Yeezus, Simile, and Metaphor

If you know Kanye, you know the man likes to pronounce his greatness. He does it in a myriad of ways. In a past compulsively quotable interview in New York Times, he did it by likening himself to Steve Jobs: “I am undoubtedly, you know, Steve of Internet, downtown, fashion, culture.” On his album, he takes it a step further with a ditty titled “I Am a God.”

Of course, Kanye West is neither Steve Jobs nor a god—not literally at least. In both of these examples, he is using a type of figurative speech that poets and lyricists have relied on since the dawn of language. It’s also one of the two most commonly confused literary devices in the English language. So is Kanye speaking in metaphor, or simile? Let’s review the difference between the two.

A metaphor is a figure of speech in which a term or phrase is applied to something to which it is not literally applicable in order to suggest a resemblance. For example, to borrow from another currently chart-topping musician, Justin Timberlake, the song title “Mirrors” is a metaphor. Why? Because he’s using the word “mirror” to refer to a relationship—not to actual mirrors. The line in the song, “You’re my reflection,” is also a metaphor because the “you’re” to whom he’s referring is his lover, not his literal reflection.

However, if the above line were amended to “you’re like my reflection,” we would have a simile on our hands. A simile is a figure of speech in which two unlike things are explicitly compared—typically with the word “as” or “like.” So, for instance, in the same song, the line “your shine is somethin’ like a mirror” is a simile. Another lyrical example of simile that you might be familiar with comes courtesy of the Beatles: “It’s been a hard day’s night, and I’ve been working like a dog”—along with “sleeping like a log.”

So when Kanye says “I Am a God,” or “I am … Steve of Internet,” barring the outside chance that he believes these statements to be literal truths, he is speaking in metaphor. Like countless artists before him, he is employing figurative language to add dimension and resonance to his ideas—or to put it metaphorically, to give his ideas wings.

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