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Editor's Note: Both of these releases can be purchased on eBay, as well as sites devoted to the sale of underground mix-tapes.
Chicago-bred, soul sampling, producer wunderkind, Kanye West's music is inarguably the most exciting thing going on in hip-hop right now. He is the man that helped make Jay-Z's The Blueprint the soul-drenched nostalgic masterpiece that it was. He has produced a consistent array of chart-topping inspirational beats for artists as diverse as Ludacris ("Stand Up"), Scarface ("In Cold Blood"), and Talib Kweli ("Get By"); and, did I mention that the man raps like there's no tomorrow? Given the fact that he has a resume this dazzling, and is seemingly overflowing with potential, when word came that he had decided to put out a solo record, The College Dropout, it evoked little surprise, and a whole lot of anticipation. It also served as an incredibly unorthodox, and taboo-stricken move for a "heralded" producer of his stature, that only seemed to highlight his incredible ambitions and fans' adoration. The only thing is, The College Dropout was supposed to come out months ago; first, in August, then October, then January, and now, the fine folks at Roc-A-Fella are saying February (let's keep our fingers crossed). So, as the collective patience of avid hip-hop aficionados across the globe grows thinner and thinner, anticipation for Kanye's alleged-masterpiece debut is reaching a fever pitch.
In a typically savvy marketing move (like only those folks in hip-hop know how) serving to add only more fuel to the collective fire, a couple of Kanye West mix-tapes have been circulating around that not only showcase a collection of his finest chart-topping production moments from his previous work, but also preview a number of new selections from off of The College Dropout. Now, while in the surprisingly stringent circles of music criticism reviewing a mix-tape greets about the same level of enthusiasm as the release of a Backstreet Boy solo record, the two mix-tapes in question, Get Well Soon (released shortly after Kanye's much-publicized, near-fatal car accident), and I'm Good, prove to be among the best new hip-hop music released in 2003. However, in a level of irony seemingly only reserved for this delightful mess called the music business, since these releases are mix-tapes and not traditional albums (whatever that means these days), don't expect them to be making an appearance on many "best of" lists this year. In light of this fiasco, your trusty review has taken it upon himself to shine some much-deserved light on these enigmatic jewels, because given Roc-A-Fella's inconsistencies these tapes might be the closest we ever get to witnessing Kanye's abundant solo genius.
While both mixes serve as a well-represented document featuring a mish-mash of snippets from Kanye's earlier work, on both Get Well Soon and I'm Good Kanye's new material undoubtedly steals the show. The best of these new tracks is the unrelentingly rousing modern-day hip-hop epic, "2 Words", which features guest appearances from Mos Def, Freeway, and the Harlem Boys' Choir. Over the rolling thump of a thunderous drum kit, harpsichord lines tumble into butter-smooth electric guitar licks, while frenetic soulful wails provide the perfect canvas for Mos', Kanye's, and Freeway's relentless rhymes. However, this is all before Kanye breaks the song down for a stirring a cappela section from the Harlem Boys' Choir, which gives way to a frenzied stutter-step hip-hop hoe-down featuring a turbulent violin solo to close (that's right, I did say violin solo!).
The most amazing aspect of the track, though, is that it marks Kanye's characteristic mastery of balancing an "underground" hip-hop aesthetic, with elements from the mainstream. Kanye has infamously labeled himself the "self-proclaimed first nigga with Benz and a backpack", but it is rightly the consistent merging of these two diametric worlds in Kanye's music, which makes his sound so unabashedly unique. Tracks like "Heavy Hitters", which imparts a bouncing electro-funk bass riff straight out of the Timbaland handbook and joins it with a debonair classical piano motif, and the soulful ode to girl-trouble "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly", which cloaks Consequence's and Kanye's playerific verses in a dusty sample-heavy instrumental, perfectly reconcile Kanye's aesthetic contradictions.
However, while there may be little doubt left in anybody's mind if Kanye's beats are inspired, the real question that these two mix-tapes come to resolve is that if Kanye can handle himself on the mic. Thankfully, the answer is unresoundingly yes. Kanye has always attested to the fact that he was an emcee before he got into producing, and it was only his startling success as a beat-maker that took him away from first love of rhyming. This fact is abundantly clear on these mixes, as Kanye imparts a charmingly laconic vocal delivery, equal parts Mos Def and Snoop Dogg that is brimming with radiant wit, and agile word play. On The College Dropout's alleged first single, "Through the Wire" (an earnest recounting of the emotional toll of his horrific car accident), over a rolling motivational Chaka Kahn sample, Kanye cleverly attests, "In the same hospital where BIG and Tupac died, the Doctor said I had a blood clot, but I ain't Jamaican man, story on MTV, but I ain't trying to make a band." While over the old-school soul of "Home", Kanye personifies his relationship with his hometown of Chicago in the vain of Common's ode to hip-hop "I Used to Love Her", and through a wildly sincere monologue recounts their lengthy turbulent history; Kanye's cleverly rhymes, "I guess that's why last winter she got so cold on me, she said 'Ye keep making that platinum and gold for me."
On the closing track off Get Well Soon, the bitter-sweetly nostalgic, "My Way", a speed up vocal sample reflects, "I've lived a life that's full, I've traveled each and every highway, and what's more than this, I did it my way." The track serves as the perfect summation of every aspect that makes Kanye West such a rarity amongst the excess-laden caricatures that seem to dominate the hip-hop world; over a lush instrumental of sweeping syrupy string melodies, West earnestly recounts his hip-hop typical ambitions of making a dollar. However, when he states, "I'm not a Kennedy, but I'm good rich," it feels like a miracle. Finally a rapper who is equal parts ambitious and humble, aggressive and empathetic, and witty while still being genuine. He's Kanye West, and he's just put out the best hip-hop album of next year... his own way.