Kanye West - R&F4

In honor of his debut album The College Dropout’s 10-year anniversary, Day & A Dream revisits The Rise & Fall of Kanye West. Read Part I here.

Part 2: A Champion in Our Eyes

Ha-ha! She love my big ego…

Truth be told, Kanye’s ego and megalomaniacal nature have been there from the jump. It was just a bit more “turned down” and a bit easier to ignore back in the day.

For all of the accolades West received and the praise that was lavished upon College Dropout, the album ultimately didn’t get either of The Big Ones – neither the Grammy Award for Cursed Black Best New Artist nor the Grammy for Album of the Year. Kanye took it personally. To use the words of the great Erykah Badu, Kanye, like any artist, was sensitive about his shit. But the problem was that there was a very thin line between Kanye’s “sensitivity” and his sense of entitlement. Sure, he’d crafted a hip-hop classic on his first try, and the case could be made that it WAS the best album of 2004. But it didn’t get a Grammy for it. And for that, Kanye had choice words.

In the beginning, Kanye’s “Grammy rants” were considered poor taste but some in the industry and plenty of folks outside of it applauded ‘Ye for them. West, to us, was holding the Grammy committee accountable for continually placing rap/hip-hop as an “other,” as something still not good enough to be welcomed in. Never mind that OutKast had just won the Album of the Year Grammy last year with Speakerboxxx/The Love Below – it was all about the fact that the committee seemed too scared to name a rap LP Album of the Year in back-to-back years. To his credit, at least Kanye used the snubbing as fuel to get back in the booth and go harder.

Kanye West - LR_coverThe following year, in 2005, Kanye would release Late Registration, firmly establishing his “trend” of school-related motifs in album titles. However, the subject matter was much more adult on Registration. The samples were still there, but the “fun” of Dropout was restricted mostly to “Gold Digger” and the Broke Phi Broke fraternity skits. Instead, Registration showed Ye using deeper analogies to tackle serious subjects (the catchy “Crack Music” hiding a commentary on the Reagan years), a more adult contemporary sound on songs like “Hey Mama” and “Heard Em Say” featuring Maroon 5’s Adam Levine, and even dabbling in regionally specific sounds, like the clearly Houston-influenced “Drive Slow.” The result, was a sophomore release that was as well-received as its predecessor and which remains, to many, Ye’s best album. In addition to continuing the trend of school-related themes, it would also establish another one – consistent creative collaborations involving his boss/friend/the man who took him under his wing, Jay-Z.

Again, the praise spilled out for Late Registration. And to his credit, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone” – a Shirley Bassey “Diamonds Are Forever” sampling joint that hid social commentary on blood diamonds beneath an infectious beat – did get Best Rap Song at the Grammys. But once again, Album of the Year evaded him. And once more, a “Grammy rant” came.

There would be another incident looming, however, that would raise West’s infamy to still new heights.

In 2005, as the nation rallied to adapt to Hurricane Katrina hitting New Orleans, LA, and its surrounding areas, relief efforts were put in place to send supplies and support to those affected. One such relief effort was a nationwide concert/telethon that featured popular celebrities, urging the public to donate to the Red Cross if they could. During this telethon, West was in the studio with actor Michael Myers and apparently went off-script, blurting into the television abruptly, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” (specifically because FEMA’s relief efforts weren’t being directed towards New Orleans’s Ninth Ward district, where a majority of the residents were Black). It sent everyone who watched it – including Chris Tucker, whose dropped jaw remained on the ground a full five seconds after the cameras cut back to him before he regrouped – into total shock. West’s “outburst” was considered severely inappropriate, an unfair critique of the United States’ president at the time.

And yet, West’s unflinching willingness to challenge authority figures was intoxicating. We loved it. Well, most of us did. Kanye loved it, too. The infamy. He loved the fact that we applauded him, almost as one eggs on a class clown. But we weren’t laughing at him: we were laughing with him. We were championing him.

West used his growing magnetism to continue to garner features and fame (or infamy, even). He began to have his earliest run-ins with the paparazzi but they weren’t particularly negative. From 2006 to 2007, Kanye’s music started to reflect the more outspoken, abrasive side of his personality. West experimented with electronic dance music, 80s techno-pop, and the like.

His first single in 2007, “Can’t Tell Me Nothin’,” dropped in May before the summer hit and was instantly fresh and radio gold. Its sing-songy chorus, coupled with elements of Ye’s bucking authority – “Old folks talking ‘Well, back in my day,’/ But homie, this is my day – class started two hours ago? Oh, am I late?” – and its relatable content, about (perhaps foolishly) waiting for a financial break to solve all your problems, made it a favorite for many West fans to this day. Then came the second single from his upcoming album, “Stronger.” A Daft Punk sample made “Stronger” catchy; but it was also robotic, lacking the soulful nature of his songs of the past and perhaps even sounding a little soul-less.

Kanye West - Graduation_cover“Soul-less” is probably the best way to describe Ye’s third studio album, Graduation, which we would later discover would be the last of the college-themed series. Released on 9/11 in 2007, Graduation wasn’t a bad LP. In fact, it was solid enough to go double platinum. But in many ways, it was missing that distinctive sound and flavor that we had come to associate with Kanye West. The emotional hits were there – the aforementioned “Nothing,” the introspective Jay-Z ode “Big Brother,” the upbeat “Champion” – but it was also droning and repetitive on cuts like “Everything I Am” and “Good Life,” leaps and bounds Ye’s most commercially-sounding album. Granted, if you were a college student (as I was) or a high school senior when Graduation dropped, then its anthems about getting your money together, big dreams, maintaining your individuality, and succeeding at all costs were all but a soundtrack for you.

 

Three albums in three years, each chock full of hits and worthy of replay from start to finish. Oh, and Ye’s Glow in the Dark Tour was kicking off quite nicely. But by the time Graduation rolled around, there was a sense that there was something was different about Kanye. And it wasn’t just the fame, or the changing of the guard as Jay moved on and up the corporate ladder in Def Jam Records following his brief “retirement.” It was something else. It was like stopping your car on the train tracks and hearing the horn blow, but not seeing the train coming at you. Looking back, it’s eerie how “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” was almost foreshadowing.

“…Don’t ever… say something when you gon’ end up apologizin’/ And let me know if it’s a problem then/ Aight, man – holla, then…”