The mention of “Kanye West” often inspires, more so than for any other living rapper, a viscerally positive or negative reaction. Sometimes so visceral that I feel I have to defend how much I’ve enjoyed his music throughout his career, which has been an incredible journey, and which has continuously evolved with rap. Or has rap evolved with Kanye West?
He started poor and now he’s rich. We’ll skip that narrative; you’ve heard it before. But Kanye has held a power, probably strapped tight to an ego, since he was a child. Last year, a video surfaced of Kanye at 13 years old, reading a poem written in tribute to Martin Luther King. If you have 54 seconds, watch a boy project an aura that hints at the type of man he will become.
In 1999, at 22 years old, Kanye started working on what would eventually become “College Dropout”, his debut album. The sound on “College Dropout” is very, very different from what you’ve heard recently, on tracks like “Power”, or “Mercy.” Kanye was relatable. He was touchable. He rapped about family, he rapped about dreams, he rapped about values. And then – he changed. And rap changed. It moved from back alleys to banquet halls.
On the opening track for “Cruel Summer”, an album released by Kanye’s label G.O.O.D. Music last year, he comes in with the first lines: “Mmm, ain’t this some shit? Pulled up in an A-V-entador, doors raise up like Praise the Lord.” Now, I think that’s one of the sickest opening lines of any rap song I’ve ever heard. Give the man credit for conjuring powerful imagery. The Lamborghini Aventador is a $400,000 crown automotive jewel, and to imagine its suicide doors rising like hands in prayer invokes Kanye’s own deification of self. The man does not lack for flair.
But Kanye’s flair detracts from his immense talent. Perhaps that’s what happens when the perception of an artist is so wrapped up in his image.
So let’s rewind, back through the new Kanye, let’s skip the opulence, the luxury, and take you way back to what Kanye was and must, at least a little, still be. Here’s Kanye’s “Family Business”, off his first album. It’s one of my top 10 favorite tracks of all time. Kanye raps, over nostalgic instrumentals, about a family member in prison, and he says, “If you tell me you ain’t did it, then you ain’t did it. And if you did, that’s family business.” That’s a loyalty I find indisputably admirable.
And then check out one of my favorite remixes, where Abe Z takes Phoenix’s “Lisztomania” and mashes it up with Kanye West’s “Barry Bonds”, off Kanye’s third album, “Graduation.” This one is smooth. Bounce your head. Download available through SoundCloud.