The question itself seems preposterous now, based off of Mr. West’s current life situation. For those living under a rock for the past decade or so, there’s much to catch up on. Kanye West is legitimately a global icon, and is hailed as one of the best artists of this generation, possibly ever. According to Forbes, Kanye made $16 million in 2011 alone. That equates to approximately $43,835 every single day. That’s a bit lower than $51,413, what the average American made in the year 2011, according to USA Today. Consider the magnitude of those numbers for a brief moment. In 2005, West was named to Time magazine's list of One Hundred Most Influential People in the World. A select few might seek to dispute Mr. West’s artistry, but it is next to impossible to deny his wealth, power, and clout. He’s living your wildest dream, and then some. But let’s press rewind for a second, shall we? This is not a story emphasizing Kanye’s glory. Instead, we will focus on his struggle. Let’s take things back to before G.O.O.D. Music, before Roc-A-Fella, before the wealth and glory that comes with stardom. Let’s consider what we would have done in his shoes during his times of uncertainty, poverty, and self-doubt.
“Oh you graduated? Nah, I decided I was finished.” – School Spirit
We are in the midst of an era where higher education is considered almost obligatory by a large portion of American society. You better believe that Kanye’s upper middle class upbringing espoused similar beliefs. His path to success was far from easy, or guaranteed for that matter. He quite literally charted his own course and forced his way into appropriate avenues suitable to pursuing his long term goals. Kanye came up on Chicago’s south side, raised by his mother, an English professor. His father, Ray West, who divorced his mother when Kanye was 3, was an award-winning photographer who later on became a church counselor. He got straight A’s and B’s in high school, graduating to attend Chicago State University. All seemed in place for young Mr. West to be on his way towards the archetypical modern American route to success- do well in high school, go to college, and enter into the work force in a skilled position. As we all know, that’s not what happened.
The story of Kanye the college dropout’s rise to fame became immortalized in the song “Last Call,” off of his appropriately named debut album. In retrospect, it seems like the obvious choice- to leave school, where he wasn’t being fully challenged and chase his ambitions. The song Late, off of his sophomore effort Late Registration, allows listeners to get a feel of just how bitter Kanye felt towards his college experience. It becomes quite obvious that he didn’t feel he was maximizing his learning experience in the classroom. He fumes, “man, this is an insult. I went to junior high with all of them and they been slow.” Personally, I can identify with this feeling of boredom with unchallenging, by-the-book, mundane classes. Uninspired work rarely reaches one’s full potential. Hence, West dropped out Chicago State University after one year. Reflect for a minute on the stigma associated with the term “college dropout,” and ask yourself what you would have thought of a producer and rapper with no guaranteed deal or means of sustenance dropping out of school after a year to pursue the unthinkable.
“Doin’ five beats a day for three summers, I deserve to do these numbers.” - Spaceship
The real world is an unforgiving place. Bills pile up, jobs are often hard to come by, and time waits for no man. After dropping out of Chicago State, Kanye worked as a telemarketer, selling insurance to Montgomery Ward credit card holders, while dreaming of the glamour and fame of a successful music career. It goes without saying that this is not the highest-paying job in the world. Kanye worked by day to get by and produced “five beats a day for three summers” when he was off, dreaming of his metaphorical spaceship.
The tough years of Kanye’s life are unsurprisingly some of the least documented. It’s almost impossible to avoid hearing of Kanye’s success or the controversy caused with some of his more outrageous statements. All of the attention and flashing lights only came after what is largely an undocumented struggle. Thankfully, we can still turn to Kanye’s music to get a small taste of what he felt during the less glamorous times of his artistry. The struggles of the college dropout and wanna-be producer are most apparent in songs such as Spaceship, off of his debut, appropriately titled College Dropout. In this song, Kanye broods, “If my manager insults me again, I will be assaulting him.” Despite the difficulties of working to survive and putting his all into his craft, Kanye stayed on the path he set for himself until people began to take notice. Eventually, the hard work began to pay off, as Kanye found himself producing for Jay-Z in 2000, for the song This Can’t Be Life, off of The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. And so it began.
“Now I could let these dreamkillers kill my self-esteem, or use my arrogance as steam to power my dreams.” – Last Call
Even Shawn Carter himself didn’t want Kanye West rapping. Think back to mainstream rap in the early 2000’s. The streets were undeniably in control. Roc-A-Fella was making a killing with the likes of Cam’ron, Beanie Siegel, and Jay-Z himself. All were recognized as rising up from the streets, and had style and subject matter to match. This was not an era with room for so-called “backpack rap.” Suburban kids listened to urban rappers and fantasized about the glorified city life. Jay recalls, “we all grew up street guys who had to do whatever we had to do to get by. Then there's Kanye, who to my knowledge has never hustled a day in his life. I didn't see how it could work." Dame Dash, the Roc-A-Fella CEO at that time, recalled that “Kanye wore a pink shirt with the collar sticking up and Gucci loafers…we were not….cut from the same cloth.” Kanye found success producing for Jay-Z as early as 2000, for the song This Can’t Be Life, off of The Dynasty: Roc La Familia, but it did not seem likely that he would gain much support from Roc-A-Fella to launch his own rap career.
Kanye is often criticized for being overly egotistical, controversial, and outspoken. To be blunt, this is true. However, I would argue that many miss the positive side of these traits. Kanye has never been one to believe in conforming, or accepting what is popular belief. We hear his hunger and determination in mixtapes such as Freshman Adjustment, and in his debut College Dropout. So it should come as no surprise that he didn’t care to heed the opinions of those who didn’t feel he’d be a good fit in the rap game. It took an unbreakable, almost naïve sense of conviction to continue to pursue stardom as did Kanye. In 2002, a year after he left his hometown Chicago for New York, Kanye found himself in a position to release his debut album with Roc-A-Fella. The rest is history, and legend.
“Reach for the stars, so if you fall you land on a cloud.” – Home
If Kanye West had faltered in chasing his dreams, things would have been much different in the hip-hop sphere. If Mr. West had a little less ambition, arrogance, and passion for his craft, he very well could have given in and pursued a more pedestrian occupational field with much better odds of success. Kanye Omari West, Chicago State University Alumni, hardworking middle class man, successful by definition of many. There’s nothing wrong with that, but that’s not what he say for himself. Kanye is Swahili for “only one,” which is very appropriate, given his accomplishments and his mentality. Since the turn of the new millennium, the ambitious young producer from Chicago made an undeniable cultural imprint on the world, arguably rising to levels of stardom equal to his mentor and idol, Jay-Z himself. If someone were to suggest that Mr. West would have been better off finishing school and getting a dependable, decently paying desk job in 2012, he or she would likely get some of the meanest side eyes since Kanye himself during his infamous “I’ma let you finish” speech.
I ask myself, what would I have done if I were Kanye during his period of struggle? I still can’t say for sure. The odds were never really in his favor until he actually made it. As detailed before, even when he was producing, no one was really looking for Kanye the rapper to take over the game. Kanye even told high school students not to follow in his footsteps, and to say in school. Most of the time, this is still sound advice. There is only one Kanye West. The odds of someone succeeding in the entertainment industry are low, much less to become a global icon. Kanye’s rise to fame and wealth is a testament to the power of vision. His story doesn’t tell us that everyone can be a star, or that it’s easy to do so. What it does illustrate is that it is possible. That’s a beautiful thought, in itself.