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.)