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11 January 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 6:00am

Kanye’s “Real Friends” explores the impact on friendship not just of fame, but of technology

The song struggles to distinguish “real” friendships through a tangled web of pleading texts, missed calls and promised FaceTimes.

By Anna Leszkiewicz

When Kanye West released his new song, “Real Friends”, via Soundcloud last week, critics instantly praised its sincerity. It’s already been compared to “Blame Game” and “Welcome to Heartbreak” for it’s vulnerable, confessional tone and minimal production, and fans and commentators alike have noted that lyrically, Kanye is exploring how fame erodes otherwise solid friendships.

Throughout, Kanye questions his own culpability as well as that of his friends: they ask for favours more than ask after him, but he reliably forgets birthdays and is always too busy to call.

It’s undeniably a preoccupation for Kanye, and another pressure weighs heavily on the track. Lyrically, this is a song obsessed with technology. It’s a tangled web of virtual communication.

Like everyone else navigating their daily life via touchscreens and keyboards and microphones, Kanye West has a conflicted relationship with technology. Famously, Steve Jobs is his idol (as he reminded everyone just after “Real Friends” premiered). At a panel on technology and culture, he told the audience, “Steve Jobs, as everyone knows, was my biggest influence,” because “he fought to make things easier for people.”

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Here is a man who deeply admires the creator of the iPhone, specifically because of its effects on interpersonal relationships: now, it’s easy to speak across continents and timezones and schedules. And yet he also freely admits that  “the internet as a whole is fucking ugly” (because “the world as a whole is fucking ugly”).

At the same panel, he lamented that “everyone spends all of their time looking at their screens or their phones”. It was widely reported that at his and Kim Kardashian’s wedding, guests were asked to leave their phones at home, and Kim has said that Kanye encouraged her to spend less time on her phone when they started dating. 

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“Real Friends” delves into this conflict: each verse details an endless list of phonecalls and texts. Instead of an isolated guest verse from Ty Dolla $ign, Kanye opts for more of a dialogue. Their lines are interspersed within each verse, moving the conversation along: the two voices alternate like blue and grey speech bubbles blooming in iMessage.

In the first few lines, Kanye notes how technology allows him to basically delete people from his life when he is unsure about them: “Trust issues? / Switched up the number, I can’t be bothered”. The delays virtual communication can put on conversation also seem to distance him from other people: “Damn I forgot to call her / Shit I thought it was Thursday / Why you wait a week to call my phone in the first place?”

But for every missed call and lost number, there are 100 other confusing notifications. People get in touch to “Tell me you want your tickets when it’s gametime / Even to call your daughter on her FaceTime,”: channels of communication seem, to Kanye, overwhelmed by requests.

One of the song’s most bleak, lonely lines is “I hate when a n***a text you like, ‘what’s up, fam, hope you good?’ You say, ‘I’m good, I’m great,’ and the next text they ask you for something.”

Yes, these are inevitable problems for the superfamous (as Kanye himself acknowledges in the line “I cannot blame you for having that angle”), but the brutality of this particular exchange – the sudden shift from openness and curiosity to a closed, transactional question – is facilitated by the abstraction of digital correspondence.

This businesslike and often mercenary brand of technological exchange bleeds into everyday life, whether it’s small-scale, like taking selfies with friends of friends (“Maybe 15 minutes, took some pictures with your sister / Merry Christmas, then I’m finished, then it’s back to business”), or actual betrayals (“I had a cousin that stole my laptop that I was fucking bitches on / Paid that n***a $250,000 just to get it from him”).

The only instances of uninterrupted face-to-face interaction that are lingered on are the family reunions Kanye feels somewhat lost at, sometimes struggling to behave appropriately:

I’m a deadbeat cousin, I hate family reunions
Fuck the church up, I’m drinking at the communion
Spilling free wine, now my tux is ruined

The metaphorical language of the chorus, then, is pointed. When Kanye talks about the “word on the streets,” we know the streets are virtual: he’s physically disconnected from the actual pavements of his past, hanging on from a distance.

From another artist, “Real Friends” might feel like a futile rage against the machine. But the only specfic example of a meaningful conversation between “real” friends is at a remove: the third verse notes that true friends are the ones who aren’t embarrassed by “3am calling”, phoning “just to ask you a question, just to see how you was feeling” (a sentiment he emphasised after the song’s release).

Of course, the other implicit example of a “real” dialogue is the song itself, and Ty Dolla $ign’s voice is echoey and distant, as if he speaks through a muffled phoneline. Kanye knows that his “real friends” are equally dependent on technology, and that digital discussions are not inherently less sincere or intimate. But that doesn’t mean that sometimes, the 21st century’s continuous conversation can make you feel more lonely than ever.