Twitter, Facebook and blogs across America have been after Kanye’s life after his appearance on Kris Jenner’s
almost mother- in-law’s show. Not just this article, but a few have dedicated considerable HTML to figuring out just what exactly is up with ‘Ye’s voice. But let’s be honest: what everyone is really trying to say is that in comparison to how he used to sound:
And how he sounds now, Kanye sounds nasally, softer and more tense – in other words, he sounds White.
To be clear: the term is offense and baseless, but yet, we continue to use it, or rather, the ideology of the term when we as a culture question the validity of a man’s inflection points. Everyone is speaking in code about Kanye speaking in code, yet no one has just come out and said it in those terms. While no intelligent person would actually use that phrase, much less accuse someone of that for all of the loaded and deserved criticism that would come their way for it, people are saying it. They’re saying it by asking, “why is Kanye talking like that?”
But what is like that? Well, it surely isn’t this:
And it’s not this:
And despite paying courtly homage to kiss the pinky ring of the Kardashian padrona, it’s clearly not this either:
What isn’t clear – to the uninitiated – is what Kanye is doing on a more subliminal level. The posture, the effects, the tone – Kanye is playing down his (Black) masculinity in hopes of playing up his (universal) relatability.
It’s an ironic switch for a man whose latest album has been considered by some to be a love letter to mysigony. And this isn’t a case of “dumbing down my audience to double my dollars.” Most of the people in Jenner’s actual and intended audience are not and won’t ever be checking for a Kanye record. Kanye, an eager, if not masterful self promoter knows this. He’s not trying to get them to buy his records; he’s trying to show them – the people who will never listen to the complexities of his story in his lyrics, but will brand him by his Black masculinity and jackassness – that he can be not just human, but normal – their kind of normal. The kind of mundane normal that fills Facebook timelines for people who don’t genuinely have concerns about privacy beyond an obsession with Big Government. Sharing photos of his baby, publicly proclaiming his love of the mother of his child, wearing chambray; Kanye is doing his best to relate to this life. Meanwhile, these fascinated White women – in the studio and in the larger audience -make his way of life and subsequent disconnect possible; it is mostly their suburban children whom their parents’ increasingly-harder-to-come-by middle class wages to simultaneously mimic and fund Kanye’s larger-than-life – that of a Black man who supercedes race and yet, can’t escape it. These White women know it, Kanye knows it – and he knows that these women and their aforementioned children can’t relate or understand at all the last part of the previous sentence.
Hence, the code. Hence the necessity of the code. Hence the prevelance and urgency of code. It is a shorthand for all that can’t be said completely and safely in an unfamiliar setting; the most and least Kanye can do is try to not get attacked by mimicking the kind of normalcy that they can relate to. By sitting uncomfortably on Kris Jenner’s couch and with the tonal pitch of the college student he once was, Kanye reminds whoever is watching that he is after all, a college drop out and the son of a professor. He reminds us that he spent part of his childhood in China. He reminds us he gave a talk at Harvard (which could be a whole other conversation about Kanye’s code switching). He reminds us that he came onto the scene wearing Louis Vuitton and Ralph Lauren Oxfords. I’m let y’all finish, but Kanye was the first to chop it up with Daft Punk. Had things been different, ‘Ye just might’ve been a yuppie.
So in the same thousands-of-years old traditions of oral history, folklore and songs, invisible ink, graffiti and other means that marginalized and silenced people have used to communicate when they refused to go quietly into the night, Kanye continues to reinvent, circumvent, endure and hell, get something out of it. Or at least try to.
And the people who pick up on this instinctively understand this complex cakewalk of code, for he is doing what most people of color do when caught in a room of white walls and a White public: he is trying to make his audience feel safe. Kanye is saying what his Black body can not; that he understands that in this moment, at this time, the ultimate performance is not even the seemingly effortless way his voice floats up class distinctive registers, but how well he recognizes – or even better, extinguishes – White fear and White suspicion. This is the underlying and fundamentally, most important philosophy of code switching, which informs and guides all other actions and postures of code switching.