👀 Am California
Kush & Orange Juice is one of the greatest mixtapes of all time.
If you disagree, you just weren’t there. We all only get that one moment at that one age with that one artist who dropped that one album which unquestionably defined that one summer. I’ll never forget it. “I don’t love them, I don’t chase ‘em, I duck ‘em.” Wiz was the man, that was his summer, and he made the kind of body of work that made that feeling contagious.
The energy shifted.
This was at a pivotal point in the genre when the new guard stepped up in clusters and planted their flags down on what we now know as the internet era of Hip Hop. It was a free for all and there were spots for the taking. That summer felt like a movie scored by Cardo, Sledgren, and Jerm; starring Wiz and all of us. This is one of the flyest bodies of work I’ve ever heard. I imagine Taylor Gang sitting around in a boardroom and on the whiteboard are the words “partying”, “smoking”, “fly clothes”, and “beautiful women.” This was music carefully crafted in a lab; the handful of scientists involved brought together for the sole purpose of creating the perfect sonic wake and bake. The whole thing is hazy, dream-like, bouncy, bright, groovy, expertly paced, and Wiz took off on it on pure charisma. He was a young and hungry artist who was always destined for stardom, this was his magnum opus, and he knew all of the above.
Hip Hop had a hand in revolutionizing the music industry in its collapse. The concept of free music was petrifying to anyone following the old model. Napster came through and crushed the buildings and somewhere in there mixtapes started to mean something different within the genre. All of a sudden rappers started dropping tapes that sounded like albums; some that were better than the major label releases of their year. Eventually, as the means of music consumption started to take on a new shape, Hip Hop artist realized music is just a tool to advertise an overarching brand. Kush & Orange Juice came free of charge but we buyed into the brand that is Wiz Khalifa and the lifestyle he packaged and delivered to us. He went number one (trending) on Google and Twitter and got the top trending hashtag with #kushandorangejuice; the download link to his album on his Twitter. This meant something. Fast forward 8 years and the concept of free music and social media is a standard.
“Self made G, did everything on my own bruh.”
Mezmorized, The Statement, Spotlight, The Kid Frankie, Never Been, in the Cut, Visions, Still Blazin; there are actually too many classic tracks on here to name. They all culminate into the story of a young playboy taking flights to different cities, living out of his luggage, partying in hotels, falling asleep in designer clothes, and waking up to sold out shows. The way Wiz himself describes it feels like an Oceans 11 movie on wax. The heist was to figure out a way to smoke weed, be the coolest guy in the room, and get paid to do it. It was an instrumental streetwear drop. It was a musical sneaker release. It was a cool item to have and it sounded like how rocking some fly shit feels. And Taylor Gang packaged it in a way that was conducive to a changing industry. And I was there for it.
Happy Anniversary to Kush & Orange Juice!
Hip Hop is part contact sport.
Let’s not forget that. In 2006 Tip “T.I.” Harris had an aura around him that few in rap obtain. He wore the title King of the South like a campaign slogan years prior and unsurprisingly it ruffled feathers. Houston rapper Lil Flip was one of the first to challenge this self proclamation. Boldly rising to the occasion, T.I.’s response aligned so many stars in one moment you would think it was prophecy. He had a newborn son that year who he gave his namesake as well as the nickname “King.” They say that inspired the title of the album, as it was an album of growth, but if you ask me the whole thing felt like one big checkmate.
T.I. came into his own in 2006. Out of necessity he secured the throne by sheer willpower. That’s not to say he was a nobody before. With Southern rap’s unprecedented rise to dominance, a Jeezy or a Gucci Mane could be credited for ushering in the now popularized Trap sound. But many would credit Tip as the one who coined the term. He just came off of a hot streak. After a short hiccup of label issues following his 2001 debut I’m Serious, he hit the ground running. 2003’s Trap Musik and 2004’s Urban Legend spawned over half a dozen hit singles. And he was young. Still in his early 20’s, it was as if the title of every album he put out was a mission statement; an indication of his head space at any given point in time. Following a laundry list of run ins with the law, the album King seemed to come at a point when Tip put aside childish things.
Who could forget those horns? “What You Know,” King’s lead single felt like nothing short of an arrival on part of royalty: the soundtrack to a premeditated victory. T.I. as a brand came with some hard lined constrictions. As prolific a rapper, writer, performer, and hit maker as he was, it was all too gruff and too potent to escape the confines of the Trap he created. The self proclaimed Urban Legend had his eyes set on a new title. Tapped in to provide the soundtrack for his acting debut, ATL, he instead put his efforts toward a solo project meant to work in tandem with it. Never losing his edge, the old Tip Harris with all of his bravado-tinged drug talk is found on cuts like “Top Back”, “Undertaker”, or “I’m Talkin’ To You.” But he informally introduced another side to that coin that would be an integral part of the duality of his persona. The album provided cuts like “Why You Wanna”, “Stand Up Guy”, and “Goodlife” which felt less beanie and baggy denim and more designer shades and tailored suit. This album had chess pieces that would lead this convicted drug dealer from Bankhead to work with a former N’Sync front-man and have it make sense.
This is the album that silenced anyone questioning the man’s position. In 2004 Lil Flip reached his career high, enjoying the starts of what at that time looked like a flourishing career in pop music. He had a hit and a name like anyone else. Him mentioning T.I. in bad light wound up backfiring on him in the worst way, almost volunteering him to be a martyr for anyone in the South that felt any kind of way. We don’t talk enough about how scathing a response this album was. That lead single was a direct message to Flip, calling into question his authenticity and firing off direct threats to his safety; all while the entire country danced to it. The song spent 20 weeks on the charts, peaked at number 3 overall and number 1 on Hip Hop/R&B, went double platinum and won a Grammy. The album went gold its first week, platinum not long after, and the movie was critically acclaimed. T.I. had pop music, Hollywood, and the streets all in the palm of his hand simultaneously and though he fired off shots, his success could more than speak for itself. There are moments in rap where one artist has all of the juice. Tupac had ’96, Nas had ’01, 50 Cent had ’03, Lil Wayne had ’08, and so on. Great artists reach a moment in their career wherein the situation calls on them to step to the plate and do what needs to be done. And he did it.
There is a very special class of artist in Hip Hop. It is a space that only those that master the craft occupy. Tupac Shakur reached the soul’s boiling point and became something bigger than a mortal man; he became an idea. And as far as I’m concerned, it all started with Me Against the World.
Evolution is the mark of a true artist. In 1995 Tupac was just 4 years removed from his entrance into the rap game and at the tender age of 24, already dropped 3 albums, was in the midst of mobilizing streets all across the country, struck fear in mainstream America, and made a laundry list out of his rap sheet. Born from and raised by the Black Panthers and more specifically by Afeni Shakur, this man’s mission statement was clear. He was out here for Black people and he made it clear he was out here for Black women; and in a world so resistant to his energy regarding these communities, he was met with the most extreme of backlashes.
The title Me Against the World says it all.
He was hurt. People familiar with the man may be familiar with his now famous High School interview. A 17 year old Tupac is seen bright eyed, delicate in the way he carried himself, and soft to the touch in the way he spoke. In hindsight, hearing that young man’s take on the world made it obvious that he was bred as almost a mission statement; a reaponse to the evils of America already endured by a community. This was a Black boy already more articulate than most men, passionate as anyone in his age group but with the sharpness of any OG; but with a gentleness to him. He was young, optimistic, and hell bent on saving the world. Then that boy met world, entered the rap game, and America’s response to that passion brought on an energy even someone as wise beyond their years as him couldn’t have fathomed.
His 4th album (3rd solo) went platinum while he was in prison. By then he had been beaten by Oakland PD, shot two drunk off duty cops in Atlanta, got robbed and shot by Black men he thought were connected to artists he considered the closest of friends, and was locked up due to a false claim by a Black woman on part of a conspiracy by other Black men he trusted. He was betrayed not only by those he considered enemies, but those he considered friends; those he went out of his way to protect and look out for. The very people that young boy in that interview so clearly loved and advocated for. He took not only the Black experience directly to the face, but the experience of a Black revolutionary. He was a force strong enough and smart enough to challenge the status quo and that status quo, no matter the body it manifested itself in the form of, came through to chop him down. To the point where it was just him. It was just him alone in that prison cell against the world.
As far as I’m concerned, this was the start of the Tupac we know and revere today. It was the begining of something almost uncomfortably introspective. His first single, Dear Mama, almost doubled as a letter from his prison cell as well as a boy returning to his mother after being beaten down by a cruel world. Songs like “So Many Tears,” “If I Die 2nite,” and “Lord Knows” had very open, honest, and blatant references to his own depression, feelings of being trapped, and even suicidal thoughts. I hear those tracks and I think about that 17 year old from that interview and the things his bright-eyed optimism was met with.
It was his most reflective album.
If you look at the climate of the genre today, it might not even be a big thing to hear an artist open up about their deepest and darkest personal stories. One might not bat an eyelash at someone openly admitting to their mother being a one-time crack fiend from the first person or say things like “if I wasn’t high, I’d probably try to blow my brains out.” Scanning through the zeitgeist of Hip Hop albums, I honestly can’t think of a time before that moment when a rapper pinpointed their own vulnerabilities to that degree. It was at this moment where ‘Pac became performance art. Knocked on his ass, he was forced to reboot who he was and how he approached life and we got to witness it in real time through his art. And as any fan would know, what happened after this album was an energy different from anything he brought to the table beforehand. This album was reflective, it was melancholy, it was personal, it was reminiscent; almost like the calm before the storm.
All Eyez On Me was more the equal and opposite reaction to all of the vile actions done to him that he build up in that prison cell. It was the all the anger he felt he needed to project once he got out. The 7 Day Theory had him assuming another role entirely, wielding that dark energy quite literally like a Machiavelli or Sun Tzu. As far as I’m concerned, those albums are all part of his unprescedented stride that formed a blueprint for artists that live alongside their music; that bring that fans with them into the unknown, with all of its highs and lows. There’s a famous quote by James Baldwin where he states that “to be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious is to be in a rage almost all the time.” I think about that quote when I think about those last three albums before Tupac Shakur’s death. They are the documentation of a Black man’s emotions in reaction to the evils and bloody hands of America.
And it started with Me Against the World.
The Pack’s story is one of a natural born hustle.
I’m under the belief that Bay Area soil breathes for anybody that feels it. It whispers to anybody that hears it. It has a heartbeat. And there’s something about that soil that communicates some unspoken message to those walking on it and paying attention. Young L, Stunnaman, Lil Uno, and Lil B come from the legacy of Too $hort and E-40 to name so few; two of the Bay Area’s most celebrated rap titans who once walked this same soil selling their stories and their voices out of the backs of trunks. So when The Pack told me stories about being in their early teens and already plotting, I can’t help but think of that soil. Before they even saw any kind of bigger picture, they were four young boys possessed by the history they walked on.
We sat down to talk about their latest tees, hoodies, and Vans only for me to realize the music didn’t come before the clothing. When Young L and Stunnaman were just 14 or 15 they would take the bottom of their Air Forces, coat them with bleach, stomp them on pairs of jeans, then splatter paint on top of that. Streetwear and rapper-owned brands hadn’t reached the level of saturation you see today nor were they as bold and outside of the box. The way the Wolves would tell it, there wasn’t any kind of master plan behind what they were doing. They just did it. Sometimes they would even fill water guns with that bleach and spray it on denim, Uno continued.
“We were spraying people with bleach with the guns too”
They were young, you have to remember.
Siri then interjected from L’s iPhone, “OK, I found this on the web: bleach with a gun.” After tripping over how crazy that was and how far technology evolved, that minor interruption helped accent how forward thinking those young boys were with so few tools at their disposal. Back then all they had was hustle. Then Myspace surfaced. The record industry was still operating by old rules and for the first time in the genre a group surfaced purely by way of the Internet.
You would think there was a master plan.
Uno jumped right into the story like it just happened yesterday. It was a Friday night. L was wearing a red Super Mario track jacket with some red and white low-top Vans when this sound popped in his head. They all heard about a deal for golds in downtown Oakland, $10 a tooth, and decided to drive out from Albany. L took three minutes at most to lay down that sound he had in his head before burning it to CD and mobbing out. They gave the beat the whip test and Lil B said it first. “Got my Vans on, but they look like sneakers.” Uno, wearing some all white Forces, followed up with “wearing coke whites but my vans look cleaner.” These were just freestyles and as Stunnaman put it, at the time they didn’t even wear Vans for the fashion. They had other kicks more in line with that. Vans were just their go-to skating shoe and it was that skating culture that bound them all.
You would think they set out to change the lives of future generations of Black children.
Skateboarding wasn’t for us. Stunna remembers clearly the era they came up in. As kids, he and L were deep in the skate scene and its whole aesthetic was the polar opposite of Black culture. “It wasn’t cool” he said. “They were calling you Oreo, muhfuckas taking your skateboard.” It was a White boy thing and the fact that a Black kid entering such a space was so foreign to people goes to show the closed mindedness of that era. “Everybody made fun of the movement when we was kids,” Uno then said. “They laughed at how tight our clothes was…I mean, we wore baggy clothes too but like how punk-rockish or tight they were, how small the shirts was.” That’s when L chimed in.
“Being a skater, you almost look at everything different.”
Maybe my favorite thing about this interview was seeing the dynamic between these brothers. It is a dynamic you have to admire given the fact that they’ve been in the game for as long as they have and remained solid. L sat silent for the beginning half of the interview. The dynamic was clear. Stunna never intended to rap and was more into the A&R side in the early stages of their come up. The way he speaks controls a room and he’s able to relay his thoughts both in a business pitch and an artistic summation seamlessly. Uno remembered vividly more the folklore of their whole come up and could tell you any story in great detail and with emotional context. L kicked back and let his brothers talk, almost marinating on everything before finally deciding to chime in with what I believe was the most poignant moment of the entire interview. “Being a skater you almost look at everything different.”
“You already know your life is a certain…sorta…risky,” he continued. “Even when you’re young and in fame, you’re gonna feel like your life is at risk similar to being a skater…me and Stunna was always risk takers.” And it’s that daring quality, that nerve, that gave them a certain insatiable drive to offer the culture something different.
At one point they were all split up. L went to school in Albany. Uno and B were in Berkeley while Stunna was in independent study which gave him the freedom to whip around and pop up anywhere. In addition to flooding their schools with their product, they would hit up San Francisco, Concord, Manteca, Stockton and anywhere else to sell their CD’s for whatever price they could. Sometimes Stunna would roll out in his girl’s car, sometimes they couldn’t get a car and opted to steal cars to make those treks. They were “pulling up and leaving stolos everywhere,” Stunna described. There’s really no dedication more thorough than that.
Everything that happened from then on was just simple math. I want you to picture it. These four Bay boys rolling out to downtown Oakland to cop some golds, a CD popped into the player playing a beat that would change their lives and freestyling words that would do the same. It was a natural inclination to innovate, plus an immovable hustle, plus the absolute nerve to be themselves. You take that equation and add in the advent of Myspace, and the rest is history.
I look at these young Black kids today. I see how little is in the way of their path to do what they want or be what they want, and the pre-established blueprint provided for them. I see that and I can’t help but think of those four Bay boys whipping it out to downtown Oakland. We could talk about how colorful skating culture is today, we could talk about how few racial barriers there are in fashion, we could talk about how many young artists of color went on to finesse the Internet out of millions of dollars in what became a social media industry. You just simply can’t take any of that away from those four young men. Right down to the producer tags.
Big ups to The Pack!
Shoutouts to @jxrdns for the flicks.
That tiger on those jackets though.
Eugene of Team Terrible had a shoot scheduled earlier in the day before our sit-down. It got postponed so instead he bought a kitten, as one does. I say that to say, just know throughout the course of this interview, it could be heard meowing, running on top of furniture and bodies, and clawing at its leisure: so just imagine that as you keep scrolling. The little guy had a fresh new environment and ahead of it a lot to get used to.
“I just hope he doesn’t fuck up my Air Max’s” Eugene thought out loud.
Coming alive under my camera flash, those jackets with that logo became a hot ticket item since the brand’s launch in 2013. But that’s not to say the spirit of them wasn’t bubbling inside of Eugene those years prior. After going on about everything from his memories of the street wear scene in the early 2000’s, to 90’s Hip Hop, Bay Area skateboard culture, and his love of vintage clothing, it makes sense how his own personal aesthetic eventually culminated itself into the form of a clothing brand. It’s inception wasn’t so much intentional though, he would explain. Matter of fact, if I had to force the comparison, it more or less started with him, too, getting used to a new environment and fucking shit up.
“We would go out, get drunk, and act crazy,” he described. “Team Terrible” was just something he and his friends would shout for no particular reason as they bar hopped. A San Francisco native, the cost of living in the city drove him to the East Coast and it was in Baltimore where the idea struck him to make team jackets for his small circle to get drunk and act crazy in. The way he frames the brand’s rise feels spontaneous and accidental. It was organic, but it hardly came out of thin air.
He worked at HUF starting around ‘05. Street wear had yet to reach the trendy heights it sits at now and the climate of the city was tangibly different. In hindsight that was the perfect time to be in the environment and soak things up. It was less about hype and more a genuine love. His coworkers were of similar minds, one being the owner of Black Scale, who around that time just started dipping his feet into clothing. He also worked at True around the time these brands the Haight is known for started gaining prominence. Back then there was more room for people to do their thing. At that point, Eugene was doing things like altering Starter jackets and sewing patches into them. He was a skateboarder and a hip hop head.
I asked him his top 10 rappers and he burst into laughter, struggling to narrow it down. The first name was Sean Price.
San Francisco “wants you to pay $1300 for a box…with rats in it,” he went on to describe. Out of necessity he found himself leaving what was becoming a more tech-oriented city and one night in Baltimore I suppose those years out here just clicked. When his friends back home laid their eyes on what was, in hindsight, the first run of Team Terrible jackets, that was the smoke. Then when he made a run of 15 jackets specifically for his SF friends and shipped them out, that was the fire. From there it was a wrap. The demand was so high, he decided to print some shirts with that same logo and they sold out online instantly. Jay-Z, Prodigy, Jadakiss, and Fabolous were the next rappers he started listing off.
Eugene’s based back in SF now. Having sold his product on shelves throughout California, Tokyo, and Mexico, he returned to the city after feeling it all out. With a lot more experience and knowledge of his surroundings, he talks about his future plans framed with all that he’s learned and everywhere he’s been. By now his brand pumped out bombers, tees, hoodies, coach jackets, and bucket hats among anything else that didn’t get mentioned. He’s gone off and tried different designs and styles and to this day that tiger logo is his hottest and most consistent item. The city is different now and so is the scene. I asked him if any current trends influence him or any of his upcoming ideas and his answer was an almost definite no. He has a very clear idea of what he likes and what his aesthetic is.
Common, Cam’ron, J.R. Writer, and Buckshot were the next names he listed.
The scene is over-saturated with brands at the moment and more than anything he’s focusing on staying consistent. He describes tigers as strong, respected, fierce, and outside of just simply loving the animal, there’s something about that strength and independence that I think is inherent of the brand’s character. He skates, collects vintage clothing, and turned his love of Starter jackets into a brand and he plans to keep doing him and staying true to himself. This is less about hype and more about genuine love. He struggled to name his tenth top rapper. Because it’s hard when you’re a real fan of it all.
“Snoop,” he threw out, making plans out loud to cop a vintage Snoop tee sometime soon.
What up, Team Terrible!
My sit-down with Dayvid Michael and Franco Dollas of Danko Mars was free flowing and shapeless. What I mean is we landed on topics such as Kanye, Lil Wayne, and Lil B being the most influential artists on this generation, which was peppered with random unprovoked references to Rick and Morty, all before returning to the subject of the duo’s upcoming album; among a lot of other random tangents. And it’s those tangents, I learned, that are a key part of their creative process.
There’s something going on in the Bay right now. Let’s talk about Oakland. For one reason or another, the creative scene is bubbling out of control and these two are located dead in the center of it all. Part of my mission for this blog is to spotlight Bay Area artists and entrepreneurs. I’m drawn to our locals who have the nerve to build something with their own two hands. That is part of the story of True and a mentality so ingrained in the heart of the Bay and part of what natives fear the Bay is losing. What’s going on in Oakland right now is entirely organic, homegrown, and Danko Mars are one direct reflection of it.
I know Dayvid by way of his music with the trio Down 2 Earth (with Clyde Shankle and True collaborator Azure) as well as his solo work. I asked him and Franco how and why they decided to link up and after a few more similar questions quickly realized what they do isn’t really a matter of deciding. Danko Mars came about simply because they were friends, happened to be making music separately, and one day it just made sense to do something together. “A lot of it is freestyled” Dayvid explained when their album came up. Oakland is popping right now and I asked them if, going into any of the their sessions, they aimed for something different than the competition or if they drew inspiration from the scene. They don’t really think about it. Creatively, their process is free flowing and shapeless. In this DIY era it’s easy for artists to follow what’s trending or to hop on an already existing wave whereas these two retain absolute confidence in themselves and their abilities. They aren’t afraid to bet on themselves. Right down to the name Danko Mars, a combination of their names. They are who they are.
The first song from their album “Horror” is one that showcases their chemistry as a duo. Over Wax Roof’s eerie blob of live instrumentation, Dayvid’s laid back delivery compliments Franco’s heavier, more urgent tone. Their differences come together seamlessly as the two perform with a signature slur over drums sparse enough for them to really swing with it. The track feels like the come up. It feels like triumph. It feels like the waxings of two young kings who know they’re kings, “dripping in gold.” I can’t really tell who their direct influences might be. Maybe it’s just whatever they feel the moment. Maybe it’s just them themselves. “Horror” feels free form and vibey; like two Oakland cats just talking with a limp for three minutes and thirty-nine seconds. Whatever it is they’re cooking and however you would describe it, I’m looking forward to the album and what they have in store.
What up to Danko Mars!
I’m going to talk about this man like a myth because he’s a myth.
I wasn’t around in the 60’s to see a personality like Muhammad Ali in real time. I wasn’t around in the 80’s to see a talent like Michael Jackson hit his stride right there in the moment. I could only tell you secondhand accounts and he-say-she-say about certain larger than life figures and certain larger than life events. When it comes to Kanye West, however, I’ve been along for the ride from the very beginning. I am part of a generation that grew up along side him and I don’t doubt I’m not the only person to learn about myself through him. ‘Ye’s story feels like a Greek tragedy; or a comedy depending on what we’re talking about. His story differs little from the classic hero’s journey. And to talk about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Kanye West in 2010, one needs to understand what that journey entailed. That album and that moment in time was like the return of a king.
Just 8 years prior our hero’s jaw was shattered in a car crash. At that point the man had plaques on his wall. He made it. He was just one year removed from producing perhaps the most important album of his idol’s career. With the help of ‘Ye among others, they crafted a sound for Jay-Z’s The Blueprint that would go on to become a marker for that time period in Hip Hop. The man was a success in every sense of the word but was simultaneously getting laughed out of the building for his higher aspirations. He was a game-changing producer and had his eyes on becoming a game-changing rapper. In said building he was in the company of the likes of Rocafella and Dipset among others; gangster rappers and ex drug dealers straight out of the projects who rapped about such. That time period was saturated with throwback jerseys and luxury raps. Hip Hop was in the middle of peak commercialization and was especially adamant on sticking to the script. Then in came this preppy middle-class art student with his pink-ass polo and a fucking backpack. Nobody took him seriously and they definitely didn’t take his raps seriously. Nobody would sign him nor did they want him to be his own artist; let alone release his own album. In ’02, with his trademark defiant spirit, he was in the midst of taking matters into his own hands by recording his debut album when, driving home from the studio, he fell asleep at the wheel.
Part of the allure of ‘Ye’s story is his perseverance against all odds thrown his way. I was a child when I first heard the man rap through a mouth bound shut by metal wire. Having already been silenced by his peers and the record label suits, here he was silenced in the most literal way by nothing less than divine intervention itself. I say he’s a myth because that was the moment I feel he became less of a man and more of an idea. At his best and at his worst ‘Ye is all of us. He is that adversity every one of us experiences and that triumph not all of us get to revel in. And though he went on to fully recover, he spent the rest of his career with that mentality of rapping through a mouth that all odds had forced shut. Nobody wanted him to release an album but he went on to make it happen regardless. And he did so to widespread critical praise and great commercial success, to which a cultural shift began. Having narrowly escaped death, he gave us all a music career with absolutely no wasted space. Already a genius with the habit of traveling the unbeaten path, our hero now had a battery in his back charged by a higher purpose and spent the rest of his years sporting a nerve unmatched by anyone. What rapper made their lead single about Jesus? What rapper directed their own videos? What rapper shot three different videos for one song? In the era of super-thugs and artists pretending to be harder than they were, who was out here rapping about college, the gripes of having a regular job, and their deepest insecurities? In a climate where Hip Hop developed sub genres with stark divides between their sounds and ideals, who was able to seamlessly navigate between circles of “commercial” rappers like Jay-Z or “conscious” rappers like Mos Def, much less get them on the same track? Who was able to give out hits to newer artists like John Legend or Alicia Keys while reviving the careers of veteran artists such as Common or Twista? Who was able to blur the line between a street art/street fashion oriented genre like Hip Hop and so-called high art/high fashion? The nerve of this man to take his explosive success as a new artist and put it on the line by declaring “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” live on the air. The nerve of this man to take the successful formula of his first album and flip it on its head; co-producing his second album with movie composer Jon Brion.
The nerve of this man to go head to head with the genre’s most feared and unstoppable force.
Hip Hop is full of followers and every era we see an artist whose every move dictates what direction the game goes. By his third album, Kanye once again went way left when he could have remained comfortable. Outside of introducing the genre to Japanese anime-inspired art and brighter, poppier, electronic inspired sounds, that time period is best marked by his face-off with rap titan 50 Cent. This is a man who came into the game catching bodies. 50 was known for destroying careers, outselling everyone and never hesitating to absolutely humiliate, bully, and crush his opponents. One couldn’t find a better human embodiment of everything gangster rap from that era. He came with the narrative of surviving 9 gunshots, wore bulletproof vests like they were fashion, and topped the charts with stories of crime and violence. Having found a way to montetize rap beef, ‘Ye was his latest opponent as the two scheduled to drop their albums on the same day. This was the day gangster rap as we knew it died. In an unprecedented win, ‘Ye came out victorious and with that victory, the idea of what it means to be a rapper got turned on its head. He was never supposed to be a rapper in the first place and now the game was completely in his hands. He was free to completely mold it in his image. Then he experienced the most prominent tragedy of his career since the car crash.
808’s and Heartbreak was his follow up album. I liken Kanye less to a rapper and more to a painter due to the rules, or lack thereof, that he operates by. At this point his art completely dismantled and went abstract as his life did. This was the point in the hero’s journey called the belly of the whale; referring to a point in a story when the hero is completely lost in darkness, surrounded by nothing familiar with no clear escape or win in sight. In retrospect, his mother’s death and what he created in its aftermath completely changed the trajectory of pop music. Throughout his career up until that point, it was clear she was a prominent part of his life and maybe even served as an anchor to his often pulsating ego. On that album ‘Ye performed through grief not unlike how he performed through that wire. In an odd move that left many scratching their heads in the moment but was perhaps his most influential moment artistically, he released a completely autotuned album that featured him, a rapper, singing. Like how nobody wanted to hear this producer rapping, nobody wanted to hear this rapper singing. But one of my favorite things about the man is that he’s right no matter what and the success of that album is the most tangible source of why the genre sounds like how it does right this moment. Outside of so many other factors, this era is notable for one particular moment. Again, I feel like I’ve been right by Ye’s side from the very beginning. And I remember in the moment seeing footage of him on the MTV red carpet with a bottle of Hennessy in one hand and then newcomer Amber Rose’s ass in the other. As I mentioned, Kanye’s art moves alongside his life and it was clear that, as beautiful as the music was, our hero was going through it. “I’ma let you finish but…” is now a running gag and a phrase that is a part of pop culture but in the moment, strangely enough, out of all obstacles he faced up until that point that was what almost destroyed him. Hopping up on stage and snatching the mic out of a young Taylor Swift’s hands as she won one of her very first awards turned ‘Ye into one of the most hated and criticized figures in the media landscape.
I have a feeling ‘Ye thrives on adversity.
In order to understand the significance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one needs to understand all that lead up to it. He went completely silent. Rumors have it our hero retreated to his studio in Hawaii for several months, flying in a who’s-who list of artists with the goal of creating one singular body of work. In and out of the studio were established legends such as the RZA, Q-Tip, No ID, Swizz Beatz, Pete Rock, Pharrell, Pusha T, Raekwon, Charlie Wilson, and Elton John. There were an eclectic array of talents that ranged from The Dream, to Rick Ross, to Ryan Leslie, to Fergie, to Keri Hilson, to Bon Iver, to Musiq Soulchild, to Lupe Fiasco, to Talib Kweli, to CyHi the Prynce, and Lloyd Banks. There was an embrace of the newer, upcoming generation that would come to dominate the decade this album ushered in such as Drake, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Kid Cudi, Big Sean, and Nicki Minaj. Clearly our hero was up to something. But what were the odds that it would all come together? I remember the stories and rumors circulating around these sessions. It sounded like some crazy mix of Illmatic and Thriller. But what were the odds that this one man could dodge so much adversity and keep coming out clean? I remember Q-Tip had an interview when this unnamed, mysterious Kanye album came into the conversation. He described it as the culmination of Ye’s entire journey up until that point. As if on every album he found and took something with him; and it was all always leading up to this moment. But what more could this man really do?
I remember waking up to the first GOOD Friday. We’re in a different era of music right now. The rules are completely different and the industry got turned on its head. There was a point in time when the concept free music sent fear and panic through the veins of anyone making money in music. To release original, great, well composed, well thought out music for free was absolutely unheard of. Kanye’s GOOD Friday series wasn’t just a collection of amazing music that he simply gifted to his fans, it was a window into what he was cooking up in real time. Who does that? Who even has the confidence to just throw music out like that? There are new rules today but back then it was hard for an artist to see the value in giving music away. When in actuality, listeners were never simply buying music. They were buying and buying into an idea. He recognized that and though he gave us so much leading up to the album, we still weren’t prepared for what was in store.
I wasn’t around when Michael dropped the video for Thriller on MTV. But I was around when Kanye dropped Runaway. And I, along with the world, shed all skepticism and recognized ‘Ye for the absolute rare and great talent that he is. It changed me a little by the end of it. Never had I witnessed a rapper drop something so ambitious with such disregard for how rap is supposed to be presented. The genre always had noses turned up at it and always had its legitimacy as an art form questioned by the people we’re supposed to recognize as gatekeepers. When I saw Runaway for the first time, it was the first time I viewed the genre as the kind of art that could be shown at the Louvre or the Smithsonian. While the video and the album was surely meant to be one giant fuck you to all of his critics and naysayers, who all in the moment recognized his brilliance for what it was, I also saw it as a fuck you to anyone that downplayed the legitimacy of not only Hip Hop, but Black music as a whole. After all, his defense of Beyonce and all of her phenomenally hard work over Taylor Swift is what fueled him to jump on that stage in the first place and turn himself into a target. And like Q-Tip said, it was as if our hero reached a point in his journey where every tool he acquired along the way came into play. It had the soul and honesty of his first album, the orchestration and grandiosity of his second album, the genre blending of his third album, and the autotune tinged ambition of his fourth album. I’d never seen or heard anything like it.
I will always root for ‘Ye through the good times and the bad times. I first heard him as a child and now I am deep into adulthood. He taught me about life, about perseverance, and that existence is all about growth. There are kids growing up today that weren’t around in 2010 to see that man do what he did in the moment.
But I was. And I’m forever grateful for it.
Happy Birthday to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy!