Toxic Masculinity in Kanye West’s Music

Toxic Masculinity in Kanye West’s Music

 

Fuck you and your Hampton house,/ I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse,/ Came on her Hampton blouse,/ And in her Hampton mouth.1

In his song “New Slaves,” Kanye West aims to boost his masculinity by simultaneously threatening a hypothetical white man and sexually objectifying his supposed wife. In the first line of the verse, West insults the hypothetical man, singing, “Fuck you and your Hampton house.” Immediately, West expresses clear disdain for the Hamptons, a group of towns and villages concentrated on the eastern end of Long Island, which have garnered a reputation as a summer destination for wealthy, snobby, and majority-white New Yorkers. Following this dis, West continues to rap, “I’ll fuck your Hampton spouse.” By threatening to sleep with a married, presumably white woman, West attempts to bolster his masculine persona by portraying himself both as a skilled womanizer and a threat to affluent white American identity. Because, as Abby Ferber points out in her 2007 article “Construction of Black Masculinity,” “white male entitlement” is to “have control over women and other men,” West’s threat is intended to partially strip the white man of his systemic power.2 In the last two lines of the verse, West sings, “Came on her Hampton blouse,/ and in her Hampton mouth.” By depicting such sexual acts, West asserts his dominance through the sexual objectification and degradation of the Hamptons woman who serves merely as a receiver of his sexual pleasure. Therefore, this song, like much of West’s music, reinforces dangerous ideals through the perpetuation of misogyny, male sexual dominance, violence, and proximity to fame, that culminate into a toxic form of masculinity.

Kanye West, now known as Ye, has been one of the most influential rappers, producers, and fashion designers of the 21st century. West’s 2004 debut album “The College Dropout” proved a success, and he has followed with eleven iconic and unique records since. Outside of his musical acclaim, Ye has certainly adopted a reputation based on his outspoken views, personal relationships, and political involvement. Perhaps one of his most notorious moments to date occurred in 2009 when West stormed the VMA award stage while Taylor Swift delivered her speech in acceptance of the Best Female Video to declare that Beyoncé was more deserving of the title. In more recent years, West has received attention for his rollercoaster of a relationship with the former president, Donald Trump. Starting in 2016, West first connected with the president at the Trump Towers to allegedly discuss political matters. In 2018, he appeared on Saturday Night Live wearing a Make America Great Again hat, culminating his musical performance with a tangent about Trump. Ye even went as far as to tell the former president that the MAGA hat “made [him] feel like Superman” during a White House visit.3 Regardless, West is still one of the most relevant and beloved musical artists to date, with his latest album “Donda” receiving five Grammy nominations.

In this section, I will define the terms used throughout the essay to analyze West’s lyrics. The first key term to define is misogyny, whose dictionary definition is the “hatred of, aversion to, or prejudice against women.”4 Coined by Raewyn Connell in the 1990s, hegemonic masculinity, another term used throughout, is “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees the dominant position of men and the subordination of women.”5 A modern-day example of a hegemonically masculine man is Tom Brady; his athleticism, success, attractiveness, and, more importantly, cis, heterosexual, and white identity paint him as the ideal. To achieve hegemonic masculinity, one must exhibit like characteristics, and above all else, share that cis, heterosexual, and white identity. According to Connell, “hegemonic masculinity among whites sustains the institutional oppression and physical terror that have framed the making of masculinities in black communities.”6 Cliff Cheng argues that because Black men do not have access to hegemonic masculinity, many uniquely perform marginalized masculinities, which are “trivialized or discriminated against, or both, because of unequal relations, such as class, race, ethnicity, and age.”7 As a result of marginalized masculinities, many Black men resort to toxic masculinity, which defines behaviors such as violence, domination, and aggression as manly, harming all genders and society as a whole. It’s important to note that while Black men may perform toxic masculinity as a result of their marginalization that excludes them from white male power, toxic masculinity can be manifested among any racial group.

One of the most prominent and patterned means through which West expresses and boosts his hegemonic masculinity is misogyny. Within all albums and most songs, West utilizes misogyny to portray women as inferior; by subordinating a different marginalized group, West climbs the societal ladder. Take the song, “Yikes,” for example, where West raps: “See, y’all really shocked, but I’m really not./ You know how many girls I took to the titty shop?/ If she get the ass with it, that’s a fifty pop,/ I still bring the bad bitches in the city out.”8 Here, West brags about paying for women’s plastic surgery, specifically for sexualized body parts. By combining elements of hegemonic masculinity, such as wealth and the degradation of women, West asserts his manhood. For example, in the line, “if she gets the ass with it, that’s a fifty pop,” West boasts the financial status that allows him to transform women to fit the ideal body shape. Kanye concludes the line by claiming that he “still brings the bad bitches in the city out,” indicating that he is responsible for the existence of attractive women in “the city.” Such an exaggeration proves West’s “acting out” of what bell hooks calls “masculine and racial performances”; his degradation of women by means of his personal wealth exhibits West’s conforming to what Crystal Belle describes as “dominant gender role expectations,” such as success and sexual aggression.9, 10

Similarly, in West’s song, “All Mine,” West employs sexual degradation to prove his hegemonic masculinity. West asserts that “I could have a Naomi Campbell, and still might want me a Stormy Daniels.”11 Such lyrics indicate West’s masculine ability to have any woman he wants, whether a deemed successful and respectable supermodel or an infamous porn star. In utilizing such a comparison, West paints himself as hegemonically masculine through contradicting means. First, he asserts himself as a multifaceted womanizer able to conquer societally respected and disrespected women. By declaring his ability to “have a Naomi Campbell,” West claims that his status is worthy of a highly-admired female celebrity that many would consider untouchable. On the other hand, his yearning for “a Stormy Daniels,” a woman frowned upon by society because of her taboo involvement in the sex industry and her perception as “easy,” portrays the rapper as a sexually-dominant predator. Additionally, his use of “a” suggests that these women are not individuals but replaceable types. West’s self-proclaimed right to have sex with Stormy Daniels, a white woman, again, to use the words of Abby Ferber, “threatens white masculinity and privilege.”12 Because white male entitlement represents having “control over women and other men,” West’s hypothetical participation in an interracial, sexual relationship “represents the loss” of white men’s aforementioned control.13 Additionally, in degrading Stormy Daniels by comparing her to Naomi Campbell, West diminishes the value of another marginalized group—women—particularly those involved in sex work and considered sexually promiscuous, to gain status. 

Akin to his specific references to Naomi Campbell and Stormy Daniels, West singles out a different female celebrity, Taylor Swift, in his song, “Famous.” West sings, “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex,/ why? I made that bitch famous!”14 As previously mentioned, West is referring to Taylor Swift, a singer with whom he has an infamous history. West uses his fame as an expression of masculinity, only now toxic masculinity. Because West’s pre-established stardom supposedly launched Taylor’s career, he asserts that she is indebted to him sexually, exhibiting, in Crystal Belle’s words, “dominance via stereotypical images of masculinity that enforce hypersexual and hyperviolent behaviors.”15 West’s embodiment of toxic masculinity continues as he raps, “I made that bitch famous!” In employing misogynistic terminology to explain why Swift owes him sex, West further degrades and dehumanizes her so she is perceived solely as an object of sexual desire. West’s effort to exude hegemonic masculinity comes at the expense of perpetuating toxic masculinity through dominance and sexual aggression; the former is demonstrated through his misogynistic discourse and the ladder through his assumed ownership of and right to Swift’s body. 

Later in the same song, West expresses masculinity by juxtaposing his fame with women’s social desire to achieve fame through proximity to him. He raps: “For all the girls that got dick from Kanye West/ if you see ’em in the streets, give ’em Kanye’s best,/ why? They mad they ain’t famous! They mad they still nameless!”16 West’s masculine expression in these lyrics proves multifaceted. His first demonstration of toxic masculinity comes when he refers to his sexual partners as “girls” rather than women. According to Susan Madsen, writing in Forbes, “calling a woman ‘girl’ is about treating someone like a child or making them feel less mature than others.”17 When West uses such language, particularly about who he has slept with, he is again asserting dominance through the sexist connotation of framing women as children who are easily dominated by, punished by, and susceptible to others. And “because gendered language reinforces traditionally gendered styles, roles, behaviors and perceptions,” it is no surprise that West utilizes demeaning terminology to maintain his masculine persona.18 Moreover, in these lyrics, West’s portrayal of sex is overall misogynistic and intended to bolster his own hegemonic masculinity. For example, West places his sexual partners on the passive end of the spectrum in reference to sex, rapping “for all the girls that got dick from Kanye West,” again subordinating women to appear more masculine. Later in the verse, West sings, “if you see ’em in the streets, give ’em Kanye’s best.” By portraying these women to be “in the streets,” West metaphorically slut-shames them. Furthermore, the expression “she belongs to the streets” is an “underhand way of saying she is a hoe that participates in hoe activities that involve hoeing herself around like a ho,” according to Urban Dictionary.19 By telling his listeners to give his past sexual partners his “best” when they are found “in the streets,” West indicates that “all the girls” he has slept with are promiscuous and sexually disposable. At the end of this verse, West asserts, “they mad they ain’t famous! They mad they still nameless!” Parallel to the lyrics in his song, “Yikes,” when West says that women he sleeps with “gon end up on TV,” the rapper employs his fame as a power move to dominate the perceived ordinary, “nameless” women. West’s admission to being used for sex does not degrade him but rather furthers his self-image as masculine. By portraying his sex life as emotionless and detached, West claims what Cyrstal Belle would call “hyper-masculine and hypersexual identity construction.”20

Along with his use of misogyny, sexual dominance, and proximity to fame, West also incorporates violence as a form of masculine expression. In the song “Monster,” West raps, “Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/ Ah, put the pussy in a sarcophagus./ Now she claimin’ that I bruised her esophagus.”21 In these lines, West utilizes both misogyny and sexual violence to express his masculinity. In the first portion of the lyrics, West asserts that he “put the pussy in a sarcophagus,” which is a stone coffin associated with ancient civilizations such as Egypt. Here, West suggests his sexual abilities are aggressive to the point of supposedly killing the pharaoh’s “pussy.” The explicit reference to the pharaoh, who is both the head of the ancient state as well as the religious leader, furthers West’s masculinity by indicating that all women, even the most powerful and well-respected ones, are inferior to him. By hypothetically putting “the pussy in a sarcophagus,” West hints that his physicality, particularly his penis, is capable of destruction and violence, “upholding patriarchal . . . ideologies” that encourage black male violence.22 Later in the verse, West raps, “Now she claimin’ that I bruised her esophagus.” West paints his sexuality as hostile to the extreme; he not only “kills” the pharaoh’s vagina through penetrative sex, but also her “esophagus” through oral sex. West’s habit of tying his masculinity directly to his sexuality points to his compensatory masculinity. Because he cannot achieve hegemonic masculinity as a Black man, West compensates through over-the-top sexual hypotheticals that coherently utilize violence and sex to employ misogyny as a reassertion of his manliness. Additionally, West upholds the patriarchal norm of pursuing male pleasure at the expense of female pain. In the article, “The Female Price of Male Pleasure,” Lili Loofbourow explains that “pain and discomfort as things women routinely endure in sexual contexts” are ignored and viewed as “strange” or “arbitrary.”23 West’s position as the perpetrator of the pharaoh’s sexual mistreatment maintains men as the sole recipients of sexual pleasure. Even worse, West encourages sexual violence against women as a method of procuring heightened sexual gratification. 

West takes his violence to the extreme of murder in his song, “I Thought About Killing You.” He sings: “Today I thought about killing you—premeditated murder. You’d only care enough to kill somebody you love.”24 West’s use of violence as an expression of love perpetuates the “socially constructed and racialized perceptions of Black men” who are generalized to be innately violent, aggressive, and “the bad man.”25 Such characteristics are not unique to a single race; “black male violence simply mirrors the styles and habits of white male violence.”26 Non-black male rappers, including white rappers, have also used such tactics in their lyrics. However, because, as bell hooks notes, Black men “acting violently often gets both attention and praise from the dominant culture,” it is viewed as a racial rather than a gendered problem.27 West’s assertion that “he thought about killing” a person he loves perpetuates the violent light in which Black men are often portrayed even as that violence is inherent to white culture. Nonetheless, “showing aggression is the simplest way to assert patriarchal manhood.”28 Additionally, West’s engagement with violence as an expression of love also promotes his patriarchal manhood by disallowing him to feel anything besides anger, the only acceptable emotion for men to express. Sadly, because the dominant culture focuses disproportionately on Black male violence, “Black men are arrested, tried, and sentenced, so that today one-third of all Black men between the ages of 18 and 39 can expect to be jailed, imprisoned, paroled, or on probation at some point in their lives.”29 Thus, West promotes violence as an identification with “patriarchal masculinity,” unfortunately preserving the narrative white people have created about Black men.30 

The discourse present in West’s lyrics has alarming, practical effects on how both Black men see their role in the world and how women expect to be treated. Kanye’s perpetuation of misogyny, dominance, and other dangerous behaviors encourages toxicity manifested in violent forms. In particular, his depiction of heteronormative sex “conform[s] to dominant gender role expectations.”31 While much of West’s lyrics are clear exaggerations, as hooks observes of Black men who adopt affects of violence without behaving violently, West still “collude[s] with violent patriarchal culture by assuming this persona.”32 Furthermore, although his music certainly perpetuates toxic forms of masculinity, West is not the one at fault. Because Black men do not have access to hegemonic masculinity, they often resort to hyper-masculine behaviors in hopes of even slightly accessing an ideal only attainable for white men. As Orlando Patterson puts it, “long before any young black male acts violent, he is born into a culture that condones violence as a means of social control.”33 This, combined with the white stereotype of Black men as “hypersexual, animalistic, and savage,” is the perfect storm.34 Along with the societal factors that eliminate Kanye from blame, record labels and artist management controlled mostly by white men are largely at fault. Belle explores commercially successful rap music and the white industry leaders it benefits. She points to a significant difference in the rap community in underground versus mainstream music, arguing that artists “often rap about popular issues: drugs, sex, crime, and violence” because these subjects bring in the most money.35 As a result, “the overwhelming message in mainstream hip-hop music emphasized misogynistic images of women . . . and hyper-masculine behavior among Black men.”36 Thus, a vicious cycle repeats of white men granting Black men more access to hegemonic masculinity through the promise of wealth, status, and fame at the expense of perpetuating toxic masculinity in order to “make as much profit as possible.”37 

In an ideal world, West would alter his musical message to promote healthy forms of masculinity, discourses regarding sex, and treatment of women while simultaneously remaining one of the most admired and acclaimed artists in the industry. Unfortunately, appropriate messaging and capitalistic gains are mutually exclusive, marking it near impossible to be a successful mainstream hip-hop artist without perpetuating harmful stereotypes of Black men. When West shifted his musical narrative to religion in his 2019 album, JESUS IS KING, he proved less successful, selling only 109,000 copies of the record in its first week; on the other hand, perhaps his most problematic, gender regressive album of all, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, sold nearly 500,000 copies in the same time period, and went triple platinum for three million shipments in the United States.38,39 Such statistics evidence that without the promotion of misogyny, sex, and violence, West is devalued as an artist. Therefore, West’s reinforcement of dangerous, masculine ideals is crucial to expose, yet it is pointless to place blame on him.

  1. Kanye West, “New Slaves,” track 4 on Yeezus (Def Jam/Roc-A-Fella, 2013).
  2. Abby Ferber, “Construction of Black Masculinity,” Journal of Sport & Social Issues 31, no. 1 (February, 2007), 18.
  3. Kanye West says Trump hat ‘made me feel like Superman,’” BBC News US & Canada, April 18, 2018.
  4. Merriam-Webster Online, s.v. “Misogyny,” accessed January 21, 2022.
  5. Raewyn Connell, Masculinities (University of California Press, 1995), 77.
  6. Connell, Masculinities.
  7. Cliff Cheng, “Marginalized Masculinities and Hegemonic Masculinity: An Introduction.” The Journal of Men’s Studies 7, no. 3 (June 1999): 295-315.
  8. Kanye West, “Yikes,” track 2 on Ye (GOOD/Def Jam, 2018).
  9. bell hooks, We Real Cool: Black Men and Masculinity (Routledge, 2004), 53.
  10. Crystal Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez: Examining Representations of Black Masculinity in Mainstream Versus Underground Hip-Hop Music” Journal of Black Studies 45 (2014), 291.
  11. Kanye West, “All Mine,” track 3 on Ye (GOOD/Def Jam, 2018).
  12. Ferber, “Construction of Black Masculinity,” 18.
  13. Ferber, “Construction of Black Masculinity,” 18.
  14. Kanye West, “Famous,” track 4 on The Life of Pablo (GOOD/Def Jam, 2016).
  15. Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez,” 291.
  16. West, “Famous” (2016).
  17. Susan Madsen, “Why Calling Women ‘Girls’ Is a Bigger Deal than You May Think,”  Forbes, August 9, 2021.
  18. Madsen, “Why Calling Women ‘Girls’ Is a Bigger Deal than You May Think.”
  19. Urban Dictionary, s.v. “She belongs to the streets,” accessed February 2, 2022.
  20. Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez,”  291.
  21. West, “Monster,” track 06 on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (Def Jam/Rock-A-Fella, 2010.)
  22. Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez,” 298-299.
  23. Lili Loofbourow, “The Female Price of Male Pleasure,” The Week, January 25, 2018.
  24. West, “I Thought About Killing You.,” track 01 on ye (Def Jam, 2018.)
  25. Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez,” 295.
  26. Tonyaa Weathersbee, quoted in Ferber, “Construction of Black Masculinity,” 13.
  27. hooks, “Don’t Make Me Hurt You,” 61.
  28. Orlando Patterson quoted in hooks, “Don’t Make Me Hurt You,” 46.
  29. Weathersbee quoted in Ferber, “Construction of Black Masculinity,” 13.
  30. hooks, “Don’t Make Me Hurt You,” 46.
  31. Hunter and Davis quoted in Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez,” 291.
  32. hooks, “Don’t Make Me Hurt You,” 52.
  33. Patterson quoted in hooks, “Don’t Make Me Hurt You,” 46.
  34. Ferber, “Construction of Black Masculinity,” 14-15.
  35. Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez,” 290.
  36. Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez,” 291.
  37. Belle, “From Jay-Z to Dead Prez, 291.
  38. Ben Sisario, “Kanye West’s ‘Jesus Is King’ Is No. 1,” The  New York Times, November 4 2014.
  39. Billboard Editors, “Kanye West, Nicki Minaj Score Big Debuts on Billboard 200,” December 1, 2010.
 
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