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When Did You Realize Kanye West Was Great?

I am not a trendsetter, trend spotter or tastemaker. In fact, I’m usually pretty late to the party. For example, I didn’t listen to Drake’s So Far Gone until reading 237 positive write-ups. I play what I like and what I have to write about. Not that big into exploring. Time is too valuable. Being first doesn’t really matter to me. The only time I was first about an artist was Kanye West.

I shrugged in 2002 when I heard that the producer Kanye West was pursuing a rap career. Of course the beats would be great. But then, I read an interview with him in XXL. Okay, the guy’s got personality. Then I heard him spit on Jay-Z’s “The Bounce” and “Champions,” a posse cut that popped up on mixtapes in late 2002. His verses were a little clunky but held my attention and his passion was kind of charming. You could tell that he wanted to get better.

Fast forward to spring 2003 and I’m now working full-time at The Source. I thought we should do a story on West. At the very least, there would be some great pull quotes. I pitched him in meetings. I lobbied the senior staff members. As the saying goes, I waved the Kanye flag. Most of my colleagues though dismissed him because—this will sound really funny—he dressed weird. Extra “smedium” pink polo shirts and backpacks. “That ain’t hip-hop,” they said. Rap fans actually thought like that in 2003. Seriously.

My boss at the time was a little more open-minded. And one morning, she barreled into my office, slamming the door shut behind her. What could it be? Had the magazine’s owners done something bat-shit crazy again? Did we have to replace the cover? Was my first feature assignment, an extensive profile on Gang Starr, actually running this issue?

None of the above.

“Can you keep a secret?,” she asked me.

“Yeah, what’s up?”

“This is Kanye West’s album. Don’t make a copy. Don’t let it out of your sight.”

(I’m paraphrasing, of course. That conversation took place 7 ½ years ago.)

Even though she made me look like a chump in her book, I’m grateful that she let me hold onto that album. (Oh, and for hiring me as an intern and also eventually hiring me full time.) The College Dropout was great even in its earliest inception. Some records made the final cut (“Jesus Walks” and reworked versions of “We Don’t Care” and “All Falls Down”), while others such as “Living in a Movie,” “Wow” and “Home” did not. It stayed in my Sony Discman for months.

Later that year, after “Through the Wire” and “Slow Jamz” gained steam, I was assigned a feature on West. We conducted an interview in Chicago, chatted on the phone a few times and then wrapped up the story in New York. By then, it was apparent that The College Dropout would be a hit and the piece became a cover story. It was the first victory of my journalism career. It was also my first big defeat. I had plenty of great quotes and great scenery but it was probably the worst thing I’ve ever written. Boring lede. Sloppy prose. Nervous decision-making. It just sucked. Still, I was glad that Kanye West blew up. It was the first (and maybe, last) time I was so right about an artist so early on.

With each release—Late Registration, Graduation, 808s & Heartbreak and his latest, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—West has won more believers. So, when did you realize that Kanye West was an important artist? Was it “Through the Wire?” “Jesus Walks?” Maybe it was when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people?” Or maybe you are still holding out. Let me know in the comments. —Thomas Golianopoulos

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