I spit it through the wire
Kanye West's face was shattered in the October 2002 car wreck that nearly cost him his life. Surgeons wired his jaw shut for nearly two months in order to help him recover; his jaw was still wired when he recorded this song, giving his rap its trademark slurred sound as he literally spit his rhymes through the wire.
Kanye turned the arresting image of "spitting his soul through the wire" into a powerful metaphor for his fledgling rap career, building up a personal mythology around the idea that no obstacle could stop him from fulfilling his destiny to be the next big thing in hip-hop.
The song's success, boosted by its powerful backstory, established West as a legit MC after years of struggle to gain acceptance as anything more than a producer.
I'll gladly risk it all
Kanye borrows this line from the chorus of Chaka Khan's 1984 hit single "Through the Fire"—which (replayed on fast-forward at a radically increased pitch, a trademark technique of early Kanye productions) provides the chorus to "Through the Wire."
Kanye West said that his inspiration for "Through the Wire" came from hearing Chaka Khan's '80s R&B classic played on the radio in the hospital while he was recuperating from his 2002 facial reconstruction surgery.
He called the soul diva and told her that "Through the Fire" had inspired his recovery, and asked for her permission to sample its chorus in his own song. Chaka Khan agreed, although she later admitted that she "didn't expect him to speed it up and make me sound like a chipmunk" (source).
In a different interview, though, she professed to be a huge fan of West and even of his high-pitched interpolation of her vocals. "Kanye is an absolute sweetheart," she said, "truly adorable. I love him and I love that track. The way he's used my sample is so clever—it's like Chaka on helium." (Source)
Chi-Town what's going on?
Chi-Town = Chicago, Kanye West's hometown.
Kanye has a great deal of Chicago pride, frequently name-dropping Chicago references in his raps and collaborating with fellow Windy City rap icons Common and Lupe Fiasco.
On "This Way," his 2004 collaboration with Dilated Peoples, West rhymed:
I'm a Chicagoan
'til Chicago ends
'til we blow like Chicago winds.
I drink a Boost for breakfast, an Ensure for dessert
With his jaw wired shut, West couldn't eat any solid foods for more than a month.
An average adult male would have to drink eight cans of Ensure a day to reach the FDA's recommended daily intake of 2000 calories.
I just sip the sizzurp
Sizzurp = syrup, for those of us not speaking in rap "-izzle" slang.
"-Izz" slang took the rap world by storm in the early 2000s, popularized especially by Snoop Dogg's "What's My Name (Part 2)", with its now-iconic "fo' shizzle, my nizzle" rhyme, and by Jay-Z's "H.O.V.A."—a Kanye West production—with its chorus of "H to the Izzo, V to the Izzay."
Soon, "-izz" rhymes were everywhere in rap and in the broader popular culture; Bob Newhart dropped an "-izz" rhyme in Legally Blonde 2 and someone with far too much time on his hands built a website called Gizoogle that will translate other sites into "-izz" slang.
Kanye's rhyme here is—typically—a bit more sophisticated and playful than most; he rhymes made-up "-izz" words "sizzurp" and "wizzerk" with actual words "dessert" and "berserk" and the whole verse actually tells a coherent story.
Mr. H to the Izzo
"H to the Izzo" was half of the iconic chorus (along with "V to the Izzay") of Jay-Z's 2001 hit "H.O.V.A.," the Kanye-produced song that marked West's emergence as a major hip-hop producer; at the time West recorded "Through the Wire," being "Mr. H to the Izzo" was still his biggest claim to fame.
"H.O.V.A." isn't actually an acronym; it's simply short for Jehovah—Jay Z's typically modest nickname for himself, derived from his self-proclaimed status as "the God of rap."
Her guy look like Emmett Till
Emmett Till was a 14-year-old Black boy who was murdered in Mississippi 1955 in one of the most horrific acts of violence of the civil rights era.
Gruesome photographs of his battered face and mangled body were published in Jet magazine, with Till's mother explaining that she "wanted the world to see what they did to my baby."
Emmett Till, like Kanye West a native Chicagoan, was visiting family in the Deep South in the summer of 1955 when he was killed by two white men for transgressing the rigid rules of racial conduct that prevailed in the era of Jim Crow.
What was Till's offense? The 14-year-old boy had whistled at a white woman. Till's murder dramatized the brutality that lay at the heart of the Jim Crow system and helped to galvanize the early Civil Rights Movement.
She a Delta
Delta Sigma Theta, founded in 1913, is the largest African-American sorority in the world.
Kanye West's longtime girlfriend, Sumeke Rainey, was a Delta.
The couple dated for several years while West was trying to break into the music business, but split up in 2004—shortly after Kanye's album The College Dropout, which used "Through the Wire" as its lead single, rocketed him to hip-hop superstardom.
Throwing that Dynasty Sign
The "Dynasty sign" is a diamond-shaped hand gesture frequently used by members of Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records crew. The hand sign is made by bringing both hands together in the shape of a diamond, with palms out and opposite thumbs and index fingers touching.
The Dynasty sign is virtually identical to a Delta sign long used by members of the Delta Sigma Theta sorority (hence Kanye's rap here).
It's also, more comically, virtually identical to the "Diamond Cutter" signal used by pro wrestler Diamond Dallas Page; in 2005, Page unsuccessfully sued Jay-Z for copyright infringement for his supposed theft of the hand sign.
In the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died
Following his 2003 car accident, Kanye West received emergency treatment at the Cedars-Sinai Medical Center in Los Angeles.
Rapper Notorious B.I.G. (a.k.a. Biggie Smalls) was shot and killed in Los Angeles in 1997, bringing a bloody end to one of the most notorious feuds in music history. For several years, New Yorker Biggie Smalls and West Coast rival Tupac Shakur had sparred on records; Biggie's murder was allegedly committed in retaliation for the earlier killing of Tupac.
Following Biggie's shooting in a still-unsolved drive-by, the rapper was rushed by his entourage to Cedars-Sinai Hospital, but he was pronounced dead just minutes after his arrival.
I had blood clots but I ain't Jamaican man
In Jamaican patois, "blood claat" is a commonly used obscenity.
Jamaican dancehall DJ's use "blood claat" and its variants—"rass claat," "bumba claat," etc.—with about the same frequency and intent as American MCs use "motherf---er" to accentuate their raps.
The term literally translates to "blood cloth"—a closer approximation of its meaning, in American English, would be something like "used tampon."
Story on MTV and I ain't trying to make a band
Making the Band was an MTV reality show.
The first season of Making the Band aired in 1999, at the height of the Backstreet Boys/NSYNC era, and resulted in the creation of the second-tier boy band O-Town.
In 2002, MTV retooled the show to take a new hip-hop direction, bringing in Sean "Puffy"/"Puff Daddy"/"P. Diddy" Combs to lead the search for the next big thing in rap.
Somebody from the Chi that was ill
"Somebody from the Chi that was ill" = Kanye, of course.
The size of Kanye West's ego has taken on nearly legendary status; the word "arrogant" almost always appears in descriptions of him.
Whether or not that's entirely fair, Kanye's penchant for speaking of himself in the third person and lavishing praise on his own talents—as in this lyric—certainly feeds the fire.
He wasn't talking 'bout coke and birds
At first, Kanye West struggled to gain acceptance as a rapper because he rarely rhymed about the stereotypical topics dominating hip-hop at the time—guns, girls, drugs, and money.
Kanye West's background wasn't the streets. His mother was a college professor and his father (who was separated from his mother) was an ex-Black Panther turned Christian counselor.
West largely refused to adopt the gangsta pose that many believed was necessary for commercial success in rap, instead "keeping it real" by sporting polos rather than jerseys and dropping rhymes about the more middle-class concerns of his real life.
It was more like spoken word
Spoken word is a genre of performance poetry, in which poems are read aloud before a live audience.
The spoken word tradition dates back at least to the 1950s Beat movement of artists like Allen Ginsberg and Jack Kerouac. In more recent years, poets like Gil Scott-Heron and Saul Williams have established spoken word as a distinct art form at the more literary end of the spectrum of hip-hop aesthetic.
Kanye West positioned himself as a representative of this more literary brand of hip-hop, as opposed to the typically less sophisticated stylings of gangsta rap.
If you could feel how my face felt you would know how Mase felt
The rapper Mase suffered a broken jaw in 1998 after getting into a fight with rival Ghostface Killah of the Wu-Tang Clan.
For a short time in the late 1990s, Mase, a member of Sean "Puffy" Combs' Bad Boy crew, was one of America's most popular rappers. Somehow he got into a feud with fellow New York hip-hop stars the Wu-Tang Clan; after talking trash about the Wu onstage in concert, he had an ill-fated run-in with Wu-Tang MC Ghostface Killah at a nightclub. His jaw did not leave in one piece.
Whether this incident had anything to do with Mase's 1999 decision to retire from music to pursue a doctorate in religion remains unclear.
I look like Tom Cruise on Vanilla Sky
Vanilla Sky was a 2001 sci-fi psychological thriller directed by Cameron Crowe; the movie begins with Tom Cruise's character surviving (maybe?) a gruesome automobile accident that leaves his face a mangled mess.
Following his accident, Cruise's character is never sure whether he is alive or dead, whether his experiences are reality, a dream, or a nightmare.
It's been an accident like Geico
Geico is one of the largest auto insurance companies in the United States. It's well known for its extensive television advertising; in recent years, the company has turned both an anthropogenic gecko with a British accent and a misunderstood caveman into effective pitchmen.
We don't know whether Kanye West was actually ensured by Geico at the time of his accident; the company has a reputation for being rather stingy in paying out benefits, though.
Thought I was burnt up like Pepsi did Michael
In 1984, Michael Jackson received second-degree burns over much of his head after his hair caught on fire while he was filming a commercial for Pepsi.
Something went horribly awry during the filming for Pepsi's ad starring Michael Jackson—then at the absolute peak of his fame and popularity as the "King of Pop." While Jackson sang his hit "Billie Jean," a shower of sparks from the pyrotechnic show taking place behind him somehow lit his hair on fire.
Jackson sued and Pepsi settled out of court; the pop star later did appear in a more successful (and less fiery) Pepsi ad in 1988. In the wake of Jackson's death in 2009, Us Weekly released never-before-seen video footage of the burning incident.
Unbreakable was a 2000 film directed by M. Night Shyamalan. It was the somewhat less successful follow-up to Shyamalan's acclaimed 1999 hit The Sixth Sense.
In Unbreakable, the lead character played by Bruce Willis discovers that he has super powers after he survives a devastating train wreck without suffering a scratch.
Called me Mr. Glass
In Unbreakable, Mr. Glass is the cruel nickname given to the character played by Samuel L. Jackson, who has a rare disease that causes his bones to break incredibly easily.
Kanye West's accident caused his jaw to break in three places; was he really more like Bruce Willis' "unbreakable" character or Sam Jackson's Mr. Glass?
Look back on my life like the ghost of Christmas past
The Ghost of Christmas Past is a key character in Charles Dickens' famous story, A Christmas Carol.
The Ghost of Christmas Past visits Ebenezer Scrooge in the nighttime, forcing him to take a tour of his own past to reexamine all the flaws in his life so that he might be able to change the course of his future.
I still won't grow up, I'm a grown a-s kid
Here Kanye borrows the melody from a long-running Toys R Us TV ad from the 1980s and '90s.
I don't wanna grow up
I'm a Toys R Us kid
There's a million toys at Toys R Us that I can play with
More bikes, more trains, more video games
It's the biggest toy store there is
I don't wanna grow up
Because if I did
Then I wouldn't be a Toys R Us kid