Not everybody likes hip-hop. I don't just mean Fray posters —hip-hop's alpha artists aren't exhibiting a lot of hometown pride these days. Last fall, Missy told XXL: "When you turn on the radio, you can't distinguish the fake Jay-Z from the real Jay-Z. Back in the day, everybody pretty much had their own identity, originality and creativity. And now there's a formula." When I interviewed Jay-Z last November, he echoed Missy's sentiments: "It's all too predictable. When people put stuff out, it's like 'Here … is … the … thug … song. Here … is … the … club … song.' You can tell by hearing it once. Music is supposed to be unexpected. You wanna feel it like 'Ooooh!' " Jay-Z boiled these thoughts down to a few choice words while being interviewed for the New York Times: "Hip-hop's corny now."
If we take corny to mean stuck in a formal rut, Jay-Z is right. The grimly predictable exhortations of party MCs like Chingy have driven people into OutKast's four plaid arms. Worse, casual sexual violence abounds in lyrics of veterans like Snoop Dogg and newcomers like G-Unit, the Bravehearts, and the Diplomats. If we take corny to mean an overdeveloped sense of self and an underdeveloped sense of form, everyone in hip-hop's got a pending violation. When Jay-Z invests too much in Hollywood gangsta scenarios, it's corny. When Andre 3000 forgets he's not Prince, it's corny. Celebration of self was one of hip-hop's booster rockets, a rhetorical push for the largely African-American community surging past normative restraints (and for anyone else who felt they could hang on). That presentation of self has calcified into endless set pieces about consumer goods and undocumented fabulousness. We hear about achievements and prowess, but we're no longer impressed or surprised. It's cor-neee.
This is why God invented Kanye West, a 26-year-old producer and MC from Chicago who could not have been made up. On Feb. 10, Roc-a-Fella/Def Jam released West's debut album as an MC, College Dropout. (Def Jam has changed the release date several times in response to bootlegging. This is also somewhat corny, since West himself put many of the album's tracks on four different mix-tapes last year.) Whatever argument you want to mount against or on behalf of West, there is one thing he can't be called: corny. Though he has many things to be proud of, not least having four productions in the Billboard Top 40 including the No. 1 single, West has not created his debut album as a love letter to himself, nor is College Dropout a retread of Mafia clichés, letters to Penthouse, or Rolex commercials. It's a clattering, passionate, confused, and goofy record. For God's sake, West is wearing a bear costume on the cover.
West is a comedian, social critic, hedonist, and Christian, but until College Dropout came out last week he was known primarily as a producer. A typical West beat uses samples of old records in conjunction with live instruments to summon the woody, musky feel of '70s soul without devolving into a period piece. (His beat for Alicia Keys' current hit "You Don't Know My Name"is a good example.) He entered the larger pop consciousness as the producer of Jay-Z's 2001 hit, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." By 2001, mainstream hip-hop producers had put aside samples of old records in favor of keyboards and drum machines, for financial and aesthetic reasons. (Samples are prohibitively expensive and keyboards sound great even when pumped out through a club PA.) West ignored all this and grabbed a sample of the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back" for his boss. (It helps to have a client who can afford to pay for blue-chip Motown stock.) West sampled a chunk of the song's string-section introduction, familiar enough to trigger positive feelings but not so familiar as to make it sound like Jay-Z was doing karaoke over the Jackson 5. "Izzo" was a hit. Later in the year, West sampled the Doors' "Five to One" for Jay-Z's "Takeover," a verbal grenade in Jay-Z's ongoing war with fellow rapper Nas. Eyebrows across the country rose. Is that the Doors? Who would do that? Nobody samples anymore! But West's biggest modification of hip-hop orthodoxy was another strategy: speeding up samples of classic soul men until they sounded like women. Producers had used this trick before, randomly. West did it repeatedly in songs like Jay-Z's "This Can't Be Life," Cam'ron's "Dead or Alive," and Talib Kweli's "Good to You." It became the overnight standard for East Coast thug rhymes.
West's productions probably are not the reason he is experiencing such rapid success. It's his sense of self: He's funny, and he can parody himself, which is rare as hen's teeth in hip-hop now. Anyone who puts a completely sincere song about God ("Jesus Walks") and a completely insincere exercise routine ("The New Workout Plan") on his debut record is not unduly worried about what people will think of him. West's "Through the Wire," holding steady at No. 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 singles chart, will likely be the weirdest pop hit of the year. A few weeks after suffering a near-fatal car accident in 2002, and with his jaw wired shut, West decided to sample Chaka Kahn's "Through the Fire" and talk (or mumble) about his life. There are few characters in pop, hip-hop or otherwise, who take themselves this lightly: "When the doctor told me I was going to have to have a plate in my chin, I said 'Dog, don't you realize I'll never make it on a plane now? It's bad enough I got all this jewelry on'." And would you put a picture of yourself, bloated and bruised in a hospital gown, on your first big mix-tape? Would Jay-Z?
West sticks with the vernacular and has little anxiety about proving his smarts. (Actually, he has anxiety—the album's title and the various "School Spirit" skits attack the idea of education in a way that is both unfunny and puzzling.) He describes his own lyrics as "not talking about coke and birds, more like spoken word," though stand-up comedy is a better descriptor than "spoken word." West's rhymes are to vintage black '70s comedy as his tracks are to '70s soul: irreverent updates. Richard Pryor was a fierce editorialist, and West, in his aw-shucks way, is just as comfortable being angry about social positioning: "We'll buy a lot of clothes when we don't really need 'em/ things we buy to cover up what's inside. ... We're all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it."
Much of the music on College Dropout approaches something like hip-hop gospel, which sounds perilously virtuous—corny, even. That's not how it feels. College Dropout is fierce black American music that couldn't care less for genre convention or radio format. (Who else would make a hip-hop record with violin playing that's not the least bit romantic or weepy?) West avoids sanctimony by simply choosing to not congratulate himself every few seconds, something both priests and sinners are way too good at. Hip-hop is one of pop music's biggest Yeses ever, a music built on the rhetorical version of the end zone dance. I did it, goddamnit. Sing my frigging body electric. But hip-hop is no longer the underdog and the victory laps look smug now, American in the worst way. Corny. Kanye suggests an alternative to raw pride. Just Say No to Yourself—this is Kanye's real workout tape, and it could save hip-hop, at least until Kanye decides he's actually John Gotti.