“Do the fans want the feeling of A Tribe Called Quest?/But all they got left is this guy called West.” -- Kanye West, “Last Call”
In some respects, getting excited about a hip-hop producer’s hot streak is like getting excited about a boy band. They make a few hit songs, receive endless adulation, then disintegrate, spending the rest of their lives trying to reclaim their past glory. Rap fans, remember when Timbaland-produced songs were everywhere? What about Swizz Beatz? Mannie Fresh? Erick Sermon? In no other genre of music can you go from being king of the world to yesterday’s news as quickly as you can in the fickle world of rap music. As a result, after about fifteen years of continual growth, the genre fell into a creative dark age which co-existed happily with the financial prosperity of Bill Clinton’s second term. (For some reason, good music and societal stability never seem to go hand in hand.) After Tupac and Biggie died, the manufactured N’Sync/Britney era began to take flight, first ballot Hall-of-Fame MCs like Andre 3000 and Q-Tip took up singing, and rap fans like myself moved to California and started listening to the Beatles. Rap music, many people believed, was dead, figuratively speaking.
Into this mix came an ambitious rapper-producer from Chicago named Kanye West. His stable of hits from the past three years is staggering: Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name,” Brandy’s “Talk About Our Love”, Jay-Z’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” and “Takeover,” Ludacris’ “Stand Up,” his own “Through the Wire” and “Jesus Walks,” and countless others including hits by Usher, Janet Jackson, and the aforementioned Britney Spears. But, as has been noted, a nice run on the charts does not make you an innovative artist. Let me tell you why he may be different. To start, there is his phenomenal debut album, The College Dropout, a personal declaration against the unprofitable aspects of higher education, narrow-minded music execs, unrealized dreams, a God-less world, and the 2002 car accident that nearly ended his life. Not since Lauryn Hill has a rapper been able to market middle-class concerns with a streetwise edge. West is like everyone and like no one: he dresses in yellow Polo blazers, wears flashy Louis Vuitton backpack purses, and like his boss, Jay-Z, carries a public ego that is both infectious and irritating. His signature is sped-up samples, the kind that caused Roots drummer ?uestlove to quip that West is the “godfather of chipmunk soul.” From the mid-’90s on, for the most part, if you had a record deal, you were either a materialistic rapper, a dead broke rapper, or a rapper who was materialistic because you used to be dead broke. Why do you think 85-year-old great-grandmothers in Iowa now know words like “bling-bling” and “flossy”? As a result, many people respond to West’s everyman status.
Musically, his productions are all over the place: soaring violins compete with hard drums; underground MCs rap alongside their mainstream counterparts. He has so much to say that often his first and second verses are on completely different topics. In just the first verse of his own “Breathe In, Breathe Out,” West:
1) brags about his material possessions,
2) questions why these possessions are important to him,
3) inquires if materialism can be good in a different context,
4) assesses the damage that materialism has created in his life,
5) leaves you to sort it out for yourself
He’s the best of both worlds in the sense that he has the lyricism, hunger and diverse subject matter of hip-hop’s classic MCs, yet the bouncy, infectious beats of today’s current crop.
And yet, Kanye West’s mother is an English professor at the same college that he often brags about dropping out of; he is an urban black kid who lived in China for a year at the age of 10; a guy whose father was once a Black Panther and is now a Christian marriage counselor. So we should not be surprised at his often contradictory tone: His lyrics swing from political consciousness (“Drug dealer buy Jordans, crack head buys crack/And the white man get paid off of all of that.”) to humorous social observations (“This one auntie, you don’t mean to be rude/But every holiday nobody eating her food/And you don’t wanna go there ’cause them your worst cousins/Got roaches at the crib like them your first cousins.”) to sexual braggadocio (“Shakespearian Midsummer Night’s Dream/I unzip things and pull out big things.”). And maybe that’s what was missing from hip-hop: three-dimensional rappers. People who are willing to represent both sides of the coin.
Still, there are only two parameters of what makes music good and bad: how it makes you feel today and how it makes you feel decades later. The hip-hop of my youth was fun, diverse, full of non-violent house parties, more concerned with lyricism than materialism, less obsessed with style if it lacked substance. The fun stemmed from the creativity, not the monotony of one-hit wonders content to cash in on lowest common denominator beats and rhymes. Hip-hop has never stopped being fun, the problem for a while now is that it became just fun. Many claim the West Coast rappers are to blame, or the Southern rappers, but that’s a ridiculous over-generalization. Were it not for these regions, there would be no N.W.A., no OutKast, no Geto Boys, no Pharcyde, Digital Underground, Goodie Mob or other groups that added controversial, vibrant textures to rap, much like fusion did for jazz. Without groups like these, rap music wouldn’t have had the luxury of dying figuratively. It would have died literally.
The scope of what rap music and hip-hop culture can become continues to expand. Ever since John Newton wrote “Amazing Grace” back in the mid-1700s, thought-provoking lyrics mixed with an unforgettable melody have become the songs we sing forever. Kanye West is not rap’s savior, but he is definitely an apostle. Rap music that certain rap fans don’t like is still rap music and it’s high time that people understand that. That is the only way to harness the mind-boggling power that hip-hop currently holds over the world. Rap music has fought for so long to be recognized, that it now has difficulty accepting that it has been. And that, as a result, it is prone to have subdivisions and aberrations, just like country or rock. The good vibrations coming from visionaries such as West, OutKast and The Roots is not a salvation. It is a progression and an extension of an art form that refuses to be contained, let alone die.
Jason Gilmore is a film director, screenwriter, novelist and unrepentant Detroit Pistons fan. Track him down on Facebook.
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IF YOU LIKED THIS COLUMN...
9.10.04 @ 10:22a
I have not followed rap with any authority what so ever. I only know what I like, and what irritates the the shit out of me.
9.10.04 @ 10:45a
I don't know that I've actually heard Kanye's own songs, but as a producer, if he put together Usher's "Yeah," he's a genius. Can't get that one out of my head.
9.10.04 @ 2:49p
I haven't heard of him either, but he sounds like the real deal. Part of my problem with popular music, rap included, is soul. Where is it? I'm tired of hucksters like Russel Simmons and P. Diddy. There's only so much you can do with a lifted riff, drum machines, sequencers, and costumed dance troupes. It's true I'm biased being a drummer who's pushing 40, but G. Clinton and Sly Stone are pure soul to me. Whenever I see some poser like R. Kelly, I think about Fishbone (Sunless Saturday) and I get angry. Bring it back, y'all!
9.10.04 @ 3:50p
KANYE IS SICK. I worship College Droupout.
9.10.04 @ 5:51p
I appreciate the author's understanding of the hip hop/rap genre and his interpretation of Kanye's style. Kanye is putting a new consciousness into "mainstream rap" that has not existed in a long time. I look forward to the next CD.
9.11.04 @ 8:01a
Sly Stone was remarkable. Prince definitely gained confidence simply because "Thank You (falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)was around." Clinton was always a funk master, but I saw him when I was little and he scared me, and I never quite got over it.
Hip-hop has moments of brillance, but they are completely overshadowed by all the pap. I blame rap/rock.
9.13.04 @ 8:46a
I remember when my parents' generation were saying things like, "Rock'n roll is NOT music!" Now I hear my childrens' generation saying things like, "Rap is NOT music!" And I'm still saying dumb things like, "It's all rock 'n roll to me!"
My grandgeeks tell me that it's more than likely a blessing that I can't understand all of the words, so I continue to listen to Puccini, Beethoven, Led Zeppelin and Brian Eno. If it's music I probably like it, at least as long as I'm listening to it. I do wish they wouldn't mumble so much, though.
9.13.04 @ 10:59a
A friend of mine was recently introduced to him in Miami -
"This is my friend Kanye."
"Oh, cool. Good to meet you man. What's your last name?"
"Oh, well, enjoy the party."
Ten minutes later - "Holy... that was Kanye West."
9.13.04 @ 11:21a
His lyrics are great. Pop culture references that make perfect sense:
"Must got an angel/ cuz look how death missed his ass/ Unbreakable/what, you thought they they called me Mr. Glass?"
Hilarious, honest lines:
"Never had nothin' handed/took nothin' for granted/took nothin' from no man/man, I'm my own man!/but as a shorty I looked up to the Dope Man/Only the Dope Man/I knew that wasn't broke, man!"
"It's bad enough we on welfare/you tryin' ta put me on a school bus wit' a space for wheelchair!"
Even songs about God that don't piss me off (I even named a recent column after one of West's songs):
"They sayyoucanrapaboutanything except for Jesus/that means guns, sex, lies and videotape/but if I talk about God my record won't get played/huh?/Well if this take away from my spins/which'll prolly take away from my ends/then I hope it take away from my sins/and bring the day that I dream about/everybody in the club screaming out..."
I am not a huge rap fan. I like the music that most non-diehard rap fans usually appreciate: Outkast, Jay-Z, The Roots, Nas, Biggie, Tupac and a few more.
Kanye has a different vibe. He's not a thug but he's not Vanilla Ice either. He talks about real, deepr issues with honest-to-God wit and preception, without resorting to gunshot samples and screams of "WHAT?!" He combines great lyrics with great melodies and cool beats and samples.
There's a lot more to him than just rapping about coke and birds, and his songs are fun as hell to listen to.
10.16.04 @ 6:42p
Bump: from this week's EW magazine online - "In West's world, ''Jesus Walks,'' but money definitely talks, too. The dough he brought in as a wildly successful producer (Alicia Keys, Jay-Z, Twista, Britney) serves as mere backstory to his '04 triumph as a solo artist: College Dropout (2.3 million so far) is the year's fifth-bestselling CD, and the biggest by a debuting artist. Hip-hop's King Midas finally turned himself multiplatinum."
12.8.04 @ 10:00a
10 Grammys! 10 of them!
Now maybe he won't throw a hissy-fit. Bad form, that, even if I do agree with him.
(Gretchen Wilson? PLLEEASE)He should be smart enough to know by now that award is based on sales anyway.
12.8.04 @ 10:10a
What did he say?
12.8.04 @ 10:12a
Some earlier awards show he was shut out. Therefore, hissy.
12.8.04 @ 10:21a
I love the dude's music, but I hear he has a HUGE ego and talks about how he "changed the game" and stuff all the time.
Randomly, here's one of his best lines, a throwaway: "I drive mayonaise-colored Benzes/I push miracle whips."