Kanye West’s “New Slaves” Is Right On Prisons And Consumer Culture, But Weird On Women

Kanye West’s debuted a new song, “New Slaves,” for a mass audience on Saturday Night Live this weekend, and as an art project last Friday, projecting a video for the song on buildings in London, Chicago, New York, and Sydney. Among those locations was the Prada store Fifth Avenue:

It’s a fitting choice of venue, given that “New Slaves” is a complex discussion of unpaid, bonded labor, and American consumer culture. At Salon, Natasha Lennard has a great discussion of the facts behind a central section of West’s lyrics in which he raps about the rise of private prison companies that pay prisoners far below minimum wage that’s in part become successful because of the demand for incarceration created by the War on Drugs:

Yeah they confuse us with bullshit
Like the New World Order
Meanwhile the DEA
Teamed up with the CCA
They tryna lock niggas up
They tryna make new slaves
See that’s that private-owned prison
Get your piece today

But where the track gets both more psychologically perceptive and less comfortable is in West’s look at the way African-Americans are treated in the luxury consumer market, and what it means to join a class dominated by people who do things like put black men in prison for profit. At the beginning of the song, West teases out an important dichotomy that explains how racism changes, but doesn’t dissipate, as African-Americans acquire wealth and the social capital that often accompanies it:

You see its broke nigga racism
That’s that “don’t touch anything in the store”
And there’s rich nigga racism
That’s that “come in and buy more”
What you want a Bentley, fur coat and diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same things
Used to only be niggas
Now everybody play me
Spending everything on that Alexander Wang

Having money makes you valuable, but that’s a very different thing from being considered respectable, or even an individual. But while the insight is unique, Kanye’s lyrical solution to it is…not so much. Instead of targeting, say, Corrections Corporation of America founders Tom Beasley, T. Don Hutto and Doctor Robert Crants, or the private prison company’s current board chairman, John Ferguson, or its president and CEO Damon Hininger for their corporate decision-making, or Drug Enforcement Administrator Michele Leonhart for her policy-making, “New Slaves” ends with a cheap, nasty fantasy of sexual revenge. “They prolly all in the Hamptons / Braggin’ ’bout they maid,” West reflects of the DEA and CCA. “Fuck you and your Hampton house / I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse / Came on her Hampton blouse / And in her Hampton mouth.”

Even if you think it’s important to prioritize the analysis of racism in “New Slaves” over the song’s dip into misogyny, it’s hard to deny how useless it is to turn away from the real structural targets of West’s critique to a dream of shaming powerful men by sexually dominating their wives, or how much that fantasy plays into the demonization of black male sexuality. Even if the lyrical supply chain West is constructing here between slave-picked cotton and his own consumption of Alexander McQueen clothes is striking, particularly when offered on this scale, the idea of seducing and sexually dominating your rival’s partner is one of the oldest, stalest threats in the book. And for a song that starts with memories of West’s mother generation and the historical experiences of black women, there’s something oddly amnesiac about fantasizing about exerting control over your enemies through sexual control of their wives.