I’m the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary
Nine times out of 10, when you ask a Kanye West fan why they love him, they refer to a line like this, from early in his career, rather than a line like this:
For my theme song
My leather black jeans on
My by-any-means on
The Malcolm X line, from “Good Morning” on West’s third album Graduation, is clever, dewy-eyed, and full of life. It’s 2007 Kanye, at his most popular, still full of youthful ambition to create change and take on the world. His fame and fortune had allowed him to buy “any jeans necessary.” Much like he discussed on “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” West is being self-aware here, recognizing how young Black men often equate money and possessions with self-worth, while also showing how these possessions can breed inspiration and motivation. If he has to wear the most fly jeans to convince the world why it must recognize him, so be it.
The second line, from “Black Skinhead” on 2013’s Yeezus, his sixth album, is a resignation. The bright and bubbly nature of “Good Morning” is completely absent from Yeezus’ second track. The rapper you used to love? He’s gone. And this is now his theme music. This grimy, grungy tone that doesn’t require just any jeans, but leather black jeans.
This seemingly simple aesthetic touch—to envelope the character of Yeezus (the central figure on the album) in black, rugged gear—is the quintessential difference between Old and New Kanye.
Old Kanye had the innocence to think in broad terms. Something all of us have done in some capacity. As a teen you say, “I’ll go to college. I’ll get a job. I’ll get married. I’ll do whatever I have to do to reach my goals.” Part of maturing is having to define these things. To make choices. The infinite possibilities narrow down to a single reality. New Kanye no longer had the luxury of potential. Yeezus, needing to decide what jeans were necessary, chose darkness and shadow.
The call-back to “Good Morning” isn’t just clever world-building. Look at the song title.
“Skinhead” was a term originally used to describe a 1960s British working-class subculture that revolved around fashion and music and that would heavily inspire the punk rock scene. While it has harmless roots, the skinhead movement fell into polemic politics. Nowadays, it’s popularly associated with neo-Nazis, despite having split demographics of far-right, far-left, and apolitical.
The Civil Rights Movement was another subculture with harmless roots that fell into polemic politics. You had Martin Luther King Jr. on the one side promoting non-violence, understanding, and compassion to unite as people over race. On the other side, you had Malcolm X talking of Black supremacy, the white devil, and a separation of Blacks from whites.
The “Black Skinhead” lyrics offer no specific mention of Malcolm X or the Civil Rights Movement. But when we make the connections between “by any means necessary” (Malcolm’s famous phrase) and the jeans call-back to “Good Morning,” and the reference to a cultural movement associated with rebellion, the ghost of Malcolm X and the Civil Rights Movement of the ’50s and ’60s comes alive.
This is what makes the debate about Old Kanye lyricism versus New Kanye lyricism so fascinating. The “Black Skinhead” lines aren’t as mainstream entertaining, appealing, or fun as the “Good Morning” ones. But the “Good Morning” lines are superficial when compared to the thematic and narrative depth created by “Black Skinhead.”
Beginning “Black Skinhead” with the Malcolm X context is a means of further characterizing Yeezus. He’s more than the hollow, sex-driven egomaniac we saw on album opener “On Sight.” He views himself as a political leader for the Black community. Not just a leader, but a superhero. “For my theme song” is an obvious reference to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “Power”: “I guess every superhero need his theme music.” The leather black jeans are part of the costume. This outlandish self-image fits with the ego displayed on the album.
Yeezus spends the rest of “Black Skinhead” discussing two topics. Racial tensions and his own crumbling mental state. The manic repetition of the word “Black” throughout the song shows that, for Yeezus, there’s so much more at stake. Black encapsulates the driving force of his journey. It’s what allows West to compare Yeezus to King Kong, a symbolism that conflates the dual concepts of race and ego.
We see a character who fancies himself a leader of men. A wolf. A king. A leader frustrated by the inaction of his people: “These n****s ain’t doin’ shit.”
This frustration comes through in the refrain where Yeezus stays up all night, drives out of control, and declares people should “follow me up cause this shit ‘bout to go down.” It finally climaxes with his exasperated repetition of “God!” At once, a means of venting and a cry for help. But the twisted, egomaniacal mind of Yeezus mutates the external idea of God into an internal one. Which is why the next track is “I Am a God,” where Yeezus hypes himself up. Followed by “New Slaves,” where our star-crossed hero finally attempts to lead the revolution he spent all of “Black Skinhead” hinting at.
During “On Sight,” the party starts when Yeezus walks in and stands above everyone at the club. He’s introduced as someone who doesn’t have time for the common man. That sets up the ultimate irony of “Black Skinhead”: How can you be the leader when your existence is not just disconnected from those you want to lead but hollow and chaotic?
As the album progresses, West will continue to analyze and critique modern racial tensions through the lens of history. We will come to realize that Yeezus isn’t some awful monster but a victim of America’s cultural wounds.
Watching the Throne, A Lyrical Analysis of Kanye West is the No. 1 Kanye West podcast on the internet. Travis and Chris have gone line by line, deconstructing the story and themes of over 70 album tracks—with more to come. This amounts to the largest body of scholarship on West’s discography. In 2018, they will release a book on Yeezus that will be the definitive guide to the album.