Monday 26 September 2016

Music: Kanye West and hip-hop's misogyny

Published 28/02/2016 | 02:30

Tipping point: Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.
Tipping point: Kanye West and Kim Kardashian.

We need to talk about Kanye. No, really - we do. Tempting as it might be to let the man himself rant and rave to his heart's desire, it's time to look hard at the very disturbing misogyny that has pock-marked so much of his music. And it's especially the case on his latest, much-hyped album The Life of Pablo - a bloated mishmash of influences and ideas which allows his anti-female sentiments free reign.

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Much has already been made of his crass remarks about Taylor Swift on 'Famous', and rightly so - it's a charmless attack, played for laughs, which alludes to the much-publicised moment he interrupted her acceptance speech at the VMAs some years ago: "I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex/ I made that bitch famous."

West throws around the b-word like confetti and, when he was called out on it earlier this month, he suggested that "'bitch' is an endearing term in hip-hop, like the word 'nigga'." Who's he kidding?

It's a word he even uses about his own wife, the reality TV star Kim Kardashian: on 'Highlights', in an effort to demean her ex-boyfriend, with whom she once made a sex-tape, he notes: "I bet me and Ray J would be friends/ If we ain't love the same bitch."

If that's how he refers to the mother of his children, it's not surprising that he's got both barrels out for his exes, including the model, Amber Rose. On 'No More Parties in LA', he likens her to a stripper who trapped the rapper Wiz Khalifa: "For all my niggas with babies by bitches/ That use their kids as meal tickets."

The Life of Pablo is peppered with more general anti-women offensiveness, not least when he inquires on 'Facts': "Do anybody feel bad for Bill Cosby?" With more than 50 women alleging that they were sexually abused by a man who used to be king of television comedy, it's unlikely too many are feeling much sympathy. And West wasn't just posing a question: in one of a stream of bonkers tweets, he declared that Cosby was innocent. [The Bill Cosby is innocent line would probably have generated more infamy if, around the same time, he hadn't also tweeted: "All you dudes in San Fran [a pointed reference to Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg], play rap music in your homes but never help the real artists, you'd rather open up one school in Africa like you really helped the country..."

Elsewhere on The Life of Pablo, he throws out lines that reek of misogyny: "My dick out, can she suck it right now?"; "I know it's corny niggas you wish you could un-swallow"; "My ex says she gave me the best years of her life/ I saw a recent picture of her, I guess she was right"; "I'm from a tribe called Check-A-Hoe".

All this heightened misogyny is somewhat surprising considering it's West's first album since the birth of his daughter, North, in June 2013 [previous album, Yeezus, was released earlier that month]. He's also the father of a two-month-old son, Saint. Not only does fatherhood not seemingly cause him pause to think, his songs are more misogynistic than ever.

Critics - this one included - have tended to turn a blind eye to West's misogyny when the music has been daring and great. I still think his 2010 album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is one of the most thrilling this decade, one that caught West at the very peak of his creativity. And, yet, his lyrical preoccupations were hard to stomach and the video for 'Monster' was utterly undefendable in its glorification of violence towards women.

Of course, West is far from alone: hip-hop as a whole has an appalling record when it comes to the portrayal of women. Back in 1988, Slick Rick was releasing a song with the provocative title 'Treat Her Like a Prostitute', and six years later, on 'A Love That's True', the rapper advises a protégé with the words: "You don't trust no bitch, OK?"

Two of the giants in hip-hop history, Public Enemy and NWA, also offered songs with a strong anti-woman message. The former's 'Sophisticated Bitch' has Chuck D rapping: "And still to this day people wonder why he didn't beat the bitch down till she almost died". The latter's 'One Less Bitch' finds Dr Dre deciding that "a dead bitch can't tell a nigga shit".

A Tribe Like Quest's 1991 song 'The Infamous Date Rape' purports to be a commentary condemning men who sexually assault women, yet questions women who "try to cry out 'rape'" and includes a bad joke about women refusing sex because they are menstruating.

And, of course, one can hardly forget Eminem's deeply disturbing relationship with women in a litany of ultra-violent songs, including the Dido-assisted 'Stan'. But it's 'Guilty Conscience', featuring Dr Dre, where the misogyny is off the scale: "While you at work she's with some dude tryin' to get off?/ F*** slittin' her throat - cut this bitch's head off."

Misogyny has been part of rap for so long that we've become desensitised to it. Critics appear to be afraid to speak out in case they're accused of "not getting it" or being conservative prudes, à la Tipper Gore, the lady behind those Parental Advisory labels. [Kanye West said as much this month when suggesting that "white publications" like Pitchfork and the New York Times shouldn't be reviewing "black music". Pitchfork, incidentally, gave The Life of Pablo a hysterically positive review.]

And where are the feminists in all this? I don't see too many mobilising to condemn West and his ilk. Three years ago, the female pop duo Tegan and Sara put their heads above the parapet to highlight the vile misogyny of then rap darling Tyler the Creator: "When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry? When will they be treated with the same seriousness as racist and anti-Semitic offences?"

In an era where some can be offended by the tiniest slight, why isn't there far more outrage?

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