"College Dropout" by Kanye West is one of NPR's Most Important Recordings of the Decade, and for a good reason. Not only is the album catchy as hell, it embraced the moment where pop and hip-hop merged in the best of ways.
But before he made "College Dropout," West was already a fairly established beat maker for Jay-Z, and also he was really sad about his life. At least, that's what I took away from reading "Through The Wire," a "graphic memoir" of his life through the lyrics of songs, with illustrations by famed cartoonist and animator Bill Plympton.
(In all fairness, I have worked for The Gap with uppity white folk and wanted to burn it down too, Kanye. So I feel you on that.)
Plympton -- who won "Cartoonist of the Year" at the 2008 MoCCA Comics festival -- was tapped for the project after his work on West's "Heard Em Say" video. Sadly, Plympton's animation is too often interrupted by what I can only assume what turns into a very erotic black and white photo shoot with Kayne and his special buddy Adam Levine.
Plympton's illustrations in "Through the Wire" are graphically pleasing in a way that even West himself would probably say carries a good deal of style, and gracefully placed alongside the words of the songs. Commentary from West occasionally preempts the lyrics, and though his explanations sometimes offer welcome insights into the mind of the artist, others are just painful, like the introduction to "Homecoming": "This is a song that sounds like I'm talking about a girl, but I'm actually talking about Chicago the whole time."
My personal favorite moment is when West explains, "I rhyme 'Doctorate' with 'Chocolate'. Most rappers would never use the word 'Doctorate'. It's an uncool word," because when I read that I seriously want to shake his hand before punching him in the face.
There are still some questions that I have about "Through the Wire," but the biggest one wasn't the seemingly obvious "Umm... why?" More and more pop music has been making the jump to comics recently, though they've all fallen pretty flat, from Image's often puzzling and poorly paired anthology of Belle & Sebastian songs, "Put the Book Back on the Shelf," to the pretty but ultimately empty Tori Amos collection "Comic Book Tattoo," and even the recent "Bob Dylan Revisited" that only had one stand out piece (thank you, Dave McKean).
No, the real question I had about "Through the Wire" was why are songs like "The New Workout Plan" are inexplicably included while hit like the Grammy-winning "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" are left out? I can only assume it's a licensing issue, but it's disappointing nonetheless.
Like anything associated with Kanye West, "Through the Wire" is something you need to enjoy with the full knowledge that he is an ignorant celebrity with a messiah complex who often hits a universal mark by combining equal parts of talent, good timing and luck, all while standing on the shoulders of giants.
But it's a nice book, and if you're the type of suburban cracker that would pay about $20 for a stocking stuffer, this might be the perfect gift for the lil' gangsta in your life.
And a word to the wise, always remember to sing along to "Crack Music" softly enough that your neighbors don't hear you use the n-word, trust me.
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