He is an enormous jackass.
He is also brilliant.
An expert beat master, a top of the line producers, a witty and smart writer, a merely competent rapper. Kanye West has an ego the size of the Pacific Jupiter the Sun the entire Milky Way. Why hold that against him?
The Atlanta born, Chicago raised son of a college professor, West was a brainy, nerdy kid. It shows even now. He has swagger, but man, he’s a gigantic geek. A rock fan more than a hip hop head, his music’s infused with everything from the Wu-Tang Clan to Journey. His lyrics avoid stereotypical rap topics.
This is most notable on The College Dropout‘s singularly fantastic hymn “Jesus Walks”, a profane and profound look at religion in hip hop. “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?” he opines, and he was right. It’s no secret that the demo of “Jesus Walks” turned off many a label rep when Kanye was shopping them. But it’s one of Kanye’s most connected songs. He’ll never escape it, and I don’t think he wants to, as it means that much to him.
“All Falls Down” shares a vocal hook with Lauryn Hill’s “Mystery of Iniquity”, and speaks about the issues with vanity and materialism within the African-American community, a topic I have no real knowledge about. Kanye’s lyrics repeat the word “insecure” in every verse, and he points the finger at himself as much as the people he is referring to. Even as I peel the sunburn off my face, I do understand that we as a generation are materialistic brats. I identify with the insecurity and the desire to starve myself to own a 160 GB iPod and Jimmy Choos.
To those who think West is a humourless ass, I present to you “The New Workout Plan”. Tell me he’s a humourless ass now, you… wankers. P.S. Kanye is a real rarity in hiphop. A feminist. I’m not kidding. He mocks the cultural obsession with the new feminine ideal, throws in a slam in the new society vision of men’s worth being linked to their paychecks, and manages to make fun of both hip hop videos and workout infomercials at the same time.
Using Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” as a sample, “Through The Wire” is a work of genius. Recorded weeks after West survived a near fatal car crash, he had a wired jaw and decided to record this. The sheer guts to walk into a studio just weeks after almost dying and talking about it on record is pretty amazing. It’s a powerful track, moving even, as West raps through what had to be great pain.
West’s use of samples has always been a curious mix of standard choices and bizarre mixes. Samples included on this record come from Gino Vanelli and Bette Midler on top of classic R&B and soul tracks from Aretha, Curtis Mayfield, and Luther Vandross. Yes, criticism of it being guest vocal heavy are valid, but considering that West’s actual rapping is not as good as his skills as a lyricist or a beat master I think that its fine ( and they are pretty standard vocals, I must say, as he lacks the finesse of a Jay-Z and the humour of an Eminem, the two most gifted rappers in history) . Plus, West uses these guests as tools to build up a sonic symphony that is seriously majestic in its scope. He has been better on different tracks over the years, but as far as album work goes, I don’t think he will ever get around to topping the consistency and the joy of his début. Pretty spectacular stuff.
Other tracks include the “We Don’t Care”, where Kanye says that worshipping the drug dealers and gangsters in ones neighbourhood is idiotic and you have to work your ass of to get ahead; “Spaceship”, a song that represents Kanye’s geeky beginnings and how the community that mocked him he helped save; Jay-Z and J-Ivy aiding on “Never Let Me Down”, where they all tell tales about being black in America; and the self-aware “Last Call”, which shows a level of maturity lacking in his most recent records as he’s been losing his way. He’s brilliant here, and he’s brilliant now, but I’d rather listen to this gem of a record than anything on 808’s and Heartbreak, and I was an apologist for that album ( I still think Kanye has never made a bad record).
He’s enormously gifted and I hope he finds his way back to what he created here.