Just One Song: ‘All Falls Down’

Reflecting on a prescient work of art…

‘All Falls Down’ was a beefy tune with a lush beat, and a classic hook, that contained some of Kanye West’s sharpest humour on over-indulgence. And, for a while, that’s all I loved about this 2004-released track.

However, a deeper dig – provoked by a university lecturer who labelled the track to me as “a prescient work of art that captures, a few years ahead of its time, the post-2008 austerity zeitgeist” – helped me see this track as an allegorical goldmine and an artistic blueprint for everything West has become.

The discography of West testifies that his affinity for sampling goes much deeper than the act of piggybacking on something familiar. Every choice cut is deeply symbolic of a message he has wanted to convey. During the creation of ‘All Falls Down’, West wanted to sample Lauryn Hill’s 2001 live session track ‘Mystery Of Iniquity’. That song is a soulful diatribe to the judicial and education systems of white America, that aimed to expose the institutional inequality of the States and predict a forthcoming collapse, and West saw the rap he’d written as a personal epilogue to that track.

He yearned for a connection between his piece and Hill’s – but the Fugees singer’s team refused him the sample (like they refused everything, ever). At the last minute, he chose to replicate the vocal using soul singer Syleena Johnson, and she did so with pitch perfection. The line he chose was, of course: “I’m telling you all, it all falls down.”

His rap on ‘All Falls Down’ – which first partially appeared in a pure verse form on season three of HBO show Def Poetry – defines early Kanye. The dominating confidence of later albums isn’t yet evident, and he is actually quite existential – questioning not only himself, but also the world around him: white America, black America, enemies, allies, friends and family.

He brought Hill’s snow-capped philosophy down to ground level, the first evidence of an artistic quality he has now become known for: taking an incredible amount of complex thought and making it accessible to anyone. West’s chosen axe to grind was what he viewed as an African-American obsession for economic materialism, and how it was spiralling violently out of control. Isn’t it funny to think the line “I got a problem with spending before I get it” came five years before 2009’s Great Recession, and three years before the economist Nouriel Roubini (AKA Dr Doom) predicted anything of the sort?

In the first verse, he describes a girl whose “major she majored in don’t make no money”, but that doesn’t matter because “she like, f*ck it, I’ll just stay down here and do hair / ’Cause that’s enough money to buy her a few pairs of new Airs”. He concludes, with one of his greatest-ever lines, that this girl is a “single black female addicted to retail”.

In verse two, he turns the gun of criticism on himself, highlighting that he is just as susceptible to it as her: “Man, I’m so self-conscious / That’s why you always see me with at least one of my watches.” And the third verse concludes that it isn’t just the girl and West that bear this weakness – it’s society as a whole. Hence, the clever and structured use of pronouns for each verse: ‘she’ in the first, ‘I’ in the second and, finally, ‘we’ in the third.

While the surface message of ‘All Falls Down’ quite wittily satires materialism and those insecure and indecisive college years we all bust through, the deeper message is much more serious. With lines like “Even if you in a Benz, you still a n*gga in a coup,” he proffers that this so-called indulgence is just another form of internalised racial oppression. White America is cashing in on black America’s extravagance, and both he and his peers play perfectly into this systemic world of deceit.

There are numerous examples throughout, including a reference to “40 acres and a mule” – the compensation promise made to African-American slaves after the American civil war. But his genius double entendre of ‘coup’ – making the “Benz” both a two-seated sports car, and a coop, a cage or slang for prison – is clinical.

Even the video for ‘All Falls Down’ was drenched in the kind of cinematic ideology that gets Slavoj Zizek drooling on his lecture notes. The first-person camera angle gives the viewer both the opportunity to see the world through Kanye’s eyes, while also becoming a voyeur on life. Just before he tackles his line “it seems we living the American dream, but the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem,” he tellingly rubs his eyes, turning the camera view from blurred to clear, thus symbolising his now crystal realisation of seeing things how they really are, for both himself and the viewer.

The video’s most ideological moment comes when Kanye, after being repeatedly rejected by a white security official, puts himself through an airport’s baggage security. For the first and only time, the camera switches to third person, showing Kanye through the screening monitor as the skeletal human being he is: no jewellery, no clothes and, most importantly, no skin colour.

‘All Falls Down’ is a moment in pop history that tackles more topics than most artists are capable of in an album, or a career, even. The song was simultaneously a confession and an awakening; a unique moment of satori, both for the artist and his listeners. Kanye’s new style of communication shifted the entire lexicon of mid-2000s hip-hop, to speak to more than just the angry youth that radio-dominating gangster rap had locked on to. And for him, the track laid foundations for what most of his artistic life to date has been defined by: race, history, materialism and inner turmoil.

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Words: Joe Zadeh (Twitter)

Related: more Just One Song features

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