Study Guide

Through the Wire Technique

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  • Music

    The classic Kanye West sound, in full effect on "Through The Wire", is a soul-drenched mashup of classic R&B samples—often with the vocals sped up to boost the pitch to squeaky "Alvin & The Chipmunks" levels—with richly layered new instrumentation. The resulting sound is both nostalgic and fresh—classic soul for the twenty-first century.

    The first, and most important, building block for "Through The Wire" is an old Chaka Khan song from the early 1980s. Chaka's "Through The Fire" was a soulful—if, like many '80s songs, somewhat overproduced—slow jam that peaked at #60 on the Billboard chart back in 1984. It's the kind of song that you're still likely to hear on "soft rock" or "easy listening" radio stations today—not, at first listen, the kind of song that you'd peg as a likely candidate for re-imagination into a hip-hop scorcher.

    But Kanye West heard something more. A sped-up, Chipmunkified version of Chaka Khan's original melody serves as the chorus of Kanye's version; Chaka's lyrics establish the song's central theme of triumph through adversity (although in Kanye's reinterpretation, the love interest here is hip-hop itself rather than an actual lover):

    Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall
    For a chance to be with you, I'd gladly risk it all
    Through the fire, through whatever come what may
    For a chance at loving you, I'd take it all away
    Right down to the wire, even through the fire

    In Kanye's production, the Chaka Khan tune serves as more than just the chorus. He also uses a sample of her singing in the background behind his own rap verses, adding to the richly layered sonic texture of the song. More subtly, he loops a brief sample of Chaka Khan's instrumental outro—a keyboard and guitar riff that appears as something of an afterthought in the original song—to form the heart of his own version's instrumentation.

    Put all of that on top of a new rhythmic foundation more typical of hip-hop than '80s crooner tunes (heavy bassline, uptempo drum programming, extra percussion from bongos and hand-claps) and voila—we have "Through The Wire," a tune that doesn't just recycle Chaka Khan's song but positively reinvents it into something simultaneously new and old.

    The approach to reworking old material here is utterly typical for Kanye West's early productions; by the time he recorded "Through The Wire," he had already produced big hits by reinterpreting classic soul and R&B acts like the Jackson 5 (in Jay-Z's "H.O.V.A."), Nina Simone (in Talib Kweli's "Get By"), Gladys Knight (in Scarface's "In Cold Blood"), and Bobby "Blue" Bland (in Jay-Z's "Heart of the City"). His treatment of Chaka Khan in "Through The Wire" was very much in the same spirit; appropriately for his first single, "Through The Wire" was the Kanye West sound.

    The one area where the song stands out as a bit of a sonic oddball in the Kanye West discography is in his rap delivery. At the song's title obviously reminds us, at the time the song was recorded, Kanye's jaw was still wired shut following his reconstructive surgery; as a result, his rapping here is much more slurred and perhaps a bit more monotonous than his usual laid-back but not laconic flow.
  • Title

    "Through The Wire" tells us two things about this song.

    First, it tells us that it's a reinterpretation of "Through the Fire," Chaka Khan's love song from the early '80s.

    Second, and more importantly, it tells us what the song is all about—literally and metaphorically.

    The song was recorded just weeks after Kanye West suffered a near-fatal car accident, at a time when his jaw was still wired shut following extensive facial reconstruction surgery; the vocal track thus had to be recorded with Kanye rapping "through the wire."

    Beyond this obvious literal meaning, the song's title also serves, more broadly, as a metaphor for Kanye's determination to succeed in the music industry, no matter what obstacles might get in his way. As he raps in the song's final verse:

    But I'm a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph
    Make music that's fire, spit my soul through the wire
  • Calling Card

    What is Kanye West's calling card? Different fans (and critics) will have different answers. Is it his sample-heavy production techniques? The eclectic pop-cultural references in his rhymes? His emotional vulnerability? His outlandish fashion sense? His oversized ego?

    Here at Shmoop World HQ, we'd argue that Kanye's real calling card is something that ties many of those attributes together—a distinctive attitude that we might call "smarta-- narcissism."

    In other words, Kanye West is a genius—and he knows it, and he wants you to know it. He's the smartest kid in class, an insufferable know-it-all—but he's also the class clown. He can usually get away with it because, well, he's hilarious. And, again, he knows it. His ego is ridiculous, his self-absorption legendary—except that he usually gives us plenty of reasons to justify his own monumental self-image.

    This is a guy who quotes his own lyrics and then compares himself, in all seriousness, to Gandhi. "Everything I'm not made me everything I am," he once repeated to an interviewer (that's the chorus to his song "Everything I Am"). "In my humble opinion, that's a prophetic statement. Gandhi would have said something like that. Picture somebody going up to him saying, "This is bad about me, blah, blah, blah." And Gandhi would come back and say, "Everything you're not made you everything you are. Leave, my son."

    What kind of person compares his rap lyrics to the wisdom of Gandhi? What chutzpah, you're probably thinking. How arrogant can a person be?

    But then, you do have to admit that that lyric actually is pretty good. Think about it for a second. Maybe Gandhi actually would have said something like that.

    Kanye's unique brand of smarta-- narcissism is on full display in "Through The Wire."

    There's the multitude of showy allusions in rhyme, half of them seemingly dropped just to impress us all with the breadth of his cultural knowledge. (Okay, we admit that West's easy thematic jumps from the tragedy of Emmett Till to Michael Jackson's fiery mishap in a Pepsi commercial to the plot of a relatively obscure M. Night Shyamalan film actually did impress us.)

    There's the utter lack of humility, the unapologetic declaration that "this right here is history in the making, man." (Okay, we have to admit that the record actually did change the direction of hip-hop—if not the history of the world in general—in a fairly dramatic way.)

    There's the relentless self-mythologizing, casting his recovery from a simple car wreck as some kind of heroic triumph of good over evil: "I'll gladly risk it all right now / It's a life or death situation man"; "I'm a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that's fire, spit my soul through the wire." (Okay, we have to admit that it actually is pretty cool for someone to drop a killer vocal track despite having his broken jaw surgically wired shut.)

    So there it is: smarta-- narcissism. It would all be incredibly obnoxious… if only the music weren't so d--n good.

  • Songwriting

    Creative rhymes:

    Kanye West has justly carved out a reputation for himself as one of the more poetic rappers on the contemporary hip-hop scene, often displaying a playfulness and creativity in his rhymes unlike anything else you're likely to hear on Top 40 urban radio.

    Take, for example, one of his most celebrated rhymes, from the 2007 hit single "Stronger":

    You know how long I been on ya

    Since Prince was on Apollonia

    Since OJ had Isotoners

    Don't act like I never told ya

    It takes a certain mad genius—not to mention acrobatic vocal inflection—to rhyme "Apollonia" with "Isotoners" in the first place, much less to weave the lines together in a way that makes perfect logical sense. (Apollonia was the stage name of Prince's gorgeous female costar in the 1984 film Purple Rain. Isotoners are a brand of leather gloves that were allegedly worn by OJ Simpson when he murdered his wife in 1994; the gloves played a key role in his trial, spawning another infamous rhyme from lawyer Johnnie Cochran: "If the gloves don't fit, you must acquit.") In other words, the entire verse is a rather convoluted (but massively entertaining and delightfully unexpected) way of saying that Kanye West has been around for a long time.

    That rhyme impressed and amused many listeners… and it apparently had the same effect on the rapper himself. "That s---'s crazy, right?" West marveled in a 2007 interview with Rolling Stone magazine. "It's just retarded. Certain lines are so pure. There's a lot of rappers that get into freestyle battles, and they use prefabricated metaphors and similes. Like referencing guns to sports: "I got a nine on me like..." some quarterback who wears number nine. You see those rhymes coming a mile away, and they're unimpressive... The lines that are genius are the Apollonia/Isotoners, just out-of-the-blue s---."

    Kanye's penchant for attention grabbing "out-of-the-blue s---" really made his lyrics stand out from the field when he first emerged in the early 2000s, a time when many of the most popular rappers were offering up stale clichés and simplistic rhyme schemes. Compare West's lyricism to that of, say, his sometimes-rival 50 Cent, who burst into stardom at just about the same time while spitting "rhymes" like this, from the crowd-pleasing (if lyrically asinine) intro to his hit "In Da Club":

    Go shorty, it's your birthday

    We gonna party like it's your birthday

    We gonna sip Bacardi like it's your birthday

    And you know we don't give a f--- it's not your birthday

    In terms of lyrical creativity and poetic panache, there's just no comparison between "Apollonia / Isotoners" and "birthday / birthday / birthday / birthday" (even if we give 50 a little bit of credit for "party / Bacardi" in the middle of the line).

    The same playful lyrical spirit infuses many of Kanye's rhymes on "Through The Wire." The first verse starts with a hilarious take on then-popular trend of "-izz" rhymes, with West transforming a style best associated with hardcore rappers like Snoop Dogg ("Fo' Shizzle My Nizzle") and Jay-Z ("H to the Izzo, V to the Izzay") into a goofy story about drinking geriatric protein shakes. Any lyric that kicks off by rhyming "Ensure / dessert / sizzurp / berserk / wizzerk" is off to a fine start.

    The rest of the song is peppered with rhymes that similarly catch you just a little bit off guard, surprising with their freshness. "Dynasty sign" rhymes with "trying to be lying"—the latter squeezed into four syllables to make it work. "But I ain't Jamaican, man" pairs surprisingly well with "History in the making, man." "Coke and birds" sets up "spoken word"; "been an accident like GEICO" opens the door for "burnt up like Pepsi did Michael." Not all of Kanye West's rhymes in "Through The Wire" are brilliant; "light support / life support" and "Christmas past / Christmas cash" aren't exactly memorable. But the vast majority of the MC's attempts to create "out-of-the-blue s---" through creative wordplay do pay off; the end result is a lyric that is simply much more fun than your average rap song.

    Cultural References:

    "Through The Wire" perfectly exemplifies Kanye West's trademark style of telling his stories through the invocation a dizzying array of pop-cultural references. Virtually every single line in the song contains a reference—or many references—to obscure (or not so obscure) elements drawn from American culture, history, and literature. "Through The Wire" is only two verses long, but just in the course of those two verses, Kanye's name-checking covers a stunning amount of territory—from TV game shows to civil rights martyrs to Jamaican curse words, from notorious rap battles to Hollywood film plots to Dickens novels to old commercial jingles. And that's just the beginning.

    The crazy thing is that all these references actually make sense. (Check the Lyrics page for a line-by-line breakdown.)

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