Kanye West's album Yeezus is controversial for so many reasons: its noisy, industrial sound, the title, the lack of packaging , lyrics that have raised eyebrows and this bizarre promotional film, among others.
The track "Blood On the Leaves" manages to encompass many of those controversies in one. It see-saws from a plaintive cover of the jazz classic "Strange Fruit," to Kanye's Auto-Tuned vocals about the perils of fame and molly, while layering in a skittering, blown-out horn riff, the sounds of an animal's growl and a sung interpolation of an iconic No Limit street anthem.
It's a lot to take in, but the haunting refrain that rises above the din is the sound of Nina Simone singing about "bodies swinging in the Southern breeze."
That line comes from Billie Holiday's original 1939 recording of "Strange Fruit," which was a simmering shot across the bow of racism in America. West tapped the 1965 cover of the ballad by Simone as the dramatic centerpiece sample on the song, in which he takes words originally written by teacher/songwriter Abel Meeropol for the Marxist magazine "The New Masses" and twists them into a modern fable about race, identity and materialism.
Holiday's version, with moving vocals that brought the story of lynchings of black Americans to a startling poignancy, remains one of the most towering, important songs of the 20th century. In West's re-telling, the Simone version of the song opens the track with the lines, "Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees/Blood on the leaves," before West turns it into a churning anthem about conspicuous consumption and a drug-fueled hook-up.
It's that apparent dichotomy that makes the song a powerful example of West's signature melding of the sacred and the Profane according to Craig Werner, professor of Afro-American Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of "A Change is Gonna Come: Music, Race & the Soul of America" and "Playing the Changes From Afro-Modernism to the Jazz Impulse."
He said Holiday's song has become so iconic that "Strange Fruit" is practically shorthand today for music that deals with racial injustice. "It's the one song you can count on everyone knowing something about," said Werner. "So, in a sense, the symbolic value is more important than what it was [at the time] because everyone who thinks about it thinks, 'This is that anti-lynching song.' "
West further flips the script on the original by throwing in his sung version of the hook from C Murder's 2000 hit "Down 4 My N---az," which liberally uses the "n" word to express allegiance to Murder's homeboys.
Werner said "Fruit" was the only explicitly political song in Holiday's catalog, but the fact that West chose the Simone version is especially symbolic, because the High Priestess of Soul was well-known for such civil rights anthems as "Mississippi Goddam," "Old Jim Crow" and "I Wish I Knew How it Would Feel to be Free."
"The song came out of the leftist, counterculture café society that was really marginal at the time, but was an interracial bohemia," said Werner of the world Meeropol inhabited. "When Billie was singing that song it appealed to that particular audience, which was aware of the issues and committed to political activism. But it didn't have a huge audience or immediate impact beyond that."
But when the overtly political Simone picked it up, the song once again took on a powerful meaning in the midst of the Civil Rights era. And whether West picked it for sonic or social reasons, Werner said it is part of telling a larger story. "Kanye knows the history behind it [Simone's version] and it seems to me that if he's juxtaposing that with the hip-hop bling world, which he has such a strange relationship with, it has to be a commentary," he said of the rapper, who pushes plenty of other envelopes with such Yeezus tracks as "New Slaves" and "Black Skinhead" as well. "If you put the contemporary world in dialogue with C Murder, then go back to Nina, then back to Billie, you're looking at the unfolding of how this story continues."
In his own way, Werner said West may be doing what writer Toni Morrison termed "re-memory" in her novel "Beloved." By invoking, Holiday and Simone, he said West's song is "keeping the voices of ancestors and the awareness of the history alive. Once he's established his dynamic with Murder, Nina and Billie, it's not about the layers, it's about understanding that this is his call, formed in response to the history."