The College Era Lyrics and Ego of Kanye West
Before Donda West passed away, before fiancée Alexis Phifer broke off their engagement, before he took the mic away from America’s de facto sweetheart, and before you felt obligated to preface your fandom by saying, “I think he’s an asshole as a person,” Kanye West had put together one of the most successful and impactful runs of any pop artist in modern American music. That’s not hyperbole, nor is it news; publications have been willing to give the “College Era” of Yeezy’s career its glowing due diligence since we were in medias res, 2004-2008.
Back then, the mainstream audience was willing to match the adulation of critics without the nervous reservations that seem to occupy most casual conversations about the man who was once facing down 50 Cent on the cover of Rolling Stone and who moved us to tears with performances of Hey Mama at the Grammys and on the Glow in the Dark Tour in tribute to his passed idol. While his award-show stunts and other cringe-worthy moments began long before the VMA incident, we were generally willing to love Kanye as much as he loved himself because his arrogance gleamed more in amicable swagger rather than in vibrant, albeit directionless, invectives. Kanye knows it, too. As he aptly (and mockingly) observes on the self-rhyming track of The Life of Pablo, we miss the old ‘Ye.
Who exactly was the Old Kanye and how did he arrive at New ‘Ye? From a fan’s perspective, the entire transition from superstar to ultra-scrutinized pseudo-villain (with a few other identities along the way) serves as a fascinating commentary on the art of Yeezus and the double-edged sword of enormous egoism.
The College Dropout
In 2004, Facebook was in its heyday, Tobey Maguire was still Spider-Man, and George W. Bush was on the verge of a predictable reelection. We were sporting iPods with music loaded off CDs and bought digitally from iTunes.
The rap genre was dominated by Eminem via the massive success of his pair of alter-ego LPs and The Eminem Show, 50 Cent with Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and Jay Z retired off The Black Album. Despite these historic entries into rap’s canon, the mid-2000s was a time of stagnant uncertainty for hip-hop, a setting ripe for revolution.
Kanye documents his own rise into the mise-en-scène through his rap monologue Last Call, the outro of The College Dropout, in which he speaks casually of his newfound success as if it were annoyingly unsurprising. He had emerged as a producer in the late 90s under the mentorship of fellow Chicagoan No I.D. and elevated himself to a producer-star, reviving the soul sample most notable for Jay Z’s The Blueprint, a style he would showcase on his own albums.
Dropout famously broke away the gangster-rap mold that had persisted into the new millennium as a dominant subgenre in hip-hop music. It’s equal parts corny and
cocky, showcasing vulnerable, sarcastic and genuine explorations of working- and middle-class woes generally absent in the lyrics of his older contemporaries. Kanye muses on the all-timer All Falls Down, “We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” He was unafraid for us to perceive him exactly as we should in his early years: cocky, innovative and, naturally, accessible.
A freshman in college raps the second verse of Get Em High: “At NYU, but she hails from Kansas, right now she just lamping, chilling on campus!” Who didn’t love Dropout? In the short term, it was so relatable, personally and collectively, for friends and acquaintances on a massive campus all agonizing over degrees, success and the uncertainties of adulthood.
In the long term, he was laying groundwork for a genre for which he would serve as the principal driver throughout the remainder of the decade. Drake, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, Kid Cudi and countless others have cited ‘Ye’s creativity and willingness to turn hip-hop on its head as major influences on their own careers. While Dropout was massively successful at the time, it has since received extreme praise as its influence became timeless. Still, critics, as they would with any newcomer, quietly wondered if he would fall victim to the artistic cliché: “the Sophomore Slump.”
If The College Dropout was soulful cookout music, Late Registration was an opera. Joining forces with film composer Jon Brion of such elegant soundtracks as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kanye produced an album that was 21-tracks deep of orchestration style strings laid over more chopped-up oldies intermittent with brazenly humorous skits. The result is the most refined, classiest and complete album he has ever made.
On both Dropout and Late Registration, he exuded his lyrical strengths that he has not quite matched since. If “Yeezy Yeezy Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman” is shallow and uninspired, back in the college era, Kanye showcased full verses of an effortless storyteller that were simplistic and surprisingly meaningful.
Kanye was never going to be as poetic as Nas or Kendrick Lamar and never as technically brilliant as Eminem or Andre 3000. But he trades in advanced rhythm schemes, vague poetics, and a speed-demon flow for in-your-face cultural imagery and colloquially driven prose that has made him one of the most relatable rappers we’ve ever heard.
On Hey Mama, for instance, it’s not difficult to be moved by a young Kanye promising his crying mother on their kitchen floor that one day she won’t have to work anymore, or the opener on the second verse: “‘Forrest Gump,’ Mama said, ‘life is a like a box of chocolates/My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate/Something to fall back on, you could profit with/But still supported me when I did the opposite.”
He dropped maybe the most cliché movie reference of all time and transitioned right back into heartfelt mom idolization. This exemplifies Kanye’s lyrical art form, especially in his early discography: Back then, the movies, models and other references were not cheap filler but expertly interwoven with his believability, and the result is a series of stories that are surprisingly down-to-earth.
Even on Crack Music and Heard ‘Em Say, which are more social commentaries than personal anecdotes, we find ourselves understanding—or at least appreciating—some pretty heavy subjects. Kanye, at the height of lyrical accessibility, had successfully shed producer-rapper syndrome to become rapper-artist.
Ego Concerns and Graduation
After Late Registration, superstar Kanye began to gain real notoriety for his arrogance. West’s born confidence had already been warped by transcendent pra
ise. Over a six-year span from his production on Blueprint I to the release of Graduation, few artists in pop music history have garnered the critical acclaim West has. He was long-destined to become America’s next “it’s all going to his head” celebrity genius—one more Grammy or review is another piece of evidence for a tortuously subjective feat—in no small terms—being one of the most influential, important pop-culture artists of all time.
“The Bible had 20, 30, 40, 50 characters in it. You don’t think that I would be one of the characters of today’s modern Bible?” he famously said.
There’s a vault of West one-liners like this from the 2000s that drew light-hearted laughs, eye rolls and, ultimately, indifference from a massive casual fan base. A decade ago, Kanye’s output more than made up for his arrogance which he always tempered anyway with a Kanye-brand of humility.
“I’m nowhere near as good as Jay-Z, Eminem or Nas,” Kanye said in an interview with Playboy Magazine in 2006. ” So I compensate…with star power, sheer energy, entertainment, videos, really good outfits and overwhelmingly, ridiculously dope tracks… The main thing I use to make up for my lack of rapping skills is my content, my subject matter.” Unfortunately, West sought more than just praise. He wanted to be, and eventually believed he was, the arbiter of art—the most objective critic. He once compared Coldplay to the Beatles. Others weren’t so lucky. As early as The College Dropout, he began the tradition mouthing off at the award shows for on the most offensive occasions they hadn’t given him an award (as he often reminds us, they did). In November 2006, when Touch the Sky lost Best Video at the MTV Europe Music Awards to Justice and Simian for We Are Your Friends, he took to the stage and argued that he should have won the award instead.
Kanye’s motivation for sounding off in interviews or taking to the stage doesn’t stem from malice or personal vendettas. We’ve no evidence that he’s intended to hurt anyone, certainly not in the 2000s. He even made fun of his Justice and Simian incident on this hilarious SNL skit. For fans, it was refreshing PR. Kanye the critic appeared casual listeners and the media alike with spurts of humor and humility.
Graduation was a victory lap, one Kanye would never quite run again. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his magnum opus, but it was a labor of redemption, whereas Graduation was a product of the neck-break momentum drawn from the enormous success of Late Registration.
Kanye concluded his College series with an exclamation point of synth-driven stadium music that all but affirmed his superstar status. The more serious tones of Late Registration gave way to unchecked bravado on super hits Stronger and Can’t Tell Me Nothing and tributes to Chicago and Jay-Z on Homecoming and Big Brother.
Graduation’s highlights, though, lie in the entries that showcase his vulnerability at a pseudo-tipping point, a man with enough introspective baggage to reflect rather than retell. I Wonder and Flashing Lights are two of his fan favorites and feature lyrics which, beneath an overdose of trademark swagger, suggest the toils of fame coming on in ways that were not as obvious on the first two albums. Dropout and Registration were relatively grounded and self-aware, channeling his past and immediate present, whereas Graduation foreshadowed a future in which superstardom and immeasurable adulation would begin to challenge level-headedness, fairly or not.
For his first three albums alone, Kanye won 10 Grammys, nearly went one-week platinum on the latter two, has since reached at least double platinum on all three, received consistently raving remarks from contemporary reviews and end-of-decade lists alike. He helped revive the soul sample, brought orchestration and electronica to the proceedings and shaped dozens of careers in the process.
808s & Heartbreak Psychology
During his VH1 Storytellers’ appearance, which aired in January 2009, Kanye told us something we already knew: He was never going to make the same album twice, not the way so many other artists do. Just as Dropout broke the mold of rap music, Late Registration and Graduation followed in a succession of evolution, sonically and thematically. What denoted a trilogy, though, beyond the titles, was the vulnerability, relatability and amicable bravado of the lyrics defined the mindset of their maker.
As Kanye prepared for his worldwide Glow in the Dark Tour, he was already reeling from the death of his mother. 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, in all its minimalist beauty, served as Kanye’s grief fully on display, delivered in shamelessly maudlin, honest, vulnerable lyrics on the back of catchy synthpop that was a necessary, if not deserved, break from the triumphs of his College Era. After a genuine blue period, we were sure he would return in prime form to the same, swagger-ish showman that had rocked the polos and the shutter shades, telling his stories with the same simplicity, cheese, and charm that he always had. But Kanye has never quite been the same sense.
Beyond its winter-weather identity and blueprint for the 2010s, 808s & Heartbreak was a boiling point that foreshadowed the alarming narcissism that has characterized the second half of his career. The Storytellers show allows for a bird’s eye view at one of the most significant crossroads between the College Era’s benign, seemingly untroubled arrogance and a severed heart that would cause West to double down in self-assuring egoism that snowballed into his mentally troubling, reckless demeanor from 2013 to 2016, shaping distinctly darker tonality of Yeezus and The Life of Pablo.
The Storytellers show allowed for a bird’s eye view at one of the most significant foreshadowed the alarming narcissism that has characterized the second half of his career: “I really feel like a vessel, and I open my mouth, and God will let beautiful words flow through. That’s why I realized that he chose me, and he has a path for me…because half the things that come out, I can’t be responsible for, and I guess he just wants me to say more and more and more and never be insecure.”
DespiteStorytellers’ intentional setup of encouraging its performers to spill out song themes through personal vignettes and drawn out, and, despite West’s propensity for the unhinged, 28 minutes of Love Lockdown, Say You Will and Heartless amounted to honest, troubling monologue to the audience that suggested genuine pain:
“You tryto make plans on a Friday night, even though you’re not together no more, ‘cus there’s nothin’ better than someone you know and love, even if you know you can’t love them no more… You can’t love them no more… To have someone so special in your life that you’re inspired by them… The requirement is inspirement…but also firin’, firin’…”
“There is no vacation spot I could find that could turn back a piece of real life… I just wanna be a real boy, Pinocchio’s story goes…” (the studio version of 808s & Heartbreak incudes Pinocchio’s Story, a freestyle from Singapore that featured West in a similar, troubled monologue).
“If anyone else right now is in love, right now, try the best to keep your love lockdown… Your love locked down… Is it better to have love and lost than to have never loved at all? Thank you for being my shrink today and this stage as my couch. Thank you for allowing me to get some things off my chest and out of my mind—the ghosts out of my head so they will not haunt me at night.
According to Psychotherapist Susan Anderson, when we experience some sort of abandonment (usually a breakup), we go through five stages of recovery. The fourth stage of this process is “rage”: “You attempt to reverse the rejection… You are restless to get your life back in order and riddled with low frustration tolerance, your anger spurting out of control… Your aggressive energy is like a pressure cooker. You boil over easily, sometimes spewing anger onto innocent bystanders.”
The fifth is “lifting”: “Life begins to distract you, lifting you back into it. You experience intervals of peace and confidence… Without recovery, some of you make the mistake of lifting above your feelings, losing touch with your emotional center, becoming more isolated than before.”
On Stronger, the last track of, Kanye reconciles pain: “I suffered the worst pains to help me to grow. So, those experiences, I’d never ask to take them away because they’re all in God’s plan and help make me the man I am today and help make me more of a soldier and a vessel. Because if I hadn’t suffered those losses, I might be too scared to fight the war on traditional thinking.”
By VH1 Storytellers, the charm and cheese that defined brand of egoism was shifting into something a bit more aggressive, concerning, and disconnected. As the charm and cheese of Dropout and Late Registration faded, Kanye admitted this fact in his own, jarring prose during performances of Touch The Sky and Stronger: “I really feel like a vessel, and I open my mouth, and God will let beautiful words flow through. That’s why I realized that he chose me, and he has a path for me…because half the things that come out, I can’t be responsible for, and I guess he just wants me to say more and more and more and never be insecure.”
808s & Heartbreak doubled down as foreshadowing—a fall from Graduation grace to thug who had lost everyone except his G.O.O.D. Music crew and fans like me who stomached his pride and prayed for the swagger that had fueled Touch The Sky and Good Life to reemerge. The famed Taylor Swift incident ensured that Kanye would always be fighting an uphill battle, even with the enormous critical success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The arrogance he had accrued by 2009 was toxic to a pop-culture environment obsessed with celebrities being down-to-earth. The College Era, so forgotten now, should be celebrated in the annals of pop music. Just maybe, Kanye has some of that bear left in him.
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