BACK PACK BLING
Everybody raps, and it seems that everybody who raps has a gimmick. Rappers are giving us a fast food version of music: quick, flashy, and lacking substance. Accustomed to this diet of five-minute food, we pull up to the drive-thru pick-up window, and there stands Kanye West. With a reluctant smile, he serves us a home cooked meal in a brown paper bag. With a Rocafella chain hanging over his fast-food uniform, he bids us farewell as we drive away with the treat of the week to pop into the deck – a copy of his solo album College Dropout.
Though titled after the true story of him leaving school after one year of post-secondary studies and reaching super-producer status, Kanye is not encouraging dropping-out as a the answer to making it. In a poem performed at a Def Poetry Slam which was turned into a verse on the Lauryn Hill-inspired “All Falls Down,” he deals with the album title directly, questioning attending College or University with out a clear purpose. In the actual track, with vocals from Syleena Johnson, he spits: “she’s so self-conscious / she has no idea what she’s doin’ in college … now tell me that ain’t insecure / the concept of school seems so secure / sophomore, three years / ain’t picked a career.”
Not to be taken as a ‘drop-out and become a superstar’s public service announcement, the question is really why are you doing what you are doing? Kanye is passionate about his own purpose of creating music and recommends that others find their passion and stick to it, relentlessly. As serious as ever, he says, “Never say the word can’t. You gotta believe in yourself.” Adding to that, Kanye asks, “I don’t know if you heard people say if I’m arrogant right? Well some people say I’m arrogant, but I’m confident. And I think people who say I’m arrogant are just doubters.”
Place Your Ad Here.Giving an example, he notes that, “if I tell you, ‘yo, when I sell ten million,_ they say, ‘what do you mean you’re gonna sell ten million? Don’t you think that’s kind of arrogant to assume? Don’t you think that’s kind of presumptuous?’ And I’ll say, if Lauryn Hill said she’s gonna sell ten million would you believe her? And they’ll say ‘yeah.’ I’ll be like, ‘what you’re telling me is you’re no Lauryn Hill’.
Far from the truth, for the Hip Hop generation, he is Stevie Wonder with a sampler, rapping rather than singing. This producer, writer, and rapper has gone beyond making hits for the likes of Jay-Z and Alicia Keys, and is making hits of his own. Though fairly rare in Hip Hop, Kanye views excelling with his hands, simultaneously, in the pot of the producer and artist as being nothing new. Currently saturating radio and video rotation with his production on Alicia Key’s “You Don’t Know My Name,” his collaboration with Jamie Foxx and Twista, “Slow Jams”, and his solo joint “Through the Wire,” we are only getting a taste of what is to come. While his album is about to drop and his next four albums are planned out, we’ve only been served the soup of what is at least a five course meal. He lets us know, “I’m gonna do a gospel album. I’m working on Janet Jackson right now. I’m working with my artists, Consequence, G.L.C, and John Legend. And also I’m doing Common’s whole new album.”
In regards to his solo project, the viral effect that bootlegging is having on artists has been flipped into medicine for his album. With a copy of what many thought was the complete album circulating for the last couple of months, Kanye has made some last minute changes. Adding new verses, reworking some beats, cutting out some extremely strong songs, and adding some unheard gems, the buzz from the bootleg is actually serving as unsolicited promotion. Whether accidental or intentional, the use of unofficial albums on the burned-cd market may become a trend in generating interest in official label releases.
One of the already bootlegged cuts to make the album is the stirring “Jesus Walks”. Atop a strongly driven drum roll, enhanced by a choir-like backround melody, Kanye’s lyrics speak to a paradox so obvious, yet overlooked, that hearing him put it into words is invigorating. He rhymes, “You can rap about anything except for Jesus / that means guns, sex, lies, videotape / but if I talk about God / my record won’t get played.”
On top of questioning his own position in the music industry
He explains, “I was speaking through the eyes of a drug dealer. Listen to the actual lyrics, and that’s the whole thing; he’s going down to do these things and he’s asking Jesus to walk with him.”
As for how he deals with the conflict between the rap life and a Christian life, Kanye opens up: “My father always talks to me about my relationship with God -‘am I talking to him enough’? And I feel that I don’t talk to him enough. I pray to him all the time, but I’m not taking full responsibility, I’m just, kind of just, more focused on my music career. I’m trying to keep him first with everything, but I’m a man and I do f’ up.”
In the midst of the growing buzz surrounding Kanye’s work, it is important to look back one year to February 2003 and recall that there was no bigger artist than 50 Cent. In his own words, 50 noted that his success was based on the fact that “everyone loves the bad guy.” February 2004, Kanye is the man in the forefront, and it is not because he is the bad guy, but because of the honesty of his approach. On a surface level, it can be easy to see him as a man of contradictions: a secular rap Christian, a spoken word poet rocking bling, and album appearances from both Jay-Z and Mos Def. To the accusation of these, specicially the latter, being contradictions, he asks, “Why you can’t get both of them?” Noting that they are among one another’s favourite rappers, he adds, “It’s just me. I mean, the average person might have like Jay-Z and Mos Def in their car. There’s a few people that might say ‘yo, I only like Mos Def’, but the average person likes both of them.”
And that’s his strength. Where pop rap is often signified by jewellery and material lust, and underground rap is usually marked by social consciousness and poetic expressions of self, Kanye reveals that there is no separation between the two.
In reality, political activists like nice clothes and materialistic rappers care about the state of the world.
Not willing to deny that he wants to be “the best dressed rapper”, he also gets deeper into the root of flossin: “We shine ’cause they hate us / floss cause they degrade us / we tryin’ to buy back / our 40 acres.”
As to where this sensibility comes from, Kanye looks to his upbringing: “My mother was an activist and my father was a Black panther before, now he’s a Christian marriage counselor.” Another major influence over his music is the fact that life never looks the same through eyes that have beheld death’s face. Kanye survived a near-fatal car accident, and rapped, with his jaw wired closed about what life looked like “Through the Wire”. Enhanced by the nostalgic video full of photos and home videos, this song breaks down the wall between the fantasies and illusions epitomized by so many rappers and links them to the most common and real elements of life, bridging what appear as two opposites into one complete whole.
Aware of his extreme talent, as well as his limits, Kanye candidly admits, “I won’t say I’m as great as a Jadakiss or a Jay-Z. The thing is, I have a niche because of what I’m rapppin. If the rappers that people love, that were really, really great, were to rap about what I’m rappin about, it would be harder for me.” A breath of fresh air, speaking what we all know, but no one says, Kanye breaks down his position in the music so simply, saying, “I epitomize the people, ‘I’m the voice of the little guy.'”
Cover photo courtesy of: Booms Beat