“A Strange and Bitter Crop”: Believing in Yeezus’s America
“Strange Fruit” is a song about lynching. The “strange fruit” that hangs from the poplar trees is dead southern black men, hung regularly and brutally by southern whites during the agonizingly long period between the end of southern reconstruction and the civil rights movement. Kanye West samples the song for his “Blood On the Leaves,” a song about a nouveau-riche American man caught between the limelight and parasitic relationships with various women. While the song is deeply ominous—spelling doom with TNGHT’s orchestral rendition of the classic, KLC-produced C-Murder cut “Down For My N’s”—the one thing it looks warmly upon is the past. Weirdly enough, the “black bodies swinging in the summer breeze,” aren’t only lynched men anymore, but also romantic young people, creating love in summertime, before the sinister influence of American culture corrupts them.
Why would Kanye want to connect the physical horrors of the history of American racism to what is, frankly, a story that he has told before? Well, probably to make the point that the influence of American racism lives on in the everyday lives of black Americans everywhere. But he focuses specifically on the narrative of the newly rich, people who have recently come into money and who are not only likely to not know how to handle this kind of extreme wealth, and more importantly, will find themselves banging at the locked gates of high culture and old money—the class of people that might live in a “Hampton house”. They thus discover that they are much closer to a precipitous drop back into poverty than one might expect, with the still-living remnants of their old life nipping at their feet. The darkness of Yeezus, the very well-publicized demonic qualities of the production and Kanye’s lyrics, is a purposefully wild and desperate reaction to this kind of economic and cultural entrapment.
The mood of the album is one of sinister and demoralized rage, the specifics of which raise a lot of questions. The voice of “Blood On the Leaves” eventually capitulates after hemming and hawing about how he (and she) “could’ve been somebody” by bringing the song “back to the ‘nolia.” That “‘nolia” is the Magnolia projects in New Orleans, a group of public houses that boasted one of the highest murder rates in the country for years and also birthed more than a few of New Orleans’ most successful rappers. Kanye brings us there by repeating the refrain of C-Murder’s original: “fuck those other n***gas cuz I’m down for my n***gas.” The only thing that associates “those n***gas” from “my n***gas” are their association with the narrator. In this context, with TNGHT’s horns blasting evil like Darth Vadar’s “Imperial March”, Kanye’s intent is clear: this a mantra of the violent sectarianism of the ghetto and a theme song for pointless black on black crime. With Nina Simone still wryly cooing in the background, we always know what is to blame: white racism.
The other consequence of Kanye’s moral breakdown is just as clear. The sinister voice of Yeezus regularly returns to violent yet extremely cathartic sexual deviance. We always know the state and location of Kanye’s dick and various ways that he is dominating women with it, one of which turns out to be killing them. For the Kanye of Yeezus this is a result of the system as well as a way of raging against it. And its umbrella is wide: the darkness covers anything from violating a “Hamptons spouse” to eye-fucking to aggressively demeaning language to getting a grinding-induced boner in the club. All of this activity is imbued with the same shameful yet extreme pleasure. He waves his sexuality around like a controversy-inducing weapon. Why all the shame associated with sex? Well, I guess that any of these actions could lead to the pregnancy that ruins the life of the intentionally pathetic protagonist of “Blood On The Leaves”. More generally, its another consequence of the legacy of American inequality, a quiver that Kanye and by his implication, black America, is forced to draw from because of an inability to access more “noble” activities.
Musically, Yeezus is a real achievement. I don’t think that Kanye is at the point now where he is really capable of fully revamping his style, and thus we can see his tropes all over this album, but he seems to have chosen his collaborators and influences in a way that prioritizes newness as much as possible. For any music nerd, it will be a very easy album to get nerdy about, with unique rhythms and alarming, raw sounds all over it. But for an album formulated to be subversive, it is tied tightly to the existing structures of wealth, culture, and sex in America. To connect fully with Yeezus on a lyrical level, you really have to agree with Kanye on these points: first, that there is an inherent evil in at least some aspect of the culture of poor black America, the culture that bore gangsta rappers like C-Murder and Chief Keef; and second, that there is an inherent evil in deviant and promiscuous sexuality. It of course depends on where you fall on the venn diagram of those two experiences, but I am sure that for a lot of listeners, these criteria will make it hard to rap along with anything resembling joy.