Don’t take Kanye West’s petulance for granted. When he jumps on a stage and turns a Taylor Swift victory into a muddled comment on white standards of talent and beauty, or interrupts a well-groomed live broadcast to remind everyone that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” it’s big, dumb grandstanding and, in its own contrived Kanye way, speaking truth to power. His simple appearance — ambitious, bold, often crude — is a culture jam: Kanye standing, stone-faced at Occupy Wall Street confusing corporate and ticking off Zucotti Park’s denizens; the swirling decadence of the “Power” video, premiering after a body-shot and fist-pump-filled episode of Jersey Shore; the tedious playing of an MPC for an MTV Music Awards audience that doesn’t know or care what the heck a drum machine does.
The latest Kanye culture jam crashed through last night’s BET Awards. Following a performance of “Mercy” by his goon/G.O.O.D. squad, and “Too Cold,” Kanye slowed down the spectacle and rapped his next single, “New God Flow,” a cappella, soundtracked only by spare, audience cheers and toward the end, his foot angrily stomping on the stage. A home viewing audience just had to stare at their screen for almost two minutes while he let out this rap rant. Think about that! In part, because the BET Awards are low rent, but also because Kanye’s on a bit of a tear right now and he’s having a like, Pink Floyd Animals moment, where his ambition and cynicism spiral out into a realization that “Oh wait, people aren’t just mad at me, this whole world is horseshit,” it felt alive and more than a little devastating.
“New God Flo,” mixes boasts with outrage, and throws in some rap game’s Nietzsche sacrilegious imagery, references the violence that’s wrecking his hometown of Chicago (“What has the world come to, I’m from the 3-1-2 / Where cops don’t come through and dreams don’t come true”), and throughout, weaves the names of black celebrities and political talking points done in by their demons and systemized oppression (Richard Pryor, Rodney King, Whitney Houston). A few lines later, Kanye reclaims the word “haters,” using it to refer to a wider conspiracy of white supremacy — so, you know, actual haters — and refashions “by any means necessary”: “I’m living three dreams: Biggie Smalls’, Dr. King’s, Rodney King’s / ‘Cause we can’t get along, no resolution / ‘Til we drown all these haters, rest in peace Whitney Houston.”
All of this, on a show that paid cheeky tribute to Whitney Houston — Whitney’s mom, who has an album coming out soon, sang Simon & Garfunkel; Soulja Boy and Mariah Carey cried — and welcomed tortured genius and screw-up D’Angelo back to the fold (for right now at least; when he releases an album of inspired, stretched-out soul vamps like “Sugar Daddy,” BET will lose interest)! If only “New God Flow” featured a line about Lauryn Hill’s recent tax-evasion issues. The song has not been released yet (the final version will feature Pusha T), so there’s still time for one more stormy shout out to another black artist done in by self indulgence and the celebrity-industrial complex.