Kanye West Week: “Hell Of A Life”
“Hell Of A Life” is a bizarro inversion of the hundreds of “we love these hoes” rap songs. Rather than focus on sexual prowess and what they can do to him, Kanye presents these kinds of girls as sexual transgressors, brave enough to do and act on the kind of stuff polite, bougie society looks down upon. The third verse is most explicit with this, when Kanye announces “one day, I’m gonna marry a porn star,” and then envisions their awesomely chaotic life together (“nothing to hide, we both screwed the bridesmaid”) and then strangely, imagines trying to take her to an Oscar party, only to be rejected by Oscar de la Renta when it comes to renting a dress. Kanye bitterly asks, “How can they say they live they live wrong/When you ain’t never fucked with the lights on?”
As is often the case, Kanye’s pointing out an obvious but still poignant hypocrisy: Fashion, which sells sex and the body just like porn, which is just as abusive to the females involved in the industry, thumb their nose at the porn industry. That “fucked with the lights on” line, touches back on the hook to “All Of The Lights,” and continues the sub-theme of MBDTF: There’s the world you see and there’s the real world and Kanye’s going to turn all the lights on, de-idealize everything, and give you that real world.
Though Kanye relates and respects porn stars’ honesty, he maintains a distance from them in the song, because he knows he’s too normal and middle-class to truly keep up with them. He’s the fool who dabbles in this thrilling, seedy world of threesomes and day-long sex sessions, and ultimately, takes it too seriously. In verse four, he falls in love: “Got married in the bathroom…honeymoon on the dance floor…got divorced by the end of the night.” Kanyee sings those in-awe-of-porn lines over a menacing church choir, sonically merging the “pussy and religion” of the hook. After that, there’s a strange, outro of sex noises and Kanye breathing heavily, as a metronome clicks. Time is running out for Kanye. He can’t live like this. He’s lost in this shit.
Another reason Kanye’s an outsider, even in the supposedly “free” world of porn is because he’s black. Verse two mostly concerns itself with the hypocritical standards of the porn industry, who value porn stars based on what they will or will not do, and notes that a porn star’s reputation is sullied or at least, changed, if she does anal, a gang bang, or um, black guys. This verse is before verse three, which celebrates the porn star as a Byronic or Nietzschean figure in an increasingly bullshit-ass world, and comes after verse one, which mostly idealizes the porn star’s “bad bitch” qualities. That said, the “don’t do black guys or gang-bangs” rule is more the fault of the industry than the porn star herself.
There’s plenty of speculation about who these lost, love songs are about and ultimately it doesn’t matter, but Amber Rose, is interesting to consider in terms of “Hell Of a Life.” I think it’s about her—or really, it’s about the media’s response to Amber Rose. This song is making the same point as the dinner scene in the Runaway film, in which a group of finely-dressed, black men and women whisper and point at Kanye’s new girlfriend, the Phoenix. Amber Rose, the Phoenix, a porn star, they’re all outside of the norm, and Kanye’s using them to rap a harsh, complex critique on white bourgeoisie values that have defined body type and standards of beauty and sexual morals for centuries. Those are the same values that got Kanye ostracized for speaking his mind on George Bush or Taylor Swift.
One last thing: Think about the weird, hard-rock history running around inside of this song. You have a sample of psych-rockers The Mojo Men and an interpolation of Black Sabbath’s “Iron Man.” Along with the progressive rock samples (Mike Oldfield, King Crimson) and the general proggy attitude of MBDTF, Kanye’s constructing a history of heavy music, grabbing from the acid rock that birthed prog, and the metal that would come out of prog and become the next loud, bombastic genre, and mashing it all together into epic, horrifying hip-hop.
This is also the second song with the word “man” in the title that Kanye’s grabbing from, and like, “21st Century Schizoid Man,” it seems like Kanye would find “Iron Man” painfully relatable. An ignored, ostracized, and eventually vengeful, martyred villain: “Nobody wants him/He just stares the world/Planning his vengeance/That he will soon unfurl.”