The Benz or the Backpack?

Caught between underground should and overground can

Rappers have long trafficked behind an illusion of effortlessness. They follow their own orbit where nobody sweats or feels blue, very few of them cry, and the only judgments feared are those from God or Mom.

Scared? Never. Ethics? Situational, son. There is no vulnerability—just done deals and assertive strides. And the only ones shook are the halfway-crooks.

Or so it was. Today, self-conflict is in: Mos Def preens in a Jay-Z video, Jay does cameos for Dead Prez, Talib Kweli pines for a tougher pose, and 50 Cent wonders why he's not considered "conscious." Nobody matches the desperate aplomb of Tupac, but enough rappers are trying to do the right thing that one wonders: Is hip-hop—captor of hearts, minds, and the attention of presidential candidates—finally facing up to the awesome responsibility of its power?

Deep within this thicket is Kanye West, a gifted producer and rapper who doesn't have the answers either. In fact, he's built his career on complicating the question. He and fellow beatmaker Just Blaze were barely blips when they outfitted Jay-Z's crack nostalgia and killer's remorse with sample-based, purist beats for the The Blueprint. Once halfway-nerd Kanye joined Roc-a-Fella in 2002, the civil war that pitted the big, nasty mainstream against the idealistic, self-righteous underground seemed deader than ever.

West's witty, self-produced solo debut, College Dropout, frolics in this space between should and can, between playful hyper-awareness and young, willful naïveté. Where many of his Roc-mates puff their chests cartoonishly, West finds philosophy in mundane things. The question once posed was between the ballot and the bullet; now, a hotdogging Kanye touts himself as "the first nigga with a Benz and a backpack."

Rather than sort through his life's ethical messes or compromised alliances, West peddles self-conflict as an end itself. In Kanye's world, Jay-Z trades bars with stern Def Poetry slammer J. Ivey ("Never Let Me Down"). Kweli and Common drop by to help trawl blackplanet.com for quick ass ("Get 'Em High"); Mos Def and Freeway share "Two Words," though they don't exchange any. "Never" salutes Kanye's hard work, while the pirouetting "Spaceship" offers petty thievery as quickie civil disobedience. On the wheezy "Breathe In Breathe Out," he outs himself ("Always said if I rapped I'd say somethin' significant/But now I'm rappin' about money, 'hos and rims again") while showing off his gold, which he admits he copped in Africa.

What saves Kanye from turning into just another conspicuous consumer is College's heavy-hearted aftertaste. For all his cocksure mentions of mayo-colored Benzes, he readily admits they're just "things we buy to cover up what's inside." For all the trite, college-dissing skits, there's a desperate masterpiece like the prancing, gospel-riffing "Jesus Walks"—"I wanna talk to God but I'm afraid 'cause we ain't spoke in so long," he confesses. On the startling "All Falls Down," Kanye attacks the deep-seated insecurity of those who conflate shine with knowledge of self. "But I ain't even gonna act holier than thou," he continues. "We all self-conscious, I'm just the first to admit it."

Built from squirrelly, sped-up vocal samples, swelling choruses and handclaps, Kanye's beats carry a humble, human air. You can still hear tiny traces of actual people inside. On "All Falls Down," the sampled voice (or close interpolation) is that of Lauryn Hill, victim of a different kind of self-consciousness. It sounds like both homage and dialogue. Where Lauryn couldn't quite stretch her ever vigilant arms around the world, Kanye doesn't even try. Instead, he retreats into the army of dealers, dreamers, and dropouts deep in his beats and rhymes, sweating the small stuff and propping up his nouveau riche swagger with a hard-earned humility. It's not as easy as it looks.

 
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