‘Family Business’ is the perfect song from an imperfect Kanye West — Andscape
Five days before Christmas last year, my mother was diagnosed with Alzheimer’s. The confirmation wasn’t shocking. That particular doctor’s appointment bookended nearly a two-year-long, emotionally draining process of never-ending tests, neurologist visits and waiting. So much waiting. What I couldn’t prepare myself for was the emotional weight of it all.
Even when you know what’s coming, there’s no blueprint on how your emotions will respond. Not necessarily in the moment, but more so moving forward. The gym has been a safe haven — despite my goal of six-pack eluding me (I still haven’t mastered my diet). It’s there where AirPods become the vehicle for a temporary escape from reality. And one song has become a mainstay — not just now, but really over the last 20 years of my life.
Kanye West’s “Family Business.”
Ye’s The College Dropout celebrates its 20th anniversary this weekend. The album is a timestamp and relic of an artist who became one of the biggest of all time and may as well be a social pariah these days. But there is that album and his catalog’s most personal song he’s ever released, “Family Business.” Taking baths with your cousins as babies? Been there and got the scrapbooks to prove it. Sleeping multiple siblings and cousins in a bed? Done that. Family members arguing about nonsense during the holidays? Yup, did that, too. It sounds outrageous today, but Kanye’s self-awareness on the record was paramount.
“Family Business” is a song that has always been in the orbit of my life for decades. It’s a record that would take on added meaning or sonically evolve throughout my life. In 2004, the record resonated with 18-year-old me in the final months of high school. Five years later, after moving to Washington, D.C., a decade after my uncle’s death — listening to the song while running to catch the metro was a spiritual way of connecting with him in his city. In 2014, “Family Business” was a coping mechanism following my friend Yusuf’s suicide. So when the situation with my mom became concerning, the song naturally weaved its way back into my life’s soundtrack. I needed it more than I knew.
“It really gives me chills just thinking of that song and that album. That feels like five lifetimes ago at this point,” hip-hop historian and Chicago native Andrew Barber told me. “Every time I hear that song, it still makes me emotional. It makes me feel a certain way, and none of the other Kanye albums do that for me.”
Who knew that life would move this fast? Ye rhetorically asks on the song. My mom is still very much alive, thankfully. Her cognitive skills have taken a sharp turn, but she is committed to “beating this.” Her mindset is inspiring. For a condition directly impacting the mind, it has to be. She’s still the woman I’ve always known and loved. She’s still the woman and the only person who has known me longer than I’ve known myself. And she’s still the woman who has never left my side in any situation, from courtrooms to hospital rooms. She is still my heart and a woman who will have mine for the next 100 lifetimes.
I first noticed changes in her around the spring of 2022. A few months earlier, she was involved in a car accident that totaled her car. She hasn’t driven since. By that summer, she was having extreme difficulties checking her accounts and paying bills to the point of intense anxiety attacks. It confused me because my mother and grandmother taught me everything I knew about money management. Over the next year, these changes became more and more evident. Her independence, unbeknownst to her, gave way to more dependence. She missed events like baby showers and homecomings. Her extroverted nature gave way to more introverted behavior. Watching her go through these changes, many of which she had no control over and no clue they were happening at all, was one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to watch. It still is because I can’t return the favor now for a woman who protected and saved me from so much at least not in the way that would grant her prayers.
Who knew I’d have to look at you through a glass?
That’s another rhetorical question Kanye asks in the record and the most poignant line in the song. It’s powerful because of my family ties and the artist himself. A lot of life happens over 20 years. There are friendships, love, heartbreak, success, failure, betrayal, death and many other things we all experience if we wake up every morning. That’s Kanye. That’s me. And that’s you. What those experiences taught us ultimately determines the paths we walk on.
“It’s really like this is not the same person. And people change. Like I said, it was a few lifetimes ago,” Barber said. “But this was Kanye’s make-or-break moment, really.”
The urgency in Kanye was so apparent then. It still is. Back then, it was about understanding who we wanted to be and having an artist who felt he was on the doorstep to changing the world offered a profound sense of musical camaraderie. Even if Kanye didn’t speak to you or for you then, there was a charming sense of self-destruction about him. He was willing to record an album that revealed every insecurity imaginable at the time, which was powerful. A lot of those insecurities live in us — and damn sure in me. In “Family Business,” more than anything, what stands out decades and many iterations of Kanye and myself later is loyalty.
“We’re a lot more alike in more ways than we are different, depending on race and culture and religion or whatever else. We all have family problems, we all have issues within our family,” Barber said. “We have good family members, bad family members, but at the end of the day, they’re family. So we do love them. And it was cool to see somebody put that in that type of context.”
My mom is scared. My wife is scared. We’re all scared. All my life, my mother has talked endlessly about how she couldn’t wait to be a grandmother and a mother-in-law. How she had the best example in her mother — she’s right — and my paternal grandmother, who died after I was born. There was so much excitement in her voice. It’s still there now that I’m a dad, but so is the fear. This isn’t how she imagined it would be. She’s scared her condition will only worsen, and somewhere down the line, it will. But she’s more afraid my son and his soon-to-be-born sibling won’t remember her more than the other way around. If anything brings me to tears, it’s that.
At the end of every conversation, I always tell her two things: “I love you and I’ll never leave you.” Often, when I say this, the haunting cadence of the choir on “Family Business” plays in my head. “All these fancy things/ I tell you that all my weight in gold( All, all that glitters is not gold. All gold is not reality. Real is what you lay on me.)/ And all I know, I know all these things.” Memories of my mom taking me to basketball practice, helping with homework, and those Friday trips to Blockbuster to rent wrestling tapes run through my head.
On any day, if I close my eyes, I can still hear her saying, “It’s Friday, so I ain’t cooking,” and laugh. I can still see her piling in a car with her best friends Colleen and Pam as they hit the highway to visit their alma mater, South Carolina State. I can still see her taking my degree from me at my college graduation, laughing and saying, “I paid for that. That’ll be coming with me.” I can still see her face when she told me my uncle had died and my grandma had breast cancer. She’s always called herself a “scaredy cat,” but she’s one of the bravest people I know.
Nothing can prepare a person for a parent-child role reversal. She’ll always be my mother, and the respect she’ll receive from me will reflect such. Things have changed, though. This is the new reality. Harping on what once was is counterproductive. Therapy has taught me that. None of us have control over the cards dealt to us. Holding, folding or playing them are the only options in life.
In 2024, “Family Business” remains a source of comfort from an artist who hasn’t been personally comforting in years. The song doesn’t have all the answers, nor is it a foolproof manifesto for overcoming grief. It doesn’t need to be.
“This album was really the beginning of the end for this version of Kanye because he just became something completely different after that,” said Barber. “But whenever I hear this .. it just always gives me chills and takes me back to that time in my life when I was unsure about everything. I was unsure where life was going to take me or what I was going to do in life.”
That uncertainty lives in me now. What the last two years have taught me is that it always will. It’s not succumbing to uncertainty more than it is evolving with it. I can’t worry about what five, six or seven years from now will look like. Regarding my mom, the only thing that matters is the moment. Every phone call matters, every text and every picture and video my wife and I send to the family group chat or the Aura frame in my grandma’s room. Every trip back home takes on the most importance in my life.
“Family Business” is a reminder that turmoil doesn’t overpower love. With love comes history, hardship, and surviving to tell the story. That’s what I see when I see my mom. That’s what I feel when I think about her. I cherish so many countless memories more now — not because I needed a reality check, but because I know life. Alzheimer’s could never overpower the woman God blessed me to grow inside and now protect.
Kanye West is no longer a lifeline for me. If you live long enough, sometimes you grow apart from people. And musicians are people. Flawed, complex and hypocritical people. This is about something other than what Kanye has done wrong. But instead, one thing he got so wonderfully and objectively right. College Dropout is that lifeline. Like my mother, “Family Business” is a record I will never abandon.
Because, much like my own mother, what I owe it can never be repaid.