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Kanye West Week Part Four: Champion


The song’s wonderful Reggae-ish bridge connects to the weird trend of R. Kelly or Lil Wayne and others adopting reggae-ish voices and inflections; Tom Breihan discusses it here a little bit. As I mentioned yesterday, when talking about ‘Good Morning’, Kanye’s sampling of Jay-Z’s voice, referencing ‘Bring Em’ Out’ and ‘I’m a Hustla’ shows how he is very in-tune with what is going on in popular rap and picks and chooses the innovative and goofy trends to take. I like the idea of a musician still interacting with the music from a fan’s perspective.

The lines about Lauryn Hill are very much from the rap fan that Kanye was before he found fame. He politiely calls her out, even suggesting she’s irresponsible for leaving rap when he says: “Cause who the kids gonna listen to?/I guess me if it isn’t you.” That use of “you” there in particular, is pretty harsh but more out of disappointment than anger. While so many seem to view this as Kanye’s most self-obsesed album, it seems to me, his least self-obsessed as he continually defers to others, admits flaws, and just sounds a lot less like he deserves anything. When he talks about Lauryn Hill, he’s calling her out but he understands (“her heart [is] in Zion” now), and he “wish[es] her heart was still in rhymin” even though he knows it isn’t anymore. Kanye has always been a fairly ethical rapper, concerned with responsibility and here, he quietly suggests Ms. Hill is being irresponsible, not using her talents and influence.

There’s a healthy uncertainty to Kanye’s lyrics, as he often admits shock or confusion and this is coupled with the bragging we expect. His goals seem more minor, less about making “events” and more about making some good music and being happy, as he says on ‘The Glory’:”I hear people compare themselves to BIG alot/You know, BIG and Pac, you know to get it hot/I guess, after I live, I wanna be compared to Big/Anyone, Big Pun, Big L or Notorious/Until then, get money, stunt, and stay glorious”. I really love the modesty (or half-modesty, he still wants to be a legend) in those lines. It works in response to his good buddy Weezy’s moronic claims of being “the best rapper alive” while still admitting a concern for legacy. Notice the qualifier: “I guess”. He uses a similar phrase to sort of suggest modesty in ‘Champion’ when he says “I don’t know, I just want it better for my kids” and then reminisces about being young and not being able to get the clothes he wanted, but not before he again, qualifies his statement with “and I ain’t saying we was from the projects”. When he moves further into this childhood memory, he continues a sense of not over-stating its significance. Kanye and his father weren’t “like Will Smith and his son” they were “sorta like Will Smith and his son/In the movie, I ain’t talkin’ about the rich one”.

There’s a lot to unpack in these lines and I find them among the most touching and real on the album. He quotes his father saying the kind of thing my grandparents told me; clever, memorable sayings that drive home the point:”When you see clothes/Close your eyelids”. And then, like so many other lower-middle to middle-class kids, he ends up getting what he wants because his Dad too “wanted it better for his kids”. I can remember being five years old or so and my parents saving all of their change for a year until we had enough to buy a Nintendo. So, the little anecdote becomes about how parents do a lot for their kids. The discussion of “universality” in relation to ‘Graduation’ to me seems a little lazy, as all of the personal shit is there, it just means you have to think a little harder and make the connections yourself. So that, a grown son realizing just how much his parents did for him- is the “universal” part.

Then, there’s the personal part. When Kanye says that he didn’t “know what [his dad] did for dough”, it sort of suggests his dad dealt drugs or at the least, was some kind of “hustler”: “Cause every summer/He’d get some hare-brained scheme to get rich form” and by the time the new school year started, Kanye had the clothes he desired. When that memory is coupled with the knowledge that his Dad was a Black Panther, those lines really sort of trace the devolution of the Black Panthers. Put it alongside of ‘Crack Music’ and you have a merging of the personal and political history of the Panthers. How their fall, from inside and outside forces, pushed the members into the world of hustling and away from their political ideals.

‘Champion’ is based on ‘Kid Charlemagne’ by Steely Dan, a song that, is ostensibly, about the fall of some kind of dealer/pimp type but done from a loosely ironic perspective typical of a group like Steely Dan. In the original, Steely Dan do the obviously “clever” of move of changing the sampled line for the final part of the song, as it changes to “Did they realize, that you are an outlaw”. Kanye removes this irony and replaces it with a song equal parts joyful and sad.

The song’s topic (drugs and drug-dealing) certainly relates to recent rap controversies about crack-rap. Drugs have long been a topic for music and although there is a difference between ‘Kid Charlemagne’ and ‘T.R.A.P.S.T.A.R’, it’s a quick and clever acknowledgement of the conundrum that is crack-rap, something Kanye comes back to a few times on ‘Graduation’. The song’s ironic use of funk and Afrobeat is another topic of interest and addresses Steely Dan’s rather contemptuous relationship with rappers and sampling. As I discussed in this Schooly D entry, why the hell is ripping of a sound or style any more “ethical” than flat-out sampling? Progressive rock, particularly the American/British style, has a tendency to take from black music styles in what I see as sort of ironic and gimmicky. Pink Floyd approximate funk on parts of the album ‘Wish You Were Here’, so many prog albums have a throwaway joke track that goes “boogie woogie” (‘Are You Ready Eddie?” from EL-P’s ‘Tarkus’), or the brief reggae-ish breakdown in Rush’s ‘Spirit of the Radio’, all have the icky feeling of a bunch of “accomplished” musicians co-opting black musical styles for a few moments because they can and for a quick little joke even though of course, when these guys began playng rock they learned blues chords…

Concurrent with Rush, Afrika Bambaata respectfully samples aspects of Rush’s ‘Tom Sawyer’ for ‘Death Mix 2′ showing the long history of rappers respecting rock even as they did something very different. Kanye like Bambaata, is sampling with purpose- sure it’s a hot-sounding sample, but Kanye knows the miles of context that the sample carries along.

Steely Dan have a lot of rap history behind them, in terms of being sampled and making artists pay out the ass for those samples, so it is also a very contemporary signifier of wealth: “I got the money and clout to sample Steely Dan!”. There’s also the silly but relevant controversy of a few years ago when Steely Dan won ‘Album of the Year’ over, Eminem even though tons of people didn’t even know Steely Dan released an album. All of this subtext is swirling around in th background of ‘Champion’ although of course, it is first and foremost just a really great-sounding song.

The reason I harp on this context is a) because no one else is wasting their time to discuss it and b) because it’s good evidence of how complicated and smart rap music can be. I don’t think Kanye is any more insightful or “smart” than UGK or others, but as Noz suggested here, Kanye has developed a persona that makes him a “serious artist”. What that allows people like me to do, is blabber on about context and subtext and politicized sampling without getting looks and silent groans about “over-interpretation” as I might if I gave a college professor ‘Underground Kingz’ and said the same stuff. Kanye has been on the cover of ‘Time’ and ‘Rolling Stone’ and spoke out against Bush, so in the eyes of the rap-ignorant and even rap-phobic, that makes him “serious”. Kanye West is yes, a digestible but smart and hard-working example of rap music’s potential.

Written by Brandon

September 13th, 2007 at 5:43 pm

Posted in Kanye West

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