Kanye West's Prosperity Gospel

On G.O.O.D. Music's Cruel Summer, he sells himself a capitalist god—but his disciples botch the message.

kanye kim prosperity cruel summer 615 kornhaber.jpg

When news broke last week that Kanye West had mentioned Mitt Romney on his new album, some of the coverage said West had "called out" or "hit" the presidential candidate. But it actually sounds more like the rapper is jealous of him. "I'm just trying to protect my stacks," West raps on the R. Kelly-assisted opening track to Cruel Summer, a collaboration between the acts on West's G.O.O.D. Music label. "Mitt Romney don't pay no tax! Mitt Romney don't pay no tax!"

Which, sure, is not a good look for Romney. But does West want Romney to pay tax, or does he want to be on Romney's level—as a zillionaire somehow exempted from the rules everyone else plays by? I'd bet that he doesn't care much one way or another what Romney does, so long as West gets to do the same. Over the course of Cruel Summer, West lays out his vision for racial equality: an equality that doesn't ask his posse to tamp down its swagger, but rather lends that swagger some moral purpose. The album itself is muddled and only halfway successful, but most of its successes come from the fact that West, surprisingly, has rarely sounded so righteous.

Again and again on Cruel Summer, West proclaims himself a god. You could see this as in line with rap's long quest to reclaim authority titles—master, chief, boss, king, etc.—or as an escalation in West's long climb to new heights of self-regard. It's probably both. But it's also a way to set down dogma. Here's West's catechism, first dropped on the excellently rowdy "New God Flow" and later basically repeated in the interminable crew jam "The Morning":

Cars, money, girls and the clothes
Aww man, you sold your soul
Naww man, mad people was frontin'
Aww man, made something from nothing

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It's the classic reply to the classic complaint against rap's materialism: Yes, West is bragging, but about things he's accomplished. And in both his own mentions of Chicago gang violence and in his comrades' testimony on the grim, West-less "Sin City," Cruel Summer argues that overcoming poverty, crime, and, society-wide racism is indeed an accomplishment. It's indeed something to be emulated. And so bragging about his cars, in his worldview, isn't really bragging. It's evangelism.

This line of argument has long been part of West's philosophy—and hip-hop's in general. But listening to the radio, it's often been easy to forget that fact; boasting for boasting's sake has seemingly taken center stage. It sometimes seems that way too on Cruel Summer, as when the bumbling-but-for-some-reason-suddenly-popular 2 Chainz yowls, emptily, that his "logo's a Lambo." But West usually isn't far out of sight—though of the four tracks without West, only Kid Cudi's "Creepers" is worth listening to more than twice—and whenever he returns, it's to remind us of the bigger picture.

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Spencer Kornhaber is a senior associate editor at The Atlantic, where he edits the Entertainment channel. More

Before coming to The Atlantic, he worked as an editor for AOL's Patch.com and as a staff writer at Village Voice Media's OC Weekly. He has also written for Spin, The AV Club, RollingStone.com, Field & Stream, and The Orange County Register.

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