I’m ashamed to admit that when I was younger, I used to say that I liked virtually all kinds of music except rap, claiming that it could hardly be called “music.” I thought I was so clever in pointing out that “r,” “a”, and “p” were the last three letters in a popular excremental word that began with “c.” Things have changed. Now it’s “Euro-trance” that receives the brunt of my disparaging comments.
It was Kanye West’s provocatively-titled penultimate record (“My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”) that really made me eat humble pie. I’d heard of him and had loved a few of his songs (“Jesus Walks” being particularly noteworthy), but I had never bought an album. From the beginning monologue on the opening track, and especially when the piano and gospel-like choir chimed in, I was sold. In my opinion, the whole record is pretty perfect, though I am legally obliged to say that the “parental advisory explicit content” warning is an almost laughable understatement.
Earlier this year, I bought “Watch the Throne,” Kanye’s collaborative opus with Jay-Z. It’s a wonderful record (though not as personally affecting as “My Dark Twisted Fantasy”) and it’s quite something to see two crème de la crème rappers play together in the upper reaches of the stratosphere. Evocative as the entirety of the album is, there’s one song that I quickly gravitated towards.
“New Day” is as perfect a song as they come. The beat is a strong, pulse-like cadence which buttresses a gorgeous, walking piano chord progression. Although it takes some guts to auto-tune someone with as iconic a voice as Nina Simone, we are talking about two rap titans here; the resulting sample is as buoyant, enfolding, and graceful as sea breeze. And by the time the horn section appears, it’s all over. Nobody really needs to say anything about Kanye and Jay-Z’s flow.
The song sees West and Z (?) thinking on the subject of fatherhood (hypothetical for the former and a reality for the latter as of January this year). Given these parameters, Kanye ponders what sort of parent he would be while Jay-Z utilises apostrophe (and by this I refer to the literary device as opposed to the form of punctuation) to directly address his son.
The power of the device, whereby a speaker addresses an absent person, is of course that it is intended to reveal aspects of the speaker’s psyche or soul. You might wonder why one would bother addressing an absent person if the primary aim is to be confessional. My only answer is that in literature, it’s a little cheap and cheesy to wear your heart on your sleeve and think out loud just for the sake it. Besides, most of us want to be heard anyway, in one way or another.
In the song, the rappers reveal life lessons they’ve learned and manage to do so without being trite or didactic. It’s both beautiful and heartbreaking that Kanye’s words have much to do with things he doesn’t want his son to do (the phrase “And I’ll never let” features five times). Beautiful because of the transparency and heartbreaking because, as he says in one line, “I learned the hard way.” Having an ego, leaving his college girlfriend, getting caught up with groupies, hitting the telethon and the strip club, and being stubborn are just a few of the inclusions in the not-to-do list. There are hopes, too; hopes that West Jr. is “nice to everyone,” has “an easy life,” and is “someone people like.” The lines are formidable not only because they reveal things that Kanye has missed out on, but because this realisation seems to be paired with a sense of regret.
While Jay-Z certainly expresses regret as well (“My only job is cutting time in half”), there is a more overt assumption of responsibility for consequences that will befall his kid. He begins his verse by saying “Sorry junior” to his unborn child, followed shortly thereafter by “Sins of a father make your life ten times harder.” Unlike Kanye, Jay-Z’s parental grief revolves predominantly around who he is and what he “inherits” as a celebrity rapper as opposed to what antics he got up to prior.
Though there are undoubtedly millions of dollars worth of silver lining around it, the cloud brooding over him is a weighty one indeed. Paparazzi and charter flights preclude sharing in the mundane aspects of life and family so much so that one of Jay-Z’s great hopes is to take his son to the barber. And his son’s 13th birthday will be an occasion primarily for “mogul talk,” where succession plans and discussions about the empire’s assets will take precedence over celebration. I probably shouldn’t feel sorry for him since, you know, he has everything and all… but I do. Maybe I really feel sorry for his son whose relationship with his dad (not to mention his mother, Beyoncé) will likely be eclipsed by the blinding light of a jumbotron.
To some degree, the prospect of having children represents a fresh start, a clean break, a “new day.” This song shows Kanye and Jay-Z well aware of the fact that perhaps it’s not as fresh, clean, and new as we would like – which is sobering, frightful, and incredible all at once. I hope I have the privilege of being a father one day, and at that time I’m sure I will have more than enough lyrics to populate a song of my own making. There will be lines about things I’ve learned the hard way, things I regret, things I hope, and things for which I will probably feel responsible. But kid, wherever you are, I’m thinking of you now. And today is a new day.