By Mark Guarino
Here’s something you don’t see everyday: two Chicago artists in the top ten of Billboard’s latest top 200 album chart. Along with OutKast, current albums by Kanye West and Twista represent the only hip-hop albums in the top ten at all.
West, the producer turned rapper, and Twista, an MC known for his rapid fire delivery, are representing both Chicago and the city’s hip-hop scene which, with the exception of Common and Da Brat, has taken back seat for too long to cities like Atlanta, New Orleans and New York. What separates Windy City hip-hop from the rest of the country? In the case of West’s album more than Twista’s, it comes down to shrewd humor, downplaying the gangsta image and an outlook less about celebrity and more about relating to real life.
Until his current incarnation as a rapper, West was primarily known as a star producer, particularly for Jay-Z. Finding inventive ways to build a song around old school soul records (particularly by speeding up the vocals) became his signature style which he used to create hits for the Roc-A-Fella kingpin, particularly “Takeover” and “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)” in 2001. Those two songs boosted West’s credibility and he quickly was hired to do the same for Scarface, Ludacris, Alicia Keys as well as continuing to work with Jay-Z.
Interestingly enough, West’s own debut, “The College Dropout” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam, 4 stars), sounds like none of his client’s records. Although cameos from employers and associates are littered throughout (Jay-Z, Ludacris, Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Common), they are at their worst, distractions. Because West’s own music sounds so personal and mines real life experience without the lens of sentimentality, it is far more ambitious than any of the multi-platinum albums he’s worked on in the past. It is an album that is witty, warm and refreshingly provocative. The statements West makes about racism, inner city life, the status quo and the very industry he makes his living from, sting with the unflinching confidence of an underdog finally getting his chance to speak and knowing, for once, everyone is listening.
That’s him in the album art, the high school kid relegated to the sidelines having been shut out of sports, dances and other similar popularity contests. The disillusionment is poised on the opening track (“We Don’t Care”). In listing the gamut of ways to make a living in the inner city — drug dealing reaps the same benefits as working 9 to 5 — he explains why school fails to become a priority. “You know the kids gonna act a fool/when you stop the programs for after school,” he raps. The song is one of the album’s most addictive, with the group chorus of kids taunting “we wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/the joke’s on you, we’re still alive.” With instructions to “throw your hands up in the sky and say/we don’t care what people say,” the song is about liberation — hard truths from stereotypes — and a celebration of survival against all odds.
West makes “Dropout” a personal history, detailing the racism he experienced working at the Gap (“Spaceship”), his near death experience in a car crash (“Through the Wire”) and his outlook at the rap game. “If I talk about God, my record won’t get played,” he raps on “Jesus Walks.” That song defies expectations on many levels — while a gospel choir sings to a march band beat, West decries the lack of personal faith in hip-hop and at the same time considers even a crack dealer one of “God’s soldiers.”
West doesn’t forget the jokes, which are plenty. In a song about institutional racism (“Never Let Me Down”), he positions himself as the outsider: “I know they don’t want me in the (expletive) club/they even make me show ID to get inside of Sam’s Club.” Another song heaping praise on old school soul stars includes the line, “she got a light skinned friend look like Michael Jackson/got a dark skinned friend look like Michael Jackson.”
The music relies on samples ranging from Chaka Khan to Luther Vandross, which are woven expertly throughout. West shows he knows how to create a warm intimacy using only acoustic instruments while in other places creating high energy party tracks that rely on unconventional instruments like violins and a boys choir. The skits and a 12-minute explanation about how he broke into the business create an unnecessary bulky feel towards the end. But for a debut from someone who isn’t even considered a rapper, “Dropout” sounds rejuvenating for a genre desperate for new ideas.
When he first came upon the scene in the early ‘90s, Twista was Tung Twista, a better name to describe his machine gun flow that once helped earn him the title “world’s fastest rapper” by the Guinness Book of World Records. His fourth album “Kamikaze” (Atlantic, 2 stars), the second under the new name, capitalizes on speed. Words charge by so quickly, they become indecipherable which, for Twista fans, is part of the rush.
But the novelty wears thin just as fast. Most of “Kamikaze” is soulless due to its cold, steely production and cliched lyrics. The West Side native lowers the bar with strip club fare that at one time was amusing. “Drinks,” set to a bouncy, playful beat, compares women to various cocktails and more than one song pays strict homage to the feminine behind. Then there’s the match-up with fellow Chicagoan R. Kelly (“So Sexy”), a song dedicated to “downtown shoppin’ honeys” that is lurid voyeurism posing as an innocent party track.
Kanye West produces three songs, but “Slow Jamz” — a tribute to old school soul singers — appears on his own album as well. West’s damage control is slight with only “Overnight Celebrity” — featuring a silky violin and the chipmunk-manipulated vocals of Motown’s Lenny Williams — breaks the mold. “Hope,” featuring warm acoustic guitars and a children’s choir, is dedicated to Sept. 11 victims, but by the end of the album, it comes off like a cloying decision. Twista is strictly a party rapper who knows that even in a moment of seriousness, he’s just seconds away from getting his freak on again.