We record reviewers are slimy, selfish know-it-alls. Nothing makes us happier than finding something we're sure no one knows about, then bragging when it gets press. I know, because my gloating satisfaction is epic when my predictions bear fruit. Such is the case with Mr. West, the once obscure but now in-your-face hip-hop star. When he shows up on TV it's kind of hard to sit in a room with me, what with my triumphant rejoicing and zeppelin-sized head.
Obviously West is now considered the illest thing since Breakin' 2: Electric Boogaloo. He's all over MTV, BET, radio, print, billboards, etc. But I distinctly remember hearing Jay-Z's "This Can't Be Life" from the otherwise forgettable Dynasty record way back in 2000 (it's not that long ago, but this is hip-hop. Four years is longer than most good MCs' careers). Suddenly, the grave, introspective Jay-Z who had only appeared on his crackle-and-simmer debut, 1996's Reasonable Doubt, was reborn. Some attributed it to Jay's newfound meditative outlook on life. The rest of us knew better. Jay's The Black Album was all over this past year's "best-of" lists, with a reputation that has brought him beyond "Big Pimpin'" to "thoughtful, retired king." I knew it then and I know it now: He has Kanye who produced and co-wrote several tracks, as well as contributing some vocals to thank.
So after what seemed like eons, The College Dropout dropped and it's all gravy. Well, not all gravy there's a hint of fat around the edges that comes in the form of some typically lousy skits. But again, this is hip-hop. Barring the misguided tomfoolery, College Dropout sparkles from start to finish.
Kanye is the most sought-after producer now working. His old-soul musicality blows past The Neptunes' angular funk and the increasingly tired, laser-light show that is a Timbaland song. Whether crate-digging for forgotten Motown gems or enlisting throbbing choirs for grand opuses, he never abandons melody. Nourishing handclaps and rapid-fire snares hiss on every beat, giving many of his songs a lived-in feel. West is best known for "chipmunk soul," the exhilarating sound of sped-up vocal samples that dominate the song's hook. All of these elements are mashed together to create what is the best hip-hop to come along in years.
While I'm praising the hell out of this guy, we may as well acknowledge the other component for a classic rap record: rapping. I was skeptical when I first heard my behind-the-boards hero was grabbing a mic for his own album. Then I started reading in interviews that he was always an MC, just producing to pay the rent. His hubris pissed me off. I knew the man as a producer whose beats were so full of soul and intelligence you couldn't help but curl up inside them and nod your head. Now he's a rapper? "Everybody's a goddamn rapper. Just stick to the beats, fer cryin' out loud," I thought.
Then I heard "Through the Wire." The song, which is somehow, almost inexplicably, a hit, recounts Kanye's hardships after a face-shattering, nearly paralyzing car accident. The song was rapped shortly afterwards while his jaw was wired shut (get the song's title?). The second verse burns with an honesty that few are brave enough to offer: "What if somebody from the Chi that was ill got a deal/ On the hottest rap label around/ But he wasn't talking 'bout coke and birds/ It was more like spoken word." That clinched it. The man is a wunderkind.
For years hip-hop has become more syrupy and shiny, less soulful and sincere. It's been a while since someone has matched wit, introspection, ass-shaking and commercial success. It doesn't seem that hard, but the self-awareness that abounds on The College Dropout is what really gives the work a chance to endure. "Breathe In, Breathe Out" bangs with a syncopated horn loop and a Ludacris hook, but it's West's self-effacing that really scores: "First nigga with a Benz and a backpack/ Ice chain, Cardi lens, and a knapsack/ Always said if I rapped I'd say somethin' significant/ But now I'm rappin' 'bout money, hoes, and rims again."
The twinkling "We Don't Care" opens the album with an uplifting ode to the struggle, while the subsequent "All Falls Down" etches itself into the hip-hop pantheon. Detailing the perils of flossing platinum chains and designer suits, Kanye declares "We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it."
Other highlights include the retail-bashing of "Spaceships," a song that could make anyone who works at The Gap and hears it feel better about themselves. For a true non-believer, "Jesus Walks" gave me more to think about spiritually than any Mel Gibson movie ever could. Sporting a defiant soldier chant and a spiraling flute, the song describes the value of faith in the face of hate and apathy. It's also quite funky.
"Get 'Em High" gives Talib Kweli and Common a chance to banter with their producer
pal over a slippery synth crunch. "School Spirit" is an enlightening anti-education
song, bouncing along as if it were the album's pre-game pep rally. The game comes
in the form of the album's final four cuts: "Two Words" enlists the Harlem Boys
Choir, Mos Def and Freeway to slam dualities and soar over conventional rap boundaries.
The aforementioned "Through the Wire" is the album's true centerpiece. "Family
Business" recalls the slow burn and thoughtful roll of hardened blues. And "Last
Call" is a half-rapped, half-spoken story of West's arrival. It's overlong and
meandering, but funny and informative.
Finally, I'm vindicated by an artist for whom I've predicted greatness. With
the success of The College Dropout, I
could become a truly insufferable slimy, selfish know-it-all. But hey, that's
the price of being right.