What Yeezy Taught Me
"Somebody shoulda told me it would be like this" - J. Cole
His impression loomed as I sat waiting to be called. “Khaliff, you’re next”, a cherub face announced as the girl standing in the front of the room returned to her seat. I’m next. I try to channel his courage as I start toward the three-legged stool. Notes in hand and a quickened heartbeat, I take a deep breath. As I exhale, I envision how he would feel—confident, assured. I regain focus -All Falls Down by Kanye West leaves my lips.
Back then, my adoration for the rising star was immutable. An inward, bookish fifteen-year-old, music was my everything and Kanye was at its epicenter. Today it’s unthinkable to view him as off the radar. But, in 2004, his debut shocked the world, selling over 3 million copies domestically and another 5 million abroad. He charmed the masses with his confident, everyman persona. His words—a clarion call for the weary—cut through an industry obsessed with “gangster pop” and crunk music. I was hooked.
I listened first to Through the Wire. The signature Chipmunk soul groove looped behind the strained vocals left me wanting more. Who was that? And why was the song so damn catchy? The sound was fresh and oh so soulful. And his voice. Every word uttered seemed to be a struggle, and when paired with the account of his near fatal car crash, it made for a compelling listen.
I could tell then that this guy wasn't an ordinary rapper. This man had a gift. Through the Wire, and later College Dropout, extended the boundaries of what we accepted as struggle, particularly black male struggle, in a post-millennial world.
Back then, rap was defined by a restrictive binary. The “get rich or die trying” narrative was pervasive—a theme popularized in the early to mid-90s, which then, gained full blown crossover success in the early aughts. On another, but far less pervasive extreme, there was a lesser, but still thriving “conscious” narrative. Artists who subscribed received far less airtime, making it difficult for would-be fans to listen. Groups like Dead Prez, Black Star, and Common fit within this mold. But, for some, that was also your Nubian uncle’s and aunt’s music, complete with a bottle of Egyptian Musk. In short, not everyone cared for that lifestyle.
For those who came of age in this post-millennial context, Kanye provided a middle ground. Songs like Jesus Walks and Slave Ship detailed the plight of the working class and the turmoil of the holy. But, as was par for the course, he wasn’t above rapping about “money, hoes, and rims.” Hell, he even invited the conscious artists to join the fun. Like ATCQ and De La Soul before him, he embodied the “everyman” persona. His message was a beacon for people like me, working to make sense of this duality.
"But in a sense I can relate, the need to be great" -J. Cole (False Prophets)
Perhaps, Kanye’s most significant contribution wasn’t at all musical. His music managed to capture, with great clarity, one of the most enduring beliefs of America. Through song, Kanye demanded acceptance from the powers that be. He extolled his work ethic, talent, and smarts—and the opportunities that those qualities should afford him. And, of course. He did so confidently. An often-cited rhyme detailed on his first album encapsulates this resolve perfectly. In it, he recounts producing “five beats a day for three summers.” As a result of that “dedication”, he felt he deserved success and to be granted the same opportunities as any other person (namely rich, white men). The aforementioned also put a twist on the “rags to riches” narrative popular in rap. Kanye proved that the streets weren’t the only way to attain financial success, and further, that his brand of struggle to gain acclaim was just as valid. For him, acceptance into the elite was within reach if you worked hard enough. That was powerful for a young, black boy with dreams of a different existence. Kanye gave us permission to seek, without compromise, a seat at the table. But, was this valid? J. Cole’s recent release questions our aspirations.
Last December, J. Cole released a fiery indictment in preparation for his upcoming album release “4 Your Eyez Only.” The song, False Prophets (It Be Like This), seized the attention of popular media as Cole provided provocative commentary on the state of hip hop. In it, he condemns thinly veiled figures and their hazardous ways. He cautions against acts of self-aggrandizement and false acceptance with brazen fury, leaving listeners and his targets ducking for cover. Kanye was victim number one.
"My lowest moments came from tryin' too hard
To impress some niggas that couldn't care if I'm on"
At first listen, one would assume Cole is disgusted by Kanye and people like him. But, despite his incendiary tone, I believe there is something more--a man not just accusatory, but also disillusioned. For much of his career, J. Cole followed Kanye’s blueprint. Any casual fan could tell his “dollar and a dream” messaging was a direct descendent of what Kanye produced. His message wreaked of validation and acceptance in spite of its aspirational foundation. It wasn’t until 2014’s Forest Hills Drive that he departed from this earlier stance. I’m sure many factors influenced the shift, but what stands out I believe is a new understanding that’s antithetical to Kanye’s deeply held belief. Cole came to terms with what many of us already knew—that despite fame, fortune, and talent—he’ll never be fully accepted.
I’m still a fan of Kanye West. But, like many. It gets harder and harder to remember the way he captured my fifteen year old imagination. While recent actions leave feelings of ill repute, the full spectrum of his complexity I cannot diminish. I believe J. Cole feels this way, too. At one point in our lives, we believed that what you did mattered, that what you accomplished granted you access, and that everything they could be you could be. Unfortunately, one by one, we all had to grapple with the harsh reality that the “table” wasn’t made for some people. I can only hope Kanye acknowledges the same--for his sake and our own.