I met this man when I was 13 years old and what I loved the most is the fact that he had so much soul. He said “Excuse me lil’ homie I know you don’t know me but I’ll be kind of a big brother if you listen to me”!
Today we celebrate the 10th anniversary of Kanye West’s Graduation first single, Can’t tell me nothing. Graduation was his third album and the last of the old Kanye that I used to call Mr West, my big brother. This Kanye introduced me to another style of Hip Hop that would touch me more, another place, my promise land. The one where Common, Mos Def and Talib Kweli were rapping about. More interesting topics than selling drugs, f***ing hoes and buying cars. I admit it: being a child from the black middle class, I can’t understand the need of showing off about getting out of the streets through crime and bragging about my money and my belongings as the new rich would do.
“What if somebody from the Chi’ that was ill got a deal
On the hottest rap label around
But he wasn’t talking about coke and birds?”
The College Dropout was released in February 2004 spreading a wave of consciousness in mainstream hip-hop of that time. Conscious rappers have existed since the birth of hip-hop and The message but it has been eluded by party rappers, and when the first ones tried to be deep, they only focused on making money to survive the streets. Kanye West and his network (Talib, Common, Mos) revolutionized the hip-hop and with the success of his first album, the revolution was televised.
I found wisdom and strength in my big brother’s first album who could treat everyday problems as I would have liked to. I was not alone anymore. He talked about how difficult it is to live in a society that pushes to run after material all the time, that makes women depressed when they don’t have a certain type of body and all of that putting you in situations where you forget common sense and religion. But what made him more human is that while criticizing that society he admits being a product of it and loving himself some of its defects, bragger and insecure.
Sampling Ms Hill (All Falls Down) was already making me love him. This sample and all the others used on his album proved that not only Mr West could rap and write but he could arrange beats like a master. The Leo Da Vinci of Hip-Hop or the Pablo Picasso of Rap. It was actually his first function in Roc-a-Fella Records.
“Yes, my big brother was Jay’s brother, used to be kept for Jay’s project, he was the invisible man, he was “no-album” man till his first album’s dropped, now let the story begin.”
I remember how I could relate to my big brother. A rock-type girl classmate used to call me Kanye West when he became famous in 2004-2005 because I could rock shirts under sweaters one day and baggy pants the next day, be well-educated and protesting or fighting at the same time, listen to Fabolous as well as Aretha Franklin and hang out with blue-collar kids and white-collar kids the same afternoon. As my big brother would do. His music was an echo to everything I was and tried to be.
Shortly after he created his own label GOOD Music (GOOD standing for Getting Out Our Dreams) with which he produced Common (Be being one of his best albums) and John Legend (Once Again is definitely his best album) making him quickly a godfather in the industry. This role was confirmed by his eclectic collaborations with John Mayer and Keyshia Cole among others. Kanye West made me love I Changed My Mind even more just because he was right behind Ms Cole backing her.
August 2005, Late Registration was released and confirmed the diagnosis: a talented star was born. I gotta testify he touched the sky. Fine observer of his people’s ways but not as hard and creepy as The Message and the songs it influenced. A true social critics, Mr West’s Heard ‘Em Say knocked me out along with Drive Slow, Diamonds from Sierra Leone and its music video Gold Digger (one of the best ever made). Unfortunately this album’s samples were not as lit and worked as those in his first one. Something else new appeared in this album with Touch The Sky: Mr West talked about his new life as a celebrity.
“Even if you in a Benz, you still a nigga in a coupe.”
Even though as Black Europeans we can’t really understand the condition of the African Americans, I could only approve and applaud Mr West’s outing about President Bush not caring about black people following Hurricane Katrina. That was my big brother.
“We shine because they hate us
Floss ’cause they degrade us
We tryna buy back our 40 acres
And for that paper, look how low we’ll stoop”
And then there were three… Can’t Tell Me Nothing was released the 15th of May 2007 announcing his third album Graduation. The promotion team played a trick that was off the hook: rivalry with 50 cent upcoming album Curtis on the same date September 11. My big brother won the competition, no doubt! His first single revealed a turning point in his career that was observable in Late Registration, he became rich and famous and wanted more. La la la la, wait until he gets his money right! He was still this honest and sharp observer of the society he lived in (reason why I put his third album with “old Kanye/Mr West” tag, and they actually come as a trilogy with a title always related to studying: College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation) but had rich people problems now. He even sounds very full of himself sometimes.
“But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem.”
However on this album my big brother got rhymes and he got rhythms, still the genius he was, still got some of that ‘Yenius we loved. Some of us West Europeans can’t understand that song but Homecoming is one his most beautiful ones. American people are very into the town they come from, their hometown. Supporting its sports teams even if they’re losing and telling everyone where they come from as a part of their identity. Chi-City made him everything he’s not and everything he is. Everything I Am, Big Brother and Flashing Lights are the other diamonds from Chicago of this album.
“Nothin’ ever promised tomorrow today.”
After that, my big brother was not the same anymore and disappeared little by little, becoming more and more self centered. French theory says you have to look at the biography of an author to understand his works. Not being a big gossip fan, I never knew what happened between his third and his fourth album before last year, the loss of his mother and his breakup with longtime girlfriend can maybe explain that change. Anyway, his life changed so did his concerns and that’s normal I just had to accept the Kanye was not Mr West anymore and that he’ll soon become Yeazzy, not different from those Lil’ Something and Young Anything. I remember how proud I was that a rapper would use his real full name.
Kanye West is definitely the rapper who brought the most significant changes in the last 15 years along with Drake (who was influenced by him). He made me discover a whole lot of samples, hidden rappers and nu-soul singers. He inspired me to rock flashy polos and leather backpacks. But most important, my big brother has put the right words on a reality difficult to tell: being a man of principles (who likes to treat himself at the same time) in a society that’s not. Today I’m the teacher helping students with rap lyrics.
Now that my big brother’s life has changed, I’m my big brother’s age when he changed mine with his first album. I’ll always be thankful for his first songs including Jesus walks (with me) because that Kanye will always be walking with me (my name is actually Jesus).
“I met this man when I was 13 years old and what I loved most he had so much soul. He was old school when I was just a shorty never knew throughout my youth he will be there for me.”