While the absurd image of a one-legged busboy prompts outrageous laughter, the indicting statement about perceptions of white superiority goes over many heads.
And the same is true of Kanye West. His album "The College Dropout" is one of those rare occasions in hip-hop when both the squares and the "true heads" have found something of value in the same package. Many in the hip-hop nation regard Kanye's lyrics as a return to a more conscious time in music's evolution, which, as the argument goes, was before the culture went gangsta, then bling, and got all violent and materialistic in the process.
On "The College Dropout," he raps about things that haven't been heard in hip-hop since Michael Jackson was making music videos instead of court appearances. For instance, "college" has scarcely turned up on a rap record since DMC of Run-DMC said, "I'm DMC/ in the place to be/ I go to St. John's University/ and since kindergarten I acquired the knowledge/ and after 12th grade I went straight to college," on the B side of "Sucker MCs" in 1983.
Kanye's raps are personal, but at another level, his everyday-people disposition is quite universal, from the self-consciousness of overt materialism in "All Falls Down," to the ordeal of suffering a broken jaw in an auto accident without having any medical insurance in "Through the Wire."
In each case, Kanye took elements of his own otherwise tedious personal experiences and wove them into captivating slices of life, backed by soulful beats.
Most of the attention about "Dropout" has centered on the single "Jesus Walks," which won this year's Grammy for best rap song. Here, in a twist, Kanye seems to support red-state paranoia about a covert liberal attempt to suppress religion in public life: "So here goes my single, Dog/ radio needs this/ they said you can rap anything except for Jesus/ that means guns, sex, lies, videotape/ but if I talk about God my record won't get played."
Well, in this age of faith-based initiatives, supposed moral values and lobbying by the religious right, this is clearly an overstatement. "Jesus Walks" is like the ultimate red-state song, from an otherwise blue-state genre.
Realism and sensationalism
More interesting, though, is the way the topical religiosity of "Jesus Walks" took the attention away from some of the more nuanced moments on "The College Dropout." Kanye is probably at his most poignant when he raps about his own arduous road to a record deal on the album's final track, "Last Call." For 12 minutes and 40 seconds, Kanye goes step by step through eviction, rejection and a litany of broken promises on the way to a breakthrough.
What works so well here is that his path is familiar to most people who have struggled to make it in their chosen profession. This is not another tale from the dark side, in which the rapper survived that jungle known as the 'hood. No, this is basically middle-class angst.
Hip-hop has often relied on the aesthetic of realism to express itself, and Kanye's sense of realism is much more universal than the oft-repeated story of a rapper like 50 Cent, the hip-hop artist who dominated 2003 and whose personal narrative about surviving multiple gunshot wounds, though spectacular, speaks more to our desire for sensationalism than to our own humanity. Here 50's appeal is like an Abel Ferrara movie, while Kanye comes across like "Sideways."
Hip-hop's roots are in the 'hood, but Kanye reminds us that the hip-hop nation need not be an exclusively ghetto nation. If anything, what Kanye symbolizes most is the return of the middle-class rapper. His infectious beats and his stellar work as a producer earn him much-needed street cred, while his ruminations about middle-class existence attract a mainstream audience.
This ability to walk both sides of the street is a good marketing strategy, but it is also an effective means of connecting with listeners across boundaries, without necessarily diluting the impact of your material.
With this sort of appeal, it's no wonder that hip-hop keeps annexing cultural territory. Here, artists like Rock and Kanye are very much like first-term Illinois Sen. Barack Obama, who managed to impress both the Karl Roves of the world and his own Democratic base in a nation that is more fixated on red and blue than the Bloods and Crips.
So maybe if the Democrats continue to have trouble finding candidates who can play to both blue and red states, they should think about looking to hip-hop. It's infiltrated the Grammys and the Oscars, so the White House can't be too far out of range, right?
Todd Boyd is a media commentator and professor of Critical Studies at USC. His next book, "The Notorious Ph.D's Guide to the Super Fly 70s," will be published in 2006.
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