This song is a great example of a hip-hop composition that does two things that upset mainstream critics: it is has lyrics that many assume are misogynistic and it uses the word “nigger.” However, on closer inspection, it’s really more of a social comedy than anything meant to scare, polarize or offend.
The song begins with an acapella prelude from Jamie Foxx (who had just portrayed Ray Charles in a biopic): “She take my money, well I'm in need/Yeah she's a triflin' friend indeed”. This is a negative or reverse version of the Ray Charles classic “I Got A Woman” which goes, “She give me money when I’m in need/Yeah she's a kind of friend indeed” The Ray Charles song, sampled throughout here, is praise to a supportive, generous, available and faithful woman. The Kanye West song itself is about a deceptive and greedy woman. Perhaps the disparity between the “good woman” of the Ray Charles song and the “bad woman” of the Kanye West is meant as humor. But it also could be a wistful acknowledgement of the charms of this “bad woman”. When singing “I’m in need” is Kanye/Jamie needing his money back…or her?
“I aint’ saying she’s a gold digger/But she ain’t messin’ with no broke nigger” is one of the most catchy couplets in pop music I can think of. Unfortunately, when Kanye West has performed this song in more public venues: television appearances, award shows etc. he has had to change the lyric “broke nigger” to “broke broke.” Less offensive to sensitive ears but totally throws off the meter. Even “Let’s spend some time together” sung by The Rolling Stones instead of “Let’s spend the night together” was less awkward than “she ain’t messin’ with no broke broke” Maybe West purposely made the censored lyric awkward intentionally in order to remind the listener that something fundamental to the song is missing. Although the word “nigger” is often shocking to hear, it has varying degrees of meaning and intended harm infliction. In this case, the term is supposed to be mild. The “nigger” West is referring to is just “some guy”; a “nigger” instead of a rich superstar. He’s nothing special, he’s a nigger, he’s one of us, etc.
West then goes on to describe meeting a woman at a beauty salon. (What is the protagonist doing at a beauty salon? Or did he just need a location that rhymed with “Vuitton”?) Judging by the “Louis Vuitton Under her under arm” he suspects that she is a gold digger but is attracted to her nonetheless. His suspicions are confirmed when he finds himself having to help out her children and her friends (pay for their dinners and get them into show business). He also learns that she has been linked to other high profile hip hop superstars such as Usher and Busta Rhymes, but “I don't care what none of y'all say, I still love her." Maybe he likes her in spite of her being used goods. Yet maybe he likes her because his involvement with her puts in league with men he considers his peers and her arrival in his life is another sign of his success and fame. He falls under her spell but not without fair warning.
The next passage is a bleak look at what happens to these types of relationships. “18 years, 18 years/She got one of yo' kids, got you for 18 years” rants West, describing what happened to a professional football player friend of his. “His baby mamma’s car crib is bigger than his.” Ultimately, though, this fooball player’s financial responsibility for his child is rewarded when, on his daughter’s 18th birthday “he found out it wasn't his.”
There’s a great reversal in the last verse. West now addresses a woman who apparently isn’t that kind of a woman. “I ain't sayin' you a gold digger, you got needs.” He encourages her to stick by her man if he has ambition, rather than dump him for a richer man. This man, West claims whill “make it to a Benz out of the Datsun” and when he does he’ll “leave yo’ ass for a white girl.”