While only the terminally curmudgeonly doubt Kanye West’s abilities as a producer, he’s always been a more divisive figure on the microphone. It’s easy to ridicule West’s lyrics — and god knows sometimes they deserve it — but he often walks a fine line between genius and disaster, and both extremes are compelling in their own strange way. Yeezus is just like his other records in this respect, dispensing lines both strikingly good and strikingly awful, often in pretty close proximity. It seems like a good time, then, to survey both the best and worst of West’s lyricism from over the years. There are loads more, of course, so feel free to add your suggestions.
“In the French restaurant/ Hurry up with my damn croissants!” — from “I Am a God”
Part of West’s endlessly confounding persona is the way he seems both aware of his own absurdity and also keen to take that absurdity to the greatest extremes possible. The fact that Yeezus includes a song called “I Am a God” rather demonstrates that nothing has changed on that front, and this line is both hilarious and a neat summation of the entire Kanye West experience, for better or worse.
“I’m trying to right my wrongs/ But it’s funny, them same wrongs/ Helped me write this song” — from “Touch the Sky”
A less comic but rather more heartfelt discussion of essentially the same point.
“And don’t let nobody with the power to sign/ Ever tell you you ain’t got the power to rhyme” — from “Get By”
Words to live by, clearly. It’s interesting, actually, how West rather embodies the strange and quintessentially American mythology that if you just believe in yourself hard enough, you can be anything you want. He clearly believes he’s the best rapper in the world. The fact that he’s not doesn’t seem to have slowed him down any.
“The same people that tried to blackball me forgot about two things: my black balls” — from “Gorgeous”
Proof that the whole rhyming-identical-words trope so beloved of our hero can work if you do it well enough.
“We shine because they hate us, floss ’cause they degrade us/ We trying to buy back our 40 acres/ And for that paper, look how low we stoop/ Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coop” — from “All Falls Down”
Anyone who claims that Kanye always stinks on the mic should be directed forthwith to “All Falls Down,” a track that’s gold from start to finish in its dissection of hollow materialism and the aspirationalist treadmill. The coop/coupe double-entendre is particularly clever, neatly encapsulating the idea that consumerism is just another cage.
“Enter the kingdom, but watch who you bring home/ They see a black man with a white woman/ On the top floor, they goin’ come to kill King Kong” — from “Black Skinhead”
A decade later, and a different perspective on the same theme — both “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” revolve around the idea that the aspirational dream sold to black Americans is essentially a way to part them from their money while keeping them locked out of the top echelons of society. The image of King Kong was always loaded with racial implications, and West reappropriates it to discuss the way that he’s still regarded with suspicion, no matter how rich and well-respected he’s become.
“I went to the malls and I balled too hard/ ‘Oh my god is that a black card?’/ I turned around and replied, ‘Why, yes/ But I prefer the term African-American Express'” — from “Last Call”
“Nicki, what you think?/ We got two white Russians but we also need some drinks” — from “Blazin'”
Yes, thank you, he’ll be here all week. Try the veal.
“What’s a black Beatle anyway? A fucking roach?/ I guess that’s why they got me sitting in fucking coach” — from “Gorgeous”
While the possibility that West has ever had to sit in coach for at least the last decade is basically zero, this is still a neat summation of the way black artists struggle to get respect on their own terms. (It rather recalls Mos Def’s glorious “Mr. Nigga,” an entire song addressing the same subject.)
“I’m like the fly Malcolm X/ Buy any jeans necessary” — from “Good Morning”
Is this hilarious or terrible? Either way, no one else would dare attempt it.