The first time I heard Kanye on “Through the Wire,” I thought he was just okay. The beat was tight, but the flow wasn’t really doing it for me.
My boy Rob sat next to me that day on his dad’s couch, watching the music video on BET and telling me how this Kanye West dude had fallen asleep at the wheel and ran his car off the road. Damn near died, but apparently came out the other side with his jaw wired shut and his head filled with inspiration.
And my jaded ass was like…you know. Good for him. But the song’s just alright.
Nothing to walk around banging in my headphones, but I appreciated the background information.
I’d heard of Kanye before that, of course, from the production side of things. I was heavy into hip hop back then, eighteen years old and tw0-stepping from classroom to classroom on FIU’s campus (the days I actually went to class) with headphone cords perpetually trailing from my ears.
I grew up primarily on New York and West Coast rap; didn’t learn too much about the Southern side of things until my cousin handed me Goodie Mob’s Still Standing CD one day when I was in seventh grade and told me to educate myself. Other than Common (particularly his single “The Light”), I hadn’t really paid much attention to Chicago artists before Kanye either. So my hip hop fandom was primarily influenced by the classic composers of criminal narratives: Biggie, Pac, Nas, Mobb Deep, Snoop, Dre, all 2,467 members of the Wu-tang Clan.
But being realistic, the rapper who most consistently appeared in my tape deck throughout the years was Jay-Z.
Around the time Kanye’s “Through the Wire” video debuted, Jay had just released The Blueprint 2, which stayed in constant rotation in my beat up Corolla pretty much throughout 2003. Kanye the rapper was featured on one track — “The Bounce,” produced (ironically) by Timbaland — and once again, the dude’s verse wasn’t really all that. Not that it sucked, but there was a lot of noise in hip hop back then; hefty on the quantity side of things, with quality in a straight up drought. Seemed like every other day there was some new rapper claiming to be the G.O.A.T., even though half of them sounded exactly alike.
But as any real music appreciator will contend, you don’t really know a record until you’ve read the production info. I did, and noticed that this same Kanye dude had produced a quarter of the songs on Jay-Z’s album, including “Some People Hate” (which stands to this day as one of my favorite Jigga songs of all time). Kanye’s production style was distinctive, with this not-quite formulaic habit of vocal sampling and speeding up old school classics that indicated the dude knew his shit.
So by time Kanye’s debut College Dropout dropped, it was already clear he could produce the hell out of a song. But even though dude could operate in the background with the best of them, what I’d heard of his microphone presence and lyricism was suspect. He didn’t look anything like any rapper I’d ever seen before either.
In fact, he looked almost like…me.
Me and all my other black friends that is, limping around our middle class neighborhoods spouting gangster rap lyrics off the top of the dome like we even knew what a brick was or why Biggie kept talking about baking soda.
But that was hip hop. In our eyes, that was who they — who you — had to be to be somebody people talked about in that industry. Somebody people noticed. Record labels appealed to the masses, and the masses demanded tragedies, broken and broke homes leading to drug- and violence-fueled lives. Guys like me with good parents and a roof over our head weren’t made for hip hop.
We were too soft.
Which was true, in a sense. I mean, I don’t know what the hell a prison cell looks like. From the movies, sure, but everybody knows Hollywood molds reality to fit whatever the flick’s formula is. First time I saw a gun, somebody else was holding it. I was thirteen and nearly shit myself, still hate them to this day. I’ve never sold drugs, jumped somebody, or repped any gang. Both my elementary and middle school were majority white and located in what were and still are considered “good” neighborhoods. I spent my high school weekends cruising around Miami with my boys in cars bought by our parents, hanging out at Dolphin Mall and Sunset Place, sneaking into R-rated movies and staring at Hispanic girls. I graduated high school six months after my eighteenth birthday with a 3.6 GPA and multiple scholarship offers to go to college.
In other words, soft.
So yeah, it was difficult to really relate to dudes who grew up packing heat and slanging dope and seriously saying things like “packing heat” and “slanging dope” in everyday conversation.
But you also have to ask yourself in that situation: what are the alternatives?
Sure, I had other interests. My second love has always been rock, and all the other musical genres from country to classical aren’t too far behind. The first time I saw the music video for “Smells Like Teen Spirit” I was transfixed. Elton John piqued my interest from Lion King days, but it wasn’t until I heard “Tiny Dancer” that I really got hooked. The Beatles, Simon and Garfunkel, The BeeGees, Johnny Cash. To this day, Rolling Stones’ “Gimme Shelter” is guaranteed to give me goosebumps, every time. And no matter how many times I hear it, no matter where I am standing (or sitting), I will forever gladly spend any ten minute period vibin’ to “Free Bird.”
But there was one thing all these artists had in common that I didn’t: they were white. Which was a fact that guaranteed an inherent disconnect whenever I listened to their music, based in part on what I perceived as a hostile reception from my peers who were fans of these same musical acts.
Sure, their tracks get me hyped. But would the guys in Korn even appreciate a dude like me jamming out to their songs?
How ready am I to be the only black guy in the vicinity at this Chevelle concert?
Do I look even slightly normal headbanging to System of a Down?
Do these people really talk to their parents like that?
Let me just keep all this shit to myself, before one of my boys finds out and I get ranked on for listening to white shit.
So we turned to the more socially acceptable routes for music idolatry, the un-relatable but recognizable artists demanding justice for the type of big-time offenses that me and my boys could only imagine. SWAT raids in the middle of the night. Helicopter search lights scouring your hood. Smacked up against concrete walls by aggressive cops, ducking behind parked cars to avoid stray bullets from drive-bys.
Well, shit. All I had to deal with was some casual racism.
I wouldn’t last a week in the environments those dudes were describing. But back then I just assumed that was how you were supposed to feel about music: appreciative, awed, and totally disconnected.
So the first time I listened to College Dropout, it took a moment for me to recognize what I was feeling. At first I thought it was envy for Kanye, for this dude who so clearly was not a gangster but had somehow managed to rise to the top of the new millennium’s initial hip hop freshman class. Some of it likely was envy in those initial days. But with each subsequent listen, the feeling shifted towards a sense of validation. I sat in front of my speakers with my ears perked, enthralled by Kanye’s brazen disregard for everything I was raised to believe:
“Told ’em I finished school and started my own business.
They say “Oh you graduated?” No, I decided I was finished.
Chasing y’all dreams and what you’ve got planned.
Now I spit it so hot, you got tanned.
Back to school and I hate it there, I hate it there.
Everything I want, I gotta wait a year, I wait a year.
This nigga graduated at the top of our class.
I went to Cheesecake, he was a motherfucking waiter there.”
After the release, when asked about the themes in College Dropout, Kanye doubled down:
“All that’s saying is make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you, ‘This is what you have to do.'”
And just like that, everything I had been taught about the “proper” routes for a young black man with a middle class upbringing were being called into question by somebody who could have lived in my neighborhood.
I was buoyed. Inspired. And shattered.
My entire hip hop belief system had suddenly been called into question, because nothing Kanye was rapping about fit the formula I had come to expect from hip hop game changers.
And I loved it.
Kanye talked about the things me and my boys talked about: navigating dating, navigating school and careers, loving your family (almost to a fault), surviving as an educated black man in the United States.
Not to mention, the dude was good at this rapping shit. Really good. Way better than I’d previously thought.
Song after song, his lyrical arrangements suggested he not only knew how to enhance his own well-crafted beats with his writing, but that he could also tackle social issues in an entertaining (if not inflammatory) way.
The third single off the album, “All Falls Down,” jumps right into a familiar narrative:
“Man I promise, she’s so self conscious
She has no idea what she’s doing in college
That major that she majored in don’t make no money
But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny.”
Combining the social commentary with his ability to be just plain clever, Kanye proved formidable on a mic:
“Killin’ y’all niggaz on that lyrical shit
Mayonnaise colored Benz, I push Miracle Whips”
So, like most people who believed College Dropout to be an instant classic, I became an instant Kanye fan.
That is, a fan of Kanye the rapper and Kanye the producer.
Kanye the public persona didn’t really catch my eye until a few years later after the infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” moment during the Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, just three days after releasing his sophomore effort Late Registration.
By then I was in the middle of transferring to FSU up in Tallahassee, and I remember the conflicting feelings surrounding the whole Kanye/Katrina controversy (even wrote an op-ed piece about it for the school newspaper at the time).
Because while people all around me seemed to be upset by Kanye’s words (and Kanye himself), I was not.
In fact, it was around then that it occurred to me that this guy Kanye West might be somebody to pay attention to for the long haul.
You see, in my eyes, Kanye was (and is) a symbol of what a black man can be without financial or societal restrictions. Supported by his mother — Donda West, an English Professor — and the millions he’d made off his music, 2005 Kanye found himself suddenly un-tethered, a conduit for the collective and deep-seated disdain we (black men and women) felt and feel on a daily basis.
Displaying an outspoken attitude from the get-go, Kanye could say pretty much whatever he wanted with relatively little actual negative effects — other than being a thorn in the side of conservative America — and decided to use that opportunity every chance he had. And because he didn’t look like your typical rapper, people kept giving him more and more of those opportunities. And Kanye responded loudly, and proudly.
It was like watching somebody achieve a new impossibility, like flying without the aid of an airplane or lifting an entire building off the ground with one arm. It switched the whole paradigm, because while the country definitely seemed to have a problem with the (mostly true) things Kanye had to say about the treatment of black people in the U.S., they were still buying his shit. He’d seemingly found some foolproof way to talk about conservative America to conservative America, and have conservative America pay for it.
Funny. Last artist I can remember with that sort of clout was white, and named Marshall Mathers.
In June of 2013, when Yeezus came out, I was going through a bit of an identity crisis. It had been less than a year since New York washed me out like a dirty rag (Manhattan’s rough living, believe it) and I was staying at my parents’ house, teaching some of the time and bartending the rest; basically the same thing I had been doing nine years earlier before I went to college. So in anticipation of Kanye’s new album, I went back and listened to College Dropout with a newfound appreciation for the record’s themes now that I’d had my own experience with the unforgiving blades of higher education and capitalism.
I vibed to that for a few days before Yeezus made it to Spotify, at which point I set up a listening station in my bedroom with some food, my computer and my headphones. And the album was good, of course. From the beginning there were the expected references to modern racism and inequality; but that was Kanye, always had been, nothing surprising there.
However, it didn’t hit me how much Kanye the rapper had changed — and how much of it was a reflection of the changes in the country — until I heard the rage-filled lines of “New Slaves,” accentuated by the repeated couplet laid smack in the middle of the song:
“You see there’s leaders, and there’s followers
But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.”
In a time when black men and women are stepping forward with more and more prevalence to shed light on the daily degradations endured as a result of society’s deeply-rooted racism, there tends to be a lot of screaming voices, each person attempting to talk over the other in a never-ending crescendo of conflict. And to many this may seem counterproductive.
But what most people who are calling for silence and/or “positive discourse” don’t realize is that — in this current struggle, this collective push for equality — the actual words being spoken by the oppressed are not the point of the message.
The point is that we have the confidence now to even speak up in the first place.
Kanye himself is part of a massive group of minorities who are the result of a prolonged Civil Rights Movement that has taught us the only way to instill change is to make people immensely uncomfortable about the oppression we all experience on a daily basis. Integrated into mainstream society from birth, we operate at all levels of education, health, government and economic infrastructure.
We are doctors, lawyers, teachers, scientists, artists, engineers, entertainers.
We are mothers, fathers, brothers, sisters, grandsons, granddaughters and friends.
We are sad, discontent, enraged, beat down and fed up.
We are minorities in our individual affiliations, but majority in stature.
We are not Kanye; only Kanye can be Kanye.
But best believe there’s a little bit of Kanye in all of us.