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Twenty years after ‘The College Dropout,’ we miss the Old Kanye — Andscape

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The afternoon Kanye West walked across my boss’s desk was somewhere in the final months of 2003. At the time, his unreleased debut album was titled Drug Dealing. It would later be etched into history as The College Dropout, the inception of a spectacular and most maverick five-album run. Imagine hearing Kanye’s “Jesus Walks” live for the first time. I stood there attentive, at once possessed by the militaristic percussion and background vocals that apparently traveled a full century from Mississippi. Kanye was literally rapping to me. With performative acuity and swiftness, he pivoted to the person leaning on the wall a few feet away. With the Chicago creative’s direct sunlight and demonstrative showmanship now removed from my eyesight, the spirit of his words began to bloom from under my consciousness.

“I wanna talk to God, but I’m afraid cause we ain’t spoke in so long.”

I remember my arms being crossed; my chin and gaze raised. There was something infectiously individual and awkward about this “wanna-be-rapper” from the Windy City. Is he seriously Jay-Z’s next Roc-A-Fella artist? I thought. Rappers don’t spit like this. Masters of ceremonies don’t speak like this — brazen with their faith, vulnerable with their spirituality. Nah. The sensory experience was almost overwhelming. At the time, I was a young music editor at the top hip-hop magazine, standing in the doorway of their editor-in-chief’s office, watching in disbelief as an obscure Kanye West passionately performed his debut album on top of a desk. 

On that particular day, the Chicago State University dropout was many miles and a half-decade away from the polarizing generational artist he would become. Today, the son of Donda Catherine West stands unsteadily as despised as he is deified. Conjoined with the above sentiments is a respectably sized population that mourns the Ye of two decades ago. Whether the citizens in each faction pray for the savant’s homecoming or that he remains a memory is ironically a division in hip-hop similar to the effect Ye’s favorite red cap has on America.

Kanye West during The 46th Annual Grammy Awards – Arrivals at Staples Center in Los Angeles.

Chris Polk/FilmMagic

What many Kanye West detractors fail to realize is that they are complicit doctors in the network of the Yeezy Frankenstein. Better yet, Dr. Jeckyl — the relationship between Mr. West and his celebrity following is a single (dare I say) bipolar organism. We swaddled ourselves with his soul samples, fueled his pockets, ballooned his ego, and affirmed his narratives and genius. Then, we allowed him to claim the throne. Albeit a slippery slope with a high risk of power trippin’, reciprocity was never absent.

In exchange, Mr. West fed us G.O.O.D. music and balance for a digital generation of b-boys and girls more familiar with Myspace and backpacks than cocaine packages and plugs. He gave the laypeople the liberty to feel aspirational and gangsta without having to trap or die trying to get rich. Before uttering one mainstream rap line, with Jay-Z’s Blueprint, he brought the best album out of the best rapper alive. When our culture kings were sharecropping for the White House with minority-targeted voting ploys, Ye used his voice to call out George Bush’s negligence toward Black Americans. Did you realize that Kanye West gave hip-hop a superhero to champion? Yes, he did.

The bigger the hero, the better the backstory. The bigger the sacrifice, the mightier the hero. Before his name would live forever, Kanye West was a mortal hip-hop producer with significant production credits (Eminem, Jay-Z) and affiliation (Jermaine Dupri, No ID). We adore a comeback story, and the inciting moment in Ye’s hero tale struck when he rose from the dead with a new voice. Like the bullet that ripped through 50 Cent’s mouth, leaving behind a refreshed twang on his snarl, West’s shattered jaw blessed him with more precise enunciation. It was as if the rap gods paid reparations for the loss of D.O.C.’s baritone twelve years prior.  

Heroes hurdle and move mountains. Not once, either. All who aim to surpass David must establish defeating Goliath as occupation and brand. Kanye paved his path with will and work ethic equally delusional and athletic. His wins are appraised grander because his road to riches was an obstacle course. From the jump, his own community shunned the Chi-Town multi-talent. While on the come-up, he would rhyme in every studio session to whichever rapper he was producing. Once Ye was gone, like clockwork, said rapper would call Roc-A-Fella co-founder Damon Dash and beg him to convince Kanye to shut up and sample.

When The College Dropout hit stores, gangster rappers were the most popular. 50 Cent’s G-Unit and Cam’ron’s Dipset had New York in a chokehold — add Ye’s own label, Roc-A-Fella, to the coliseum of Big Apple juice crews. On the west coast, Snoop was a young OG still representing the Crips. L.A.’s No. 1 draft pick, The Game, repped the Bloods. Nonetheless, retired dope boys like T.I. and Jeezy in Atlanta were the hottest, from mixtapes to nightclub VIPs. Even Ye’s parent company, Def Jam, disbelieved. It wasn’t until the label’s president Lyor Cohen heard Ludacris’ feature on The College Dropout (“Breathe In Breathe Out”) that he opened its album budget. Understand that all of this turbulence occurred two years after a bad night in L.A. almost left Donda childless.

Resistance wrought Kanye’s spotlight. His superpowers stunted on a jumbotron. Under Hype Williams pixels, videos like “Gold Digger” and “All Of The Lights” put some glitz on his blue-collar perseverance and attrition. His pillars once wooed us — unapologetic vision and unprecedented taste, which were reputably unwavering because they were the byproduct of obsessive scholar and osmosis — and now we miss them the most. Like when the brilliant Fiona Apple collaborator Jon Brion was tapped to orchestrate Yeezy’s gorgeous second album, Late Registration. How Ye illuminated Houston soundboard wiz Mike Dean on what many consider his finest composition, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Only a hip-hop hero could rescue a local pro like Common and return him to both the corner and All-Star status or deploy a fresh-from-the-Oscars Jaimie Foxx to lift a rap Olympian like Twista from subterranean to platinum overnight.

The old Kanye’s artist constellation may be the most significant of the last twenty years. He didn’t only collaborate with artists; he produced their best work. Reflect on his early aughts production with Alicia Keys, Keyshia Cole, Scarface, Estelle, and Slum Village. He discovered Big Sean and John Legend and helped Chief Keef go national. When The College Dropout extended the spirit of the Native Tongue collective (A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul etc), it ushered in a new generation of backpackers like Lupe Fiasco and Travis Scott.

Yeezy won us over with his victories not only being written but also forecasted by him. We love home runs, slam dunks, knockouts, touchdowns or any highlight considerably more when the player promises them––Tyson, Jordan, any one of them ones. Heads laughed when ‘Ye proclaimed that his sneaker would one day compete with the all-mighty Jordan. In 2021, the Air Yeezy 1 pair the rapper wore on stage at the 2007 Grammy Music Awards sold for $1.8 million at Sotheby’s.

Kanye West performs on stage during the taping of MTV’s Direct Effect Presents: Straight Up Hip Hop All Week at the MTV Times Square Studios April 20, 2004 in New York City.

Ye also swore his name would appear in your top five MC list one day. Then, he served us exquisite lyricism rich with unprecedented observation, transparency, courageous humor and literati-official wordplay. When “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” hit the planet, it relegated every dope-dealing gangsta track inferior. There wasn’t a hip-hop offering on Earth that was more granite and imbuing. The video was somehow a religious TED Talk on the audacity of self-belief and Southern keys. (Keeping Jeezy’s adlibs was another superpower exhibition.) Before we knew it, Kanye was out-rapping Jay-Z on his own album (“Run This Town”). Their collaborative opus, Watch The Throne, solidified the baton pass.

That annoying nerd who danced on an office desk ultimately scored the sweetest revenge: He became enviable. Your favorite video vixen was his girlfriend and muse. Your dream girl was his wife. He went from trying to dress the part to defining and designing it. At the dawn of the digital age, he was a top-tier tastemaker. He wielded all that power to break the internet. The platinum single “Stronger,” released exactly one year after the launch of Twitter, was an international anthem for the dawn of the online monopoly. The industry heckled Ye for allowing his Chicago buddy Coodie Simmons to follow him with a video camera despite generating no buzz. In 2024, content is king, the videographer has a videographer, Simmons is a renowned multi-million dollar film director, and Kanye can’t walk anywhere on Earth without a camera being shoved in his face.

It’s unclear when the Kanye West of old was swapped out for the new Ye. It was certainly after the passing of his professor, mentor, manager and mother. It’s inhumane to expect a Gemini to sustain a Libra’s balance after gaining their dream and then losing everything. Being lost is the easiest way to find a Kardashian. It’s how you forget that you are the son of a Black Studies academic and English professor (as well as the lyrics on “Spaceship”), then become a mascot for a president who wants to make America Jim Crow again.

Slandering Harriett Tubman and proclaiming that slavery was a choice is a fight between new Kanye’s short arms and his ancestors. Today, some people flat-out loathe Bianca Censori’s new partner. Others mourn as there’s a strong possibility that the original version could be gone forever. To music lovers who can’t forgive unwell behavior, here’s an exercise: Imagine your life without the offspring of Kanye West.

Imagine you never heard “Father, Stretch My Hands” or saw the videos for “Flashing Lights” and “Otis”; Pusha T’s best album, Daytona, doesn’t exist, nor does the Sunday Service choir’s rendition of SWV’s “Rain.” Is Taylor Swift big enough in 2024 to date an NFL champion without a well-intentioned but way too inebriated Kanye West in 2009? What is our culture’s aesthetic over the last decade without the ecosystem of Virgil Abloh? How does the introduction of Aubrey Drake Graham’s So Far Gone sound without its father 808s and Heartbreak?

To echo Ye’s words from his first Grammy speech, I guess we’ll never know.

Bonsu Thompson is a writer, producer, cultural critic and fellow of both winter and summer 2019 Sundance Screenwriters Labs. The Brooklynite has written an award-winning feature film (STORY AVE), produced feature-length documentaries (Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A Bad Boy Story) and commanded media titles such as Editor-In- Chief of The Source, Creative Consultant (writer) for MTV2, Senior Writer at SLAM Magazine and Music Editor for XXL Magazine.



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