About six months ago, the Literary Man made the discovery of a musical artist named Kanye West, who was, unbeknownst to the Literary man, a world-wide hip-hop superstar hailed as a “demented genius” by critics around the world. Most days the Literary man doesn’t get out much: he reads, he writes, he contemplates the literature of the world. But lately he’s been listening to (or rather, catching up with) My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and the following question seems, somehow, unavoidable: is Kanye West a Literary Man?
The timing of this dialogue is neither timely nor explicitly relevant to literature, or is it? Track One, “Dark Fantasy,” contains no fewer than forty literary allusions, which, if extended another two hundred lines or so, would be comparable to T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land.” Let’s examine a few, to wit.
Kanye lyric: Mercy, mercy me that murcielago. Literary precedent: James Joyce. This is basically the literary blending of pun, homonym, and cognate, like, the hip-hop offspring of these three tropes, as Murcielago is the name of a well-known sports car, but it sounds like Kanye’s saying “Mercy where I’ll go,” or maybe “Mercy and I go,” which is kind of an interesting play off the meaning of the word: sportscar + mercy = where will I go? Who comes up with this shit? Well, Kanye, evidently.
Kanye Lyric: And my chick in that new Phoebe Philo. Phoebe Philo is a pretty big-deal fashion designer. We can all agree that fashion is a form of art, yes? Though this might not be a literary allusion, per se, it’s still adding another layer of texture to the track.
Kanye Lyric: Sex is one fire, I’m the king of Leon-a Lewis. There’s probably a musical term for this, but the Literary Man is literary, not musical, and hence doesn’t know it: basically, Kanye sings “I’m the King of Leon,” the American rock band from Tennessee, but then he stretches the “Leon” into “Leona Lewis,” effectively qualifying the previous bit. Leona Lewis is (who knew?) is “a multi-platinum selling artist and three time Grammy Award nominee. Her most successful single, “Bleeding Love“, reached number one in over thirty countries around the world” (thx Wikipedia). She’s also very good looking. The wordplay here is even more intelligent because Leona Lewis is British, and they (sometimes) have kings there. King. Leona. Kings of Leon. Head = spinning.
Kanye Lyric: Too many Urkels on your team, that’s why you’re Winslow. This one doesn’t require too much explanation, but it is completely awesome. “You’re Winslow” of course literally implies that you are Carl Winslow from the brilliant 1980s sitcom “Family Matters,” where the character Steve Urkel forever implanted himself in the impressionable minds of America’s youth. Urkel, even today, is a word synonymous with irredeemable social ignominy. However, it also sounds like Kanye’s saying “your wins are low,” in reference, of course, to the whole mention of “team” in the line. This is good stuff, people.
Kanye Lyric: I saw the Devil in a Chrysler LeBaron. This one’s a pretty straightforward allusion to the John Hughes masterpiece “Planes, Trains, and Automobiles,” starring John Candy and Steve Martin.
Kanye Lyric: kissed an heiress and woke up back in Paris. Thus concludes our analysis of the allusions in “Dark Fantasy.” It all in the end comes back to Paris Hilton. She’s an heiress, and, sure, it’s possible that Kanye’s kissed / slept with her. And of course Paris is also a city where one might s’est réveillé. Pun! Pun! Pun! Paris the pun!
Of course, this list isn’t mean to be exhaustive, just exhausting. If you can pull out any additional instances of interesting wordplay, let’s play. With words. In the comments. You might also wonder how Kanye would do with our Top Ten Hottest Authors.