likening himself to Christ is egomaniacal and grandiose and meant to provoke. But what he's also saying here, perhaps, is that like Jesus he's a leader who's illuminating new paths by showing people his way of living. He can walk new paths because of the freedom he has because he's crazy.
It's funny when you get extra money / Every joke you tell just be extra funny / I Mean you can even dress extra bummy / Cocaine, bathroom break, nose extra runny
This Dr. Seuss rhyme-patterned "being-rich-is-so-fun" bit is easily the worst part of this verse.
And I gave you all I got, you still want extra from me / Oxford want a full blown lecture from me
I read the Oxford lecture. It was a stream of consciousness tirade with no theme. Just a string of mostly half-baked thoughts, some provocative, some bland. It would be interesting to hear him do a full-blown, pre-thought-out lecture that has a focus and an interesting argument that is carefully laid out and thoughtfully defended. But at Oxford he did say this: "The Matrix is like the Bible of the post-information age... Like, when the hundred guys come at Neo, those are opinions, that's perception, that's tradition. Attacking people from every angle possible. If you have a focus wide and master senses like Laurence Fishburne, and you have a squad behind you, you literally can put the world in slow motion." OK.
And the Lexus pull up, skrrtt like hop, I'd hopped out, wassup / Erg erg erg, step back, hold up, my leg'll be stuck
Honestly, I don't what he's talking about here.
I studied the proportions, emotions runnin' out of Autobahn speed level, had a drink with fear, and I was textin' God
"I was texting God" is one of those classic grandiose, obnoxious Kanye statements that mixes boosting himself (he has a direct line to God) with casual modern detachment (if you actually had a direct line to God would you text, which is casual and usually short and the opposite of deep? Or would you call and have a deeper talk?) What about if God texts back...
He said, "I gave you a big dick, so go extra hard"
If you thought "I was texting God" was blasphemous, now we've got God talking to Yeezy about his dick. Blasphemy level: a million. This may be one of the more clever and unforgettable mentions of dick length since Cappadonna said, "I love you like I love my dick size" on Raekwon's "Ice Cream." It's also the third time in this verse that Kanye's made reference to a spiritual connection—first the visit from Pac Christ, then he quotes Jesus to say that he is Jesus-like, and now he's recounting a text convo with God. All of these references are meant to ennoble and aggrandize Kanye. He is saying, once again, he is so important he has friends on the other side of the spiritual divide and they embolden him even further. He has a mission. And in a vulgar way he's saying, "How can you blame me for going so hard in life when God made me this way?" That said, the vulgarity gives fuel to both those who love him and those who hate him. And the brand grows. This bit tells us a lot more about why people don't like him than his relationship with Nike. It also shows what Kanye can get away with.
For many big-time performers who have a harsh spotlight on them that sort of blasphemous pomposity would cause a media commotion. But we expect and kinda shrug off lines like that from Kanye because, you know, he's crazy.
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