A Kritikal analysis of Kanye’s “Heard ’em Say”

Kendrick Lamar released ” To Pimp a Butterfly” on March 15, 2015.

A few weeks ago, my social media channels where all abuzz with a story about Kendrick Lamar. In an effort to engage his students, a teacher named Brian Mooney started teaching Kendrick alongside a book called The Bluest Eye by Toni Morrison. The story picked up, and Kendrick heard about it- it is truly a fairy tale from there. Kendrick visited the school, listened to the students’ cyphers, freestyled with them, offered his own insights, and even held a concert for the entire school. Kendrick talks about wanting to use his celebrity for good, and kept his word without hesitation.

The whole trip started with a single blog post that Mooney wrote, entitled WHY I DROPPED EVERYTHING AND STARTED TEACHING KENDRICK LAMAR’S NEW ALBUM. Mooney talks about the parallels between English and Hip Hop music, and how easy it is to relay the messages of the classics through Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. He is right. The complexity of rappers’ wordplay and their multiple meanings is what draws me to rap in the first place. It is the re-challenging of privilege that ignites fires in my blood, and raises goosebumps on my arms. I was an English student, and critique and analysis have since become a part of the workings of my mind. Inspired by Mooney, I have tried to write a short analysis that he might have written or seen in his mind’s eye.

If you ask me who my favourite artist is, I will tell you time and time again that it is Kanye West. The man is a rockstar, and an absolute genius. Heard ’em Say, while one of his more mainstream works, is beauteous in its critique of cycles of poverty and institutionalized racism for people of colour. Kanye’s lyricism isn’t always complex, but it is provocative, as seen on lines such as “And I know that the government administer AIDS“. He isn’t afraid to say what is on his mind, as seen in the Hurricane Katrina fundraiser clip.

Part of the reason why I love Heard ’em Say so much is that the video is as thought provoking as the song. We follow Kanye the cab driver, and a little boy and his mother. The boy packs his suitcase with the help of his grandmother and mother, who both have cigarettes in their mouths. A trail of heavy, perpetual smoke follows the boy and his mother as they get into Kanye’s cab, and travel through the city. The animation comes alive with Kanye’s lyrics, and the boy’s eyes are drawn with exaggerated largeness as he looks at advertisements of diamonds and jewelry, exhibiting his impressionable mind and social sense to copy what he sees around him.  As the woman runs into the gas station to buy lottery tickets “that are put just to tease us”, the boy picks up the cigarettes that his family members chain smoke.  He throws the lit match out of the window into a puddle of gas, and the car erupts in flames. Both the boy and Kanye pass on. This scene is accompanied by the following lyrics:

My Aunt Pam can’t put them cigarettes down
So now my little cousin smokin them cigarettes now

His job try to claim that he too n*****ish now
Is it cause his skin blacker than licorice now
I can’t figure it out, I’m sick of it now

Heard ’em Say offers critique on cycles of poverty and racism when Kanye talks about how “where [he’s] from the dope boys is the rock stars, but they can’t cop cars without seeing cop cars”, which demonstrates that hoods and ghettos don’t give people much to aspire to. Being able to provide for yourself or your family by any means necessary is necessary. Unfortunately, enforcement for change comes in the form of police brutality and harassment, instead of in the form of better education to stop cycles of poverty, and knowledge about privilege to help people of colour love the skin they’re in.

In the beginning of the video, a rich woman and her pampered pooch exit Kanye’s cab. When he asks for his tip, she flips him a nickel, exhibiting her privilege and expectations from Kanye- he owes her. The rich stay rich as the poor must hustle for meagre earnings; “Before you ask me to go get a job today, Can I at least get a raise of the minimum wage?

The little boy’s blackness will detail and define many aspects of his life without his having asked for it, which we see in his death in the animation. This is an all too relevant moment in 2015-  young black men are being killed because the colour of their skin is viewed as dangerous. His mother is left to deal with anguish on earth as the boy moves on. We are able to see death as the only equalizing moment for all lives, and the boy’s wide and impressionable eyes are gone as he does not have the ability to see the world and try to understand it. A world that works against him has taken that from him.

This is the type of conversation that a single hip hop song can bring into the classroom. Just imagine what the entire Hip Hop genre could accomplish. Back to Mooney for more of that.


8 thoughts on “A Kritikal analysis of Kanye’s “Heard ’em Say”

  1. Wow, what an impressive analysis of this song! Heard Em’ Say has always been one of my favourite Kanye West songs but I never took the time to truly analyze the message behind the lyrics. It is definitely thought provoking and a powerful message about the cycle of poverty vs. privilege. I think this would be a great reoccurring blog post topic for the future.


    1. Thanks for the kind words Camille! A lot of us listen to Hip Hop music because it sounds so dope. We don’t consider that the artists always have something to say. Sometimes the messages are fun and goofy, but sometimes they’re serious like this. When we start to listen to artists of colour and see things from their perspective, I think we’re better able to understand their music in the context of the things that are going on around us daily.


  2. The fact that hip hop music can have this impact on learning and fuel important discussions and lessons, especially ones that don’t transpire from bland textbooks, is so exciting. What is especially great is that a teacher had the ability to think outside the box and use popular culture to educate his students in a somewhat unconventional way. I’m guessing these students won’t forget Mr. Mooney’s lessons any time soon 🙂


    1. How could they forget his lessons?! He got Kendrick frickin’ Lamar to come into his class to teach the kids! I think it’ll inspire them to be better students, and focus more on their goals to greatness!


  3. Wow, this is such a great post Bhumika! I never would have thought about Kanye West’s music in that manner. Although I’m not a fan of Hip Hop myself, I can see why you enjoy it!


    1. Thanks Anja! Kanye’s loud, brash character is way more popular than his lyrics- that’s why a lot of people don’t see him for his intelligence and incredible lyrics. Part of the reason that I love him is that he always keeps us guessing. I can’t wait for his next album!


  4. I would have loved to be a kid in that teachers class, even before Kendrick showed up, great idea, props to the school for letting him do it. I really loved your idea about breaking down rap songs and finding the meaning. It’s something I ponder about but have never put pen to paper about it.


    1. We analyzed books and movies in my English classes, so I thought I could do the same thing with a song! Students are made for more than curriculum which has been taught for years and years. By teaching them relevant topics by way of their interests, we can keep students satisfied and coming back for more education. I love that Mr. Mooney was able to see the merit in Hip Hop!


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