Editor's note: Our free Pop Psalms ebook, featuring all 12 essays in one place, is available here.
Kanye West is no stranger to vanity.
“All Falls Down,” the third single off his 2004 debut album, The College Dropout, reflects the themes of aspiration and disappointment that run through much of his earlier work. The song’s title and memorable hook are borrowed from Lauryn Hill’s bluesy, acoustic ballad “Mystery of Iniquity,” an interesting sample choice in retrospect given the reclusive Hill’s own struggles with money and stardom. Sung on “All Falls Down” by Syleena Johnson, the refrain replicates Hill’s soulful, even mournful melody, which is layered with a catchy, clapping, drum-machine beat that invites listeners to nod along. This contrast might reflect Kanye’s own emotional conflicts—then and now, both in and out of the public eye. It might also complement the song’s message about the duality of success: every high point is a reminder of how far we could fall. “All Falls Down,” then, is a song not just about vanity in the sense of arrogance or pride, but also one about emptiness and futility—a dirge for the limits of earthly acclaim.
The song expresses this through parables. The first is about a nameless, aimless, “single Black female addicted to retail” who leaves college because “that major that she majored in don't make no money.” She stays in town to “do hair,” which earns her just enough to buy “a few pairs of new Airs,” though not enough to purchase a car (“so she named her daughter Alexus”). Kanye, a proud college dropout himself, appears to empathize with her; for both of them, “the concept of school seems so secure,” but it nonetheless left them lost. The second verse features Kanye name-dropping designer watches and coveting Versace goods. Yet even though he can spend “25 thou’” on jewelry, he does so before he buys a home (“And I’d do it again”). Both he and the woman are driven by frivolity and admitted insecurity; they remain “so self-conscious” despite their flashy distractions. This juxtaposition is apparent throughout the track, as Kanye—in the role of lyricist and producer—infuses pep into these scenes of perpetual defeat.
Beyond failing to deliver personal fulfillment, Kanye observes that money and status are also helpless in overcoming society’s broader ills. Crime, inequity, racism, and injustice still persist, no matter what we can afford. “We buy our way out of jail,” he says, “but we can't buy freedom.” So, if it’s all vanity—if “it all falls down” in the end—what’s the point of the grind in the first place?
TC Podcast: Pop Psalms
The book of Ecclesiastes poses the same dilemma. Its central message is that life is vanity. That’s the word used in the King James Version, while “meaninglessness” appears in other translations. The original Hebrew term, “hebel,” means “breath” or “smoke.” Something that lacks real substance; you can see it, you can feel it, but you can’t hold onto it. Ecclesiastes emphasizes our ephemeral nature: “Generations come and generations go, but the earth remains forever.” The book’s third chapter outlines this further. All that lives will die, all that’s built will fall—joy and sorrow, war and peace, to everything, there is a season.
This impermanence renders all pleasure vanity as well. The voice of Ecclesiastes—“the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem”—tells us that he’s experienced wealth and status: houses, orchards, gold, silver, and singers. We could say the same for Kanye, a pop icon and certified billionaire known for his elaborate live performances. But although the king of Ecclesiastes reached a measurable level of greatness, he, like Kanye, wonders what all the labor was for; “everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind.” In the end, his money does not grant him peace. Similarly, he declares that death finds the foolish and wise alike. What are we to make of this message? Does the inevitability of loss leave us nothing to gain? Does the specter of death deprive life of all meaning?
The answer may be in how both Ecclesiastes and Kanye answer the question posed by the chorus: “When it falls down, who you gonna call now?” While the overt biblical allusions of Kanye’s later work are absent on this early single, it’s interesting to consider his gospel pivot in light of the bleak (but boppy) vision offered by “All Falls Down.” Perhaps it’s the fleeting nature of this world that should inspire us to look beyond it. Ecclesiastes reminds us that, while we may encounter oppression, not to marvel at it, “for one official is eyed by a higher one, and over them both are others higher still.” While the power of any earthly ruler relies upon the question of labor and land, God is sovereign and constant, and thus a refuge from the vanity of life.
Still, this is not a call for austerity. On the contrary, Ecclesiastes instructs us to eat, drink, and enjoy the good things in life because it’s a gift from God. Relish this world, but reserve your worship for what’s greater than this world. Otherwise, you will find yourself wanting, grasping for smoke, desperate for stability. To that end, “All Falls Down” provides an insightful prelude to the erratic, enigmatic, and complex Kanye West we see today: indulgent, yet introspective; prideful, yet pained; as likely to use his platform to gas himself up as he is to glorify God. Only time will tell how he, or any of us, will respond when repeatedly faced with the vanity of this world. Perhaps our goal is to simply enjoy what this life has to offer while it lasts, while still making sure that, when it all falls down, we’re left holding on to something real.