Now that it’s time to come out as a solo artist, Kanye West is fixed on getting at as many people as possible. And although his early fans may be enthralled with his alignment with rap heavyweights, West is so self-possessed that he’s neither pressed to drop his more famous friends nor race to the studio for the next collaboration.
Kanye West wants to make history. The 26 year-old from Chicago has already achieved an enviable buzz in the past 18 months for his production work, perhaps most notably on hits like “H To The Izzo”, “Takeover” and “’03 Bonnie And Clyde” from Jay-Z’s The Blueprint (2001) and The Blueprint 2 (2003), but also on a slew of other R&B and rap remixes and records from MCs as diverse as Scarface (“Guess Who’s Back”), Talib Kweli (“Get By”) and Trina (“B R Right”). Many producers would be satisfied with this early career trajectory (West got his start learning skills from Chicago’s No ID when the latter was producing Common’s Resurrection in ’94) and the status, cred and lucre of the Roc-A-Fella production deal that came after a bidding war in 2002, but not West. That’s not his definition, sense or sensibility of history.
The release of his full-length debut College Dropout (also on Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam) in February 2004 will make West’s intention—his ambition—much more clear. The album will be significant (the bootlegged versions and mixtape samples of it already are) just for the exuberant, well-studied rhyme styles, the long list of cameos and, of course, the tracks that corral all of West’s favorite tropes: the sped-up ’70s soul or ’80s pop sample, the complicated beat arrangements and the occasional showcasing of a particular instrument: electric guitar, conga or keys (usually via his collaborator, the soul singer John Stephens). All this, though, is the framework for the concept at the heart of the record—West’s playful but passionate expression of the conflicts and contradictions of the middle class prerogative under which he labors, chafes and celebrates, beginning with the record’s title and continuing apace. The “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack” (a recent gig proved that it’s a Louis Vuitton backpack at that) touches on black Greek life, mild sexcapades, the “single black female/addicted to retail,” as well as his own insecurity-based materialism. And driving fast cars (driving cars fast?), too—his first single, “Through The Wire” was recorded after he nearly killed himself in a car crash in October 2002; in the song he raps boldly with his jaw wired shut. Near the end of our interview West offers an extended rhyme about getting caught stealing while working at the Gap; but instead of getting fired he’s suddenly sent to the front of the sales floor when black customers arrive. (West does this a lot, actually. He’ll kick a few lines to illustrate a point and next thing you know he’s two verses deep and practically yelling.)
“I get to represent somebody I don’t think is getting represented right now,” says West. “The regular dude: the guy who believes in God but still likes pussy. You know what I mean? The person that would spend his last [dollar] to try to get a hot car, not the person who says ‘Oh, we don’t buy, we just lease’ or the person who’s like ‘Oh, I have so many cars I could crash a car every day’ and shit.”
Although there are theists rich and poor who adore a good fuck, West’s second example better shows where he’s rhyming from—in his mind the “regular dude” is out car shopping. A bourgeois background is nothing new in hip-hop, of course. The music’s secret history is the way in which the middle class has pumped out gangs of tough-talking rappers and thus, as these things go, steered the fate of the music itself. What distinguishes West is not even that he’s openly admitting these values. West is distinct because he’s claiming the middle class as his own and rapping from that perspective, about that life, and directly to those listeners in myriad ways: a formula that propelled the huge success of Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation in ’98.
West is quick to explain that he started out as a rapper first, and that the success of his productions got him sidetracked. Now that it’s time to come out as a solo artist, he’s fixed firmly on getting at as many people as possible. And although his early fans may be enthralled with his alignment with rap heavyweights, West is at this point so self-possessed that he’s neither pressed to drop his more famous friends nor race to the studio for the next collaboration. He’s confident that he can have it both ways without compromising his sound or his self. “Pop just means shit that went out and got pop-u-lar,” he suggests. “That don’t mean ‘Backstreet Boys.’” “I think a lot of people like old Madonna songs,” he continues. “Not everyone sits around watching Scarface over and over ’til they get gassed up to go to the club and try to kill somebody.”
The man’s blow-up in 2004 is ensured by a combination of factors, from his label association and the street cred it implies to the way his productions and presence nudge established MCs to inspired performances. The deciding factor in his rise, though, is West himself. He’s unconcerned with trying to jump the giant chasm between being a good rapper and a great one. In his vaulting ambition he’s obsessed with the subtle distinction—never before articulated this acutely in hip-hop—between being the greatest MC and the more subjective assessment of being the best one. West raps because he wants to—not because he needs to—and his aim is to affect the very grain of the music, not merely to get acclaim. That, at this point, is a given.