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Kanye West and his mother, Donda.
Vince Bucci/Getty Images
Kanye West's mother, Donda West, died suddenly over the weekend. She was 58. When anyone's mom dies, it's obviously a huge deal to them. But when it's a hip-hop artist's mom, it can mean something else. One of the central characters in the performer's music is gone.
Tupac Shakur's mom was in jail when she was pregnant with her son. She petitioned to get one boiled egg a day, because she thought the food there wasn't nutritious enough for an expectant mother. "Dear Mama" was one of Tupac's biggest hits.
Gloria Carter says that she bought her son, then called Sean Carter, a boom box when he was a kid, to keep him off the streets. Jay-Z said that's when he realized he was good at something other than causing trouble. He thanked her on a track on The Blueprint, "Mama Loves Me."
Kanye West's childhood wasn't as hard as Tupac's or Jay-Z's — his mom was a college professor — but he, too, wrote a song for his mother. And if history is anything to go by, "Hey Mama" isn't the last song about Donda West we'll hear from her son.
There is a tradition of hip-hop superstars admiring, employing and taking care of their moms. Toure, an author and a former contributing editor to Rolling Stone, recently described the influence rappers' mothers have had on their sons' music.
"You can see in Kanye that he's an only child, raised by a single parent, thinks the world revolves around him," Toure says. "That ego that he has is different from the traditional rapper ego." Donda West has said she worshipped the ground her son walked on, and supported everything that he ever wanted to do. She loved him to death, and she loved his music.
Hip-hop is big on loving one's mother, probably because so many rappers grew up without their dads. There are some very well-known anthems to Mom, and then there are the shoutouts scattered throughout songs by almost every major hip-hop aritist. She's sort of a saint in many of them.
The contradictions in rappers' open expression of love for their moms, the widespread misogyny in hip-hop lyrics and the hyper-masculine front that many rappers put on can be hard to wrap one's head around. Toure explains the conundrum by going back to the family life of many big-name hip-hop artists: "The rampant fatherlessness of the hip-hop generation, and most rappers in specific, has had a huge impact on why hip-hop is the way it is. The lawlessness that you see, the caricature of masculinity, the love of mom but the disrespect of most women — a lot of it goes back to not having had a model for manhood in the home."