One of the things I’ve always found fascinating about Kanye West is his ambivalence about personal responsibility and whether it actually works. The new leak of the fully produced song “Mama’s Boyfriend,” that he played on promotional tours but that didn’t make My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a perfect example of this:
Kanye’s clear that he thinks parenting practices have an impact on kids. It’s less that not having a father is bad for a boy, though I think there’s an undercurrent of that here, but because the unstable echoes of broken relationships create all kinds of uncertainty. “We are the voices of our parents’ bad choices / The aftermath of divorces,” he raps, “The kids of bitter splitups and babysitters / Grandparents that don’t know what to do with us.” I really love his description of himself as a child: “I was my mama’s boyfriend / I was a little husband/ I was the man of the house when there wasn’t.”
Of course, feeling this way doesn’t prevent Kanye from ending up in the same situation. I think it’s fairly obvious that Kanye, if not an actual misogynist, has some fairly profound unresolved issues around women. But it’s interesting, and kind of a relief, that in this song he reserves his anger for the men who dated his mother, rather than directing it at her or at the women he dates who are raising sons as single mothers. Obviously, Kanye’s trying to do a better job by his surrogate son than his surrogate fathers did by him, explaining “I don’t read palms / And I don’t read psalms / But I did take lil’ man to church / Took lil’ man to school.” But I don’t really read in this the expectation that he’ll actually be able to break the cycle by raising the kid up a bit. Families are going to continue to be fractured, and kids are going to keep hating the cheesy-looking people who enter and exit their lives on the grounds that they’re not flesh and blood replacements.
That sense that you do the right thing for its own sake, and not because it’ll produce good results, in fact, it’ll probably blow up in your face, is all over West’s work. In “Gold Digger,” it’s there in the form of the football player who pays child support for 18 years only to find out he’s supporting a kid who isn’t his. It’s also the motivating force behind that terrific, and tremendously bitter, final diss in the song: “You got out to eat and he can’t pay, you all can’t leave / There’s dishes in the back, he gotta roll up his sleeves / But why you all washing watch him / He gone make it into a Benz out of that Datson / He got that ambition baby look in his eyes / This week he mopping floors next week it’s the fries / So, stick by his side / I know his dude’s balling but yeah that’s nice / And they gone keep calling and trying / But you stay right girl / And when he get on he’ll leave your ass for a white girl.”:
In “Runaway,” which one of my friends describes as Kanye’s singing his own sins, his own version of Satan’s Book Four lament in Paradise Lost that “Hadst thou the same free Will and Power to stand? / Thou hadst,” Kanye takes responsibility for his own brokenness, but also assumes that other people won’t take responsibility for staying away from him:
And “Drive Slow,” one of my favorite Kanye songs, has this lovely elegiac quality of “Do as I say, not as I did,” as he narrates a lazy summer where his newly fatherless friend spends his inheritance, blasts Kanye’s demos on the speakers in his new car, and gets a girl pregnant:
Sometimes I think there’s something oddly noble about Kanye. I think he believes people are basically fallen but that you should try to do the right thing as much as possible anyway, even if it doesn’t really make life better for you. I’d say it’s conservative, but I don’t think Kanye believes that personal responsibility will actually save us, just that it’ll let us rage against our eventual damnation.