Photo credit: Nabil Elderkin
Who is Kanye West anyway? I know that when I bought Talib Kweli’s album Quality almost two years ago, I didn’t know. All I knew was that his name appeared next to one of the best songs on that album, “Get By”, where West took a Nina Simone piano riff and made it so sick and intoxicating that even the late Simone would have approved. But even after that, I was pronouncing his name “Cane”, because I thought it was spelled “Kayne”. So one day I went into work and talked to a friend of mine who is all about rims-and-hoes hip-hop and asked him, “Man, have you ever heard of Kayne West?” And he was like, “It’s KAHN-yay, man. He’s a producer.”
It turns out, though, that even back then, Kanye West wanted to be more than just a beat hustler. He wanted to emcee. Just listen to the twelve-minute hidden track on his brick-solid debut College Dropout, (that is, if you can snag it as it flies through the roof) to get an idea of the size of the chip that West has on his shoulder when it comes to his rhyming skills. The track is an epic kiss-off to all the executives and A&R reps who slept on his capacity for spittin’ rhymes. If you listen closely, late at night, you can hear all of those folks crying themselves to sleep, because Kanye West is officially blowing up—blowing up big.
Still, people don’t know exactly who the cat is. If you know anything about hip-hop, you know it’s not a cross-over friendly genre. If you’re a rapper, you’re either a backpacker or a baller, a Common or a Cam’ron, a street poet or a pimp.
Kanye doesn’t see it that way though. As a matter of fact, he is quickly making a ridiculously successful career out of not seeing it that way. He’s just as likely to be laying down beats for Beanie Sigel or Jay-Z as he is Mos Def or Dilated Peoples. And his rhyming style takes as much from A Tribe Called Quest as it does Snoop Dogg.
Unfortunately, I made it to the show late. I didn’t think I was going to get in, actually; by the time I found out that I was on the guest list, it was already almost nine ‘o clock. I got into my car and drove like hell to the Murat Egyptian Room in downtown Indianapolis. When I walked in, a friend that had been there for awhile told me that I had just missed the Young Gunz set. Dilated Peoples and local rapper Rhymefest had gone before them. I was mad, because I had really wanted to see Dilated Peoples and Rhymefest, both of whom Kanye has collaborated with. Nothing I could do, though, so I made my way to the edge of the crowd and watched people. A small herd of frat brats skipped by. Black kids in cornrows and retro jerseys flocked together. All the girls—black, white, and brown—were hooched out and ready to dance. The lights finally dimmed. First came one of his Kanye’s boys with a song of his own. Nobody cared. Then came Kanye.
He wearing a zip-up sweater—it looked like one his mom might have given him for Easter. It might have been cashmere. It had a large diamond pattern on it, and those diamonds were bright pastel colors—green, pink and orange. He started the set with no hesitation, busting straight into “Two Words”.
Now I was excited to see Kanye, but what ended up being the coolest part of the show, what really made it a not-to-be-forgotten night, was the sheer volume of talent in the room. I know I said I missed the openers, but there’s more than one up-and-coming star headlining this tour. West was accompanied on stage by John Legend, a young R&B artist whose fluid piano playing and silken voice are right and tight enough to give D’Angelo a real run for his money. The night’s best moment found Legend singing the chorus of College Dropout‘s most soulful track, the escapism ode “Spaceship”. And as if Legend’s accompaniment weren’t enough, the Dilated Peoples popped onstage early on in West’s set to do a raucous, high-energy rendition of the West-produced Peoples hit, “This Way”. Finally, near the end of the night, Kanye introduced one of his “best friends”, and Indy’s own Rhymefest emerged from the back area of the stage to drop a dead-on version of Biz Markie’s “Just a Friend”, singing, “You, you got what I neeeeee-eeeed!” while Legend pounded the chords out on the piano.
West ended the night with a long spoken-word piece similar to the one that closes out College Dropout, but he changed up the words a bit. The drawn out soliloquy touched on his broken deal with Capitol Records, and then West boasted about how every song on his album could be a single (and it’s true). He lambasted other rappers for diluting their albums, jamming them with filler and saving some of their best tracks for later albums. As I listened to him talk, it occurred to me who Kanye West might be: The guy who reinstates imaginative rhymes, innovative beats, and artistic integrity as hip-hop necessities.