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14 May

ARTICLE: School of Hardknocks

I’d like to believe people sleep on a very important fact when it comes to scrutinising hip hop and it’s relevance. The question has always bordered around what is “real hip hop” instead of “what can, and has been, done through hip hop”. Hip hop has been seen as many things, for me, personally I found different genres of music through listening to hip hop, mainly because of the inherent art of sampling. For J. Dilla, it was basically music school because he ended up using it as a starting point when he was beginning as a producer, then he swerved totally, switched from being solely a producer to a singer, rapper and composer. Never has the multifacetedness of hip hop been seen more than in the rise of its recently honoured son, Kanye West. Now, many would wonder as to why I’d want to scrutinize this here modern day demi god; I can actually break it down for you. See, with the recent turn in events, you know, him receiving an Honorary Doctorate and all, it became kinda interesting, and awe inspiring, to see how the same system he shunned (refer to College Dropout skits) turned around and applauded him. Of course now, the consensus was, how on Earth did he obtain the credits to get that Doctorate? Through his being a God of course. I’m kidding, but having been swathed with that question, it dawned on me that maybe Kanye did go to an institution which granted him the said Honours. So as a music lover, and mild hip hop head, I’ve chosen to give y’all the 411, using what I know best, to show his meteoric rise to Doctorate-ness, his music. From being a dropout, to being a God to reaching his final form as Dr. Kanye West, through hip hop.

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“We in the house!”
First and foremost, I’m not a Kanye stan. Apart from a few joints here and there I’ve probably ever sat through Kanye’s LP’s probably because they were consistent, the songs were like a perfectly DJ’d set, transitions flowing smoothly from one song to the next, no disruptions.
So we begin with, College Dropout.

 

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This was a 76 minute “fcuk you” to the system which Kanye opted to get out of, being a college graduate. It saw Kanye as a human. How he felt that the “get-a-degree” part of life, which in turn could help you get a job, was a fallacy. It showed Kanye tackling problems as a mere mortal, tackling his insecurities but also celebrating how, after he got out of “institutionalization” he was on his way towards what was a more rewarding part of life, working with his “big brother”, Jay-Z and reaping the material rewards, his “Last Call” could be seen as his telling us his story of how he faced the usual mortal problems: rejection, searching for acceptance and finally getting love from someone who he deemed a God.

Subliminally though, there is also “Through The Wire” which if looked at in the context of Yeezus, is Kanye’s “Jesus-crucifixion” story, he nearly lost his life, but he was able to “rise again”, his version of the 3 days when Jesus was laying behind a rock before his ascension to “power”, being the 3 successive albums he released after College Dropout, namely Late Registration, Graduation and 808’s and Heartbreaks. After those 3 albums he didn’t stop being human, but he started experiencing it from a place which mortals were not part of, as a demi-god, close to his “Big Brother/God”, at the top. But I’ll intensify this notion a little later. Let’s fast forward to Late Registration.

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Late Registration was actually one of my favourite albums from Kanye. It had a spirit of optimism and the lyrical content was much more rejoicing. Majority of the beats had that celebratory feel to them. They made one want to be happy. The change in production style showed a much for keener attention to detail. Instead of using raw cut-and-pasted pieces of soul music, he started putting orchestral elements into his music. Music fit for Gods. He was having God-type worries while still holding human sentiments, as shown on “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”, he could finally afford diamonds but was actually questioning how they came to be in his possession. There is also the chart topping, “Gold Digger”, where in the past he never questioned his girls love because she was with him before the material objects, but now he does. His human side was shown again through songs such as “Roses” where he tries to deal with a loved one being sick, but finds that since people have held him up to demi-god status they think he is above those types of emotions, shown by that lyric,

“…I ask the nurse, “did you do the research?”, she ask me can you sign some t-shirts, bitch is you smokin’ reefa, you can’t see that we’re hurt?”

But that didn’t trump the spirit of achievement that was exemplified in songs such as “Celebrate”, where he is celebrating his status as “one of them”. On to album number 3: Graduation.

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Graduation was the last album to use the College Dropout trademark Yeezy had come to be known for. That coupled with the cover of Graduation actually sums up the whole thing about “ascension” that I talked about earlier. He had let go of worldly materials and was going past “space”, rising still towards something else. That could explain the futuristic element he implemented in his beats. Having sampled “Daft Punk” for Stronger and having a stronger synth presence we saw him depart from mainly using samples in his beats, to building upon electronic music foundations. There is still mention of god-like worries as seen in the braggadocios joint Barry Bonds and also in Drunk and Hot Girls. Now onto the next album: 808’s and Heartbreaks.

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808’s and Heartbreaks was probably the 1st album which had Kanye fans like “What the..?”. This album was self-explanatory, considering that he had just lost his mother the overall sentiment was of heartbreak. There was more of that electronic sound we heard in Graduation but it formed a huge portion of the album. There was also more singing from Yeezy himself than expected. The utilization of these elements served a purpose though. Though he was ascending towards greatness he was now alone, in the cold, hence the intense use of reverb and echoes in some of the songs because he was trying to show that even though he was where he wanted to be he was alone and it was cold, a probable reason why he used instruments which were deemed as cold, and soulless. Apart from songs such as “Amazing” there was not much celebration going on. It was like he was left at the mansion all alone after the party and he was contemplating, this album was more human in that regard. He basically showed the demi part of demi-god. His sudden halt, inches, from being a “demi-god”. Of course he didn’t just let the “god” part slip, that’s where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy comes in.

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“…OF ALL TIME!”

Before the release of this album Kanye West was doing his rounds on tabloids as per usual: either due to his break up with Amber Rose or due to his disrupting Taylor Swifts Thank You speech. His actions, more so the latter, showed how he schemed his word was above everything, something he showed in earlier years, as can be seen when Justice won “Best Video” at the MTV Europe Music Awards. The latter was partially forgiven because it was a human trait, jealousy or envy, you pick, that made him jump on stage and do it. But in the Taylor Swift scenario, where he wasn’t even part of the proceedings? To just upstage someone like that? People started asking who on Earth does he think he is to think his opinion is above all of ours?

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That was part of the premise of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. He was telling people what he already schemed about himself; he had reached the point of being a God and he wasn’t ashamed to say it. He shed his human skin via 808’s and Heartbreaks. The claim was backed by grandiose instrumentation on his album and an accompanying short film, a feat which has only been achieved by the greats such as Michael Jackson. His actions and music were saying I have arrived and I damn well want y’all to notice. The features list read something like a posse cut from a hip hop group, everyone who was hot at the time was on that album and his lyrics were on some “can’t touch this” type of tip. There was less introspection, unless he was looking at how he interacted with others.

The red suit (another partial ode to the King), the adornment of multiple gold chains served to back up this claim. During this time though, society was also aiding him in this belief. There was a sudden rampage of people paying attention to his dress sense; he suddenly became seen as a trendsetter for many. This could have been attested to the fact that he came into himself at a time when we started going into the “metro-sexual” era and men needed an idol which they were aiming to look like, but let’s just assume it was because he was indeed, a God. In having part with his being human it opened up the portal for what came after: another celebration. Only that now, instead of just celebrating: he was going to live it up with a fellow God, Jay-Z. With that The Throne was formed.

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Watch the Throne came at the heels of Kendrick Lamar’s Section 80, an album which was praised by most music critics as the “resurger of conscious rap”. Watch The Throne, in comparison, was a braggadocios album which was basically saying “look at us, we’ve made it, whatchu gonna say now?” The video of Otis basically explains the concept of the whole album to a tee, doing things which normal humans can’t do, twice over (buying a Maybach, but not only that, but disassembling it and having a joy ride in it, with some fly honeys). Mind you it had some introspective songs, like New Day. But it was mostly about the worries of “Gods”, how to stay on top, how to pronounce Margiela, how many cars to buy, how to avoid being double crossed etc.

He backed up the claims made on Watch the Throne by matching Jay-Z and getting the most sought after woman in showbiz, Kim Kardashian. Just like when people respected Jay for snagging Bey, people backed up when Kanye hooked up with Kim. If you look at the timelines of either Jay or Ye on twitter you could actually see a similarity, they don’t follow a barrage of people, only those who are in their circles. When they Tweet they get RT’s and Favorites from millions, the rarity of their interaction could be looked at in the same way as when the Christian God spoke to his people, as it was looked upon in amazement in the Bible, so it is with the same awe people approach Tweets from these guys. He was matching his words with his action and people were reacting positively. Therefore re-affirming what he was saying before. That backdrop was to help understand the build up to the things he says on Yeezus.
First and foremost, this wasn’t the first time the words Jesus and Kanye were together in a sentence, a Rolling Stone cover with Kanye resembling a “pre-crucifixion” Jesus, with the crown of thorns, cuts and the works. Yeezus was probably expanding on those notions.

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The first thing that hit people was the fact that, well, unlike his visual self, Kanye opted to not have any cover art for this album. No, we’re not talking an all-black album cover like when Lupe did Food and Liquor 2, but NO cover at all. This tied in with his past comments about making real music made us believe that the concentration was going to be solely on what he deemed music.

Of course when Kanye spoke like this the hip hop heads rejoiced, I mean, there was some reservations on his last 2 efforts alone so now they anticipated it. The problem with hip hop heads though is that they fall under the false assumption that when an artist starts off using the foundations of hip hop they are locked ball and chain to it. Artists like J Dilla were an example of artists who started off hip hop and ended elsewhere. That’s why when I heard the first song, the “barrage of electro slaps filled “On Sight”, I knew if I listened to this as a lover of hip hop it was going to be a “wack” album, a sentiment held by many of my fellow hip hop lovers. Having dipped my ears in electro music, the likes of Daft Punk, Justice and MSTRKRFT , I was able to quickly adjust my mind frame and look for something else which I could hang onto, one thing became prevalent though: whatever he wanted to say he wanted it heard, because the album in it’s being is LOUD, that probably owed to the fact that Rick Rubin executive produced, it but could there be something more?

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Yeezus is like an ULTIMATE Transformer, formed through the amalgamation of his prior releases: Bound 2 (which is placed at the end of the project, I’ll touch on that at the end) screams “College Dropout Kanye” with its being made up of a soul sample loop and simple bass line, On Sight, Black Skinhead and Guilt Trip, show tinges of “808’s and Heartbreaks Kanye”, with abnormal drum patterns, futuristic sounds and use of auto tune, I’m In It, I Can’t Hold My Liquor, and Blood on The Leaves “MBDTF Kanye”. But if one looks at how the songs are set up, he starts from unknown territory, rapping over LOUD electro beats, goes down his different personas, and ends up at what got him put on, a simple soul looped beat. One could look at that as him trying to gain grip on his being “College Dropout Kanye” or even just letting it go. Because if you think about it, it’s the only song which has a sample which one can say is soulful. Kanye is saying that that at some point in ascending and becoming a God he’s either trying to hang on to his soul or is losing it all together. He already affirms he’s a God (I Am A God) but his notions on Guilt Trip echo the sentiments he shared on 808’s and Heartbreaks, those of being alone. Yeezus in turn can be seen as Kanye duality, he’s fighting himself, the God (Watch The Throne, MBDTF, Yeezus) vs Human (College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808’s and Heartbreaks) and it’s an important back and forth, hence it’s so loud.

Now pause, I’m sure you’re thinking what this, in effect, has to do with the guy getting his Honorary Doctorate. What I wanted one to spot from the get is the existence of one thing, hip hop. Hip-Hop, I believe, has grown from just being a culture to a multifaceted being. Businessmen have been groomed through hip hop, story tellers have been groomed through hip hop, composers have been groomed through hip hop and with Kanye receiving his Doctorate we can proudly proclaim graduates have been groomed through hip hop. The thing that got me even interested in the overall thing was how through mastering the base essentials of hip hop Kanye managed to switch up from being the literal college dropout, basic hip hop producer to being given his Honours as a multitalented artist. Hip hop allowed him to be a God, and supersede the usual requirements needed to obtain a Doctorate. Of course, if you really want to hold on to the fact that he really obtained his Doctorate through “his-being-a-God” means then you can. I mean, look at 9th Wonder. He is amongst the fellow few who have superseded the conventional sphere of being just a producer to being a University lecturer. This is one of the things I laude about hip hop, it allows you the chance to really be anything you want to be. He did a full circle, without even having that said degree. It’s crazy. I once told a friend that with the sudden receipt of his “stripes” it officially proves that hip hop is a registered institution. School of the Hardknocks.

Written by Thobekani Dhlamini (follow @Thobeofheart)

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