It was, all in all, a rather astonishing performance, one that eventually led all the participants to places better left undescribed in a family newspaper. But for all the ugliness of West’s sentiments about women, they were hardly some sort of new revelation. West’s career has been defined in part by tortured portraits of the relationship between the sexes. And the reasons I might be expected to reject West (as a critic and a feminist) are exactly why I can’t stop listening to him. Kanye West’s music is a fascinating portrait of the ways men can get tangled up in their anger at women, and the extent to which that fury is really anger at themselves.
If hip-hop’s origins are in poverty, part of what distinguished West was his more prosperous upbringing as the son of an English professor who raised him in Georgia and Illinois, with a stint in China while she taught in an exchange program. West’s debut solo album was called “The College Dropout”; if West’s hip-hop predecessors were scrambling for financial stability and the markers of respectability, West had access to a conventional path to a secure life but rejected it to pursue his passion.
And while West’s many, many songs about women hit plenty of predictable marks — complaints about alleged gold diggers, laments about the complications of juggling multiple women — his different path to hip-hop stardom means that he sometimes takes on a persona more associated with white geeks than black rappers, that of a vengeful, romantically entitled nerd. In Keri Hilson’s 2009 song “Knock You Down,” West plays a sensitive artist who loses his mind when Hilson leaves him for a suaver rival, the singer Ne-Yo.
“You was always the cheerleader of my dream / That seem to only date the head of football teams / And I was the class clown that always kept you laughing / We were never meant to be baby we just happened,” West pleads with Hilson, his neck and jaw tightening with anger as he paints their breakup as a moral travesty. “How could a goddess ask someone that’s only average / For advice, OMG, you listen to that b—- / Woe is me baby this is tragic.”
That same combination of vengeance and self-pity also shows up in “Heartless,” a song from West’s “808s & Heartbreak” album of 2008. West warns the woman the song is aimed at that “You need to watch the way you talking to me yo / I mean, after all the things that we been through,” a not-so-veiled threat to use information from her past against her, and cautions her that a new boyfriend is no protection: “You got a new friend / Well I got homies.” But if the threats in the song promise ugliness to come, the balance of the song ends up being marginally more pathetic than dangerous. “Heartless” is mostly a song about a man who’s profoundly lonely — in “Blood on the Leaves,” from his 2013 album “Yeezus,” the rancor dissolves yet again into a similar sense of desolation.
Really, if anything defines West’s music about women, it’s a sense of weary self-defeat.
On the Dilated Peoples track “This Way,” West’s braggadocio about his complex romantic life sounds more exhausting than exciting: “My favorite girl wanna leave me just because I got a girlfriend / My freak girl told me now, she a Christian / My White girl wanna move back to Michigan / I’m pulling girls off the bench like a sixth man.” “Gold Digger,” for all of its nasty dreams of women trapping rich men into decades of child support payments, contains both a smidgen of admiration for the capitalist enterprise of the women in question, and a wide streak of male powerlessness: “I don’t care what none of y’all say, I still love her,” he declares. In “All of the Lights,” West is a narrator incapacitated by his own anger, assaulting his ex’s new boyfriend after he’s released from prison for hitting her, reduced to seeing his daughter only in public settings, feeling powerless to rescue the little girl from the “ghetto university” in which West is perpetually enrolled.
Even “Stronger,” a celebration of West’s own nonpareil nature, is shot through with paranoia. “How the hell could you front on me?” West demands in the midst of what’s supposed to be a monument to himself. He’s suspicious of the woman the song is aimed at, noting “She’ll do anything for the limelight.”
This conflict takes its rawest form in “Runaway,” one of the best tracks on West’s extraordinary 2010 album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”:
“I always find, yeah, I always find something wrong,” he laments at the beginning of the song, a pained plea that a woman he can’t stop hurting extricate herself from the relationship because West himself cannot. “I just blame everything on you / At least you know that’s what I’m good at.”
As West’s attacks on Amber Rose suggest, confession is not the same thing as a promise not to sin again. Marinating in your own self-loathing is not actually an inherently redemptive act. But if West vents his anger on women in both fiction and real life, his own misery is equally apparent. I wouldn’t want to be with Kanye West. But on the basis of his music, the prospect of being him actually sounds even worse.