Kanye, keepin' it klassy

I love this new song by Kanye West, "Runaway." Love it, love it, love it.

I bought it yesterday and have pretty much been listening to it ever since on repeat -- all nine glorious minutes -- with maybe a few pauses here and there to check out some of the other songs on the album (which, by the way, I think is totally rad, start to finish). I love the piano motif. I love how the groove picks up and builds. I love the general musicality and the beat. The melody is beautiful. He sings emotionally. I can totally relate to the sentiment -- "I'm so gifted at finding what I don't like the most." I appreciate that so, so much.

But while we're on the subject of what I don't like the most, in "Runaway," it's a pretty significant part: the chorus.

Let's have a toast for the douchebags.
Let's have a toast for the assholes.
Let's have a toast for the scumbags, every one of them that I know
Let's have a toast for the jerkoffs that'd never take work off
Baby I got a plan, runaway fast as you can

I did buy the "clean" version off iTunes, knowing how profanity-laden most hip-hop is, so "assholes" is edited out in my version. (Gee, thanks guys!) I was hoping the clean version would be listenable in mixed company. (And for the record, I'm not just talking about my kids here. I'm talking about my older relatives, or more conservative parents of my kids' school buddies whom I may not know so well, as well as the precious little earbuds of the toddler set.) But I was disappointed to find that I most definitely misinterpreted the meaning of "clean."

Why did Kanye have to go with this vulgar language? It doesn't feel poetic to me, and it doesn't seem to fit with the majestic feeling of the song overall. And, as so often is the case with me and hip-hop, because the language is superficially off-putting, I find myself unable to fully digest the greater artistry of the music, in that I can't share it with those I love. I can't herald the song high and low, the way I usually do with my favorite songs. Instead, I feel like I have to enjoy it in privacy or among "understanding" ears. I find myself really wishing he had taken another couple hours to come up with different language, words that felt as sublime as the accompanying music rather than the cheap middle-school disses we were left with.

But lest you think this blog is becoming a covert arm of the NFL (No Fun League!), I should interject that I'm actually asking for feedback here. I mean, between this and not liking the Call of Duty Black Ops ad, am I just totally losing my edge? Am I overreacting? I would like to just say I should let it go and leave it at that, but the truth is, my mom shuddered a little once when we were listening to Katy Perry's "California Gurls" together, when Snoop Dogg raps about all the California girls' "asses hangin' out." And the bottom line is that I am forced to refrain from playing "Runaway" (or most of the album, really) in the car during carpool because of the language. I just wouldn't feel comfortable if the neighbor kid went home to his mom asking what a "douchebag" was because he heard it on my iPod.

I want to hear and share great, contemporary music. I appreciate that many hip-hop artists, and Kanye especially, are provocative. But how is the song elevated by the chorus harping on douchebags and jerkoffs? Especially when he follows up the jerkoff line with "that'd never take work off," I seriously find myself thinking there was no poetry there at all and he was just saying whatever rhymed, without worrying about how dumb it sounded, because, well, he's Kanye and we all know he says whatever he wants, regardless of the potential consequences. (Editorial note: I was going to write, "He's Kanye and he says whatever the f@#% he wants," but frankly, that felt lazy, and I decided to take 15 extra seconds to come up with words that might be just slightly more insightful and accurate. NOTE TO KANYE: DON'T BE LAZY.)

And that's it: His language feels lazy to me, and it makes me enjoy the song less. I know I'm holding out a lightning rod here, criticizing coarse language, which is a fundamental pillar of hip-hop. But this song in particular is so beautiful, and I love it so much, it's sad that the chorus falls back on cheap language that means I can't easily put it on my most-played playlists.

Perhaps there is a poetic vision behind the jerkoffs and scumbags that I completely missed -- it wouldn't be the first time -- and that's why I'm writing this. So, if you understand Kanye's intentions, please do share. Because I would be very happy to figure out a way to justify My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as an appropriate carpool soundtrack.


Mike Tsao said...

I agree with everything you say but come to a different conclusion.

The other day my 5-year-old son asked why "the singing people" said so many bad words. I said that sometimes people have a hard time saying exactly what they are thinking or feeling without using bad words. While my mouth was open, I threw in the judgmental comment that it's good to work to say exactly what you mean without resorting to swearing. "Proper" language can already be so marvelously expressive. In fact, I think the same emotion well-expressed using non-vulgar language has a much more powerful effect than a string of shouted expletives.

But I didn't go so far as to tell my son that the singers were being bad or otherwise that anything was wrong with the world. The fact is that "fuck" or "shit" are some of the richest words in our language. Just think how the meaning of those words varies depending on context. True, they have so many meanings that they're almost all-purpose words (meaning that the speaker is almost never grammatically or semantically incorrect in their usage), but on the listener's end, so many possibilities in interpretation!

Conclusion? Yeah, it'd be nice if I had a lawn that mowed itself and artists were both poetic and clean. But neither of those is going to happen. And once your kids get past the age where you care to protect them from vulgarity... well, "fuck/shit/etc." are required reading.

[I know you made other points in your post. Those remain unaddressed.]

Jennifer said...

Hm. I forgot you can't "like" comments on Blogger. It's like 2003 up in her!


stiill said...

The whole genre is in a totally different range of profanity and general offensiveness. You have to remap the range.

A normal world "how's it going?" translates into a rap "bitch what's up?" Normal world "I disagree" translates into "y'all can suck my...". And normal world "you're an asshole" translates into something completely unprintable.

I actually think the "work off" line works, btw. I think the "Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh? / I put the pussy in a sarcophagus" is awesome after someone pointed out to me the practice of burying cats with rulers. The funniest lyric on the album I won't put here, in the interest of keeping your blog clean-ish. :)

I also think it's a little funny to call any version of the album "clean"-- it's full of absolutely offensive stuff, even censored. I mean, Take One for the Team? Yeesh.

You're not alone. I've heard plenty of people ask for a musical version of the album so they don't have to hear him ruin it. :)

Ian said...

Douchebag is the perfect word to use there. It doesn't sound overly formal, It doesn't sound overly harsh, either. It gets across the "emotional repulsion in passing" idea he's going for perfectly. And it's two syllables, so it fits in to the structure of the chorus. You say he's being lazy, but I can't think of a lot of words with the same intensity and brevity and that are still casual and easy to relate to.

The song is pretty tame by the standards of pop music. It's extremely tame by the standards of pop music. To claim Kanye West is lazy because he won't write music going out of its way to appeal to and be appropriate for you and your kids and your parents and your kids' friends' conservative parents is kind of ridiculous and self-absorbed.

Ian said...

Also, I'm sure this isn't what you intended, but this post kind of reads like "Kanye should be less black because my conservative white relatives and peers might be offended."

Jennifer said...

Ian, do you have kids? How old? And how much time do you spend listening to pop music with them? I'm curious how other parents handle media consumption with their kids, and if you're a parent, I'd be interested in hearing your thoughts.

If you're not a parent, how do you handle being around older relatives or people you spend time with who are outside of your age/demographic? What kind of conversations do you have with them when these or other even more graphic lyrics come up? I'm genuinely interested in learning more about other people's experiences and attitudes.

As for your comment about race, I think that says more about you than it does about my post.

Cody W. (NintendoTheory) said...

I can definitely understand where you're coming from. I love rap and hip-hop as art forms, and I'm always trying to get friends and family to appreciate it. But even when you find a beautiful song, there's always a word used here or there that kills the entire process.

My mom hates the f-word. Hates it. Every time she hears it she shakes her head and wonders why people have to use it. I'd love to have her listen to some of the beautiful music I listen to every day, but then that word comes up and I'm forced to keep it off the "have mom listen to these in the car" playlists.

Of course, the word doesn't bother me, and it can have an artful use, and I'd hate to have artists censor themselves, but it does hurt when it blocks people from enjoying some pretty beautiful music.

I don't think you're getting older or your tastes are becoming more conservative. Just seems like the usual, gradual path people take in becoming more considerate to what those around them hear :)

Anyhoo, great blog! I enjoyed the CoD one as well! Keep it up.

Sky Schulz said...

I have 3 kids, 23 years (woman), 17 years (young man), and 6 months (cute daddy's girl, who wants her own keyboard and mouse and doesn't want to use the one that's not plugged in).

My wife and I use language to it's fullest, virtually wherever we are. And, I hope, our children do as well. Does this mean every other word is "fuck"? Sometimes. If we're really pissed. Do we censor ourselves in "mixed" company? No. We speak our minds, using language appropriate to our thoughts and feelings. If others find themselves offended, that is their problem, not ours.

Why is it their problem? Because, words are just that: words. We assign meaning to them based on our own bias. We can choose to see some words as "bad" and others as "good". But, in the end, they are words.

If people can't deal with it, fuck 'em.

Jennifer said...

Cody, so glad to hear someone else has that "mom" filter... do we ever outgrow it? :)

I'm not sure it's as simple as you put it, Sky, at least for me. Words are huge to me... HUGE, and they are loaded with connotations, meaning, associations positive and negative, whether we like it or not.

But I applaud your conviction and confidence, and I do agree with you and my brother that it's not about sheltering your children. It seems to be about teaching them appropriate context and use.

Anonymous said...

Sticks and stones will break my bones nut WORDS will never hurt me. Old childhood saying.

This post is stupid. West called out so
E young women during an award show and was called a douchebag by his peers! So either he is singing about himself or he is a total ass and singing about the people who actually purchased his song.

Jennifer, how the hell did your mind make this blog? I'll give you the benefit of the doubt but then again maybe you are just dumb!

Listen to Gary Jules Mad World, please. Then listen to Garden by Pearl Jam.

Rap, retards attempting poetry.

Mainstream- equal lamestream - put some Pearl Jam in your car pool!

Anonymous said...

Sorry to be an ass. There is so much crap going on in the world and I swear to my bones that this shit in pop culture is like cryptonite to me. Pop culture is just ugh! The good news is there are smart and powerful people who see this and do what they can to counter this BS!

Jason said...

Stumbled upon this blog, this is an old post, but I thought I'd comment: Kanye chose to go with the more vulgar language because it's exactly how he feels about himself. The song is about him taking a long, hard, and honest look at himself after all the controversies and personal struggles and anguish that have surrounded his private life and his public persona, and coming to the realization that there is a lot that he doesn't and shouldn't like about himself. He doesn't feel like a tamer version of the words he used; he feels like an asshole, he feels like a scumbag, he feels like a jerkoff (honestly, he probably feels even worse!). I can appreciate your desire for this song to be more traditionally poetic with it's language, but in this case, Kanye decided to opt for raw and simple honesty. For as much self-aggrandizing as he does, he recognizes the simple truth: that yes, he can be a douchebag. A musical genius and a great lyricist, but still a douchebag.

And if it sounds coarse and off-putting to you, well, that is probably part of his point: That as much as you dislike his choice of words, that's exactly how he feels about himself.

As for the "work off" part, well, yeah, he probably just needed something to rhyme :P He probably just liked the word "jerkoff" a lot and needed a way to keep it in the song. It's silly, but I don't think it's necessarily lazy.