Surprise, surprise: A song from Kanye West’s new album has drawn a lot of controversy. “Blood on the Leaves” gets its most prominent sample from Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”:
Strange fruit hanging from the poplar trees
Blood on the leaves
No one seems to know what the sample is supposed to mean in the context of the song. Vulture’s Jody Rosen captures the emerging consensus view: “he’s well aware how audacious to interpolate that sacred song into a monstrously self-pitying Auto-Tune-strafed melodrama about what a drag it is when your side-piece won’t abort your love child.” Pitchfork calls it “a nightmarish story of divorce and betrayal.” The use of “Strange Fruit” is seen as either audacious—slipping a powerful song into a morally repugnant context—or offensive. No one, so far, has considered the possibility that it might be thematically appropriate: Kanye has written a song about the way in which unborn children are subjected to violence, or indifference once they leave the womb.
One has to understand that the central lyrical conceit in the Kanye West universe is selfishness, and the recognition of that selfishness; he is at once himself and a harsh critic of the person he has chosen to be. Any decent interpretation will recognize this duality and incorporate it. The other key is that West has gradually moved away from using samples as hooks, and moved towards using them as voices that speak to him, or the characters in his songs, providing commentary on the things he is saying.
The key section of the song is the fourth verse. West has two characters, one male and one female, and both are bad people. The female character is trying to get pregnant in order to get the financial benefits that come from having the child of someone rich and famous. The male character is only interested in using the woman for sex. Once a child is conceived, West shifts to a second-person perspective, telling the man that he has to admit he cheated on his woman, he has to deal with the consequences of the child (no new Benz, no more cocaine).
Missing in this narrative is the child, and this omission allows us to connect “Strange Fruit” back in. “Strange Fruit” here provides commentary on the narrative. The “black bodies” in the sample now belong to the children—the ones brought into the world irresponsibly by parents who view them as a burden or a means to an end. The abortion motif is prominent: It’s the father who wants to abort in the final verse, and who in the first verse says “all I want is what I can’t buy now/ ’cause I don’t have the money on me right now,” and whose urgent desire to get money together leads back to the desire for abortion at the end. By adding the sample, West adds a voice that can directly comment on behalf of those who are omitted from the narrative itself.
The juxtaposition that gives the original “Strange Fruit” its power is the casual manner in which the violence is portrayed. A “pastoral scene of the gallant south,” the treatment of supreme human cruelty as if it were natural. If the lynching is not nature itself, it’s an outcome so common as to hardly be noticed, except when one chooses to see it for what it is. The fury of violence is directed now at children, born and unborn, who become so many things to be treated as problems and disposed in whatever manner is most convenient. All the characters in the song lack perspective, seek people to use or to blame.
In this sense, the song draws from critiques like those of Bill Cosby—the violence the black community now does to itself is a great threat, and that threat is nowhere more evident than in the deterioration of the family. “Do your part” and care for those you’re responsible for; make responsible decisions; emulate the stability and mutual respect of Jay-Z and Beyonce—these are the positives that West leaves in a song whose focus is the tremendous selfishness of adults who cannot understand the importance of families or children.