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Why Kanye West is the modern day John Donne

Kanye West is the first metaphysical rapper.

National Poetry Day seems like a good time to make a suggestion - Kanye West, modern-day rapper and “international asshole” (his words) is the true heir to the 16th century metaphysical poet John Donne.

West may be known as the man who married Kim Kardashian, and stole Taylor Swift’s award, but he is an artist of multiple layers.

Donne only started to be truly appreciated in the 20th century. 

The content of West and Donne's works share common themes: self-obsession, God, delusions, sex, women, paranoia and more sex. 

According to Encyclopedia Britannica, Donne's metaphysical poetry is “characterised by conceit or 'wit' — that is, by the sometimes violent yoking together of apparently unconnected ideas”.

If no-one else will say it, I will: looking through West’s cannon, the truth is self evident- Kanye West is our first metaphysical rapper. 

Compare Donne’s most infamous opening line in Holy Sonnet 10 to West’s most famous opening line in "Can’t Tell Me Nothing":

Donne:

“Death, be not proud, though some have called thee
Mighty and dreadful, for thou art not so”

West:

“I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven
When I awoke, I spent that on a necklace”

The two evoke the imagery of death, and mock it through bravado and wordplay alone. 

Extended metaphors are a recurring theme in both West and Donne’s canon. 

Donne's The Flea is arguably one of the most provocative, and famous poems in all of English literature. In the poem, Donne use the the blood sucking by a flea who has landed on his lover's body to describe his entire relationship with a woman.  

"Famous" by West is just as provocative, though in the song and subsequent video (the one with the naked mannequins of Donald Trump, Bill Cosby, Taylor Swift etc) West uses sex to make a comment on the relationship celebrities have with fame, and in turn our relationship with celebrities. 

Not everything is so highbrow though. West and Donne enjoy a similar taste for puns made in poor taste. Donne's The Good Morrow describes his thoughts as he awakes next to his lover. In it, Donne makes his now infamous sexual pun where he references his lover's "country pleasures".

The opening of West's "Mercy" features the rapper Big Sean trying to make a similar pun on the word "ass" (throughout the song, multiple rappers featured on the song compare women to the super-car, the Lamborghini Mercy). 

West and Donne share another trait between them - a lack of trust in the women in their lives. West's "Gold Digger" needs no description. The song describes West's interactions with women who only want him for his money.

In Donne's Woman's Constancy, he opens by mock-questioning what a woman who has spent the night with him, will say in the morning to get rid of him

"Now though has loved me one whole day
Tomorrow when you leav'st, what wilt
thou say?"

Both make light of the situation, even as their mistrust remains plain. Woman's Constancy ends with the twist with Donne saying that never liked the woman anyway (why write the poem then?).

And West in "Gold Digger" raps that one of these women have got him paying child support as "she got one of your kids", which he then self-deprecatingly follows up with "And on the 18th birthday he found it wasn't his?!"

Though perhaps West and Donne are most known for their bravado and their brashness, both probe their insecurities and vulnerabilities in their art. This is most explicit when they talk about their faith in God.

West's first crossover hit is the now classic "Jesus Walks" in which he prays that "God show me the way" because the Devil is trying to "break me down". Donne too is constantly worrying that the sensual pleasures of women getting in the way of his relationship with God. 

Donne's conflict is of course heightened by him having left Catholicism and converting to Anglicanism, later becoming the Dean of St Paul's Cathedral.

West famously collaborates with as many artists as he can, of all different genres, most famously perhaps with Paul McCartney and Coldplay. On "All of the Lights", West somehow manages to put Drake, Elton John, John Legend, Alicia Keys and Rihanna on one song, and make a hit. 

Donne's most famous quote is "No man is an island", while West subscribes to the idea that no song is an island. 

And like Donne, whose signficance was overshadowed by his contemporary William Shakespeare, West too may face a similar fate. But I'll save my piece comparing Beyonce to Shakespeare for another day.

Marc Brenner
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Carey Mulligan is oddly unemotional in Dennis Kelly’s powerful new play, Girls & Boys

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, don’t read this review.

If you intend to see Girls & Boys, then you should do two things. First, come back to this review: it’s a production best seen with no preconceptions. Second: have a child.

Still here? Good, because there is no way to discuss this play without spoiling its big reveal. It opens with Carey Mulligan centre stage, in orange shirt and red trousers, against set designer Es Devlin’s boxy backdrop of purest cyan. It’s a palette favoured by Hollywood posters, because the contrast is so striking. (Van Gogh once used it on a still life of crabs.) Mulligan’s unnamed narrator tells us how she met her husband, who is only ever “he”. Her monologue starts off funny – “Paris? Call that a world city? It’s Leeds with wider streets” – and sexually frank, but it’s also cleverly disconcerting.

She met him in an Easyjet queue and “took an instant dislike to the man”. Why? Because he was obliviously buried in a book – or because of his interaction with two models, who tried to queuejump by feigning sexual interest to stand next to him? (“And he’s just like, well of course… but I get to sleep with one of you, right?”) One of the models snottily tells him that she would never sleep with a Normal like him, and he acknowledges the truth of this. Then he calls them “bitches” for playing with his feelings, makes a chivalrous speech about the transcendence of loving sex, and suggests that sleeping with them would be “necrophilia… wanking into a pretty dress”. The temptation is to cheer – he put those stuck-up cows in their place! – and I wondered if my disquiet was evidence I’ve gone full Millie Tant. (Beware men who think there are some women to whom it’s OK to be sexist.)

But no. The husband is indeed a wrong ‘un. Mulligan’s monologues are interspersed with role-plays against another pure-cyan set; a living room, with details – a sippy cup, a blanket – again picked out in orange. She chides her children, Leanne and Danny, talking to the empty air about their petty squabbles. And then, halfway through the 90-minute running time, comes the punch: “I know they’re not here by the way. My children… I know they’re dead.” My mind went instantly to a routine by Louis CK. “A woman saying yes to a date with a man is literally insane,” the comedian says. “Globally and historically, we’re the number one cause of injury and mayhem to women. If you’re a guy, imagine you could only date a half-bear-half-lion.”

The narrator’s story, of a relationship going sour, is achingly familiar. Her burgeoning career, and growing confidence; the failure of his business, and his consequent loss of status. She asks for a divorce. He tells her: “There will never come a time when you have my kids and I don’t.” One night, he sweet-talks his way past the babysitter and twists a knife into little Danny’s heart, guiding it in with his thumbnail, before stabbing Leanne eight times. (Mulligan marks each wound on her body.) He tries to kill himself.

My friends with kids tell me that giving birth rewired them, leaving them reluctant to watch any drama with children in peril. To me, Mulligan seemed oddly unemotional in recounting these horrors; but perhaps a parent’s imagination would supply all the horror required.

Is it a coincidence that this play had its premiere at the Royal Court, where artistic director Vicky Featherstone has led the theatre world’s response to a reckoning with sexual harassment? Her code of conduct outlines potentially abusive behaviour, from the obvious – “physical force or threat of force, for sexual action” – to the situational: “staring, meaningful glances”. Yet Dennis Kelly’s script, which depicts one poison drop of sexism blossoming into a manifestation of the most extreme masculine rage, shows how difficult such behaviour is to police. When should the narrator have seen the danger? How can women sort the good from the bad?

In an industry convulsed by a feminist reckoning, I was left wondering if a female playwright would have dared to write lines as starkly confrontational as the narrator’s conclusion: “We didn’t create society for men. We created it to stop men.”

Girls & Boys runs until 17 March.

Helen Lewis is deputy editor of the New Statesman. She regularly appears on BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster and the News Quiz, and BBC1’s Sunday Politics. 

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia