Thursday, July 16, 2015

OverAnalyzed: Kanye West, "Black Skinhead"

Like many pasty-white middle-Americans, I like to listen to rap and pretend that I'm a gangsta when in reality I can barely tell the difference between pot and poison ivy. And since I'm a writer, that means I tend to overanalyze lyrics (actually, I overanalyze anything written). Anyway, I was listening to Kanye West's "Black Skinhead" and something seemed a bit off to me. Namely, the chorus section beginning at 1:32 which states,"I keep it 300 / Like the Romans / 300 bitches / Where the Trojans?" 

Let's ignore the casual sexism, because there is a MUCH BIGGER problem. (Insert heavy sarcasm here. Sexism is a problem, just not one within the scope of this blog post). Namely, Kanye West's misunderstanding of who the 300 are. The 300 were Spartans. Not Romans. Not Trojans. Spartans. Because I am extremely petty and like to nitpick minor details that no one cares about, this misstatement of history bugged me.

So, like any good English major, I performed close reading of the text, a phrase that never fails to sound pretentious. And what I discovered is that Kanye is cleverly inverting our expectations. Kanye is NOT saying that the Romans made up the 300 who fought Xerxes. Nor is Kanye saying that Romans were "bitches." No. Kanye is saying, "I keep it 300—not in the manner of Spartans, but in the manner of Romans—i.e. 300 women. Where are my condoms?"

In other words, Mr. West inverts what we expect him to be referring to—Spartans—instead making reference to the perceived sexual debauchery of Romans. He is acknowledging that the 300 are traditionally associated with Sparta, but goes on to deny that his 300 are associated with Sparta and states that they are instead associated with Rome (or at least Rome's sexually profligate). So what seems like a musician's misunderstanding of history becomes instead a multilayered text. 

Wow I sound like a condescending jerk when I wear my Literature hat. I mean, it's a song. Who cares about historical accuracy? It's pedantic and doesn't detract from the music. Still going to post this, though.