What Does Kanye West’s ‘New Slaves’ Reflect About His Relationship With Fashion?

Kanye West performs “New Slaves” on Saturday Night Live.
Photo: Getty Images

If you are, in any way, a Kanye West fan, the likelihood that your weekend was insurmountably OWNED by Yeezy (or rather, by Yeezus) is a good one. Ye kicked off our Friday night with the drop of a new song, “New Slaves,” and accompanying visual. A music video of sorts, Team Yeezy didn’t just upload the clip to the interwebz; instead he took the “New Slaves” premiere out into the physical universe, setting up viewing sites in some 66 worldwide locations and projecting the visuals onto choice buildings. After a short intro loop of discount price and sale tags, a massive tight-shot of Kanye’s face staring squarely into camera and rendered in grayscale, a kind of verse-spitting Yeezy version of Shepard Fairey’s OBEY Giant, appeared sprawling on the walls and windows of museums, universities, hotels, landmarks, and (most notably to us) high fashion boutiques and shopping districts across the globe. The track itself is fraught with controversy, its lyrics jarringly blending racism and consumerism, and with projection sites like FIT University, New York’s 5th Avenue Prada store, the Chanel boutique on Rodeo Drive, and Versace’s Miami house, it’s unavoidably clear that fashion is at the center of focus.

Given his former Louis Vuitton Don status and Givenchy Kanye’s 2013 Met Gala performance, this tirade against materialism might seem a bit incongruous a move for Yeezy. And sure, in a lot of ways it is, especially when you realize that Ye performed the song on Saturday Night Live in a yet-to-be-acknowledged never-before-seen all-red colorway of his Air Yeezy 2 Nike collaboration. HOWEVER, as MTV News’ Rob Markman connects, there are plenty of similarities between the lyrics of 2013’s “New Slaves” and 2004’s “All Falls Down.” The difference here, though, lies in the presentation. Rather than blanketing the cultural commentary with a major key, a melodic hook, and a dose of self-deprication—”But I ain’t even gonna act holier than thou/ ’Cause f*** it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ before I had a house and I’ll do it again/ ’Cause I wanna be on ’106 & Park’ pushin’ a Benz”—”New Slaves” is virtually devoid of all of the above, making for a more shocking and perhaps more resonating message.

He addresses his experience putting together his debut runway collection with the lines,

“Doing clothes you would have thought I had help
But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself”

referring to a detail he revealed via Twitter early last year: that he had no financial backing for the line and “did the first fashion show out of [his] own pocket and used the money [he] made touring to follow [his] passion.” From there, he sets up the rest of the “consumerism as new racism” analogy pervasive throughout the song.

“You see it’s broke n**** racism
That’s that ’Don’t touch anything in the store’
And this rich n**** racism
That’s that ’Come here, please buy more’
What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain?
All you blacks want all the same thing”

Here, Kanye highlights varied combinations of racial and socioeconomical stereotypes and how they can play out in a retail experience.

“Used to only be n***** now everybody playing
Spending everything on Alexander Wang”

However, he doesn’t limit his perception of the effects of consumerism, observing that everyone is taking part, spending money on hyped-up high fashion like Alexander Wang.

“I throw these Maybach keys, I wear my heart on the sleeve
I know that we the new slaves, I see the blood on the leaves”

Here’s where the reflection seems to lie. He’ll still sling a Maybach, but he’s aware of the trappings of materialism. The bit, “I wear my heart on the sleeve,” can speak to both that as well as his penchant for vocalizing his feelings.

“F*** you and your Hampton house, I’ll f*** your Hampton spouse
Came on her Hampton blouse and in her Hampton mouth”

Kanye lashes out against The Hamptons as a symbolic epitome of concentrated wealth. The “blouse” portion isn’t the strongest fashion tie, though it does speak to a kind of desecration of material things, but we include it because it reminds us of that one time Kanye wore a Celine blouse on stage at Coachella.

At the end of the day, “New Slaves” is a new presentation of beliefs that we kinda sorta already knew Kanye had (that his relationship with fashion is a tumultuous one). Does that make them any less exciting or jarring? No. Do his lyrics about materialism signify a turn away from the fashion community? I really don’t think so. Is Yeezy rapping about consumerism while debuting a new shoe design kiiiiind of like that time he wore gold chains to Occupy Wall Street? Maybe. Will any of it keep me from listening to the track on repeat and placing a pre-order for Yeezus? Absolutely not.


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