This post is in the theme “Constructing an identity through media”. Read the first.
October 4, New York: Kanye West is a genius. I think that’s pretty unassailable. As a producer, as a rapper, as a conductor of album-length musical experiences. He’s also one of the contemporary lyricists with the most authenticity. Each album is a reflection of what is happening in his life, for better or for worse. Each song, even a club anthem, is a short slice of autobiography. That makes the arc of Kanye’s albums dizzying as his life has changed so much over the last ten years. He rockets from nobody to somebody to ego to just-plain-strange and records it along the way.
My two favorite Kanye albums are the first two: College Dropout and Late Registration. In these two, he’s still hungry, eager to prove himself. The first is exactly that: his chance to show the world that he’s more than a producer, that he’s a rapper in his own right. And it’s shot through with that ambition. It leads to some really incredible songs: “Get ‘em High” with guest spots from both Talib Kweli AND Common is just so good. “New Workout Plan” is fun and fantastic. “Through the Wire”, in which he raps the whole song with his jaw wired shut? C’mon.
In Late Registration Kanye is still hungry, but the tone shifts to “holy crap I can’t believe this is actually happening.” The historic story-telling of the first album is still apparent here (it finally disappears by Graduation). This second album is full of solid gold HITS(!)— ”Golddigger”, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, “Touch the Sky”, but still so many songs that call back to his life before fame. You still know this guy, you remember him from the last album, and you’re totally rooting for him.
I was in my twenties and living in LA when these albums came out. It was invigorating to suddenly have such a great new voice in hip-hop and we drove around listening to these albums on repeat. I still grin and shake my head in disbelief to the stanza in “Get ‘em High” where Kanye just drops the beat out and raps over silence. Twice. He is so good. “Gone”, from Late Registration, was totally my jam for a long, hot minute. I’d listen to this one song on a loop. I’d drive around the block a couple extra times just to hear it one more time. The orchestral arrangement, the tinkly rock piano, Killer Cam’s guest spot. The refrain (“We starve at home / we ride on chrome”) is still in that humble theme of these first two albums, still congruent with the second albums “Broke Phi Broke” skits. It’s great.
I’m not ever going to be a successful musician. I’ll never be a hot rapper. But in that time with these two albums, I could sort of identify with Kanye. He was talented and hard-working and he made it happen. My friends and I, we were rooting for him. We were struggling in obscurity, we were broke phi broke, we thought we were talented, too. And here this guy had made it and was humble and ambitious and having fun all at the same time. Every creative person in their twenties wants to be the Kanye that just released College Dropout.
Kanye remains a genius. He’s never stopped making incredible music. It’s just harder to identify with songs that reflect the singer’s life when that life has become so difficult to identify with. The ego that leaks out in Graduation. The raw sexual orgy of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The stark loneliness of fame in Yeezus. It’s interesting to watch, sometimes great to dance to, but it’s unrecognizable. But Kanye we still love you. And we’ll always have these two fantastic albums.
Root for Kanye again and buy his first two albums.