Is Kanye West Shakespeare in the Flesh?
I know, late to the post this week. Finished up my computer science & math thesis last Friday along with some other final deadlines and kind of just decided I needed a break and mentally checked out. However, I am more than excited about my English thesis (if approved) for the upcoming semester that’ll be exploring good ol’ William Shakespeare and our generation’s Shakespeare: Kanye West. I only say that somewhat tongue-in-cheek.
You wouldn’t need very much convincing from me to note that Shakespeare and Kanye West are two very different creators. William Shakespeare, a playwright and poet from over 400 years ago, is widely considered as the greatest writer and dramatist in the English language and has produced works that have stood the test of time, still lauded for their universality and brilliance. Kanye West, a forty-two-year-old American rapper and producer, once self-declared: “I am Warhol. I am the number one most impactful artist of our generation. I am Shakespeare in the flesh.” That about sums it up.
Kanye has certainly achieved tremendous critical acclaim but nothing of Shakespeare’s magnitude and, at the same time, has attracted equal amounts of controversial attention. Kanye’s brilliance is questioned by just as many who praise it. Shakespeare’s? Not so much. However, there’s a surprising amount of overlap and intersection between Kanye West and Shakespeare: their cultural influence, their performative context, their mainstream appeal, their heavy use of double entendres, their works as art, etc. There’s clearly much to be explored; however, for the sake of remaining focused, I’ll concentrate on textual analysis of Kanye’s lyrics and Shakespeare’s plays in a religious context. There are, understandably, concerns over equating Kanye and Shakespeare’s writing on a literary level, but the purpose here is not to establish or elevate Kanye as a literary figure nor assume Kanye’s brilliance–trust me, we all know this is very much a hotly contested subject. Instead, using Kanye’s I Thought About Killing You and Shakespeare’s Hamlet in religious conversation with one another, we can get a pretty solid glimpse into Kanye and Shakespeare’s religious beliefs.
I chose the two since both Kanye’s I Thought About Killing You and Shakespeare’s Hamlet, specifically Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy, meditate on suicide. Obviously, they aren’t the same but there are enough parallels to make this work. I Thought About Killing You is the first track from Kanye’s eighth studio album ye (2018). Released in the middle of arguably Kanye’s most controversial period (and he’s been in the middle of, objectively, a lot of controversies)–flaunting his “Make America Great Again” cap on social media, sharing to TMZ that “When you hear about slavery for 400 years; 400 years, that sounds like a choice”–ye is considered by critics one of Kanye’s most vulnerable (and musically weakest) albums. The album art of ye explicitly declares his bipolar disorder, which Kanye opened up about on Jimmy Kimmel shortly after the album’s release. The only text on the cover reads: “I hate being / Bi-Polar / its awesome.” Haha, get it? It’s a bipolar statement.
Kanye’s I Thought About Killing You is split into two halves: the first segment is a mild spoken-word monologue, and the second segment, where Kanye engages in more aggressive rap. The first half consists largely of a set of repeated lines, as cyclical as the nature of suicidal thoughts. The beat, a warped a cappella loop, is hypnotic, evoking a trancelike, contemplative atmosphere. The addition of a fast-paced, heavy bass at 2:20 marks the musical shift to the song’s second half. This is what Kanye does best from a production-standpoint, effortlessly layering and weaving in new musical elements. A complete beat-shift occurs roughly three-quarters through at 3:09. And it’s brilliant–it’s sudden, unexpected, yet still smooth in his musical narrative. The two halves of I Thought About Killing You very much artistically represent Kanye’s bipolar disorder and the transition mirrors his mood swings. And because it’s the first track, I Thought About Killing You’s vulnerable presentation sets the tone for the rest of the album. Regardless of how genius or juvenile you might find Kanye, one thing is for certain: Kanye comes to us as himself, and we’re not listening to Kanye the artist but Kanye the individual.
In the first half, Kanye repeats thrice in slight permutations each time: “Today, I seriously thought about killing you / I contemplated, premeditated murder / And I think about killing myself / And I love myself way more than I love you.” Immediately, there’s the question of who Kanye is referring to with “you.” This is classic Kanye–intentionally provocative but there’s some genius in there too, intentional or not. Let’s take a look at the two most probable interpretations, split between this “you” referring to someone else and this “you” referring to himself. Upon first glance or listen, it might seem natural to assume this “you” is someone else given that Kanye directly compares himself and this other individual when stating, “I love myself way more than I love you.” However, I’d say there’s a much stronger case to be made that “you” refers to Kanye himself, given he later states “if I was tryin’ to relate it to more people / I’d probably say I’m struggling with loving myself” and the personal, depressive nature of the album ye. Kanye, in fact, followed up with a tweet after the release of ye: “I killed my ego.” Neat–so we can equate “you” and “myself” in the two lines: “I seriously thought about killing you” and “I think about killing myself.” In this interpretation, we can settle the contradiction presented by, “I love myself way more than I love you,” as Kanye killing off an alter-ego, a shadow self, or, as Kanye suggests, his ego.
Regardless of which interpretation you may buy, in stating, “You’d only care enough to kill somebody you love,” Kanye connects two opposing concepts, tying together death–whether by suicide or homicide–with love. Kanye adds, “The most beautiful thoughts are always inside the darkest,” a further ode to the dichotomies he has set up in this particular piece: the spoken-word first half and rap second half, the bisecting beat-switch, and death and love. We’ll come back to this later.
Likewise, Hamlet’s famed “To be or not to be” soliloquy contains its own set of contradictions and ambiguities. For instance, take the word “opposing,” found on the fifth line of his soliloquy, which has quite literally split scholars into opposing camps. One group considers “opposing” as figurative and that Hamlet is meditating on committing suicide; the other group considers “opposing” as literal and that Hamlet is contemplating engaging in conflict, which will inevitably lead to death. There are also inconsistencies in the scope of which Hamlet is speaking. In all of Hamlet’s other soliloquies, Hamlet is riveted by his own personal problems, absorbed in his own headspace. He contemplates “my mother,” “my uncle,” and “my father” in Act I Scene 2, and, later, “Am I a coward?,” “I, the son of a dear murdered,” and “the murder of my father / Before mine uncle” (2.2.490, 502, 514-515). However, this soliloquy doesn’t seem to be directly connected to his personal situation. Unlike other soliloquies, there is no mention of the events he currently finds himself engrossed in–his mother’s re-marriage, the murder of his father, or vengeance against his uncle–nor a single instance of “I”. Instead, the soliloquy deviates, and Hamlet speaks on the greater human experience:
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time, Th’oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely, The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay, The insolence of office, and the spurns That patient merit of th’unworthy takes
Hamlet, Act III Scene 1 Lines 69-73
Note the difference in religious philosophy as well. In Act I Scene 2, Hamlet wishes “that the Everlasting had not fixed / His canon ‘gainst self-slaughter,” and in Act II Scene 2, Hamlet describes himself as “the son of a dear murdered, / Prompted to my revenge by heaven and hell” (1.2.132-133, 2.2.502-503). While other Hamlet monologues share similar Christian undertones and concepts, his “To be or not to be” soliloquy stands out in its agnostic philosophy. After all, committing suicide is considered a sin by many Christians. On the afterlife, Hamlet comments, “But that the dread of something after death, / The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns” (3.1.77-79). This inconsistency is further exacerbated by the ghost of his father — which Hamlet seems to have serendipitously forgotten at this moment–that is literally a returned traveler. Hence, scholars have proposed a pretty nifty and believable solution–that this “To be or not to be” soliloquy was written by Shakespeare as a discrete unit, added fittingly when he wrote Hamlet later.
We can then view Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy as Shakespeare speaking in his own voice, with the character of Hamlet discarded to the side. Similarly, I Thought About Killing You is Kanye’s own speaking, a mirror of his bipolar disposition that serves as the first track, the musical and lyrical introduction, to ye. Hence, Kanye’s I Thought About Killing You and Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy present to us rare windows into their respective authors’ minds. Both Kanye and Shakespeare ponder the age-old and, oftentimes, dark questions of mortality and suicide — one that is deeply religious as well. Both understand the Christian consequences of suicide. While Shakespeare’s private views are unknown, he was a confirmed member of the Church of England and certainly knew much about Christianity, given the abundance of Christian themes and concepts in his works. As for Kanye, in recent years he has become increasingly outspoken about his Christian faith and you all know about Closed on Sunday. For Kanye, I Thought About Killing You reveals his loose interpretation of the Christian faith — one that is more of a living, an adaptable lifestyle, than a set of rigid laws to just as rigidly abide by. He daringly and un-Biblically combines the concepts of killing with love, of dark suicidal thoughts with beautiful thoughts. For Shakespeare, his open exploration of suicide and what ensues in Hamlet provides us a potential glimpse of the agnostic uncertainty that possibly influenced his life. For him, death very much may have led to “The undiscovered country from whose bourn / No traveler returns.”
Is Kanye our generation’s Shakespeare? The honest answer: probably not as a literary figure. For some, Kanye’s writing is inconsistent at best, simultaneously sophomoric and clever, and too obvious to be brilliant. For hopefully all who have experienced works by both, Kanye doesn’t hold much of a candle to Shakespeare in the realm of writing. I’d pay good money to see them beef with each other over Twitter though. There’s a legitimate argument to be made from a cultural standpoint though. Both are creators of popular works that challenge the status quo, provoke critics and fans alike, and comment on our lives, on society, on religion, capable of being endlessly interpreted and re-interpreted through diverse social, cultural, and political contexts. So maybe there’s some truth in Kanye’s self-declaration: “I am Shakespeare in the flesh.”