— Kanye West, “Roses”
Kanye West is not only a genuine music fan, but a devoted geek. Before the 2002 crash that nearly took his life, but which ultimately provided him with an invaluable PR hook, song material and a deepened drive to succeed, he was twisting knobs behind production boards, honing his compensatory style of rapping and dreaming of being a superstar. Fast-forward past his post-accident wired jaw, and he’s rocking an unsteady cock-of-the-walk style of rapping — and being — that throws his mama’s-boy/geek origins into relief. Not that he’s been trying to hide them. In his own way, he flaunts them. Was it anything but a statement of the obvious earlier this year when, in the midst of his one-man media blizzard, he admitted that his towering ego is really just a mask for his insecurities? Does anyone who’s listened to contemporary rap for more than five minutes, especially much of the so-called hard shit, not know that one of its primary sources of petrol is insecurity filtered through swagger? “We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it,” he rapped (not entirely truthfully) on his hit “All Falls Down,” from College Dropout.
And Ye has reason to be self-conscious. He’s a mediocre rapper. He’s learning on the job, with obvious gaps still quivering in his technique. (Breath control, my man.) But that mediocrity is what makes him such a successful artist overall. The effort to transcend it is what drives him. His country-inflected, pretzel twisting of strategically chosen syllables is calculated quirkiness, a stylistic signature contrived to offset the fact that he otherwise comes off like an overeager altar boy earnestly coordinating profanity and nigga attitude with pullover sweaters and penny loafers. And no-conflict diamonds.
His strain to overcome his limitations gives his work a weighted poignancy, but the near brilliance of the music lies in multiple sources. There’s his tireless work ethic; he’s obsessed with raising the stakes for himself and for hip-hop, setting new bars for artistry, and stretching himself and the music as far as his imagination/record collection/voluminous knowledge can carry him. To that end, his passion for music comes through not only in the beats he meticulously creates but also in his artful use of samples, in what he uses and how. As with many young hip-hop producers, he listens to old music and hears raw data, potential samples waiting to be chiseled from the fat. Unlike many of his peers, however, Ye (the sensitive child of an English professor) has both a heartfelt appreciation for that music in and of itself, and an intuitive knowledge of how to wield it.
For now, he’s rap’s reigning alchemist, as proved with this year’s Late Registration CD. Rap is a genre that, at least in part, is rooted in the transforming of auto-bio minutiae into iconic narrative. It’s a form of expression that — at its best — forges mass-produced identity plates (race, gender, class status, sexuality... “realness”) in the fire of ingenuity and individuality. Registration continues Kanye’s transmutation of assorted cultural elements and rap-genre foundations that made up his 2004 debut, College Dropout. By positioning himself as the middle pole swaying between ’hood-rat poses and caviar dreams, he simultaneously reconciles and underlines tensions that simmer in the lives of his fellow Negren. He just happens to do so with the ear and instincts of a budding pop master, making art in the process.
Like the late Luther Vandross, another peerless and ambitious producer/songwriter/black music VIP, Kanye is forthright in owning up to the invaluable roles that female artists and their music, specifically, have played in shaping his own artistry (if not his diva attitude). A sped-up Chaka sample lit up “Through the Wire”; Lauryn (via Syleena Johnson) provided the hook for “All Falls Down” (West has said that he listened to Miseducation nonstop while recording College Dropout); Patti LaBelle wails on “Roses” from the new CD, while West’s obsession with Fiona Apple led to his using her partner in crime, Jon Brion, to co-produce Late Registration. And he turns Maroon 5’s Adam Levine into a most affectingly soulful hook-bitch on “Heard ’Em Say.”
Ye’s easy alignment with the femme has provided him with a visceral understanding of the emotional power of a well-snipped, well-placed sample, where he distills nostalgia and sentimentality down to their “Oh, damn...” essences. In fact, on College Dropout, he’s often reduced to the role of supporting player not simply to his own backing tracks but, more precisely, to the sample anchors dropped in them: The real star of the track “Touch the Sky” (produced by Just Blaze) is the snatch of uplifting horn cribbed from Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” and sprinkled with slivers of Mayfield’s vocals. The fiery race and political consciousness of the fantastic “Crack Music” are purposefully orchestrated to spill from the multiple-meaning layers of the preceding track, “My Way Home,” which itself generously samples “Home is Where the Hatred Is” by fallen, drug-addled icon of Black revolution, Gil Scott-Heron. And, of course, “Gold Digger” pivots on Jamie Foxx’s impassioned riff on Ray Charles.
It’s not by coincidence or simple fan appreciation that these names — Mayfield, Scott-Heron, Charles — are evoked, their art referenced. Kanye is aiming to pull up a chair at the same hallowed table where these greats sit. It’s a measure of how smart and how ambitious he is that he knew his goal of next-level conquest called for an assist, and he reached beyond the usual hip-hop suspects for some backup, dialing up Brion (master of the curlicue special effect and offbeat musical passage) to help him slide up to the masters’ table.
Accompanying the music are lyrics full of patented bite, off-kilter wit and anger, which canvass issues from the small-scale personal to the capital “P” political: Bush — along with the modern Republicans’ Rosetta stone, Ronald Reagan — was a target for Kanye long before the president and his minions Keystone-copped Katrina. You have to wonder how all the suburban housewives who approvingly bopped along as West performed the Hallmark-esque “Hey Mama” on Oprah’s show, and then raced out to buy the CD (He’s a good son andhe loves Jesus...), reacted once they got the CD home to lines such as, “How we stop the Black Panthers?/Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer/You hear that?/What Gil Scott was hearin’/When our heroes and heroines got hooked on heroin...Who gave Saddam anthrax?/George Bush got the answers...” And do they fully appreciate the balancing act he pulls off by erasing the sham lines that still exist between “conscious rap” and “street shit,” between fans of Fiddy or the Ying Yang Twins and fans of Talib Kweli, Common and Little Brother? They might not, but you can bet he does.
At the core of all the innovation is a carefully mapped one-man truce (with all its spiked footnotes on authenticity and viability) declared on the class angst that plagues Black America. West, from a solidly middle-class background, was inculcated with nice, middle-class aspirations. His introduction of himself to the world as a college dropout fanned all sorts of webbed, crippling anxieties around Negro respectability and upward mobility, around the suffocating fetish that black folk have long made of higher education — and around the even more seductive and suffocating fetish that so many of us have made of the street degree. West sees and lets himself be wrapped in the pull of both sides of that rotating magnetic coin. But he also sees a larger picture. College Dropout announced it; Late Registration ups the ante and reiterates it.
It is a blackness that is unapologetically preppie and unafraid to walk through the ’hood at night, blackness that can croon along to conk-haired Negro balladeers and weave-flossing divas, but also rock out to messily poetic white girls working through their shit in a studio. Kanye West reps for blackness that actively pulls others up, as both Common and John Legend can testify. He ups blackness that delights in Niggerosity, but is also poised to run corporate America. He’s the sum of the lessons and struggles of civil rights icons who dreamed of a colorblind America, and cultural revolutionaries who didn’t fall for the okey-doke. He speaks the tensions faced by a lot of us, regardless of race, class or gender, as we struggle to negotiate the social conditioning we receive regarding what constitutes career success, adulthood and mastering of “the game,” when those terms are so often at odds with what we know to be spiritually and morally correct. His forward political vision, articulated in both his rhymes and his interviews, is rooted in the simple love of family and Family, so when a beloved cousin came out of the closet, it triggered an epiphany that led Kanye to tell the larger hip-hop community that it needs to get over its homophobia, in full knowledge that that doing so would leave his non-thug style of black maleness vulnerable to snickering speculation. He draws, with clearly shaking hands, from a tradition of black resistance to call out the president on television and then withstand the outrage and threats of boycotts leveled at him.
He’s not perfect, and he’s not the savior of hip-hop. But like the most resonant of music icons, he’s a seamless fusion of offstage self, onstage persona and the music he makes. He’s whole, multidimensional, contradictory, full of himself, a tad unsteady, within reach of brilliance, and black at the core. All he’s got to do now is learn how to rap.