“In What?”: Kanye West’s “I’m In It” as Racially Embodied Text

“I’m In It,” the sixth track of rapper/producer Kanye West’s acclaimed and controversial 2013 album, Yeezus, is on first listen a track about a series of one-night-stands, a “Some Girls” approach to bacchanalia embodied, in part, by Justin Vernon’s gnomic, sung bridge: “Star fucker, star fucker.”

However, the dominant message is complicated by a series of stereotypical and challenging racial referents, gradually politicizing the song and giving it accumulated weight—West does rap at the end of the track, after all, that “I’m so scared of my demons I go to sleep with a night light,” a very different nighttime ritual than that described earlier. And the title of the song, as well, “I’m In It,” works as a double entendre—the directly materialist “in” of sex, coupled with a more dialectical “in” related to the passage of time, the growing accumulation of traumas in black America, and the systemic perpetuation of racism, racist policies, and the ongoing resistance against systems of oppression continuing today.

Already from the start of the song, West prioritizes an aesthetics of relationship grounded in brand consciousness and material possession—which, as he suggests in earlier album track “New Slaves,” is notably a way of oppressing people of color, a form of “rich n***er racism” tying self-progress to the purchase of material goods and establishment of brand identity. “Damn, your lips very soft,” West opens the track rapping,

“As I turn my Blackberry off.
And you turn off your iPhone
As I turn the bathwater on.”

It is important that the characters within the song are turning off their gadgets, rejecting brand names. This functions as an assertion of political will, moving away from the economic and technological fettering of people of color to create a self-contained, sexual intimacy. This anti-consumerist, sexualized impulse is further explicated throughout the verse proper, and by the tryst’s conclusion, West has sufficiently radicalized his subject matter. The couplet “Your titties, let them out, free at last/Thank God Almighty, they free at last” enacts that dual radicalization, scanning both as reflection on the decay of the Civil Rights movement into a pop-cultural sex-and-drugs phenomenology1 and as an assertion of the power of sex, recoding sexuality as a form of resistance in and of itself. In this way, the sexual commoditization of the human form is both embraced and rejected by West, a complex, contradictory position fitting well within his past schemas of complicated feminism.

Viewed within this context of racially specific sexual signifiers, West’s following and frequently criticized one-liner “eating Asian pussy, all I need is sweet-and-sour sauce,” becomes more difficult to get a grasp on. How intentional is the Orientalist-style racism in that line? The larger in-song context of recontextualizing racial signifiers as forms of empowerment provide a different lens through which to view the piece; while “sweet-and-sour sauce” is still a problematic signifier for Asians compared to the African-American “Civil Rights Sign” from later on, both are reclamations of identity within a sex-positivity, a way of confronting racism inside commercialized, commodified America.

Speaking of that line, the sentiment—and accompanying scream—from later in the song posits a darker reading, more tied to the direct past of people of color in America while still forming a sexualized narrative to advance the story. Kanye West raps:

Black girl sipping white wine
Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign
And grabbed it with a slight grind
And held it to the right time
Then she came like [distorted scream]

The “civil rights sign”—in actuality a Black Power fist—is both an aggressive act (as suggested by the distorted scream) and a type of consensually kinky sex: again, both a form of internalizing violent oppression and, through sex, liberating it. It’s important to note that the sexual partner in the song seems to reach orgasm—something that is rooted, yes, in Kanye’s purported sexual prowess and power, but also expands the consciousness of the partner, complicating her (further highlighted by the partner being a “black girl sipping white wine,” another symbol of code-switching and liminal consciousness).

All of this makes explicit the racial codification present in West’s oeuvre; to pose a question from another song on the album: “whatchu gonna say now?” As the media hype engulfing West’s upcoming album, Swish, increases, so does the relevance of conversations involving the power dynamics surrounding the right to speak/inhabit public bodies. For West, and ourselves, the answer to his question requires action, deep thought, and a consideration of what it means to be alive in a sexually charged, structurally racist society. Within the entangled system of bodily commodification, to degrees we are all “in it.” Viva la West.

1Not unlike the transition from feminism to “pop” feminism also occurring within this same timeframe, leading to an artificial and watered down “girl power” best embodied by the Spice Girls, Pussycat Dolls—and more currently, artists like Katy Perry et al.

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  • Queen

    Jive bullshit—full of neologisms and fatuous generalizations.