Editor’s Note: Hey, remember when I called this a “(probably) 11-part series?” Well, now it’s (almost definitely) a 12-part series. We’ve reached a critical juncture in Kanye West’s oeuvre, and I realized after getting about 3,000 words into this post that there was no way I was going to do it any justice without adding another “chapter.” Is this a decision I would have made if I were not my own editor? Of course not; but it’s only right that an essay series about Kanye West be as grandiose and self-indulgent as the subject himself. So, please, enjoy this prelude to my long-promised post on The College Dropout. And if you want to know what the hell is going on, read parts one and two of the series first. You can also see the later parts in the series–most of which I did not cut into parts, because fuck it–here: 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13. – Z.H.
Way back at the beginning of this feature, I promised that in writing it I would employ my usual “haphazard blend of personal reflection, snarky jokes, and middlebrow academicizing.” So far, though, my evaluation of Kanye West’s recorded oeuvre has been mostly straightforward and chronological, without much consideration of my personal experience as a listener. That’s because, really, I haven’t had much personal experience with the music we’ve covered so far. With the obvious exception of contemporary earnest-white-boy crossover standards like OutKast and the Roots, I wasn’t listening to much hip-hop in the early 2000s, so Kanye’s rise to semi-fame as a producer had largely escaped my notice. I may have heard a few chipmunked soul hooks while flipping around on MTV or the radio, but for the most part I was too busy going to rock shows in dive bars and listening to the White Stripes to pay any attention to Roc-A-Fella’s latest signee. But all that changed–as it did for so many other earnest white boys like me–when I heard The College Dropout.
I was, of course, late even to that party. The first Kanye West album I listened to was actually Late Registration: the followup to The College Dropout, released in August 2005. I was running a different music blog at the time, and had finally heard so much about this Kanye character–his preponderance for old-school soul samples and pink polo shirts, his already-legendary arrogance, and of course, “Gold Digger,” the catchiest crossover rap hit this earnest white boy had heard since “Hey Ya!” –that I knew I had to check him out. But I didn’t want to look as out of the loop as I was when I wrote my review, so I bought his first album, too. And right away, I could tell: Late Registration was a very good album, but The College Dropout was even better. I remember being struck by what a truly cohesive work it was: a record with musical and lyrical themes so intimately crafted and interwoven that, had it been released 30 years earlier, critics would have been calling it a “concept album.” Much as I cringed (and still do) at bandying about the word, I couldn’t deny that The College Dropout was a masterpiece, made all the more impressive by its status as a 26-year-old artist’s debut. How had it all come together so perfectly, so complete and fully-formed?
The answer is that The College Dropout didn’t just spring, Minerva-like, from Kanye’s forehead–and, in a way, that makes it even more of an achievement. What I had missed in coming to the record late was the often agonizing, surprisingly transparent buildup to its final release. This astonishingly cohesive album was nearly five years in the making; announced over a year before it came out, teased on multiple mixtapes, delayed at least three times, and leaked months before its scheduled release, only to be subjected to another round of remixes and revisions. The fact that it emerged from all this as polished and unified as it did is a testament to the singular nature of Kanye West’s vision circa 2003. And to do justice to that vision, we’re going to have to approach it in two halves. First, today, we’ll look at the two mixtapes Kanye released over the period of just a few weeks in late 2002 and early 2003; then, next time, we’ll (finally) look at The College Dropout itself.
But why spend so much time on just a couple of mixtapes? Well, frankly, because their significance to West’s development as a rapper rivals that of his official debut. We’ve discussed a handful of Kanye’s early guest verses in this series so far, and even the best of them have been, to put it kindly, pretty unremarkable. A leaked demo tape that Kanye shopped around to labels in 2001 and 2002 did show major improvement–especially in the early versions of College Dropout cuts like “Jesus Walks” and “Family Business,” as well as later songs like “Hey Mama” from Late Registration and “Homecoming” from 2007’s Graduation. These glimmers of inspiration aside, however, he was still lacking a consistent, genuine perspective to rap from.
Take, for example, “Have It Your Way,” which would reemerge in dramatically revised form as the Late Registration track “Bring Me Down.” This early draft is more juvenile than the tracks Kanye recorded when he was actually a juvenile, with lyrics that would look at home scrawled into the margins of an angsty 17-year-old’s spiral notebook: “Lead coming, blood gushin’ from ya arms, legs, head and stomach / I felt the hatred, ’cause when I turned around like The Matrix / Comin’ for me, an array of bullets headin’ dead for me.” To his credit, Yeezy at least seemed to realize that his thug act wasn’t convincing, as later in the song he drops a tantalizing glimpse of his emerging self-awareness: “Look, I been livin’ my life bullshittin’ when I write songs / Especially talkin’ ’bout havin’ ice on and I could barely keep my lights on.” Meanwhile, tracks like the Martin Lawrence-sampling “Out of Your Mind” (also known as “Arguing”) and “Never Letting Go (The Stalker Song)” bog down their stark, funky beats with an off-putting misogynistic streak. And while he can’t be accused of lying when he brags about the “11 plaques” on his wall in “Wow!” (the hook for which famously made it into The College Dropout‘s closing track “Last Call”), sarcastic boasts aren’t enough to hang a full-length album on–even for a master of the art like Kanye.
In the end, it would take a brush with death for West to truly find his voice as an M.C. Last time, I offhandedly referred to “Through the Wire”–and, by extension, the near-fatal car crash that inspired its lyrics–as Kanye’s “superhero origin story.” I wasn’t really exaggerating: though the crash didn’t actually give Ye superhuman abilities like Spider-Man or the Fantastic Four, its effect on his voice as a lyricist was just as immediate, and very nearly as miraculous. Indeed, the inspiration for “Through the Wire” came so quickly that Kanye couldn’t wait to recover before he got back in the studio: the song was famously recorded just two weeks after he was admitted to Cedars-Sinai Medical Center— “the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died,” he observed–with West rapping literally “through the wire” that held his jaw together from reconstructive surgery.
This being Kanye, it’s not clear whether the song was purely a flurry of artistic passion–a case of having “too much stuff on [his] heart,” as he puts it–or just a canny publicity stunt. It was, almost certainly, a little bit of both: Kanye, as always, is the author of his own life story, and he wants us to know even as he’s recording that “this right here” is “history in the making, man.” But whatever his motivations, he clearly recognized a turning point in his artistry when it arrived. In a 2014 interview with Complex, Kanye’s production mentor No I.D. recalls talking to his protégé soon after the accident: “he was like, ‘I’ve figured it all out.’ I’m like, ‘Yeah, you’re safe, God bless.’ He’s like, ‘Nah, I figured out my direction.’ For whatever reason, it clicked in his head.”
The “direction” Kanye figured out with “Through the Wire” was honest and introspective, humorous without being lightweight; most importantly, it embraced his artistic contradictions, rather than trying to disguise or minimize them. The song’s second verse in particular reads like a statement of purpose for the album to come, finally aligning his disparate influences and ambitions into a coherent whole: “What if somebody from the Chi that was ill got a deal / on the hottest rap label around? / But he wasn’t talking about coke and birds, it was more like spoken word / Except he’s really putting it down / And he explained the story about how Blacks came from glory, and what we need to do in the game / Good dude, bad night, right place, wrong time / In the blink of a eye, his whole life changed.” One, especially relevant change: while “Through the Wire” is a classic Kanye West production, pairing a sped-up and flipped sample from Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire” with the drums from OutKast’s “Player’s Ball,” for once it was Ye’s rhymes that everybody was talking about. He had finally graduated from a “producer-rapper” to a rapper, full stop.
In late 2002, though, Kanye was still known mainly for his production prowess. And so Get Well Soon…, the aptly-titled mixtape on which “Through the Wire” originally appeared in December, functioned in large part as a “greatest hits” sampler of his production work thus far. The tape included excerpts from recent heavy hitters like Jay-Z’s ” ‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” and Trina’s “B R Right,” alongside freestyles by established rappers over Kanye’s beats: 50 Cent on “Guess Who’s Back,” Cam’ron on “Takeover.” There were also a few rarities, including coulda-been hit “Show Go On” by Freeway and Twista, the beat for a Reebok commercial (!) by Scarface, and the recently-unearthed “Poppa Was a Playa” by Nas, a relic from Kanye’s early days ghost producing for Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie. Nine of the tape’s final ten tracks were reserved for the productions West considered especially important to his career, enough for him to dedicate a tattoo to them on his left forearm: Harlem World’s “You Made Me,” Foxy Brown’s “My Life,” the Madd Rapper’s “Ghetto,” Beanie Sigel’s “The Truth” and “Nothing Like It,” and of course, Jay-Z’s “This Can’t Be Life,” “Izzo,” “Heart of the City,” and “Never Change.” You can see a video of Kanye showing off this very tattoo to MTV’s You Heard It First–filmed on the same day as the fateful car crash–on the YouTube playlist above (Video 15).
While it was certainly an impressive production résumé, however, the real purpose of Get Well Soon… was to serve as a Trojan horse for Kanye the rapper. Along with “Through the Wire,” there was also a freestyle with Talib Kweli and Mos Def, recorded live at New York’s Irving Plaza; another solo freestyle by Ye over Jay-Z’s “A Million and One Questions”; “Home,” the aforementioned early version of “Homecoming” featuring a then-unknown John Legend; a track with ex-Tribe Called Quest affiliate Consequence called “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly”; sneak peeks at College Dropout tracks “Jesus Walks” and the Mos Def/Freeway collaboration “Two Words”; and another song, “My Way,” that wouldn’t see official release at all. With the obvious exception of “Through the Wire,” none of these are exactly essential, but they do serve as further demonstrations of Kanye’s ever-developing voice.
The “Million” freestyle, for example, has some of Ye’s most vocally confident rhymes yet, even if they do amount to little more than a petulant defense of his place in the game: “Lot of speculation ’bout the money I made / Me and Just Blaze / How are they for real, are them niggas really paid? / Rappers I met, or dealt with direct / Is it true he won’t send a beat tape until he get a check? / What’s the position you hold? / Can you really match the Neptunes check by check / if ‘H to the Izzo’ the only single that went gold? / If Roc-A-Fella shit fold, and you left out in the cold / Is it back to ghost producin’ for D-Dot on the low?” Elsewhere, “The Good, The Bad, The Ugly” looks at first glance like a retread of Ye’s demo material: just another chapter in the self-aggrandizing chronicles of Kanye the Pimp, albeit with better production than the previous ones. But the hook is revealing, as Kanye once again lets slip a few cracks in his seemingly ironclad self-confidence: “Big said get your money, ain’t no tellin’ they gon’ love me,” he frets; “Niggas give pounds and hug me, know they really wanna slug me.” His conclusion, “this is for the hood, you got to love me,” is a strident declaration of his right to be adored–but it’s one that can also be read as a plea for acceptance.
The last original track on the tape, “My Way,” strikes a similarly conflicted tone. Over a sample of Irene Reid’s version of the standard made famous by Frank Sinatra, Kanye alternates between lashing out at his naysayers and passionately defending his new direction. Without question, it’s a mixtape track through and through, lacking the lyrical polish of any of the songs that would make it to The College Dropout. One minute, Kanye is making hard-hitting sociopolitical observations: “It’s sort of like when King spoke and said we free at last / Ain’t nothin’ free from that point, though, we needed cash / And we need it fast / We broker than Ethiopians, just tryin’ to eat at last / Now all the blacks cookin’ up that almost-white / ‘Cause gettin’ green makes ‘em treat us like we almost white / Almost.” But the next minute, he’s lowering himself to lame schoolyard taunts: “Only difference between you and me, you were gay.” Much like the far superior “Through the Wire,” however, “My Way” captures Kanye’s head space at a critical moment: knowing exactly what he needs to do to make his masterpiece, but struggling to transfer the thoughts in his head to tape, bristling righteously at every obstacle in his path.
One such obstacle, given a surprisingly blunt airing-out on “My Way,” is Kanye’s own label. Aside from some public lip-service to their newest artist, particularly from Dame Dash, Roc-A-Fella remained cautious early on regarding his bankability as a rapper. This was an understandable source of frustration for Yeezy, who vented his feelings at the beginning of the song’s first verse: “The Roc got ‘Ye,’ but they ain’t snortin’ it / Just got him up at Baseline recording shit.” Indeed, as West told film director Steve McQueen for Interview magazine in 2013, one of the major influences of the car accident on his career was that it finally gave him an excuse to work on his own music: “I was a music producer, and everyone was telling me that I had no business becoming a rapper, so it gave me the opportunity to tell everyone, ‘Hey, I need some time to recover.’ But during that recovery period, I just spent all my time honing my craft and making The College Dropout. 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.”
The next glimpse at the fruits of Kanye’s labor would come soon after Get Well Soon…, in the form of a second mixtape: I’m Good…, released in early 2003 (the mixtape market being what it was in the early 2000s, it’s hard to nail down an exact date). While only the same three College Dropout tracks are included, the difference in such a short stretch of time is immediately noticeable. “Jesus Walks” sounds brisker and more assured, its vocal samples from the Addicts Rehabilitation Center Choir amplified by live singers; “Two Words” has also added live vocals and instrumentation, including Miri Ben-Ari’s unforgettable violin; even “Through the Wire” benefits from a more polished mix.
The rest of the tape captures Kanye in an even more confident mode than before. Like Get Well Soon…, I’m Good… hedges its bets a bit between showcasing Kanye the Producer and Kanye the Rapper; this time, though, the pendulum swings much further in the “rapper” direction. Kanye makes his presence felt all over the tape: from his uplifting intro with vocals by John Legend, to his occasional spoken interjections, to his new, perhaps blessedly short-lived producer tag, an exuberant “yeeeeeeoooowwww!!” applied liberally whenever there’s any risk of the listener forgetting whose tape this is. Even the inevitable Blueprint compilation includes commentary from Kanye, a preview of the autobiographical tendency behind the lengthy coda of “Last Call.” And when he is highlighting his work for other artists, it’s mostly the new shit: upcoming cuts from Freeway’s Philadelphia Freeway album–“Turn Out the Lights” and “Hear the Song,” featuring future “Family Business” singer Tarrey Torae–plus early mixes of tracks that wouldn’t come out until the following year, like John Legend’s “Used to Love U” and Shyne’s “More or Less.”
Once again, Ye also offers remixes of better-known rappers freestyling over his beats: 50 Cent and Lloyd Banks on Scarface’s “In Cold Blood,” Fiddy solo on “The Truth,” Ludacris and Twista on “Poppin’ Tags” (with Yeezy replacing Big Boi’s original hook), and Snoop Dogg with Mr. Cheeks on “Get By.” More often than not, though, it’s Kanye himself on the track. He recruits Consequence again for a remake of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Electric Relaxation,” seemingly just so he can say he did, and freestyles over his own ” ‘03 Bonnie & Clyde” beat with one of his most “Kanye” lines ever: “My favorite rapper is Makaveli, Nas and Jay-Z, Eminem, Ma$e, Biggie Smalls, and me.” And his verse on the remix for Jay-Z’s Neptunes-produced “Excuse Me Miss Again” is probably his funniest yet, at last channeling the arrogant horndog side of his persona into something tongue in cheek and self-aware rather than just sexist and offputting: “She play she hate when I’m name-droppin’ / So when I talk rap, she gon’ change topics / But I got a Plan B that’s planned out for when things don’t pan out / Hov’ tellin’ ya mind brother, I’mma play shy brother / So you take the Destiny Child girl in the coupe / And I’mma try bag the ones that got kicked out the group.”
The relaxed good-naturedness of Kanye’s verses on I’m Good… might seem to stand in stark contrast to the self-conscious artistry of his official releases; that, however, would be underselling the importance of humorous tracks like “The New Workout Plan” or the “Lil Jimmy” sketches on The College Dropout. Even when his jokes skirt the boundaries of good taste–as they do on “Half Price,” essentially two and a half minutes’ worth of leering at female rappers over his own beat for Lil’ Kim’s “Came Back for You”–his impish charm keeps him on just the right side of the line; you try and resist cracking a grin when he ad-libs, “Need beat tapes for who? …Oh, Trina? I’m be right there, I’m right there.”
The title I’m Good… obviously referred to West’s continued recovery from the car crash, but it was also a qualitative statement: the entire mixtape stands as a testament to Kanye’s growing skills as a rapper. Like any mixtape, not all of it is great; “Digital Thugz,” a feature for Ye’s Chicago compatriot turned Cash Money artist Mikkey Halsted, is the most faceless track he’d been involved with since the Go-Getters days. But both I’m Good… and Get Well Soon… form a vital link in Kanye’s progression from studio wizard to full-blown superstar: as he announces on “Heavy Hitters,” a track with ex-Go-Getter GLC, “Everybody thought I was makin’ a compilation / I was really makin’ myself they competition.” Listening to the tapes, it’s easy to see the disparate elements that continue to define Kanye West as an artist: the incisive self-examinations, the sharp social commentary, the ludicrous boasts and smartass asides. It would take his official debut album to finally crystallize all these continuities and contradictions into something greater than the sum of their parts; but it was all right there at the beginning of 2003.
Next time, we will finally talk about The College Dropout. I promise.
I added one song to the Spotify playlist below (it’s “Through the Wire”):