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Kanye West, the future of hip hop

Arienne Thompson | Wednesday, February 25, 2004

Kanye West is a breath of fresh air in an increasingly stale industry where cars, sex and bling reign supreme. West’s eagerly anticipated debut album, The College Dropout, is fun, creative and at times irreverent, blending his top-notch skills as Roc-A-Fella’s in-house producer with his talents as a decent MC. His role as a producer however, is the one that paved his way to success and notoriety in the hip-hop world. With an impressive clientele list that includes labelmate Jay-Z, Monica, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Ludacris and Britney Spears, West is as much in demand as some of the hottest producers around like the Neptunes and Timbaland. Although he certainly delivers for others, as evidenced by the Alicia Keys’ smash “You Don’t Know My Name,” West proves that he did indeed save some of his best beats for himself. Throughout Dropout, West reveals his appreciation for classic R&B, sampling heavily from the songs of established stars like Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye and Luther Vandross. Fortunately, West possesses the skills and judgment to know just how much of a sample is needed and, in turn, how to tweak it for his specific musical needs. Unlike other chronic samplers whose cringe-inducing songs verge on criminal (think P. Diddy, Jennifer Lopez, etc.), West is smart and innovative, using, for example, Chaka Khan’s hook from “Through the Fire” to buttress his current hit “Through the Wire,” which he vocalized with a wired jaw. Playing with notions about higher education, opportunity and social mobility, West also manages to deliver some of his political and cultural views among his solid production and lyrics. On the furious and lazy “Spaceship,” West complains about a job at the GAP over a sample of Marvin Gaye’s “Distant Lover.” He laments about workplace racism, declaring, “If my manager insults me again I will be assaulting him … / Take me to the back and pat me askin’ me bout some khakis / But let some black people walk in I bet you they show off / they token blackey / O now they love Kanye let’s put him all in the front of the store.” The humorous and cheeky “The New Workout Plan” satirizes so-called “video hos” and groupies, while “Jesus Walks” and “We Don’t Care” question the state of a world mired in poverty, terrorism and racial inequality. These successes notwithstanding, West is at his best on the standout track “Two Words,” featuring Mos Def, labelmate Freeway, and the Harlem Boys Choir. Backed by a superb beat and swelling vocals, West boasts that he is the “most imitated, Grammy nominated … / Two words, Chi town, raised me, crazy / So I live by two words, … pay me.” He also shines on “Last Call,” which is essentially a thank you note to his label Roc-A Fella. He discusses his accomplishments and goals, saying “I went to the malls and I balled too hard / Oh my God is that a black card / I turned around and I replied why yes / But I prefer the term African American Express / Brains, power and muscle like Dame, Puffy & Russell / Your boy back on his hustle you know what I been up to / Killin y’all … on that lyrical [tip] / Mayonnaise color Benz / I push miracle whips.” Besides the usual rapper-to-rapper collaborations, Dropout features an unexpected musician who contributes to about half the album. Israeli artist Miri Ben-Ari, dubbed the “Hip-hop Violinist,” is inventive and fresh, infusing the album with sounds and musical patterns that no doubt help distinguish Dropout from other hip-hop albums. West also teams up with noteworthy and skilled MCs like Jay-Z, Common, Talib Kweli and Twista. In all, West’s debut effort is clever and capable, presenting his talents as a rapper-producer and highlighting his consciousness and concerns as a young adult. He only narrowly escapes being bogged down by the tiring, incessant skits that have become standard on hip-hop albums by making his interludes funny and bold. Despite this near-flaw, West is golden and is certainly giving his colleagues and fellow Roc-A-Fella members M.E.M.P.H.I.S. Bleek, Freeway and Cam’Ron something to think about. As these three try to keep their careers afloat, their label and the world recognize that Kanye West is the future, leaving little room for mediocrity and even less time for them to play catch-up.

Contact Arienne Thompson at [email protected]