Don't Confuse It With Some Bullshit: Why New Slaves' Second Verse is Hip Hop's Best Verse
My ears popped. They always do that when the L train speeds from Manhattan to Brooklyn. I got to my stop, where the streets were louder than the subway tunnels. Bedford Street was swarmed in anticipation of *something* from Kanye West. That something turned out to be New Slaves, delivered through a video projection of Kanye's face onto a brownstone building.
On the walk home, the lyrics were beginning to stick in my head. The second verse was pretty easy to remember because of its parallel syntax: "I see the blood on the leaves" gets repeated four times, "I know that we the new slaves" gets repeated five times, the Hamptons (1,2,3,4,5th), while "y'all niggas can't fuck with Ye" and "y'all niggas can't control me" total four repetitions.
It wasn't until I Rap Genius'd the lyrics at home when I noticed the lyrics that were the track's touchstone:
So go and grab the reporters
So I can smash their recorders
See they'll confuse us with some bullshit
Like the New World Order
Meanwhile the DEA
Teamed up with the CCA
They tryna lock niggas up
They tryna make new slaves
See that's that privately owned prison
Get your piece today
"See they'll confuse us with some bullshit/ Like the New World Order" is a nod to conspiracy theorists' fascination with rappers moonlighting in secret societies (and rappers' mutual fascination with these conspiracy theorists). For Kanye's part, he's usually responded to these cray accusations by affirming his faith. On "Welcome to World":
People ask me shit about Illuminati
First off, fuck that mean?!
He loved Jesus when he he he was worse off
Oh I see, when they, think a nigga is, stupid rich
People just start coming up with stupid shit
And during an impromptu performance at the Blue Note:
Y'all dont even understand, what it take to be a real man
A black man interested in art
Speaking from the heart and playin’ my part
And all this illuminati talk, like my first hit single wasn't ‘Jesus Walks’
"New Slaves" doesn't bother with the niceties, instead of rationalizing the new world order bullshit, Kanye addresses privatized prisons, a corrupt institution that doesn't operate behind close doors, but stands right in front of our faces. "I'm 'bout to tear shit down."
The American Civil Liberties Union's first Rap Genius annotation provided some context about the CCA/DEA tagteam:
Today, there are more African-American adults under correctional control than were enslaved in 1850, before the Civil War
The explosion in the size of our prison population over the last 40 years rakes in billions of dollars a year for CCA and other for-profit prison companies. The United States has built up the highest incarceration rate of any country in the world, with over 2.3 million men and women living behind bars. This is a historical anomaly; despite relatively stable incarceration rates earlier in the twentieth century, our prison population grew by 700% between 1970 and 2005, far outpacing both crime and general population growth.
Maybe there aren't enough references to the CCA in the rap corpus, and when Rap Genius Editor-In-Chief Shawn Setaro took "New Slaves" to a panel of really smart people, this reference seemed like the one thing they all agreed with. Marc Lamont Hill remarked that "Hip-hop is always trying to rediscover its political identity...[it's] at its best when regular people are offering a critique through their own lens...they're trying to bear some sort of witness"; while Saul Williams put things more bluntly: "We've exhausted our gangster resources... and slowly things are coming full circle."
Though the lyrics stand on their own, I think it's worth considering their presentation. Ellen Tani's "From Art Basel to Art Yeezy: Kanye's "New Slaves" Projections as Contemporary Art" mentions one video projection that never happened. In Houston, a projection of "New Slaves" was set at the Rothko Chapel, but was shut down by the police, who decided the crowd was trespassing. Houston is also the site of CCA's first private prison, "The Houston Processing Center." Consider that the 100-plus "Free Pimp C" shout outs in the Rap Genius database all root from the Texas Criminal Justice System that imprisoned Pimp C in the first place. "New Slaves" offers some much needed context on the relationship between the prison industrial complex and rap.
The second verse takes some careful steps, so that the rap-lic priest never sounds preachy. These "of the people" maneuvers weren't lost on Lou Reed, whose review of the album is dope. Two passages from Reed's Yeezus review stuck out for me:
There are more contradictions on "New Slaves," where he says "Fuck you and your Hamptons house." But God only knows how much he's spending wherever he is. He's trying to have it both ways — he's the upstart but he's got it all, so he frowns on it. Some people might say that makes him complicated, but it's not really that complicated. He kind of wants to retain his street cred even though he got so popular...
"New Slaves" has that line "Y'all throwin' contracts at me/ You know that niggas can't read." Wow, wow, wow. That is an amazing thing to put in a lyric. That's a serious accusation in the middle of this rant at other people: an accusation of himself. As if he's some piece of shit from the street who doesn't know nothing. Yeah, right — your mom was a college English professor.
There's truth in Reed's statement about Kanye being raised by a college professor, but there's also truth in Kanye's statement: My momma was raised in the era when/ Clean water was only served to the fairer skin. The second verse situates you in the modernity of these Maybach keys and then doubles (quintuples) down on "I see the blood on the leaves," from Nina Simone's ballad about lynchings. Hip hop used the sample soul to interpolate black music from 20th Century into contemporary black music. "And because I could make the soul sound in my sleep, it finally gave me a platform," to let Kanye himself tell it. "New Slaves" reaches back even further, to the time of slavery without losing any resonance with the present in the process. It doesn't sample, nor does it privilege present over past: it puts them on equal footing and starts to tear shit down.
To that end, it's hip hop's best verse. For my part, my ears popped.
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