When not busy geeking out to Pitchfork‘s coverage of all things indietronic, we’re likely debating whether it was Hood or the Notwist who first inspired Radiohead’s post-rock reinvention in 1999. Or maybe it’s something along the lines of whether or not Basic Channel‘s music deserves a genre classification of its own, or the merits of declaring Philip Jeck as the ultimate electro-acoustic composer, or pronouncing L.A.’s Stones Throw to be the most underrated hip-hop label in operation today.
In other words, it’s unlikely that we’d ever get behind a major-label record of any stripe. But here’s some major-label-styled hype for you: it’s only the second week of February, and already the leading contender for 2004’s album of the year has been released. Available today on the racks of all sorts of record stores across the country, in outlets as diverse as Kim’s and Amoeba to FYE and Sam Goody (and likely to sell just as well in each type of these aforementioned shops), Kanye West’s College Dropout has been released on Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella imprint, home to such musical all-stars as Beanie Sigel, Memphis Bleek, and, ummm, Samantha Ronson.
This would be considered “staying in the family”, since the 26-year-old West is heretofore best known as the producer of some of Jay-Z’s biggest hits off of 2001’s The Blueprint. Relatively invisible up to this point, he’s also spent the past two years becoming one of pop music’s most likely hit-makers, engineering the hooks and beats for a remix of Britney Spears’ collaboration with Madonna, Ludacris‘ “Stand Up” and Alicia Keys‘ “You Don’t Know My Name”, as well as the definitive summer anthem for 2003, Talib Kweli‘s “Get By”, which I most recently heard played out at a New Year’s Eve party thrown by members of Silverlake’s indie-guitar-and-electronics scenesters.
That means crossover appeal.
With his well-branded usage of high-pitched vocal lines and sped-up soul samples (and sundry other hyphenated descriptions), Kanye’s been the sample-mad bloke (oh! there’s another one!) who’s injected some semblance of warmth and emotion back into the landscape of contemporary pop music. If the cutting-edge sterility of Timbaland‘s productions might be said to have ruled the hip-hop roost up through 2002, until being supplanted by the infectious beats of the super-prolific Neptunes in 2003, Chad and Pharell had best watch their backs. 2004 is looking to be the year that Kanye West knocks them out of contention for artiste du jour (think of it this way: if these producers were notable French electronic musicians rather than American hip-hop moguls-in-the-making, the Neptunes would be Daft Punk to Kanye West’s Air, much like the difference between accessible party music and accessible maturity, to really belabor the point).
That’s the behind-the-scenes Kanye West, however. The lyricist that steps up to the front and takes the mic on College Dropout, his debut album, ups the ante a bit by combining the emotionally-resonant hooks (one or two per track, in the form of gospel- and soul-sampled paeans to religion, school, and the black middle class) with witty and uplifting lyrics that, more often than not, gently poke fun at the arrogance and thug-life of hip-hop. Standouts include his collaboration with speed-rapping lyricist Twista on “Slow Jamz”, a semi-ironic tribute to soul ballads of the past, featuring-get this-Jamie Foxx singing the vocal hook. No joke. Right? No joke? Hmmm.
“We Don’t Care” riffs on welfare, after-school programs, and low-wage jobs in the black community, with an unforgettable lyrical hook comprised of kids-children!!!-singing, “Drug dealin’ just to get by/ Stack your money ’til it gets sky high/ We weren’t supposed to make it past 25/ Joke’s on you, we’re still alive/ Throw your hands up in the air, cos we don’t care what people say.” There’s “Jesus Walks”, a ponderous pop song whose closest relative would have to be Timbaland’s work last year on “Cry Me a River”, except this track seems to have a bit more gravity than J.T.’s ode to a failed relationship with some 20-year-old half-witted blonde popstar girlfriend who may or may not have fucked Fred Durst (sorry, Justin!).
“Spaceship” just reeks of “hit single,” with its vocal hook overlaid atop a splendid Jackson 5-styled soul sample. “I’ve been working this grave shift/ and I ain’t made shit/ I wish i could buy me a spaceship and fly/ past the sky.” Again, there’s an indelible hook in each and every song-the entire record has the potential to be a series of individual hits, save for the skits, which are well-nigh unbearable. Well, that and the track with Ludacris. No one really likes Ludacris.
And much like last year’s so-called “record of the year”, when 50 Cent took his thuggish self all the way to the cover of the Rolling Stone with his Get Rich or Die Tryin (well, that, or by virtue of his purportedly having been shot a sensational 1,342 times), West, too, has one of those tired stories of overcoming personal struggle onto which the music press inevitably latches, having been in a car accident less than two years ago that required his jaw to be a) surgically reconstructed and b) wired shut (which, incidentally, is made apparent at various points on the record, as his speech slurs a bit here and there. But it still sounds great).
But Kanye, man, Kanye wrote a hit single about this experience, the Chaka Khan-sampling “Through the Wire”. Through the wire, get it? The wire? His jaw was wired shut while he rapped over Chaka Khan! Well, at least radio listeners and MTV2 can’t get enough of it.
But we won’t hold that against him. It’s a great rekkid, hooks and all. Download away!
RELATED: K Sanneh says the same shit, more or less, but gets paid by the New York Times.