Monday, January 12, 2009

Reflections On Hearing College Dropout Again After 5 Years

I remember seeing these in the liner notes and wanting one.

So I was running some J.Crew returns and picking up 55 Successful Harvard Law School Application Essays today (all but 2 or 3 suck, it's quite reassuring), and I thought I'd reacquaint myself with The College Dropout. Dropout dropped at a sort of rough juncture in my life - second semester of freshman year at Duke, during which I became pretty depressed and was ultimately forced to drop out of college myself for a time, and, like Kanye on 'Spaceship,' take up a pretty humiliating job at a mall just to gain readmission. Kanye also performed on the Last Day of Classes that year (I was so drunk that I remember insisting it wasn't Kanye, but rather a body double), the album was a big topic of conversation among me and my friends (who were, oddly enough, largely in those days players on the women's basketball team), and perhaps the album's association, both temporally and content-wise, with a tough time in my life has something to do with my not having listened to the album in so long. So here are a confirmed Kanye-hater's thoughts on Kanye's best album after hearing it again after 5 years.

First of all, it's a great album, one that might even be a little underrated. I'm not one of those people who believes in major and minor classics - to me an album's either up there with Cuban Linx, Dah Shinin, etc., or it's not a classic. (I make an exception for Ice Cream Man.) So I can't call it a classic because it's just not as good as the stuff that's indisputably in the canon. Realistically speaking, there's probably just one song on here nearly as good as, say, 'Trife Life,' a song off an album with a dozen songs just as good. That's my idea of a classic. So no, Dropout's no classic. But there probably hasn't been a better rap album since. It's not that Dropout does anything terribly original; as Kanye explicitly acknowledges on 'Last Call,' we've seen this mix of goofy playfulness, autobiography, and never-preachy social commentary somewhere before ("though the fans want the feeling of a Tribe Called Quest/all they've got left is this guy called West"). But the fact is, between Tribe's breakup and Dropout, there weren't a lot of guys carrying that mantle, and more importantly, since Dropout, there's hardly been anyone since. So when you go back to Dropout, you still feel like you're hearing something utterly fresh because, as much as people produced for a while like Kanye, or may have been swayed fashion-wise by some of his less openly homo getups, try naming some rappers whom he influenced. (And don't say Lupe, it's not true.) It's pretty hard, and that's a shame because Kanye was really onto something on this album.

Building on that point, before I come back to this album, one real canard among Kanye defenders that I want to strenuously dispute is that, basically, Kanye made his classic traditional rap album, couldn't really advance the genre any further, so then he branched out into post-lyrical rapping and more orchestral/house/mock-80s modes of production, and yeah, some of it's worked and some of it hasn't, but it's all a flight from the restrictive constraints of a traditional sound and what Brandon's called the Nas formula and towards something new, different, and, at the least, not so stale. Quite the contrary, I say, at least so far as the rapping goes. What actually happened is that, after having, as he a little extravagantly puts it on 'Family Business,' discovered "a creative way to rhyme without using knives and guns," or as I would put it, dusted off the Native Tongues - that is, rediscovered a Third Way to rap that was neither gangsta nor obsessed with throwing its real hip-hop credentials in your face, Kanye basically decided that he would be another Jay-Z. And granted, this Jay would do things a little differently than the old one, he wouldn't claim to have sold drugs once or talk about shooting people, that simply would've been too ridiculous given what we knew about Kanye, that he was a preppy middle-class kid whose mascot was a teddy bear, but Kanye would attempt to display the same immense ego, sexual prowess, wealth, and lyrical skills that characterized the God MC. So we'd get a Kanye who'd say things like "since Pac passed away/most of you rappers don't deserve a track from me," or "your girl don't like me, how long has she been gay" - in the same verse of the same awful song. A Kanye who rapped about getting head on private planes - and thought he was doing so cleverly because of an awful punchline that people won't even understand 5 years from now. A Kanye who wants to pose naked. Unfortunately, braggadoccio doesn't become Kanye, nor do his insipid punchlines, but with a cadre of indie-rock critics poised to praise his every move the more and more his music started to sound like stuff that they were used to listening to, that message never got through to him, and the guy goes to sleep at night honestly believing he's put out four great albums, even though he's lost every bit of what made him a refreshing artist. What I want to emphasize though is that Late Registration and Graduation aren't failed experiments; they're failed exercises in cliche, just as surely as 50's last two albums were. The difference being that 50, at least, personifies the cliches with which he works, while Kanye couldn't have picked a less convincing or more grating persona to assume.

So it's such a surprise to come back 5 years later to the old Kanye, a humble, shy Kanye,* one who acknowledges his shortcomings as a rapper (one of the funnier lines of the album, on Slow Jamz - "I don't think I can do it that fast, but I know someone who can..."), instead of the Kanye who spent two albums desperately trying to mask his massive insecurities in inconvincing displays of ego - and then, worse yet, finally vented them in an autotuned work of schlock that's more worthy of being compared to a teenage girl's diary than Tears for Fears or Cameo (or more bizarrely yet, Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver. Wow, Tom Breihan. Just wow). You listen to 'Through The Wire' and you hear symptoms of the bad punchline disease that would end his career as a respectable rapper just one year later, shit like "The doctor said I had blood clots/but I ain't Jamaican, man/story on MTV, but I ain't tryin to make the band." But it isn't a quarter as annoying as similar duds on the next album, because here when he says a stupid punchline, you don't get the sense that he thinks he's saying something that clever; rather, you forgive them, smile at them even, because you're swept away by the novelty of this guy rapping through wire in his jaw about his car crash. Novel in a lot of respects; most rappers don't rap about car crashes, they prefer to rap about getting shot at in their Lambos. This was a guy rapping about quotidian, suburban experiences that just weren't rapped about on non-underground records. The rapping through the wire, a moving devotion to his art in which questions as to whether he was really any good at it were inevitably subsumed. A clever choice of a first single, if you look at it that way. (50 vs. Kanye was billed as a clash between the brilliant marketer/businessman and the artist, but Kanye's always been the better marketer.) The storytelling, the details, the famous boost and ensure and sipping the sizzurp on the pancakes. On this album, the guy's almost endearing.

Similarly, on 'Spaceship' there are hints of Kanye's soon-to-be-famous ego ("I deserve to do these numbers, the kid who made that, deserves that Maybach"). But here you can't help but agree, because instead of just stating, say, "I feel like there's still bitches that owe me sex" and coming off like the delusional idiot he's become, he puts his extravagant claims for what he deserves in some context. He talks about the time in his life before he was famous, something which he's pushed under the rug since, for the most part, and he talks about the grind it took to get there. By the end of his verse, you feel that he's earned that Maybach. And of course, enough can't be said about the beat. It's the one indisputably classic song on the album, probably the one indisputable classic in Kanye's discography, and really the most out-of-the-box thing he's ever done as a rapper. If you'd never heard the album, would you believe, or ever guess, that he recorded a classic rap ballad about race and working at the Gap?

Of course, Dropout has its share of slipups. I think everyone agrees that 'New Workout Plan' was a mistake; more controversially, I've always felt that Kanye bit off way more than he could chew, technically and topically, on 'Jesus Walks.' But if those are your missteps... well. And the skits - I appreciate the intent, but surely he could've found a better way to tie the album together than recording a bunch of not-so-funny skits that just expose his resentments against higher education. Really, I've never quite gotten what the anti-education theme has to do with anything on the album, although there is a loose connection, in Kanye's mind at least, between the label execs who wouldn't sign him because he was too preppy and the people who looked askance at his dropping out of college. At least, though, they're not as bad as the skits on Late Registration, which started to give me the distinct impression that Kanye was kicked out of a frat for acting, um, queerly. (Remember the skits mocking Broke Phi Broke for insisting that Kanye stop rocking Gucci loafers? Yeah... I think there was more to it than that.) Like I said, though, if your only slipups are trying a little too hard to make the next De La Soul Is Dead (I'm referring to the skits and 'New Workout Plan' here), and making an earnest, at times moving, but ultimately seriously flawed song on a subject that's hardly ever seriously discussed in rap,** that's a pretty great album.

* In a way it's a lot like seeing Tom Cruise in Risky Business before dude's ego exploded and he transformed into an incredibly successful douchebag. There's a great essay on Slate on just this topic; if you're interested in this sort of thing, read it.
** Another instance of Kanye's brilliant marketing is the reverse psychology he used on radio programmers in the second verse. Not that it'd be a great record without that, but the blatant manipulation and bullshit content with letting the song take away from his spins/ends takes it down another notch for me.


Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

this goes really well with my chappelle's show post. i distinctly remember sitting in my mom's car senior year of high school one night blasting 'Spaceship.' i didn't even have a job at the time, but it really spoke to me for whatever reason. after working at blockbuster the next summer, i totally see now why i connected to that song.

something you sort of get at is that this is a bit of a grassroots effort. he has his cousin singing on a lot of it (whereas later he outsourced singing parts more and more), and like you say, he just sounds like he's having fun.

that's also maybe the greatest first paragraph you've ever written.

tray said...

Gee, I thought it was rather disastrous. I mean, two parentheticals in one sentence? That clunky second sentence? The third paragraph's alright though. I guess one thing I'm trying to get at is that College Dropout is the sort of album that can actually speak to people and resonate with certain events in their lives, whereas with the next two, even if, for whatever reason, you don't mind all the stuff that's bad about them, there's not much particularly resonant there.

Jesus Shuttlesworth said...

the way College Dropout resonated with you is what I meant about the first paragraph, but you knew that (I think).

brandon said...

" second semester of freshman year at Duke, during which I became pretty depressed and was ultimately forced to drop out of college myself for a time, and, like Kanye on 'Spaceship,' take up a pretty humiliating job at a mall just to gain readmission"

Man do you sound like a bitch there...a job at the mall? Gasp!

tray said...

Gasp indeed! (Although it was fun in a slumming it kind of way.) Of course if you go to Goucher, that's probably how half the class ends up, not so gasp-worthy.

brandon said...

I wouldn't doubt it Tray, but it's also like how most of the country ends up, working some shitty job they don't like. You had to do it for a few months and sound all 808s and Heartbreak about it.

In another lifetime, I'll make sure to be a wealthy prick with the luxury of being allowed to drop out to better understand your pain.

ghengis blond said...

i fuck with this, for sure, and think i'd nod in agreement throughout were i not such a fan of late registration and graduation. i have a lot of fun watching interviews with kanye from the period prior to his conception of the messianic primadonna he works so hard at presenting these days.

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