A Shakespearean Glance at the People and Issues of the Day.

Thursday, December 22, 2005

Shakespeare v. Kanye West: Cage Match!


Today Bardseye begins what will be a regular, probably weekly series of comparisons of Shakespeare's prose to the song lyrics of our premier pop music composers. We will begin with who I am told is one of our premier rappers, a Mr. Kanye West.

While others may find more literary merit in such West songs as Addiction, Crack Music and Hey Momma, Bardseye has selected a work entitled Touch the Sky. For the novice, I believe this song will be among West's more accessible, or less inaccessible works. Let us begin:

Touch The Sky

Come up in the spot looking extra fly
For the day I die, I'mma touch the sky
Gotta testify, come up in the spot looking extra fly
For the day I die, I'mma touch the sky."

Let's credit Mr. West with a nice opening, as his verse expresses the hope that at his death he will feel his best (touch the sky) and look his best (extra fly). We see something similar, if a bit more sepia-toned, in a brief comment made by Claudio in Measure for Measure:

Cla: "If I must die,
I will encounter darkness as a bride,
And hug it in mine arms."

But enough of that old stuff. Let's return to Mr. West's more modern exuberance:

"Back when they thought pink polo's would hurt the Roc,
Before Cam got the shit to pop, the doors was closed.
I felt like Bad Boy's street team, I couldn't work the locks.
Now let's go.
Take 'em back to the plan...
Me and my momma hopped in the U-Haul van.
Any pessimists I ain't talked to them,
Plus, I ain't have no phone in my apartment.
Let's take 'em back to the club."

The reader is at first struck by the numerous obscure textual references (shit to pop; Bad Boy's street team, etc.) that only a thorough grounding in rap culture would allow him or her to decipher. Presumably for the experienced listener, such references serve as a reward for one's dedicated viewing of MTV and related shows, and the consumption of relevant check-out counter publications.

In any event, West's theme is nostalgia for a simpler time, a time "back when they though pink polo's would hurt the Roc," etc. Let's see what the Bard does with the same material:

"When to the sessions of sweet silent thought
I summon up remembrance of things past,
I sigh the lack of many a thing I sought,
And with old woes new wail my dear Time's waste."

- Sonnet #30 Or:

"……….O setting sun
As in thy red rays thou dost sink to night,
So in his red blood Cassius' day is set.
The sun of Rome is set. Our day is gone;
Clouds, dews, and dangers come; our deeds are done."

- Titinius, in Julius Caesar (V.iii.63)

Trouble deciding (between West and Shakespeare)? Six in one; a half dozen in the other? When my wife recently had a similar problem in selecting a pair of boots, I gave the obvious advice - take your time; try them all on for size. And so let's do the same, as we delve back into Mr. West's imaginative universe for the next portion of Touch the Sky:

"Least about an hour I would stand on line,
I just wanted to dance.
I went to Jacob an hour after I got my advance.
I just wanted to shine.Jay's favorite line:
"Dog, in due time"
Now he look at me, like "Damn, dog, you where I am"
A hip hop legend.
I think I died in an accident, cause this must be heaven."

West has advanced to the theme of rewarded ambition, and gratitude to the gods for one's success. Fertile poetic ground. Here's the Bard's version:

"Lowliness is young ambition's ladder,
Whereto the climber upward turns his face;
But when he once attains the upmost round,
He then unto the ladder turns his back,
Looks in the clouds, scorning the base degrees
By which he did ascend."

- Julius Caesar, (II,i,22)

There remains little for Bardseye to offer except to note that Mr. West's art is clearly not intended for a general audience but for a coterie of the initiated. And as a result, four hundred years seem to have separated us less from Shakespeare than has an odd cultural gap separated us from Mr. West and his audience.

Hope you enjoyed!

Here's a link to the always recommendable basil's blog.

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