Kanye West — “Through the Wire”

Released: 9.30.03

Peak: #15

Sure Kanye was the Roc’s token backpacker, and he hailed from the perpetual bridesmaid of American rap metropoles. Still, for the most hyped up-and-comer in the rap game to come across as an underdog took some doing. But Kanye has always had a weakness for challenges (why else would he ever sing?) and at least the handicap he exploits on “Through the Wire”–a post-car crash wired jaw–wasn’t self-inflicted. Kanye had already enlisted listeners as accomplices in a performer’s victory on “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” (in the service of another far-from-underdog). Here he duplicated the feat, accelerating a dollop of David Fosterized glop to a pitch of triumphant munchkin ecstasy.

“Kanye can’t rap” is this generation’s “Dylan can’t sing,” or maybe “punks can’t play.” Hip-hop aesthetes, like jazz heads before them, prize elements of carefully circumscribed formal virtuosity. But in pop, impact and expressiveness and immediacy hold the field, and Kanye is no more Kool G Rap than King Curtis was Charlie Parker. And as if his flow isn’t already choppy enough to infuriate rap classicists, there’s his willingness to risk incoherence too. “If you knew how my face felt/ You would know how Mase felt” may make some sideways sense, but when he follows up a decent pun on Jamaicans and blood clots with the throwaway “Story on MTV and I ain’t trying to make the band,” you either value the persona behind that verbal noise or go blog in furious dissent.

Trouble is, the perpetual underdog never realizes when he’s transformed into a bully, when his once necessary struggle for attention has become a diva’s spotlight-hogging. And as with Marshall “Radio won’t even play my jams” Mathers, Kanye’s adjustment to stardom has been rocky. Then maybe we should distrust stars who adjust smoothly to notoriety. And definitely we should remember how much work Kanye once put into being the underdog.

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