Music Features

Used Adventures in Hi-Fi #7

Kanye West, The College Dropout (Cancer Research, Epping, £1.99)

As an office-working, bike-riding, balding white man from London, it's unlikely that I'll ever earn the accolade of being pretty fly for a white guy. Despite living in one of the seamier parts of the capital, I've little to do with the world of hip hop, and little in common with the characters it presents. I can have no empathy with the crack-dealing world of 50 Cent, or the rags-to-Beyoncé tales of Jay-Z, nor the testosterone-fuelled feuds of Nas or Lil Wayne's drug busts. If I listened to hip hop, it was to head music: Prefuse 73, or even Coldcut.

As my tastes mellow however, it was inevitable that I would be drawn to Kanye West. Rather than theming his album around guns and hos, The College Dropout is based around the unlikely subject of university education, reflected in the often pensive tone of the record and the intelligent lyrics. There's plenty of hip hop generics but they're referenced with irony and self-awarenes. Champagne pops up on Never Let Me Down ("This is hard livin'/Mixed with Cristal sippin'"); the ghetto life is far from glamorised ("To the hustlers, killers, murderers, drug dealers even the strippers/Jesus walks with them/To the victims of Welfare for we living in hell here/Jesus walks with them"), on the album's key track, Jesus Walks. It's key because it's a thorough examination of West's own faith and its past and present impact upon his work - essentially, it's a narrative of his discovery that what his mother taught him really does apply to life, and how it's difficult to pass that message on ("They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus/That means guns, sex, lies, video tapes/But if I talk about God my record won't get played") - it's something that informs his whole body of work to greater or lesser extents, along with family, right and wrong.

Coming from a vastly different background to the Brooklyn projects or the mean streets of Compton, Kanye's middle-class background informs his music but doesn't exempt him from making sweepingly controversial political statements or raising hackles in various corners of the music industry. Nevertheless, the intelligence of the man shines through - on College Dropout's successor, Late Registration, his impeccable taste in samples comes through on Diamonds From Sierra Leone and Gold Digger, and tracks like Crack Music are intensely and sharply political. West's latest, 808s and Heartbreaks eschews the rap that made his name for smoother R'n'B focusing on more personal issues, but throughout his unique production style shines, and the wit and lyricism of his lyrics is undeniable.

I still feel in little position to comment on hip hop, as befits someone for whom the majority of his rap knowledge comes from Gangsta's Paradise and Informer. Nonetheless, I knows what I likes, and I can't fault two pounds for a slice of classic contemporary rap with a little more life to it than the cold dead eyes of Fiddy or the rest of the posturing poseurs.