Spring. 2004. I was in the seventh grade at the time… It was – well it was an “interesting” period of my life. I was a white suburban teen male, engrossed in a stimulating and lively epoch of pop-culture in both the realms of music and sports. LeBron James – “The Chosen One” – was a rookie in the NBA with the Cavs, Ron Artest was running into the stands during games to fight, yes FIGHT spectators, Terrell Owens had just been traded to the Eagles, and a man by the name of Kanye West had just released his first album (Congrats on the 10 year anniversary btw, Ye.). Now, I knew who Kanye was at the time, but that’s only because I was literally one of TWO white kids on the middle school basketball team, and naturally I was exposed to hip-hop music at an early age. Being from “slower lower” Delaware, I wasn’t exposed to much diversity on the radio, but thankfully I came across hip-hop on the bus rides to and from away basketball games. Immediately I gravitated towards the brash showmanship of hip-hop, and how its artists chose to convey their messages. It was flashy, it was taboo, but most of all it was creative. I loved how the artists we would listen to on the bus rides used words that made me think, words that made me interpret their message on a deeper level. I mean, I’m not trying to bash anyone that likes other genres of music, but I have (and always will be) an interpretive thinker, and the only genre of music that will suffice my needs is hip-hop. I suppose that’s why I decided to be an English major in college.
Texts (anything you can “read” with your mind, eyes, and ears essentially), and more importantly interpreting those texts, have always been a passion of mine. I enjoy putting both MY spin on a text, and also concluding what the artist or author of that text intended by it. Now, studying a text is not necessarily an easy task, as there are multiple layers to both study and translate. I apologize, I’m rambling. Anyway, interpreting hip-hop albums as texts has always been a passion of mine, and the artist that truly set that passion off was Kanye West’s “The College Dropout,” in the spring of 2004.
Over spring break I was fortunate enough to be sharing a room with my brother in the Pennsylvania Hotel in New York City for a few days. As a Christmas present my mother had gotten me tickets to LeBron James’ last game of his rookie season in Madison Square Garden on a Thursday night. My brother and I were like kids in a candy store to tell you the truth… Not with just the game, I’m talking about the whole experience of even going to New York City to begin with. I vividly remember one point over the vacation tossing a Nerf football in our hotel room from bed to bed making diving plays and one hand snags (Sorry, mom. Nothing broke, I swear!). Anyway, King James and his merry men of Drew Gooden, Dajuan Wagner, Robert Traylor and a bunch of other scrubs were making their way to New York for one last showdown with the Knicks for the last game of the season in THE GARDEN. Of course I was excited; it was The King! Earlier that day we got to tour the entire building, and I was even lucky enough to stand on the same scale that Ali stood on in “The Fight of the Century” against Frazier. Completely amped up for the night, Jed and I were chocked full of adrenaline for the Cavs-Knicks faceoff… Just think, an old Allan Houston, Penny, Vin Baker coupled with a street ballin’ @JCrossover, and even Steph Marbury at home in New York… They had talent I suppose, but they sucked, finishing last in the Atlantic Division.
Looking back ten years, I’ll be honest when I say that the game itself left a lot to be desired. My expectations for the game were to see Bron sprinting from baseline to baseline, throwing down yams left and right, with absolutely no regard for human life. Instead what I got, or rather what he gave, was a less than arousing 17-point effort. Meh. It could have been worse I suppose, but thirteen year old me was a tad bit disappointed in my favorite player. With the night ending, I only hoped that something throughout the rest of the weekend would be able to raise my spirits once more. Luckily, we were going to spend our next day in Times Square, and luckily the trip was in fact salvaged by a man named Kanye West.
As I ambled through the doors of the Virgin Mobile store in Times Square I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to get my hands on first. I spotted a rack of posters, but deep down I knew I wanted to listen to some jams, so I meandered on over to the hip-hop section of the store to see what I could find. As I flipped back and forth between the various CDs on the rack, my eyes were greeted by a sad looking bear mascot perched on the same gymnasium bench that I spent most if not all of my middle school basketball games sitting on. I picked up the CD and flipped to its backside, instantly seeing the words “Through the Wire” on the tracklist. “Hey, I know this guy!” I thought. “Through the Wire” was a song that came on the radio nearly ever bus trip we took when I was in seventh grade, and I knew Kayne West was the artist. Yes, you read that correctly. I thought his name was Kayne, but I would soon be corrected. I snagged the CD off the rack and flashed it to my mother, asking if she’d allow me to purchase it. Luckily she approved my plea, unknowing of the love affair that would ensue.
Once we arrived back in our hotel room, I hurriedly jammed the album into my brother’s laptop. He sat on the opposite bed, watching the YES network – we couldn’t get over the fact that the damn Yankees had their own damn television network. Anyway, the album popped up on the Windows Media Player, I put my headphones on, and off I went. What occurred over the next seventy-six minutes and thirteen seconds has forever changed me, and can stand as the main culprit for my hip-hop affinity. This Kanye guy was just my type. I loved his cockiness, I loved his humor, and I loved his message. At one point during my listening – during “Jesus Walks” to be exact – I removed my headphones and in a very stern and confident tone I said to my brother “This Kanye West guy is going to be a superstar.” I said it. I meant it. I felt it. He had it. He had that spark, that drive, that creativity, that purpose. I just knew he was going to leave a mark on hip-hop, and inherently a mark on me.
It’s been ten years since I sat on that bed in the Pennsylvania Hotel in NYC, and so much has happened since then. Kanye is on the verge of releasing his seventh solo album, and I’m on the verge of my first year as a professional educator. So much has happened since then, and its amazing to think that Kanye West’s music has been a constant in my life over the course of that time span. I can remember listening to “Flashing Lights” with the windows down on humid summer nights with my friend Tyler behind the wheel, a newly issued drivers license in his pocket. Or the time five of my friends accompanied me on a trip to the Dover Mall to buy 808s & Heartbreak, only to then be told by an FYE employee that the album wasn’t slated to come out until the following morning. I corrected him of course, and upon further review my friends and I received our copies that night on the correct date. And I certainly can’t forget the fall of 2010, where every Friday night my friends and I would anxiously await another G.O.O.D. Friday release like our lives depended on them. To say Kanye West has made an impact on hip-hop since “The College Dropout” would be disrespectful, as it would be an understatement. He’s left his fingerprints all over pop-culture as a whole, and there aren’t many people in the world that can deny his significance. Say what you want about him, positive or negative, but he’s the most polarizing figure in all of pop-culture, capable of influencing just about anyone or anything in a revolutionary manner. He’s a modern day Jimi Hendrix. Steve Jobs in designer clothes. A Walt Disney in the flesh. The Ali of the recording booth. The media’s Truman Burbank. The Michael Jordan of music… The list goes on, and just by looking at his various bodies of work, it’d be hard to discredit him of anything he’s accomplished to date. One of those accomplishments, however negligible it may be, is his ability to dictate and shape my various tastes. He so often sets the boundary of what is accepted in the entertainment industry that I have found myself valuing other artists because of styles that Kanye has either perfected or attempted.
I firmly believe that every artist has various texts that they lend for the world to hear, to digest, and to apply into their own lives. Kanye once referred to his music as being “the codes of who you are,” continuing to say that “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me, you’re a fan of yourself… I’m just the espresso; I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going, to make you believe that you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.” That’s exactly how I feel! I’ve taken bits and pieces from every artist that I come into contact with, and I’ve then applied those lessons into my own life. The laundry list of artists aren’t aware of their influence on me, but their influence reigns supreme nonetheless. And while not ever person I know on this earth has the same passion and the same need for texts, this blog will serve as my chronicle of those texts, both past and present. Long winded, I know, but let the fun begin…