“We are the voices of our parents’ bad choices.” — Kanye West, “Mama’s Boyfriend”
“Sometimes I wish I wasn’t him, but I am.” — Lil Wayne, “Dear Anne”
“I’m just saying, you could do better.” — Drake, “Marvin’s Room”
“I have given my all.” — Nicki Minaj, “Catch Me”
Kanye West is having an identity crisis. Kanye is always having a crisis, but I’m really excited about this particular one because he’s on the edge of intense personal revelation. Rather than getting stuck in any one static Kanye persona, he’s allowing the “Kanye West” persona to continually evolve.1 He wants to know what the hell is happening with him psychologically, and so do we!
And while Kanye could probably keep doing things like his silly misogynist-garbage verse on Katy Perry’s “E.T.” forever, he’s also making songs like “Mama’s Boyfriend,” an outtake from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy whose vocal track leaked this week, in which he attempts to work through his obsession with controlling women.
Kanye wants to make you feel something, and that’s easier to do when he’s rapping about weakness than power. And boy does Kanye have weaknesses to rap about! And he’s ready to confront them without Auto-Tune. It’s embarrassing to rap about this shit,2 but that’s why it’s so cathartic.
People want power because they hate being powerless, especially sexually. Let me tell you a secret about Nate Dogg: He probably got dumped a lot. This is why he never gets dumped in his songs. The rapper persona, as it has been established and embellished on, never gets dumped. But people get dumped all the time. Kanye gets dumped all the time, and he is trying to figure out why. He’s moved out of the defensive position (“Runaway”) and turned on himself. Because now that he has everything he thought he wanted — money, fame, cars, clothes,3 respect from the New York art world — he’s finding he still wants something more.
Kanye liked ex-girlfriend Amber Rose because she had a good personality to go with her insanely hot body. She is funny, and ultimately Kanye needs a girl he can hang out with.4 He is unsatisfied with Miss Albania even though he’s spent his entire career working to a place where he could have sex with Miss Albania. A woman whose only talent is being beautiful bores him because he wants a woman he can talk to and feel comfortable with, the way he felt around his mother. That he channels this into a song that vaguely suggests a desire to have sex with his mom is extremely Portnoy’s Complaint of him.
And then, of course, he sees himself in his mom’s boyfriends. In the various boyfriends who mistreated his mother, men who lied to her when she was obviously smart enough to know when they were lying. And he wonders how he could have hated these men so much as a boy, only to turn out exactly like them. He is realizing that the women he’s mistreated are people just like his mom, who he loved more than anything. That he identified more with his mom than the men she dated, and how that’s all changed. Can you imagine how quiet it got when Kanye played this joint for everybody?
Do you think Kanye ever made the extremely morbid connection between his verse on “Throw Some D’s” (in which he offers to upgrade his theoretical girlfriend’s breast implants) and the fact that his mom died from complications following cosmetic surgery? That his single mom’s overwhelming need to be physically attractive to men (which led to her death) is connected to Kanye’s own desire for women to be perfect sex robots who he can mentally control.5
Amber Rose is now dating Wiz Khalifa. Whenever Kanye hears “Roll Up,” I bet he imagines Amber and Wiz having sex in a hot-air balloon while he stands on the ground cursing them and being tiny. “I could be your best friend, and you could be my homie.” Bitches ain’t shit but hoes and best friends! Amber Rose recently said in an interview that she and Kanye had a fight in Hawaii during the recording of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because Kanye refused to leave the studio for sex or dinner. Wiz Khalifa is not in Kanye’s league, talent-wise. He’s not even really trying to be. He seems happy where he is. He doesn’t have Kanye’s anger, and therefore he doesn’t have Kanye’s edge. But that is also why he is probably a much better boyfriend than Kanye.6
Nicki Minaj, bad bitch of the minute, also breaks character in her song “Catch Me,” which is about catching her boyfriend texting another girl and chasing him down a hallway, and how the whole episode makes her “feel small” even if she hides behind hyperbole like, “I will be on the mountain waiting.” Nicki Minaj admitting to being romantically vulnerable makes me feel all kinds of weird. But pop stars ought to be complete people, because we should all ultimately try to be our most complete selves.
There’s also Lil Wayne’s “Dear Anne,” in which he tells a long-distance girlfriend he’s trying to stay faithful to her and failing. Wayne is masterful at this kind of song,7 the introspective late-night-in-a-hotel-hallway real-talk song, because Wayne is like the smartest dude in the world.
And Drake, who specializes in songs about ambivalent dawns in condos,8 gets so vulnerable on “Marvin’s Room,” another “I’m too drunk not to call you right now and tell you how I feel” song, that he needs to use Auto-Tune as a crutch. He sounds like he might break down at any point, and in the song’s climax he cops to paying for sex and admits it’s emotionally unsatisfying, boring even. It’s easier to be honest when you’re using Auto-Tune, in the same way that people feel more comfortable being blunt on Instant Messenger.
These songs are short stories. They’re well-suited to being chopped and screwed because they’re slow and contemplative. They are the logical flip side of the other songs, the ones about doing every girl in the world. They’re all about just wanting somebody to talk to. These rappers just want one somebody to understand them, to see through the larger-than-life persona to the regular person underneath, and then accept that regular person for who they really are. To see Kanye the way Kanye’s mom saw Kanye, as a cute, funny little kid.
Kanye is a smart guy, and it makes sense he would be this self-reflective. He is also stubborn as hell. He is realizing that he has a choice in the matter, and he is trying to make the right choice. Not everyone even ever realizes it is a choice or that they could possibly make it. But this has been the main thread in Kanye’s career, from “Through The Wire” to “Runaway.” Brutal honesty, sometimes extremely tactless and cruel, often totally correct.9 Impossibly hard on everybody, but then hardest on himself.
Molly Lambert writes about pop culture for Grantland.