Editor’s Note: This is the second in a (probably) 11-part series covering the entire musical oeuvre of Kanye West, from his beginnings as a producer to his upcoming seventh solo album So Help Me God. You can (and should!) read the first part here, and you can proceed to the rest of the series with these links: 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13. When we last left Kanye, he had just received his biggest break yet, producing the title track for Beanie Sigel’s 2000 album The Truth. Would this be his inevitable ticket to fame and fortune? Not quite; hence why we still have a whole (long) post before we get to album number one. But we’re getting there! And, before you ask: no, these posts aren’t always going to be this long. (Update 9/18: They’ll actually be longer.) – Z.H.
One of Kanye West’s most underrated talents is his ability to craft a clear and dramatically effective narrative around himself. Autobiography and myth-making have, of course, always been central to hip-hop storytelling, but few rappers make it as central to their personae as Kanye does; his discography is effectively an ongoing musical memoir, as meticulously curated as it is intensely personal. The first official chapter of that memoir, 2004’s The College Dropout, would establish the foundation: mapping out the milestones of Ye’s life and career like the story beats of his own biopic. There was the inciting incident, when 20-year-old Kanye dropped out of Chicago State University to pursue his musical career; the rising action, as he struggled with his day job and his efforts to break into the industry; and of course the turning point, the superhero origin story that was his near-fatal 2002 car crash.
And then, there was the climax: the moment when, having overcome the trials and tribulations of his journey, our intrepid hero took his rightful place in Hip-Hop Valhalla. The College Dropout’s closing track, “Last Call,” is a fascinating piece of self-mythology; one part artistic mission statement to three parts blow-by-blow recounting of Kanye’s rise to fame. He even recruited a cast of key figures–including his mother Donda, his mentor No I.D., and his new label boss/collaborator Jay-Z–to reenact specific lines of dialogue from the story. For the average listener, it’s almost certainly treading well into “inside baseball” territory: an eight-minute director’s commentary track for the album, containing such gems as the time when Kanye bought a bed at the New Jersey IKEA and built it by himself. But for the kind of weirdo who writes (or reads!) massive essays about the Kanye West canon, it’s an invaluable glimpse at the period in his career immediately before it blew up.
For one thing, “Last Call” makes no secret of the fact that, while Kanye’s production of Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth” at the beginning of 2000 was a major break for him, it was hardly a one-way ticket to Easy Street. As he puts it, “after they picked that ‘Truth’ beat, I was figuring I was gonna do some more work, but shit just wasn’t poppin’ off like that.” Kanye wouldn’t sell another beat to Roc-A-Fella until almost the end of the year. In the meantime, he recalls, he was “staying in Chicago,” doing “beats for local acts just to try to keep the lights on.”
Whether these beats were unreleased, lost to obscurity, or ghost-produced, I’m not sure, but there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of Kanye West productions for Chicago rappers in 2000. He did, however, co-produce the remixed “Real Version” of “Hip-Hop,” retitled “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop,” for the debut album by New York-based underground duo dead prez. The track is notable for a couple of reasons. First, like the previous year’s World Record Holders tracks, it’s another early example of Kanye stretching his signature sound–only this time, his personality doesn’t disappear in the mix. With its icy, mechanical sequencer pattern and skittering programmed beats, “It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop” bears the imprint of Chicago house music: an influence that would become much more evident in Kanye’s music later in the decade. Second, and perhaps more importantly, the song was the strongest example yet of Yeezy’s ability to bridge the gap between mainstream and underground rap. Within the space of a month, he had released credible productions for both Beanie Sigel and dead prez, whose militant political lyrics and stripped-down production values were a self-conscious antithesis to the big-budget street-hustler stylings of the Roc-A-Fella family. It was a clear indication that Kanye was already becoming the man who would, as he later bragged on “Last Call,” “take Freeway, throw him on tracks with Mos Def” and put Talib Kweli on “songs with Jay-Z.”
Early 2000 (or possibly late 1999–Internet sources seem to disagree here) also found Kanye settling accounts with his former manager and mentor, Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie. Six of the tracks on D-Dot’s Tell ‘Em Why U Madd, released under the name of his alter-ego the Madd Rapper, were co-produced by West. Even at this stage, it wasn’t his greatest work, but it was another clear step toward the sound he’d help pioneer within the next year at Roc-A-Fella. Ma$e feature “That’s What’s Happenin’” rides a propulsive beat chopped from Sylvia Striplin’s 1980 post-disco jam “Give Me Your Love.” “Stir Crazy”–the album’s one solo production credit for Kanye–backs its unhinged guest verses by Eminem with, of all things, a slowed-down sample from Bobbie Gentry’s and Glen Campbell’s “Sunday Mornin’.”
But the clearest indication of West’s touch on the album was “Ghetto”: a stoned, soulful groove with a hook sung by Carl Thomas and a guest verse by Raekwon. The production is deeply evocative of the classic mid-‘90s records on which Kanye cut his teeth as a teenager, right down to the audible vinyl pops on the track (the sample’s source, “Too Young” by the Miracles, is otherwise almost unrecognizable). And that’s clearly the intention, given Raekwon’s nostalgizing at the beginning of the song: “Now y’all niggas wanna wear Polo and Hilfiger,” he observes ruefully of street culture’s increased interest in fashion. Given that his young producer was just a few years away from crowning himself the “Louis Vuitton Don,” I’m pretty sure that qualifies as irony.
Kanye’s last two releases in the months between his first and second Roc-A-Fella productions were an interesting study in contrasts. “Chi Town,” the closing track on Da Brat’s third album Unrestricted, was all about looking back: to West’s and Da Brat’s shared hometown–which he would soon leave behind for the more rap scene-adjacent Newark, New Jersey–and to the glossy late-‘90s sound of labels like Bad Boy. But “Don’t Mess with Me,” a fiery diss track from Lil’ Kim’s platinum-selling sophomore album The Notorious K.I.M., provided a glimpse into Kanye’s future. Though credit must also go to co-producer D-Dot, the song is nevertheless driven by stylistic flourishes that West would take to a new level in the coming years: namely, radically sped-up vocals sampled from a recognizable song, in this case Pat Benatar’s 1979 rock radio hit “Heartbreaker.”
Indeed, that same trick–applied much less bombastically–formed the basis for “This Can’t Be Life,” West’s contribution to Jay-Z’s The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, released in October of 2000. Kanye describes the track’s genesis in detail on “Last Call”: “I made this one beat where I sped up this Harold Melvin sample [‘I Miss You,’ from his 1972 self-titled debut with the Blue Notes]. I played it for [Roc-A-Fella A&R rep and Kanye’s manager, Kyambo ‘Hip Hop’ Joshua] over the phone, he’s like, ‘Oh, yo, that shit is crazy, Jay might want it…’ And at that time, like, the drums really weren’t soundin’ right to me. So I went and um, I was listening to Dre, Chronic 2001 at that time. And really I just, like, bit the drums off ‘Xxplosive’ and put it like with it sped up, sampled, and now it’s kind of like my whole style, when it started, when he rapped on ‘This Can’t Be Life.’ And that was, like, really the first beat of that kind… I could say that was the resurgence of the soul sound.”
Classic Kanye hyperbole aside, “This Can’t Be Life” is an undeniably significant track. Listen to the rest of the beats on The Dynasty, and Kanye’s sensibility stands out; while other producers on the album use soul samples–notably Just Blaze, about whom we’ll hear more shortly–“This Can’t Be Life” just is soulful: weaving Melvin’s mournful vocalizations into the very fabric of the song, and perfectly complementing the deeply confessional, ruminative lyrics by Jay and guests Beanie Sigel and Scarface. Also of historical significance: the way Kanye tells it, “This Can’t Be Life” represents one of the rare times in his career when he actually kept his mouth shut. On “Last Call,” he recounts coming by the studio after Jay had already finished his verse: “I heard it, and I was thinking like, man, I really wanted more like of the simple type Jay-Z. I ain’t want like the, the more introspective, complicated [rhymes]… So he asked me, ‘What you think of it?’ And I was like, ‘Man that shit tight.’ You know what I’m sayin’, man, what I’mma tell him? I was on the train, man, you know!”
Having managed not to offend his most powerful client within minutes of meeting him, Kanye now officially had his foot in the door at Roc-A-Fella. Fittingly, his next productions would show up on the followup to his original break for the label: Beanie Sigel’s The Reason, released in June of 2001. The contrast between the Kanye of February 2000 and the Kanye of sixteen months later is immediately evident, and illuminating. “The Truth” turned a clever choice of a sample into a hard, minimalist beat; but “Nothing Like It,” the opening track to The Reason, is a masterful mix of drama and dynamic sensitivity. Its sped-up sample from the Dynamic Superiors’ 1975 version of “Ain’t Nothing Like the Real Thing” comes in strong and then backs away, creating a magnetic push and pull that supports Beans’ flow while constantly threatening to wrest the spotlight away for itself. After “This Can’t Be Life,” it’s the second truly classic beat in Yeezy’s growing portfolio. West’s other contribution to the album, the Kurupt feature “Gangsta, Gangsta,” is less stunning, but only really suffers by comparison; the blaring horns and driving percussion lend an exotic, Latin-cum-blaxploitation flavor to the cut.
But it was with his next productions for Jay-Z that Kanye truly made his mark as a producer. The Blueprint was a milestone release for Roc-A-Fella, not to mention hip-hop in general, and four of its best tracks were Kanye West productions. On “Last Call,” he tells the story of how he got the gig. During the sessions for The Reason, Jay showed up at Baseline Studios–wearing a “Gucci bucket hat,” a detail Kanye unsurprisingly remembers “like it was yesterday.” “Hip Hop” urged Kanye to play a beat for Jay that he’d been saving for, of all people, DMX: what would eventually become “Heart of the City (Ain’t No Love).” He did; then, he recalls, “I played another beat, and I played another beat. And I remember that Gucci bucket, he took it and like put it over his face and made one of them faces like, ‘OOOOOOOOOOH!'”
It’s tough to blame Jay for his enthusiasm: as a showcase of Kanye’s burgeoning talents, The Blueprint is impeccable. “Heart of the City” is Yeezy at his most cinematic, taking a 1974 sample from Bobby “Blue” Bland and blowing it up into a widescreen neo-blaxploitation feature for the ears. Lead single “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)”–Kanye’s “first hit single,” he boasts on “Last Call”–finds an unlikely hook in a song everyone already knew and loved (and sampled): the seconds immediately before the chorus of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” with the heavily flanged piano glissando jumping out of the mix every time the beat turns in on itself. And the production for “Takeover” is so massive, it ensured the diss track’s relevance even after Jay-Z was widely dubbed the loser of his nasty feud with Nas: turning up the plodding menace of “Five to One” by the Doors–hardly an obvious favorite of the Roc-A-Fella set–and flipping samples of David Bowie’s “Fame” so it sounded like the Thin White Duke was bellowing “laaaaaaaame.” Even Jay-Z’s middling efforts on The Blueprint take on a new life in Kanye’s hands. “Girls, Girls, Girls” is pretty much the definition of lightweight: a bald-faced rewrite of the Rolling Stones’ “Some Girls” that somehow managed to be even more sexist and racist than the 20-year-old original. But Kanye’s “Part 2” remix–“Part 1” was helmed by Just Blaze–lends an aural cleverness and invention to the song, pairing Jay’s tongue-in-cheek lothario rhymes with the Persuaders’ 1973 smooth soul number “Trying Girls Out.”
But let’s talk about Just Blaze for a minute. As much as Kanye would probably like to, he can’t take full credit for the musical impact of The Blueprint; Blaze, born Justin Smith, also handled three songs, including the classic “Song Cry.” The two producers up to that point had strikingly similar career arcs: both, for example, had contributed beats to the 1999 album The Movement by Ma$e protegés Harlem World. And their stylistic sensibilities, while distinct, had more in common than not; Blaze was at least as responsible as Yeezy for repopularizing the use of soul samples in hip-hop over the synth-driven arrangements of producers like Timbaland and Swizz Beatz, and both were equally identified with the “chipmunk soul” trend of sped-up vocal hooks. If that was all there was to it, the distinction between the two artists would be largely academic: just something for beat nerds to argue endlessly about on hip-hop forums and comments threads.
Kanye, however, would ultimately surpass Blaze by way of his ambition: as he would note with increasing frequency over the next few years, he’d wanted to be a rapper for longer than he’d wanted to be a producer. And it was with The Blueprint that Kanye began in earnest to use his production talents as leverage for jumpstarting his career as an M.C. It’s no coincidence that “Never Change,” his most prototypically “Kanye” production on the album–and the beat that allegedly caused Jay-Z to pull that bucket hat over his face–also features his uncredited rhymes on the hook. Granted, those rhymes (along with the beat) were lifted wholesale from an earlier Kanye West production for Chicago rapper Payroll. But it’s likely that Kanye wrote the hook for Payroll anyway; and, in any case, it’s not as if Jay-Z was above biting a few lines himself.
The Blueprint marked West’s arrival (along with Blaze, of course) as Roc-A-Fella’s house producer par excellence, and in the following months his C.V. continued to swell. “Got Nowhere,” a Beanie Sigel and Freeway joint from the Dame Dash-produced film State Property, trafficked in the updated blaxploitation vibes Kanye could now do in his sleep, and featured another uncredited hook which he’d later reappropriate for The College Dropout’s “Two Words” : “We in the streets, playa, get your mail / There’s either two places to go, we either dead or in jail.” Less historically interesting, but more sonically novel, was his beat for Cam’ron’s and Jim Jones’ “Dead or Alive”; Ye crafted the song around an infectious sped-up sample from Buffy Sainte-Marie’s 1965 a capella rendition of the African American work song “Lazarus,” making it the first and perhaps only example of “chipmunk folk.”
West also contributed three tracks (or, more accurately, two and a fifth) to the acclaimed album The Fix by Scarface–a Roc affiliate, if not a signee–in August of 2002. “In Cold Blood” is a relatively unassuming track for this era of Kanye’s history, digging out a deep cut by Gladys Knight & The Pips but foregoing any showboating with the sample. “Guess Who’s Back” reunited the principle players of “This Can’t Be Life”–including those drums from Dre’s “Xxplosive”–and garnered Yeezy’s first recorded shout-out from Jay-Z; it also featured yet another uncredited hook by the no doubt increasingly frustrated producer-rapper. But his most dramatic influence is on the closing seconds of “Heaven”: after two and a half minutes of a distinctly Southern-flavored funk groove by ex-Suave House producer Tristan “T-Mix” Jones, Kanye abruptly takes the reigns, dropping in an ethereal beat from the Dramatics’ “That Heaven Kind of Feeling” and lifting the track up toward its namesake.
Even as Kanye became increasingly central to the Roc-A-Fella sound, however, he continued to produce tracks outside of his wheelhouse. His last release of 2001 was “Pain” by Chicago-via-Jackson, Mississippi underground duo Abstract Mindstate the M.O.D. (Misfitz of Dialogue): a strikingly low-key, mellow cut with a distinct trip-hop feel. On the complete opposite side of the spectrum, he also landed two cuts on Diamond Princess, the sophomore album by Miami dirty-rap queen Trina. “B R Right,” a Top 50 R&B single featuring Ludacris, features an exotic Orientalist violin hook that foreshadows Ye’s innovative use of “hip-hop violinist” Miri Ben-Ari on The College Dropout. And, if you watch the beginning of the video carefully, you can even catch a brief cameo by Kanye himself. Meanwhile, the more straightforward “Do You Want Me?” recalls some of West’s earlier, simpler productions, adding a layer of Dirty South-approved grime to his trademark soulfulness.
Perhaps most significantly, Kanye was also keeping his hat in the backpacker ring, with four Mos Def productions (including a remix by Scott Storch) on the neo-soul and hip-hop-heavy soundtrack to the film Brown Sugar. West’s two original versions of the title track–“Raw,” featuring Talib Kweli, and “Fine,” featuring Chicago-born soul singer Adaritha–are like bookends for the evolution of his style since 2000: the former hard-hitting and brash, the latter warm and luxurious, with Adaritha’s sensuous vocals floating in from a sample of Norman Connors’ 1979 smooth jazz song “Invitation.” “Breakdown” packs less of an immediate punch, but still provides a deceptively laid-back, easy groove well-suited to Mos’ dexterous flow. Kanye’s tracks on Brown Sugar may not have made history like his work for The Blueprint did, but in their own way they were also crucial: after all, it would be through his loose affiliation with “conscious” rappers like Mos and Kweli, as much as his Roc-A-Fella credentials, that Kanye would be able to break out as a star in his own right.
But first, those Roc-A-Fella credentials would have to become official. After an abortive deal with Capitol–who backed out over fears that he would not be able to transcend his status as a mere “producer-rapper”–Kanye finally signed to the Roc on August 3, 2002. The signing was announced onstage at a Jay-Z concert in Tinley Park, Illinois, where Kanye received his ceremonial Roc-A-Fella chain (see the video playlist at the top of the post). By the waning months of the year, Kanye West was practically a household name–assuming, of course, that the household in question subscribed to The Source. October’s “‘03 Bonnie & Clyde,” a duet between Jay-Z and his new girlfriend, then-Destiny’s Child member Beyoncé Knowles, was his biggest hit yet: reaching number 4 on the Billboard Hot 100, the second Top 10 single (after “Izzo”) for both Ye and Jay. It was also his least recognizably “Kanye West” production in nearly two years; with its R&B-radio sheen, live flamenco guitar, and relative lack of samples, it sounds more like something by Trackmasters than the guy from the The Blueprint.
This would, in fact, become something of a theme for Kanye’s contributions to The Blueprint2: The Gift & The Curse, released the following month. Opening track and Notorious B.I.G. tribute “A Dream” has Yeezy’s maximalist sense of drama and pomp, but it sounds turgid and ponderous: two words I would be loath to describe any other Kanye West productions to date. “Poppin’ Tags” fares better–and features a shoutout to West from his fellow Chicagoan Twista–but it’s still far from the rising producer-rapper’s best work. The closest he comes to greatness is on “Some People Hate”: a gospel-infused throwdown that pairs the drums from OutKast‘s “Playa’s Ball” with the fiery vocals from Brian and Brenda Russell’s “Word Called Love.” Even this relative highlight, however, would have made for Kanye’s weakest beat on the original Blueprint. Now that he was finally an “official” rapper, it almost seemed like Ye was losing his enthusiasm as a producer.
Indeed, Kanye’s most passionate performance on The Blueprint2 was on the mic, on a song he didn’t even produce: the Timbaland-helmed “The Bounce.” Yeezy’s verse isn’t anything that would get him singled out as an overlooked M.C.–certainly not “the most overlooked,” as he puts it on “Last Call.” But it was the most self-assured he’d sounded on record yet, largely because it was the first time he’d had something to brag about: “I did take over the game, brought back the soul / Got tracks to go, got plaques that gold / Platinum to go, yeah that’s my flow / All I know, I gots to blow / And I don’t play ‘pause,’ I’m from Chicago.” It’s a clever set of lines, at once reiterating his achievements as a producer, shouting out to his hometown, and even setting himself pointedly apart from hypermasculine street hip-hop with his refusal to “play ‘pause'” (i.e., call out an unintentional “gay” innuendo in his rap). And hey, at least he received billing for his performance this time.
Perhaps it was also West’s eagerness to bridge the producer-rapper divide that made his work on Talib Kweli’s Quality, released a week after The Blueprint2, so much better than his comparatively lukewarm latest work for Jay-Z. On “Last Call,” Kanye singles out Kweli as one of the few early supporters of his rapping: during the summer 2002 Smokin’ Grooves tour with Erykah Badu, Lauryn Hill, Cee-Lo Green, Jurassic 5, OutKast, and the Roots, Kweli would bring Kanye out during his sets to spit a few rhymes. He returned the favor by bringing his “A”-game to Quality: particularly the single “Get By,” which features “Izzo”-level production genius with its samples of Nina Simone’s piano and passionate, wordless vocalizations from “Sinnerman.” “Guerrilla Monsoon Rap,” meanwhile, brings back the prominent violin sound from “B R Right”–though this time, it’s a sped-up sample from the Chi-Lites’ 1973 single “I Never Had It So Good (And Felt So Bad).” Then, there’s “Good to You,” a vintage Kanye beat whose chopped-up Al Green sample predicted 2011’s “Otis” almost ten years early.
But it was Kanye’s last officially-released song of 2002 that would find him, finally, thoroughly ensconced in both producing and rapping roles. “Champions”–a Roc posse cut for the soundtrack of Dame Dash’s second film production, Paid in Full—features West alongside Beanie Sigel, Cam’ron, Twista, and Young Chris, with Dame providing breathless commentary over a sped-up sample from–what else–Queen’s “We Are the Champions.” Before Ye’s verse, Dash exclaims, “Got damn, Kanye! I bet niggas didn’t know you could rap, huh? …This the producer on the Roc, he rap better than most rappers!” It was exactly the acknowledgement Kanye had been looking for since he got his start in the ‘90s.
Unfortunately, he wasn’t in the best condition to enjoy his victory lap. On October 23, 2002–before the release of The Blueprint2, Quality, or Paid in Full–Kanye was recording in Los Angeles. He left the studio around 3 a.m. in a rented Lexus GS, briefly fell asleep at the wheel–or was cut off by another driver, depending on the source–and veered head-on into another car near the W Hotel in West Hollywood. The collision left his jaw shattered and his face almost unrecognizably swollen–looking, as he darkly put it on his song chronicling the ordeal, “Through the Wire,” “like Emmett Till.” It was far from the way Kanye had imagined getting himself on MTV: he later dolefully observed in “Last Call,” “It’s funny how wasn’t nobody interested / ‘Til the night I almost killed myself in a Lexus.”
But his brush with death was also, in many ways, the catalyst that turned Kanye West from a precocious producer-rapper to a groundbreaking and influential artist in his own right. As Kanye would put it in 2004, the crash was “the worst thing that could’ve possibly happen to me, and now it’s obviously the best thing.” We’ll see how in the next installment, covering the year or so leading up to the release of The College Dropout. In the meantime, here’s the freshly updated Spotify playlist: