There are lots of “mom dedication” songs in the annals of Black pop music. They didn’t start with hip-hop, either. The Intruders’ “I’ll Always Love My Mama”, The Spinners’ “Sadie”, even Jermaine Jackson’s utterly banal “Oh, Mother” all predated rap music’s popularization of open-hearted paeans to mama. One of the most, if not the most, open-hearted and sincere has to be Kanye West’s “Hey Mama”.
And who could blame Kanye for his devotion to Donda West? By all accounts, she was his most visible and vocal champion, a career academic who supported her son’s career ambitions despite wishing he followed in her footsteps. As a way to say thanks for her support, Kanye wrote this song, which reaches back to cover simple childhood memories, recaps some of the motherly wisdom given by Donda, then fast forwards to the (then) present. Newly crowned a superstar, Kanye is willing to do whatever it takes to pay his mom back for her support. “Hey Mama” is as warm as the famous homemade chicken soup Kanye references in the song’s first verse.
I can’t imagine Kanye’s listened to that song in quite some time. Kanye’s tribute became a eulogy barely two years after “Hey Mama” made its debut appearance on Late Registration. Unfortunately, the truest proof of what Donda meant to her son has come via Kanye’s very public unraveling in the decade since she passed away.
When my grandmother (who raised me and was the closest thing to a mother figure I had) died just a few months ago, I put this song on my headphones and played it loud. As hard as it is to listen to many things Kanye’s voice is on these days, I owe him a debt of gratitude for this song.