When Kanye West’s The College Dropout hit the masses back in 2004 – with soulful-laden production, honest lyrics, and a certain conceptual through-line that suggested that making it took more than a diploma – it united an often divided hip-hop world where there was little agreement between those that favored backpacks and those that were inclined to pack bags full of crack. The content on The College Dropout spoke directly to a youthful demographic whose growing pains in various facets of finances, spirituality and self-identity were channeled in those 21 tracks. There was something for everyone – a far cry from the “luxury rap” that would go on to define he and Jay-Z’s collaboration on Watch the Throne. With the announcement of his sixth studio album Yeezus confirmed for June 18, the Kanye West that first offered “Man I promise, I’m so self-conscious” on “All Falls Down” appears in stark contrast to his “They throwing hate at me, want me to stay at ease” assertion on “New Slaves.” The nearly 10 years in between his first and his latest release shows that inward reflection and self-awareness is now an outward “Kanye vs. the world” mentality. Gone is the vulnerability – abandoned in favor of a boulder-sized chip that has grown with age like that of burden and sorrow obtained by a normal man that has seen and heard too much.
“Jesus Walks” and Yeezus
When “Jesus Walks” was released as the third single from The College Dropout, critics praised the ARC Choir-assisted track for its outward showcase of faith – toeing the very fine line between preaching authoritative truths and a belief in a higher power. Lines like “so here go my single, dog, radio needs this/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?” showed West’s ability to think outside of the proverbial rap box. The first two examples to draw from Yeezus – “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” – show that he continues to push the creative boundaries. But it’s clear that his initial message of universal tolerance has been replaced by a confrontational view of the world and societal issues that come along with being a celebrity. Kanye’s faith in himself has never wavered, but his belief in those that consume his music and tolerate his shenanigans is wearing thin.
“I made Jesus Walk so I’m never going to Hell.” –
“All Falls Down” and Materialism
The Louis Vuitton Don has always had a certain need to express himself using pieces of material wealth as a badge of courage and a sign of being accepted. Once again using his album as an opportunity to explore consumerism in the African-American culture, “All Falls Down” sounded more like a cautious tale of celebrity excess and those that try to keep up with the joneses, than a list of products being butchered and acquired with the back and forth stabbing motion of a black card through a scanner. As Kanye has evolved musically, so too has his acknowledgments of the finer things in life – what writer Hua Hsu called “income-gap raps.” With “New Slaves,” it seems Kanye is once again returning to the idea that people will follow the emperor, knowing that the emperor is naked.
“You see it’s broke ni**a racism/That’s that “Don’t touch anything in the store”/And this rich ni**a racism/That’s that “Come here, please buy more.” ”
– New Slaves”
“Never Let Me Down,” Racism & Rants
Even on his earliest record, West acknowledged the racial torment his family members endured with lines like “I get down for my grandfather who took my momma/Made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat/At the tender age of 6 she was arrested for the sit-ins/And with that in my blood I was born to be different.” On “New Slaves” he starts off with “My momma was raised in an era when/Clean water was only served to the fairer skin/Doing clothes you would have thought I had help/But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.” It isn’t that West lacks credibility when discussing touchy subjects like race relations in America, it’s that his outspoken nature and viral rants that permeate the 24-hour-a-day news cycle have lessened the impact of the words he chooses. The achievement of celebrity comes with the added benefit of a soapbox to speak from, but at the same time devalues the message being delivered because those of means and decadence are viewed as unreliable narrators. If the 25-year-old Kanye West knew that he’d have the opportunity to actually address those themes from his debut, he probably would have crafted a different public persona to assure that his message wasn’t overshadowed by his ego.
There was something unpolished, honest and vulnerable about The College Dropout. There were moments when Kanye seemed to be absent of breath – struggling to spit out a line – with a certain lightness to his delivery that screamed “I can’t believe I have Jay-Z on a track with me.” It’s not a new phenomenon for an artist to evolve musically or try out new ideas. Nearly 10 years removed from The College Dropout, West is still seeking acceptance even if he doesn’t want to admit it.
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who has written for Esquire, Details, Maxim and Playboy in the past. Follow him on Twitter @smart_alec_