"We ain't letting everybody in our family business" —Kanye West, "Family Business"
That line in the third verse of “Family Business” has always appeared to be a humble promise from a rapper on the cusp of stardom to the family he candidly admires. It’s a testimony to their thicker than water bond, that on this road to fame and riches what happens in this house built by blood and love doesn’t escape the front door where the media and paparazzi await in the shadows, hoping to exploit any chinks in our frail human armor. Out of all the songs on The College Dropout, Kanye sounds most at peace in the company of family. The phone call on the song intro is tender, he’s so close to his family he remembers who’s trying out for the basketball team, and each conversation and each verse is delivered with endearment.
“Family Business” is a step away from the madness that is the rest of his life. The song is delivering in the spirit of attending a reunion, warmed by feelings of affection by the familiar faces, mourning those who are in the ground or behind bars, united by the recollection of all the memories that they have shared over the years. The family that Kanye so eloquently describes seems tight enough to survive the evils that fame and fortune brings, that no matter if he sells one record or one million at least these people will know the true him, can serve as a bridge between the surrealism fame induces and the purity of his childhood. At least to them, he would still be the same bed peeing, electric slidin' Kanye that he’s always been.
It’s easy to believe in the sacredness of a family bond before the storm, before the accolades and plaques, before the television and magazines, before the money. Celebrity status doesn’t come without growing pains, especially for someone like Kanye whose outspoken attitude kept him in the press. From the moment he was allowed entrance into the industry he was bound to be a star. If the family foundation was beginning to crumble, Kanye didn’t acknowledge it anywhere on Late Registration. His grandmother is immortalized on “Roses,” he captures the powerless anxiety of being in the hospital with a loved one who is slipping away. His cousin Kim and team of aunties are acknowledged, a nod toward their presence during a time where the comfort of family is needed. The other tribute is to his mother, Donda West, a woman who needs no introduction. “Hey Mama” was written back in 2000 and appeared on his Freshmen Adjustment mixtape. The final version didn’t make College Dropout because Kanye wanted to premiere the song on Oprah, which he did. His close connection and relationship with his mom largely affected Kanye in every possible way when she passed in 2007. Last year, he confessed during an interview that he blames himself for her untimely death. A heavy burden for any child to carry.
The death of his mother and the end of his engagement and long-term relationship with Alexis Phifer inspired the personal 808’s & Heartbreak. Unlike when his grandmother was in the hospital, relatives aren’t there to mend his heartache after his mother’s passing, at least not in song. And then no family members are included as beacons of light during his Dark Twisted Fantasy, and short of his new-found wife, his family disappears completely in Yeezus. It’s as if the man depicted in “Welcome To Heartbreak” has replaced the Kanye from “Family Business.” Cold and reclusive, entrapped in his own world that most people simply orbit around, but only a chosen few are able to land and inhabit planet Yeezy. Kanye has never had an issue revealing his own personal issues and flaws but you never know what was happening with those around him. It’s interesting how much and how little he reveals.
It wasn’t until last Friday, 12 years since his debut album, that Kanye broke the promise he made to not let the world into their family’s business with the release of “Real Friends,” dropping the veil that separated his artistry and his relationship with immediate and extended family members. There’s no guilt or remorse in Kanye’s tone as he raps, “I’m a deadbeat cousin I hate family reunions,” and it’s only the beginning of his heart-wrenching review of himself and family members strained relationships. It’s the unflinching honesty that grabbed me, admitting to changing his number so not to be bothered, forgetting birthdays, loathing holiday parties and drunkenly ruining communions. He once kept up with basketball tryouts, but now he can’t be bothered to face a niece or even remember the age of his nephew, blaming his busy schedule for why he doesn’t make time.
He isn’t a saint, he takes a good, hard look in the mirror and also realizes that in this blame game he is also at fault. He’s demoted his family to friend status, he isn’t a real friend himself and so he doesn’t deserve any real love in return. Ego and money turned kin to strangers, cousin to thieves, and this song won’t help with mending any burnt bridges.
While researching this article I was surprised to learn that Tarrey Torae, a singer that performed at the end of “Family Business,” assisted Kanye with the story for the song. He said he needed more material about what a “real” family life is like and so she told him about sleeping six to a bed with her cousins, about an aunt that can no longer remember her name. The entire second verse is based on her life. Even the end, when Kanye says “Let’s get Stevie out of jail,” it’s referring to her godbrother, not his.
It made me question what I knew about Kanye and his family. Did that mean he didn’t have a cousin locked up? What about Uncle Ray and Aunt Sheila? The revelation brings new meaning to the sample that plays in the intro, “All that glitters is not gold and all gold is not reality.”
And so what about “Real Friends”? These feel like such personal stories it’s easy to believe that they’re autobiographical, but I also spent the last decade believing that “Family Business” was purely autobiographical. Kanye has been so opened about his love and admiration for his mother, but what is the truth behind the rest of his family? His family and friends may very well only pretend to care about him so they can be close to his fame and money, but he’s distorted them too. And of course, he’s married into a family who has turned distorting the reality of their lives into an immensely profitable business. As always with Kanye, contradictions abound.
With a newborn son and an album on the way, I’m hoping for more music in the realm of “Real Friends.” His relationships with his friends and family are far more intriguing than his break up with a shoe company. And so the best possible Kanye album is an honest Kanye album. We can only aspire to his level of fame and power if we aspire to that at all, but we all have families. We all have an aunt who can’t cook, we’ve all showed up just for the yams, though, and so connecting with Kanye around family is the most real connection we have to him.
As a young Kanye West once said, diamond rings and fancy things are meaningless without family. So maybe on this album, we’ll finally get the truth about his family—his real family.