Kanye West has something to rap about. Critics and fans alike knew that from the first spins of “Through the Wire,” the debut single the hip-hop producer released under his own name in 2004 at a time when he was known mostly for the studio work he did for other artists.
In song, he touches on topics dealing with spirituality, racism and issues plaguing U.S. inner cities.
And in public forums, he has talked politics, most recently making controversial comments blasting the federal government’s response to Hurricane Katrina, suggesting that it and the news media coverage of the disaster were racist.
West is considered a conscious rapper, someone who stays away from constantly rhyming about money, women and drugs or glorifying a gangsta sensibility. Instead, he makes what many consider backpack hip-hop: the kind of go-against-the-grain music that often has a hard time getting airtime and selling.
Still, his does. His 2004 debut “College Dropout” sold nearly 3 million copies. His current album, “Late Registration,” has been in the Top 10 since its debut six weeks ago and is expected to be one of the biggest albums of the year. (It debuted at No. 1, selling an impressive 860,000 copies in its first week alone.)
One thing is certain: Hip-hop just happens to be the forum that West uses to let people know of his take on politics, social injustices, relationships and racism.
There’s no gimmick to that, said West. What he says, he means. And editing it would undercut its intent.
“God taps me on my shoulder sometimes and says, `Yo, I want you to talk about this,'” West said. “And the way He does it, it’s … more like He places angels in my life, and it feels like the movie the `Sixth Sense.’… He is like, `This is for you to deliver.'”
The rapper ad-libbed some pretty shocking statements during a live telethon to raise money for victims of Hurricane Katrina. A visibly emotional West also expressed his disgust at disparaging media portrayals of black and white victims.
“I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, `They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, `They’re looking for food,'” he said on the NBC program. “And, you know it’s been five days because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV because it’s too hard to watch.”
West continued talking. His co-host, actor Mike Myers, stuck to script and was clearly startled. When the camera came back to West, he again deviated from the prepared words, delivering the sentence:
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
In a way, the telethon flap was a mainstream look inside the rapper’s mind, a mixture of truth and personal conspiracy theories rooted in America’s racist history. The comments fit into the context of who West has always been: someone who follows his own instincts for good or for ill in politics, music or whatever.
His new album, “Late Registration,” is essentially a sound track of urban blight and the desire for a better life. There’s sadness, there’s pain, there’s humor, history, hope and celebration. In a spoken-word delivery, West spits verses over melodic 40-piece string sets, 30-piece horn sets and DJ scratches, giving birth, in a way, to a new sound for hip-hop. His album is a catalyst for an everyman political platform.
“My subject matter,” said West, who talked to the Detroit Free Press two weeks before his Katrina comments, “is like a politician. And it’s basically like if you, the fan, were talking to the screen. I’m speaking for that person over these beats.”
As ill-timed as West’s outspokenness might have been, his album was released the same week, commercially it didn’t hurt him at all. His single, “Gold Digger,” which has been on the charts for 13 weeks, remains the No. 1 song on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart. His album is No. 6.