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Thursday, February 13,2014

From the schoolyard to center stage

A retrospective on 10 years with Kanye West

by RJ Wolcott
\"The College Dropout,\" Kanye West\'s groundbreaking debut release, came out 10 years ago this week. Courtesy image.

Thursday, Feb. 13 — Who could have possibly known that an upstart art school dropout named Kanye West would become one of the most controversial figures in modern music? Besides West himself that is.

Ten years after the release of “The College Dropout,” West has done just that, releasing six solo albums and providing his trademark eccentric lyrics or bombastic beats to a litany of projects over the past decade. While more commonly discussed for rants than his music, West continues to push the boundaries of genre and rap music as art.

His latest album, “Yeezus,” released last June, debuted at No. 1 in 31 countries and received near-universal acclaim from music critics. The Yeezus tour, which stopped off in Auburn Hills in December, displays the Chicago-rappers grandiose nature, complete with skin-suit wearing models, a three-story mountain and West himself wearing a full mask for the majority of the show.

While the public seems divided on how to perceive West, either as an impassioned artist or as an egocentric celebrity masquerading as a musician, there’s no denying his impact on the world of music, politics, and award show acceptance speeches.

Growing up, West became fascinated with music, producing beats in basement studios while attending college. Eventually, something had to give, prompting the up-and-coming producer to drop out of college, dismaying his mother, a college English professor. It wasn’t a question of if it would happen, only a question of when.

Working as a producer within Roc-A-Fella records, West collaborated with several well-respected artists including Alicia Keys and Ludacris, as well as being credited for work on Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint,” one of the hip-hop industries most lauded and critically acclaimed albums.

But West wasn’t content with making beats for others to rap over, instead electing to promote himself as an up and coming artist. “The College Dropout, released Feb. 10, 2003, garnered 10 Grammy nominations for the young artists, including Album of the Year and Rap Album of the Year (which he won) and providing his first No. 1 single, “Slow Jamz.” Listening to it a decade later, one is struck by the levity of many of the albums songs as well as the frequency of old-school samples, making the album feel like an introductory course in hip-hop, a stark contrast with West’s later work.

As his music continued to reach larger audiences, West’s public persona swelled. His second album, “Late Registration,” went on to sell more than 2 million copies, incorporating orchestral arrangements and string cortets in a genre often perceived as being devoid of traditional musical elements. With more observers came more eye-popping moments, including the famous, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” line from NBC’s Hurricane Katrina televised fundraiser, which makes this recent controversial quotes look like weak Saturday Night Live parody.

With the passage of time, West continued to pile up astonishing record sales and moments of public spectacle alike. While 2007’s “Graduation” unleased even more eclectic production, West showed all of us a much more emotional and sensitive side in “808s & Heartbreak, released shortly after his mother’s death and the end of his engagement to Alexis Phifer in 2008. In this state, and with a perceived injustice boiling over at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, West took the stage to talk to open a dialogue on the superiority of Beyoncé to award-winner Taylor Swift, during Swift’s acceptance speech. If the American public had any misgivings about West beforehand, the “Imma let you finish” moment crystalized their animosity.

In releasing his two most recent albums — “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and “Yeezus” — West has reasserted himself as a preeminent force in the music industry as well as an utter goldmine for journalists and commentators looking to generate countless clicks and retweets. With all of the above-mentioned incidents, it’s a wonder people can still act shocked when it comes to hearing the things that West chooses to vocalize. After all, West contends that the same passion and confidence that thrust him into music’s brightest spotlight continues to propel him in other ventures, including fashion design (three words: leather jogging shorts).

Ten years after “The College Dropout,” it’s easy to see why so many people continue to despise Kanye West. But with an uncompromised record of musical success and a drive to continue to push the boundaries of what hip hop can mean for listeners, its unlikely West will make the next decade a boring affair. And as he says in the opening track of his first album, he isn’t taking the condemnation to heart.

As he said on “We Don’t Care,” the second track from “The College Dropout”: “We weren’t supposed to make it past 25,/ jokes on you we still alive./ Throw your hands up in the sky/ and say we don’t care what people say.”

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