From ‘The College Dropout’ to ‘Vultures,’ Who Was “the Old Kanye”?

It’s been 20 years, 12 albums, 24 Grammys, two marriages, and 10 seasons of Yeezy apparel since Kanye West released his debut album, The College Dropout, a very good and very important collection of songs from a rapper who has since released increasingly polarizing music while also provoking some extremely uncomfortable discussions about bipolar disorder and antisemitism. On Friday he’s scheduled to release Vultures, Volume 1, a collaboration album with Ty Dolla $ign and a sign of how distressingly far we’ve all come since the glory days of “Through the Wire.”

Kanye has meant so many different things to so many different people at so many different points. He was a hip-hop hitmaker in the 2000s, an angsty haute pop perfectionist in the 2010s, and now, in the 2020s, he’s a radicalized pariah whose musical direction is more questionable than ever and also, for a vocal portion of his fan base, moot, given his recent history of stanning Donald Trump and rationalizing chattel slavery and ranting in all-caps about Jews. Kanye West is by no means the first beloved entertainer to go on some ugly political tangent, but his transformations over the yearsmusically, politically, spirituallyhave been so drastic and disorienting, even if they haven’t been entirely uncharacteristic of the guy who made The College Dropout. Who was “the old Kanye,” anyway?

In the earliest phase of his stardom, for sure, Kanye West was a provocateur. “Jesus Walks,” the single that won him one of his first Grammys, was all about his penchant for high-minded transgressions: “They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus / That means guns, sex, lies, videotape / But if I talk about God, my record won’t get played, huh?” He was weirdly verbose and argumentative for a guy whom most people would’ve primarily recognized as a beatmaker. He was an uncredited producer with the Hitmen at Bad Boy Records and then a notable contributor to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint, as the producer behind “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” the album’s ubiquitous lead single. But Kanye wanted to rap. People didn’t really get it. Rawkus Records, arguably the most suitable home for his style of swaggy, sample-driven, semi-conscious rap, turned him down. Kanye begged Dame Dash to sign him to Roc-A-Fella Records, as a rapper, and to greenlight The College Dropout. Here he was nearly thwarted by a cruel twist of fate—a head-on car crash in Los Angeles in 2002 that shattered his jaw and briefly imperiled his ability to speak, much less rap.

This really could’ve been the end, even assuming his survival; 13 years earlier a similar crash derailed the once-promising solo career of the immensely talented N.W.A ghostwriter the D.O.C., as the accident heavily damaged his vocal cords. But Kanye recovered and, in fact, recorded the original version of his debut single, “Through the Wire,” just two weeks after the crash, slurring verses through a jaw still wired shut—a testament to his perseverance. This gave Kanye, of all people, an origin story similar to 50 Cent: a mythical gangster who famously survived nine gunshots, including a bullet to his jaw, a few years before Eminem recruited him to Interscope and he released Get Rich or Die Tryin’. As survivors, 50 and Kanye both had an air of inevitability about them. 50 Cent marketed himself as an unkillable tyrant; Kanye billed himself as a multifaceted visionary, destined for a level of greatness exceeding even his immensely successful mentor, Jay-Z. The old Kanye had big plans.

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His early success was an unlikely story. The College Dropout, released on February 10, 2004, scored the second-highest first-week sales for a hip-hop album that year, under Eminem’s fifth album, Encore. Suddenly the second-biggest artist signed to the Roc was the producer rapping about Greek Life over “Spirit in the Dark” without swears (or else Aretha wouldn’t clear the sample). “School Spirit,” “All Falls Down,” “Spaceship”—these were incredible songs with immaculate beats, charming lyrics, and a peculiar theme: anxiety about the fate of the emerging Black middle class and its first-generation college students in particular. But The College Dropout was also something a bit more universally heroic: an album full of can-do bluster from an otherwise unassuming guy, wearing Polos, who wouldn’t take no for an answer. And it was full of straight-up hits.

Roc-A-Fella Records was mainly street dudes from New York and Philly; Kanye was the suburban son of an English professor at Chicago State University. Beanie Sigel often recounts a night, some time in the early 2000s, when he rescued Kanye from a group of muggers in midtown Manhattan in the early days of his signing to Roc-A-Fella. Kanye wasn’t a tough guy and never pretended to be one. But he was prickly, confrontational, anxious. He was venting about God, girls, and postsecondary education. This is “the old Kanye”: the angsty but otherwise people-pleasing figure who would churn out cheeky R&B jams with Jamie Foxx. “Slow Jamz,” “Gold Digger,” Twista’s “Overnight Celebrity”—the irreverent and even a little raunchy but still largely inoffensive Kanye. He also developed a rapport with Talib Kweli (“Get By”), Mos Def (“Two Words”), and Common (“Get Em High,” “The Food”), who all had some crossover success in the 2000s but were primarily associated with socially conscious and spiritually elevated hip-hop. But Kanye wasn’t himself quite as socially conscious as Kweli or as spiritually elevated as Mos—Kanye was an oversexed materialist who was trying to get right with God, sure, but also, more immediately, trying to get paid and get laid. “First nigga with a Benz and a backpack”—that was the unlikely but ultimately irresistible pitch. Kanye West was this bundle of tensions and contradictions. He was complicated.

Kanye, 50 Cent, The Game, Ja Rule, Eminem, DMX—all of these guys, in some respects, to some extent, wanted to be 2Pac. Biggie and 2Pac both loom large in hip-hop history, but 2Pac left the bigger hole. Kanye said as much on Late Registration, on “Bring Me Down.” (I prefer the live version from Late Orchestration.) 50 and Em used to bust Ja’s balls about what they viewed as his ludicrous mimicry of 2Pac in interviews and in photo shoots and on the harsher moments of Pain Is Love. But Eminem and 50, especially, wanted to be 2Pac themselves. Maybe not the radically political aspects in 50’s case, or the street-preacher aspects in Em’s case, but definitely the larger-than-life aspects. 2Pac wasn’t just talented or successful or interesting. 2Pac was meaningful. He talked out of 10 different sides of his mouth and yet he represented an incredibly distinct and righteous point of view on the Black community, popular culture, and American politics.

2Pac impressed himself upon hip-hop in distinct phases: as a roadie with Digital Underground (“Same Song”), then as an earnest sort of street polemicist (“Dear Mama,” “Brenda’s Got a Baby”), then as a feisty hitmaker (“California Love”), then an embattled paranoiac raging against Dr. Dre, Puffy, Nas, Jay-Z, and Mobb Deep on a project released just a couple months after his death (“Bomb First,” “Hail Mary,” “Against All Odds”), and at last, in memoriam, as a sort of saint (“Changes,” “Thugz Mansion”); and that’s not even getting into his development as an actor (Juice, Poetic Justice, Above the Rim). This was all spanning just about a decade, from Digital Underground in the early ’90s through 2002’s Better Dayz, though of course 2Pac’s subsequent posthumous releases and his continuous influence in hip-hop make his career feel like it must’ve been much longer. Longevity in hip-hop is elusive and sometimes ungratifying even when rappers do achieve it. Jay-Z has been making music for three decades. I don’t want to downplay the significance of his longevity; he really was the first rapper to prove his mainstream musical viability into middle age. But at some point—certainly by The Blueprint 3, if not earlier—he became a sort of dilettante who only raps part time, when the mood strikes, as he’s otherwise busy doing big-money mergers and acquisitions. Eminem, at age 51, is still productive and successful but also rather insular since, well, Encore in 2004, honestly. It’s hard to age gracefully in what is ultimately youth culture.

Of course, 2Pac died at age 25—he didn’t get to directly confront these challenges of longevity, he didn’t get to test his capacity to keep sounding new and vital and indispensable to hip-hop into a second or third decade of creation and performance. But Kanye West did. Kanye was a rapper who, like 2Pac before him, would approach each album cycle, each creative phase, as a distinct escalation of his ambitions and his self-regard, with the talents and taste to back it up. This despite neither 2Pac nor Kanye really being anyone’s idea of a technically masterful rapper. The 2000s were a decade of barbershop arguments and blog discourses to determine the best rapper alive and the greatest rapper of all time, and Kanye, as a rapper-producer more appropriately compared to Puffy or Dr. Dre, talent-wise, never seriously factored into those conversations, nor did he really ultimately want to be compared to Puffy or even Jay-Z. 2Pac aside, Kanye’s ideal for music stardom was more akin to Michael Jackson, and that’s before we even get into Kanye more broadly comparing himself to Jesus, Picasso, and Steve Jobs in the years of Yeezus and The Life of Pablo. This sort of overstatement was fun and even a little justified, for a time; from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy onward, Kanye really was an incomparable figure in modern American entertainment. His escalations were thrilling until they were exhausting, the line between these modes being somewhat ambiguous and ultimately coming down to personal taste. Yeezus was a breathtaking work of sweating, heaving blasphemy, and I loved it, even if I couldn’t stand his long, bizarre rants on the tour, the fans defending them, and the critics casting the very characterization of those rants as “problematic.” By The Life of Pablo in 2016, I wanted off.

Kanye squarely addressed this sort of disillusionment with “the new Kanye” with an a cappella ditty, “I Love Kanye,” on The Life of Pablo: “I hate the new Kanye / the bad mood Kanye / the always rude Kanye / spaz in the news Kanye / I miss the sweet Kanye / chop up the beats Kanye.” This track has always, to my mind, presented a sort of overly simplistic and tokenizing outlook on “the old Kanye,” one that I was surprised to see Kanye indulge. I recognize the two competing caricatures in these lyrics, but I also find myself wondering whether “the old Kanye” ever even existed. Kanye was always kind of crude and bitter and bombastic—in fact, that’s a big part of what I remember enjoying about him as a teen. But I also recognize “the sweet Kanye,” the humbled young man honoring his then-girlfriend’s late father on “Never Let Me Down,” or the good son performing “Hey Mama” on The Oprah Winfrey Show, with Mama sitting in the front row. I recognize both “the sweet Kanye” and “the bad mood Kanye” as “the old Kanye.”

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Aziz Ansari—in his stand-up comedy and also in character as the goofy millennial swaglord Tom Haverford on Parks and Recreation—used to make Kanye out to be this sort of misunderstood sweetheart with the best of intentions. Sometimes I’m convinced that Aziz, more than Kanye himself, over the years authored the “old Kanye” caricature of “I Love Kanye.” But increasingly, after Graduation, Kanye resisted this very sort of cutesy trivialization. He scrapped the recurring bear mascot as well as his plans to continue the styling and theming of his earlier albums—The College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation—with a long-rumored album titled Good Ass Job. Instead, pivotally, Kanye released 808s & Heartbreak, a strange and unexpected album full of bleak and heavily Auto-Tuned singing largely devoid of conventional rapping. With a dreary mechanical wail, Kanye was echoing Lil’ Wayne and T-Pain but to a far more forlorn effect. Kanye released 808s a year after his mother died from heart disease and complications suffered during cosmetic surgery, and the music reflected his grief rather ominously. This would’ve been the earliest cause for fans to start missing “the old Kanye,” the one with the drawl, the one who pushed miracle whips. This was also the beginning of a morbid fascination with the rapper’s emotional state, out of genuine concern for a grieving son as much as—if not more so—out of an unseemly interest in the musical implications. Kanye is depressed—he’s about to drop a sadboy classic.

The era of sadboy classicsthat’s obviously “the new Kanye.” 808s, Yeezus, and The Life of Pablo were each controversial and off-putting to some subset of fans, but awesome and invigorating to a much larger subset. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy in 2010 is his last work of universal acclaim, an album that earned him a decade’s worth of goodwill to later squander. Kanye didn’t start to run aground until nearly 15 years into his run, with the chaotic back-to-back release of Ye and Kids See Ghosts. These were both uncharacteristically slight albums, about the length of a traditional EP, both diminished, if not lost, in the shuffle of releases from Nas, Pusha T, and Teyana Taylor during the hectic GOOD Music summer recording spree in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. Kanye’s 2019 album, Jesus Is King, is a novelty as a full-on gospel project from a rapper previously heard rapping about bleached assholes, sure, but mostly Kanye just seemed to be trying to rekindle the old hype for “Ultralight Beam.”

On Friday, Kanye and Ty Dolla $ign are slated to release Vultures, Volume 1, an album that strikes me as yet another nth wave rehash of The Life of Pablo. I’ve never loved Pablo and can’t say I’m thrilled to hear Kanye once again playing the art heaux trap messiah, though I will say that some of what I’ve heard sounds promising. (“Everybody,” in particular, is great; if that flip gets the same rude reception as Drake’s “Way 2 Sexy,” I’m going to lose my mind.) If Vultures does, against all odds, prove that Kanye is as musically vital as ever regardless of what you or I make of his politics, then I’ll be happier than I am writing about the guy as if he more or less died in 2021. The newer Kanye isn’t all bad. Donda grew on me. “I Love It” is fun. Jesus Is King has its fans. But I don’t know—maybe he’s washed at age 46 and I’m washed at age 36 and we’re both belaboring something and it is what it is.

I have compassion for Kanye, I really do—he’s obviously unwell—but you can’t really blame me or anyone else for disengaging a bit, if not entirely, at his booking an interview with Alex Jones to declare, “I like Hitler.” Now he’s rocking—sorry, reappropriating—Klan apparel. Now he’s repping Burzum. I reminisce about a time when Kanye’s knack for grabbing attention didn’t feel so much like a weapon. Everyone remembers the September 2007 cover of Rolling Stone, hyping the release date battle of hip-hop blockbusters, Graduation vs. Curtis, Kanye West vs. 50 Cent. Kanye’s victory in that sales battle is often framed as a sign of some big generational shift away from street rap, but this isn’t quite right; that cover dropped a couple years deep into the rise of the first trap stars—T.I., Jeezy, Gucci Mane—out of Atlanta. What that Rolling Stone cover really effectively represented—apart from the decline of 50 Cent and G-Unit and, more broadly, New York City in the hip-hop mainstream—was Kanye’s knack for making something as crude as marketing feel like the creation myth. He beat his chest and talked his shit like he was Muhammad Ali. Like his jaw was made of adamantium.

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These days it’s hard to want to root for Kanye or think too hard about him or hear him beat his chest and talk his shit, as he insists on turning each album release cycle into a culture-war skirmish and also a child-custody hearing. I barely wanted to revisit The College Dropout, as much as it might represent, for many fans, a simpler time and a brighter outlook and a nicer guy. There was a stretch of several years when Rap Twitter couldn’t go two weeks without compulsively ranking his albums and tediously rehashing the merits of each. These weren’t conversations so much as a secular rite: Kanye West is the most important artist of his generation, and we were for whatever reason obliged to reaffirm his greatness whenever, wherever, however we could. I’m more critic than fan of, well, everything; I’ve always had frustrations and complaints about Kanye West, as far back as The College Dropout. And yet, for most of his career, I genuinely couldn’t imagine Kanye ever, even once, as a fluke, releasing projects as inessential as Donda 2. I don’t miss the old Kanye so much I miss believing in the streak, believing in immortality.

But fans are always saying shit like this, right? Jay-Z once rapped about this sort of entitlement, this sort of backseat driving of a megastar’s life and career: “Hov on that new shit, niggas like ‘How come?’ / Niggas want my old shit, buy my old album.” That’s “I Love Kanye,” seven years earlier. Kanye is always echoing Jay, even after all these years of Jay keeping him at arm’s length, if not further, certainly since Watch the Throne, perhaps seeing in him the same penchant for hotheaded self-sabotage that Jay identified in his estranged business partner Dame Dash. (Said Kanye on “Get Em High”: “Why you think me and Dame cool? / We assholes!”) The recklessness, the heterodoxy, the spite, the sanctimony, the hedonism but also the distant twinkling promise of humility, redemption, transcendence … someday—it’s all there, in the old Kanye, in The College Dropout: “It seems we’re living the American Dream, / But the people highest up got the lowest self-esteem / The prettiest people do the ugliest things / For the road to riches and diamond rings. Even now, after all these years of overthinking Kanye West, I don’t know that my reaction to hearing “All Falls Down” is all that different from my reaction two decades ago, when I was in high school, spinning the CD in my Discman, wearing the sort of leaky foam-covered headphones no one uses anymore. Great song. Amazing album. Strange guy.

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