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February 13, 2004

Kanye West should save hits for self, not Jay-Z

Straight from producing hit tracks for Ludacris ("Stand Up"), Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"), Jay-Z ("Encore"), and Talib Kweli ("Get By"), up-and-coming rap producer Kanye West releases his first solo album. And really, it's about time. While other rappers pull all-nighters trying think of new sexual innuendos and rake the thesaurus for new ways to say "Shake Ya Ass," Kanye's been sneaking in beats for the last five years that are, at heart, old-school. By weaving sped-up "chipmunk" soul samples seamlessly between triumphant horns and throbbing bass, Kanye has created a sound that is uniquely his own. Take RZA, Pete Rock, and Marley Marl and throw them in a blender. Shake ya ass, indeed.

Whenever a producer tries to rap—or vice versa—there can be problems. Dr. Dre manages to overcome this by loading his album with guest appearances, and by hiring other rappers, such as Snoop Dogg and Eminem, to pen him verses. But regardless of the lack of authenticity, Dre has a flow, which is more than I could say when I first heard Kanye rap on Jay-Z's "The Bounce." Kanye's forced, sing-song rhymes cradled god-awful lyrics like "Gingerbread Man even said you're a monster!" He sounded like he ended every line with a sneer.

Since then, Kanye has improved, making up for his lyrical shortcomings with style. His goofy, lighthearted rhymes hearken back to the feel-good days of De La Soul and A Tribe Called Quest. Over the galloping bass and swooping violins of "Workout Plan," he rhymes "Ooh, girl your breath is harsh / Cover your mouth up like you got SARS!"  On the throwback single, "Slow Jamz" (it's a song about songs! Take that, Charlie Kaufman!), Kanye half-sings, "She got a light-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson / Got a dark-skinned friend look like Michael Jackson!" Many current rappers desperately try to convince you they're going to climb out of the song and kill you, but with Kanye there's a playfulness that has been missing for a long time in mainstream rap.This playfulness extends to the songs themselves, as Kanye sporadically pumps in catchy gospel choruses, an electro-funk beat-break, and even a spoken-word rant on spirituality.

His subject matter bears brutal honesty, destroying the "image" the American Idol judges assure us is so important to an artist. Over the thumping, tribal rhythm of "Jesus Walks," he excoriates radio for giving hip-hop songs about ice, guns, and clubs a free pass while rejecting anything the least bit religious or thoughtful. After getting in a car accident and having his jaw wired shut, Kanye raps about his new outlook on life in the infectious, aptly titled, "Through the Wire." And over the beautiful cadences of "Family Business" and "Last Call" Kanye opens the book on his family and career, narrating everything you'd ever want to know.

Of course, it would be cruel to hoard all these beats for himself, so Kanye is keen to share the spotlight. Jay-Z sneaks out of retirement to drop two standout verses on the introspective "Never Let You Down," the album's best track. On the topically meandering but catchy "Get ‘Em High," Kanye unites Talib Kweli with Common, who returns to form after hugging trees and doing God-knows-what on Electric Circus. Mos Def, who is long overdue for a sophomore album, takes a break from the big screen to assure us he's still got it with the arena-rock grandeur of "Two Words." Ludacris provides the chorus to "Breathe In, Breathe Out," but unfortunately doesn't stay long enough for a verse. And, of course, there's Twista's incredible performance on "Slow Jamz," in which he chases Kanye's staple chipmunk sample, waits for it to reappear, then chases it again—only to run into comedian Jamie Foxx, who croons an inexplicably harmonious chorus. I don't know what the hell Kanye was thinking, but it works.

College Dropout, however, is far from perfect. The numerous skits on the album, despite fitting in with the theme, serve only to wear out your skip button. I can live with the "Intro" as setup, and aside from the cynical "School Spirit," there's nothing entertaining enough to avoid being annoying. Also, while there isn't a bad song on the album, there certainly could have been better ones. Kanye opted not to include excellent tracks that leaked months ago ("Home," "Keep The Receipt," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly") in favor of new material that doesn't pack the same punch. Sure, he's giving us incentive to buy the album, but ironically, he's also giving us incentive to burn it, including all of his classic tracks and excluding all those goddamn skits.

Some people won't get be able to get past the fact that Kanye isn't a great MC, but I appreciate that he's trying to be. In a way, he fills the gap between underground and commercial hip-hop: his songs consistently get crossover appeal, but the subject matter is rarely prurient. And when he does delve into cliché, he's quick to note this and question himself. Maybe this is just laziness, but at least it shines a light through the all-important "bling." It's pretty refreshing to listen to songs like "Jesus Walks" and "All Falls Down (Self-Conscious)" instead of the usual mantra: "Work it! Shake your ass! Back your ass up! Move, bitch! Put your left foot in! Put your right foot out! Do the Hokey-Pokey, because that's what it's all about! G-G-G-G-Unit!" Kanye might have dropped out of college—but hey, at least he didn't drop out of high school.