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