Rapper's 'Dropout' makes the grade


February 13, 2004


Chicago has waited a long time for its next hip-hop superstar, but he finally had his coming-out party on Wednesday night at the House of Blues.

A day after the release of his debut album, "College Dropout," 26-year-old South Side native Kanye West celebrated with two sold-out shows that found him surrounded on stage by a crowd of friends and fellow rappers, performing for an adoring audience that included his mother, Donda, an English professor at Chicago State University.

Stripping off his peach-colored jacket and beaming widely, West reported that his album is selling out throughout Chicago, adding that Best Buy alone has already moved 60,000 copies. "I'm gonna go gold!" he said with a mix of surprise and justifiable pride.

Displaying the self-deprecating wit that stands as his trademark, West confessed that "some artist I've never heard of" -- Norah Jones -- may well prevent him from debuting at No. 1 on the Billboard albums chart next week. But his championship status was confirmed by none other than Chicago's most successful rapper to date, Common, who joined West onstage for several jams.



On his debut album, talented Chicago producer Kanye West (who now resides across the Hudson River from Manhattan, in Hoboken, N.J.) proves that he is even more adept behind the microphone then he is at the recording console crafting hits for the likes of labelmate Jay-Z and Alicia Keyes.

West's fluid but laid-back rapping on the sharp and funny verses, and his homely but catchy singing on the irresistible choruses, build on the distinctly Midwestern style of Common, an early hero, and his technique stands as a welcome alternative to rappers from the East and West coasts. But what makes him even more unique is his lyrical approach, which avoids the sexist bragging and thuggish posturing of many chart-topping hip-hoppers.

Instead, West turns a powerful wit and a telling eye for capturing the details of everyday life on subjects such as dead-end jobs (he spent two weeks folding jeans at the Gap, barely earning enough to take the bus to work each day) and unrequited loves, as well as tackling much deeper issues -- racism, religion, and the state of the African-American family -- all with the same winning "just sittin' on the couch talkin' " manner.

"What if somebody from the Chi / That was ill got a deal / On the hottest rap label around," West raps on "Through the Wire," the first track he crafted as a performer, and a tune inspired by the broken jaw he got in a near-fatal car crash. "But he wasn't talking 'bout coke and birds / It was more like spoken word / Except he really putting it down."

West is indeed really putting it down, and the answer to his question of "what if" is that he seems destined to become hip-hop's next multi-platinum superstar, thanks to one of the most creative albums the Chicago rap scene has ever produced.

Jim DeRogatis

"My man is single-handedly bringing hip-hop to a whole new level!" Common declared.

It was only a year ago when West first introduced himself to me while I was reviewing Common's last show at the House of Blues. He timidly extended a hand and said, "I'm a producer, but I'm gonna be dropping my own album." Even then, he was underselling his accomplishments.

West's success has been more than a decade in the making, and it builds on his reputation for crafting exquisite beats and unforgettable melodies for other artists, including labelmate Jay-Z ("Izzo [H.O.V.A.]"), Ludacris ("Stand Up"), Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name") and a fellow Chicagoan, speed-rapper Twista, whose latest album did debut at No. 1 last week during a late-winter lull on the charts. (West has a lot more competition on the year's first Super Tuesday.)

West acknowledged his triumphs as a producer on Wednesday by having his DJ spin snippets of the hits he's crafted. Particularly amusing was his reworking of Keys' "You Don't Know My Name," which turned into an R-rated skit about calling a girl to, um, solicit her favors -- though even when he turns blue, West retains a good-natured humor that elevates him from the sexism and misogyny of many rappers.

But the high points of the show were the rhythmically compelling, melodically hefty and lyrically brilliant songs from his own "College Dropout."

West was a gripping and energetic presence as he motored through tracks such as "All Falls Down," "Jesus Walks" and "The New Workout Plan," performing with the backing of a versatile R&B keyboardist and vocalist, John Legend, and the extraordinary instrumentalist he called "the hip-hop violinist," Miri Ben Ari.

It was a near-fatal accident in late 2002 that inspired West to move from behind the recording console to in front of the microphone. The crash left him with a broken jaw -- it inspired the hit single "Through the Wire" -- and a lyrical philosophy that focuses on celebrating life, praising God, lifting yourself up and, most of all, joking about the bad times -- an approach that stands in stark contrast to much of the macho braggadocio and thuggish posing on the charts.

"I'm working the straight shift / And I don't get paid s--- / I wish I could buy me a spaceship / And fly past the sky," West rapped/sang in his endearingly off-key manner during the track he called his theme song, "Spaceship."

Judging from the crowd's response at the House of Blues, plenty of people are ready to join him on board that rocket, and there's no telling how far it could go.