Even if you don’t think you’ve heard of Kanye West, you’ve already heard him. He was the beatmaker responsible for hip-hop classics like Talib Kweli’s “Get By,” but also for mainstream chart-toppers like Jay-Z’s “Girls Girls Girls,” “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” and most recently Ludacris’ “Stand Up.” And songs from his first solo album, “College Dropout,” like “Slow Jamz” (featuring Twista and Jamie Foxx) and “Through the Wire” are already getting heavy rotation on music television and radio stations.
Kanye West has already shown himself to be a naturally gifted producer. He doesn’t falter in “College Dropout.” His beats effortlessly synthesize decades of music and genres – old school funk riffs and bongo drums counter electric violin and choir in “Breathe In Breathe Out,” 80’s metal guitar meets harpsichord in “2 Words,” film-score strings mix with hand-drum in “The Good The Bad The Ugly” – and they all mix with the piano and myriad 70’s soul samples which pervade the whole album. But his producing is so natural that each contribution sounds like it wouldn’t fit into any other orchestration. Old and new voices speak to each other gorgeously. Halfway through a song like “Breathe In Breathe Out” he’ll change the beat completely, interrupting sustained minor church-choir chords with a completely unexpected funk guitar – and it works so well it makes you feel like the two were always meant to be heard together.
“College Dropout” is an intelligent and irrepressibly funky album that is political and personal without the typical preachiness of a lot of political hip-hop, like, say, Nas’ “I Can.” It covers all subjects, from strippers and jewelry to his family to his school. He even makes a song (“Jesus Walks”) about how much he loves Christ. And it’s really, really good.
Like Andre 3000’s “The Love Below,” tracks are immediately catchy and funny as well as being breathtakingly innovative. You’ll find plenty of rhymes like “Let me play this Vandros / so you can take your pants off” and, “She got a light-skinned friend, looks like Michael Jackson / got a dark-skinned friend, looks like Michael Jackson” on “Slow Jamz.” But this song is then immediately followed by a song like “My Way,” one that is simultaneously cocky, personal, and political, about how he’s made it as a musician and how modern rap has affected the civil rights movement. The beat of the song is a sped-up sample of Sinatra’s “My Way,” placed into West’s own slow, 70’s-style soul accompaniment, with added female R&B vocals. And again, it fits perfectly. Perfectly!
The entire album is permeated by this harmonious clash of styles. West can’t decide whether he wants to go the route of self-reflective hip-hop artists like Talib Kweli and the Nappy Roots, or that of mainstream, materialistic, party rappers like Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Nelly. But rather than pick, he makes the two schools work together — after all, he has produced beats for every one of these artists.
Kanye West has the mind of a true producer. He isn’t a particularly virtuosic MC, but he is solid and his rhymes work the two schools of rap together unexpectedly. In songs like “Self Conscious,” he drops political commentary into an absurd juxtaposition with pop-rap style, rhyming about a teenage girl unsure of her future: “the concept of school seems so securr / sophomore three yurrs, ain’t picked a carurr / she like ‘fuck it I’ll just stay down hurr and do hair’ / ’cause that’s enough money to buy her a few pairs of new airs.” Using a classic Nelly-like rhyme scheme, he manages to paint a tenuous picture of a character torn between the values of her family and the flashy money depicted in the music she listens to.
The disjoint appears everywhere, like at the beginning of “Never Let You Down” where Kanye West’s personal message to his grandmother is silenced when Jay-Z himself drowns out the sensitivity with a rowdy “Turn the mother-fuckin’ music up!” The album works both ways — you can listen to it for thoughtful insights, innovative rhyme structures and complicated sampling, or you can just turn it up — because this guy is one of the hottest producers today.