Conventional wisdom tells us that a 10th anniversary is marked by a gift constructed of tin or aluminum. But perhaps that’s counterproductive when the person and project doing the celebrating has already been showered in platinum praise two times over and have produced enough champagne moments to dull everyone’s senses at the countless award shows where they picked up additional precious metals.
It’s been 10 years to the day since Kanye West unleashed The College Dropout on a culture who just months prior had vaulted the likes of Nelly, Diddy and Murphy Lee to number one for four straight weeks for “Shake Ya Tailfeather” – and a year where B2K had a number one record. Yes, B2K. While OutKast’s Speakerboxxx/The Love Below ensured that 2003 wasn’t a total loss, hip-hop in general needed something that would ensure that 2004 wouldn’t be remembered for further ploys to sell jeans to ample-rump-having women.
It’s wise to remember just how different 2004 was to that of our contemporary existence despite it only being 10 years ago. For starters, Facebook launched six days before The College Dropout hit stores. It’s hard to wrap your mind around not having a daily watering hole where one is inundated with listicles and amateur hour-life musings, but Kanye’s project came out when information could still be shared quickly via the net, but opinions by those you value still had to be handled in a more traditional manner. Essentially, The College Dropout is the first major release of the so-called “Facebook Generation.” As users were just starting to understand how to poke, “Jesus Walked” and we all decided to listen despite religious inclinations. Situated in a pocket of time in between lawsuits against Napster (2001) and Kazaa (2006), 2004 was when word-of-mouth was still plausible. Before we had access to seemingly every morsel of an entertainer’s lifestyle, we relied solely on artistic merit as a means to either become fans or nothing else. There was no “in between” at that point because prior to social media, mediocrity never warranted recognition in real-world scenarios. What Facebook gave us was a platform to discuss the good, the bad, and the ugly. But little did we know that West would go on to encapsulate a little bit of everything.
Prior to West’s emergence as a prominent front man, a certain precedent and standard had been set by those who showcased mastery both behind the boards and in front of the mic. We’re talking Dr. Dre, DJ Quik, RZA, Q-Tip and a handful of others. Between them, classics like The Chronic, Rhythm-al-ism, Enter the 36 Chambers and The Low End Theory set a viable – albeit lofty – trend that it was possible to be both architect and interior designer. Yet, it was West’s insistence that duality was his calling card that made A&Rs unsure whether or not to pull the trigger. Joe “3H” Weinberger of Capitol’s A&R department – and a champion of West during his earlier career – said, “He’d be ready to rap on the spot, ready to tell his story on the spot, ready to make a record on the spot. He was probably the hungriest dude I ever saw.” What is now called arrogance was once seen as ambition: with the latter the inciting incident for what was to come – both good and bad.
It was October 22, 2003. At the time, 14 wind-driven wildfires swept across Southern California – killing 22 people, destroying 3,600 homes, charring nearly 740,000 acres of land, and causing more than $2 billion USD in property damage. After a long night at the studio producing songs for State Properties’ Beanie Sigel and Peedi Crakk, West would later say years later of that night, “Those tracks were not my best work.” Heading out at 3 a.m. in a rented Lexus, the now fateful car accident occurred near the W Hotel in West Hollywood where he was staying – resulting in a jaw broken in three places and a two-week stay in the hospital. While little is known about what actually happened that night – some speculate exhaustion while others point to another car being the culprit – DJ Whoo Kid recalls additional details of that night as to why West would have been in a vulnerable state. West, even then uncomfortable with the notion of “no,” attempted to impress Ludacris by “spitting an hours-worth of material,” with the latter not interested at all despite working together on the smash hit “Stand Up.” Adding further insult to injury was the fact that Ludacris also passed on Kanye’s production as well – favoring Red Spyda beats over soul samples. Heated, West left the studio and sped away into the night – facing the real possibility that his emcee dreams were deferred, and being pigeonholed as a producer didn’t even guarantee security in the industry. He himself was a sample he couldn’t clear.
At its core, “Through the Wire” was one big “fuck you” to the music industry and served as a precursor as to what would come. Back then, his stubborn behavior was manifested artistically, and his willingness to be vulnerable had ulterior motives that pulled listeners onto his side rather than alienated them. West would later say, “Without that period, there would have been so many phone calls and so many people putting pressure on me from every direction – so many people I somehow owed something to – and I would have never had the time to do what I wanted to.” West saw it as a revelation, while the label saw it as an opportunity. If they never believed in him as a rapper, they saw the opportunity to introduce an unproven commodity in a fresh and exhilarating new manner. We hadn’t become a nation of over-sharers just yet, but “Through the Wire” was perhaps the first video “selfie” for a generation of people who decided to point the camera at themselves rather than at the world around them. “Death is the best thing that can happen to a rapper,” West told Time Magazine. “Almost dying isn’t bad either.”
The College Dropout is far from a perfect album, but it is the only piece of art we’ll ever get from Kanye West that didn’t have any expectations, nor did it come with any TMZ-esque magnification where extracurricular activities got the high-definition treatment. It’s hard to evaluate any piece of art objectively when everything that follows comes with either a positive or negative connotation. The Kanye West we know now had his braggadocios flares on the record, but the real standout tracks are the ones where he invited the listeners to be vulnerable with him. While what we know of West now screams “me, me, me,” his first person diatribes on The College Dropout had universal relatability. Whether it’s fame, money, scrutiny from the media, or a combination of all three, his evolution as an artist started at its most organic state.
Despite his latest, Yeezus, being a commercial and critical success, it is considered to be West’s fourth-best album by many. It embodies the change we’ve seen in him as an artist. He’s not preaching to the choir like he did on his first album – instead he’s screaming at us to listen as if an alien life form unable to crack our rudimentary listening devices we call ears. We come to expect musicians to evolve, but normally we’re forced to face the change solely on a musical level. Thanks to the current state of technical over-sharing we simply call “life,” each song sans-soul sample and with more warbling seems to invoke thoughts about what is happening on the periphery. Did Kanye West change, or did the nature of media and its 24/7 cycle merely expose what had always been there?
Let’s take an icon like Michael Jordan – without a doubt the greatest basketball player of all-time – who achieved most of his accolades in an era where newspapers trumped the Internet. While anecdotes have inevitably gotten out over the years about His Airness and his insatiable – and at times maniacal drive to always win – since they didn’t happen to us in a real-time manner his antics seemed less egomaniacal. Jordan trash-talked a President. Jordan had the final say as to who made the Dream Team. Jordan punched a teammate in the face. After the loss of his father, Jordan convinced himself that he could play professional baseball. We all grew up wanting to be “Like Mike,” but would that have been the case if all his quirks played out in real time? When he was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2009, the expedited nature at which we could interpret and share our feelings about it made his speech more like a rant than an acceptance speech. Sound familiar?
And then we had all those media nay-sayers. Oh ‘scoring champion can’t win an NBA title.’ Or ‘you’re not as good as Magic Johnson, you’re not as good as Larry Bird – you’re good, but you’re not as good as those guys.’ You know, I had to listen to all of this – and that put so much wool on that fire that it kept me – each and everyday, trying to get better as a basketball player. Now I’m not saying that they were wrong – I may have looked at it from a different perspective. But at the same time, as a basketball player I’m trying to become the best that I can, you know, and for someone like me who achieved a lot over the course of my career you look for any kind of messages that people may say or do to get you motivated to play the game of basketball at the highest level, because that is when I feel like I excel at my best.
– Michael Jordan
As ESPN put it, “I miss Jordan the Hero. I don’t really want to know Jordan the Man.” The same can be said for Kanye West. I miss West the rapper. I don’t really wanna know Kanye the god. All the fault can’t be placed on West, we after all continue to thirst for his demise. While we rooted for The College Dropout because it represented an underdog story, 10 years later one can listen to the record and hope he fails to despite it. Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are, believe them the first time.” Here’s to first albums…
Alec Banks is a Los Angeles-based writer who can be found @smart_alec_