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10 Years, 100 Songs: #3. “In the Blink of a Eye, His Whole Life Changed…”

Posted by Andrew Unterberger on December 28, 2009

Over the final months of our fine decade, Intensities in Ten Suburbs will be sending the Naughty Oughties out in style with a series of essays devoted to the top 100 songs of the decade–the ones we will most remember as we look back fondly on this period of pop music years down the road. The archives can be found here. If you want to argue about the order, you can’t, because we’re not totally sure what the qualifications are either. Otherwise, sit back and enjoy.

Imagine if sometime around the beginning of the decade, someone told you that the biggest controversy of pop music in the year 2009–an incident that so dominated the public conversation in the weeks that followed that even the president offered a (semi-unwitting) sound byte about it–was caused by something a rapper did at an awards show. What would you have guessed that he had done? You’d probably think it was some kind of beef with another rapper, with a situation that escalated into violence–something like what happened at the 2000 Source Awards. If not that, maybe you’d think it was a rapper who rushed the stage to make some inflammatory remarks after losing an award, like what Ol’ Dirty Bastard did at the 1998 Grammy Awards. I’m not sure how long it would have taken you to guessed “interrupted an award being handed out to protest the objective injustice of one of the nominees getting snubbed,” but I’m guessing it probably wouldn’t have made the Family Feud board. Then again, back then, no one could ever have predicted Kanye West.

Kanye is probably the most logical choice for the Pop Artist of the 00s. At the outset of the decade, it would have probably seemed like Eminem or OutKast were destined for the honors, but with both fizzling unexpectedly halfway through, they left the door wide open for Mr. West, who between his four studio albums, his dozen or so hit singles, his multitude of guest appearances and a pretty stellar production resume, made about as good a case as anyone else I can think of. And like those other two artists, Kanye was a true American original. Initially, he seemed notable mostly for his ability to represent for both the oft-opposed mainstream and underground in hip-hop, or as he put it, being the “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack,” but we quickly found out that that was just the beginning with ‘Ye. He was a character unlike we had ever seen before, least of all in hip-hop, a fascinating, self-aware blend of snotty narcissism and crippling insecurity, of incredible intelligence and near-unparalleled idiocy. He acted like the rules didn’t apply to him, but he was also the only person who seemed to even realize what the rules were supposed to be. As a public figure he’ll always be polarizing, and rightly so, but few can dispute that he was able to channel his zaniness into some of the most memorable and inimitable music of the decade.

The list of songs that could have been included here of Kanye’s is a relatively long one, whether one of his undisputed pop classics (“Gold Digger,” “Good Life”), his more personal, revealing songs (“All Falls Down,” “Jesus Walks,” “Heartless”), or his darker, more sonically adventurous numbers (“Paranoid,” “Flashing Lights”). For my money, though, first was best with Mr. West, and despite all the makeovers his career has since undergone, there’s still no song that I think better represents Kanye’s brilliance than debut single “Through the Wire.” The song told the story of the College Dropout’s near-fatal car accident, which resulted in him having to get his jaw wired shut. Undaunted, Kanye rapped the song relating the incident through his wired jaw, over a sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire”–hence, “Through the Wire.” The song was a somewhat unlikely choice for a debut single, considering that despite already being a well-decorated producer (most notably at that point for his work on the two Jay-Z Blueprint albums, including “Izzo (H.O.V.A.),” “Takeover” and “’03 Bonnie & Clyde”), Kanye was still a relative unknown in the public’s eye, and hearing him record his own “Coming Out of the Dark” could’ve been disastrous if nobody cared enough about him to care.

But one of the main successes of “Through the Wire” is that in addition to telling the story of his triumph over near-tragedy, it also served as the perfect introduction to the man himself. In the song’s lyrics, you got pretty much everything that you needed to know about Kanye. You got the pop culture references–and a wider range of them than anyone else in hip-hop, ranging from Emmett Till to Vanilla Sky, with none of them sounding particularly forced. You got the obnoxiousness–‘Ye’s claims that he “still won’t grow up, I’m a grown-ass kid / Swear I should be locked up for stupid shit that I did.” You got the lithe sense of humor–the mid-song interjection of him reminding the doctor that his metal jaw means that he’ll “never be able to get on a plane again–bad enough I got all this jewelry on.” You got the aspirations to being Something More–his advertising of himself as not “talking about coke and birds / It was more like spoken word / ‘Cept he’s really putting it down.”  You even got a little bit of his faith in his “Thank God I ain’t too cool for the safe belt!” testimonial. And in case you need any of the gaps in history filled in, his video was a literal photo album detailing his previous accomplishments (live clips, Blueprint liners) and showing off his famous friends to lend him credibility as a pop star. Even if you had no clue who Kanye West was before “Through the Wire,” after the song you felt like he’d been in your life for years.

The way that “Through the Wire” really represented Kanye, though, was in its message of triumph over adversity. Some artists just always work best as the underdog, and West’s career has been marked by the recurring theme of him thriving through bad situations, of feeding off the haters and turning his disadvantages into advantages. Kanye did that very specifically with the very creation of “Wire,” recording the song through his fucked-up jaw and allowing that to help form his distinctively laconic, slurry delivery. Always more than a little conscious of the significance behind his musical decisions, Kanye also declared his victory over the potentially career-derailing incident explicitly at the end of the song’s final verse: “But I’m a champion / So I turn tragedy to triumph / Make music that’s fire / Spit my soul through the wire.” I’m not one that often gets inspired in the conventional sense by pop music, but you really couldn’t help but feel that verse to be just the slightest bit life-affirming. In a song where almost every line was memorable in some way, it’s that final stanza that really sticks with you.

Though it was undoubtedly largely picked for the wording of its title and main hook, it’s also worth noting just how big a part the “Through the Fire” sample plays in the song’s success. Sped-up soul samples were the bread-and-butter of Kanye’s early years, to the point where it came dangerously close to being straight-up cliche in parts, but there was really something to be said for the practice–using the old-school classics gave the hooks a reliable, time-proven base, while speeding them up made them sound new and exciting (and excited–Chaka never sounds so rapturous as when she’s played at Chipmunk levels) again. Here, the Chaka sample casts a sentimental, nostalgic, and yet entirely vibrant mood over the surroundings–appropriate for a song that attempts to sum up Kanye’s entire career up until that point, to celebrate the good and take ownership over the bad. And as for Kanye’s rapping itself…you know, some people said he was never a particularly great MC, and while I don’t consider myself enough of an expert on that front to really refute that, there’s really only one main test that rappers have to pass for me: Are you distinctive enough an MC that I can hear five seconds of a song of yours I don’t know on the radio, and instantly know who it is (and not want to change the channel as a result)? Kanye always passed that one for me with flying colors.

Though throughout the decade, Kanye would make his share of interesting decisions with varying degrees of merit–dissing President Bush (and freaking out Mike Myers in the process) on a live Katrina benefit, interrupting Justice and Simian receiving their MTV Europe Music Awards in outrage for the award not going ot his “Touch the Sky” (“This video cost a million dollars!” ‘Ye proclaimed with indignity), and recording an entire album of songs jumping on the autotune trend (mixed results to be sure, but some real good songs to be had) all among them. But what gets overlooked too often, I think, in the face of all the nonsense, is what a benevolent force Kanye was for music this decade. In many ways, Kanye was both the Naughty Oughties’ best ambassador and cross-pollinator, uniting previously disparate elements of rock, hip-hop, dance and just about every other major form of American popular music (besides country, anyway–guess Nelly got there first) in his singles, mixtapes, videos and tours. He introduced Daft Punk to the masses, he stamped Estelle’s US passport, and he gave Franz Ferdinand and Vanessa Carlton wildly unforeseeable hip-hop cred. If that wasn’t enough, he was also one of the decade’s great talent scouts–helping Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco and John Legend all get their sea legs, while also reinvigorating the careers of artists like Common and Slum Village. There were very few pockets of the top 40 this decade that Kanye didn’t have an influence over, and in all but a few instances, it was a positive influence.

It’s sort of surprising that this latest controversy of Kanye’s has been so personally damaging, resulting in him canceling his US tour and going into lockdown mode, maybe hiding in the same crevices of the earth as Tiger Woods. Personally, even though I understand how you can see his actions as being indefensible by nature–and I actually like the video for “You Belong With Me” more than the one for “Single Ladies,” really–I do still appreciate that Kanye cares enough about the state of our popular culture that he’s willing to take such a PR hit to sound off about what he perceived to be a misappropriation of public reward for artistic achievement. It’s a move that no popular artist before him would have even contemplated, and it’s a move that, though buffoonish and immediately regrettable, also makes me proud to have Mr. West as my country’s leading pop spokesmen. And, really, I shouldn’t have any doubt that in the fallout, Kanye will be able to turn tragedy to triumph once more, and retain his prior status in time to put himself in the early running for Artist of the 2010s as well.

(Have any thoughts or remembrances of this song? Want to correct our lyrics or call us out for relying too much on Wikipedia? Please feel free to leave a comment here, or (gulp) Tweet us about it at twitter.com/intensities. Your input is lusted after and appreciated.)

The List So Far (Now With Links!):

100. Green Day – “Jesus of Suburbia
99. The Ying Yang Twins – “Wait (The Whisper Song)
98. Crazytown – “Butterfly
97. Taylor Swift – “Teardrops on My Guitar
96. The Fray – “Over My Head (Cable Car)
95. Fergie – “Fergalicious
94. Lidstrom – “I Feel Space
93. Chevelle – “Send the Pain Below
92. T-Pain f/ Yung Joc – “Buy U a Drank (Shawty Snappin’)
91. The Arctic Monkeys – “I Bet You Look Good on the Dancefloor
90. Cassie – “Me & U
89. Nelly Furtado – “Maneater
88. Mike Jones f/ Slim Thug & Paul Wall – “Still Tippin’
87. Bat for Lashes – “Daniel
86. The Darkness – “I Believe in a Thing Called Love
85. Dynamite Hack – “Boyz n the Hood
84. DJ Khaled f/ T.I., Rick Ross, Fat Joe, Birdman, Lil’ Wayne & Akon – “We Takin’ Over
83. Matchbox20 – “Bent
82. The Game f/ 50 Cent – “Hate It or Love It
81. 311 – “Amber
80. 3 Doors Down – “Krptonite
79. Nas – “Made You Look
78. Royksopp – “Eple
77. The Pussycat Dolls – “Don’t Cha
76. DMX – “Party Up (Up in Here)
75. Junior Senior – “Move Your Feet
74. Twista f/ Kanye West & Jamie Foxx – “Slow Jamz
73. The Streets – “Weak Become Heroes
72. Jimmy Eat World – “The Middle
71. The Yeah Yeah Yeahs – “Maps
70. Snoop Dogg f/ Pharrell – “Drop It Like It’s Hot
69. Alice DeeJay – “Better Off Alone
68. Xiu Xiu – “I Luv the Valley OH!
67. Incubus – “Stellar
66. Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together
65. Andrew W.K. – “Party Hard
64. Jurgen Paape – “So Weit Wie Noch Nie
63. Taking Back Sunday – “MakeDamnSure
62. Kid Cudi – “Day n Nite
61. Paramore – “That’s What You Get
60. System of a Down – “Toxicity
59. dNTEL f/ Ben Gibbard – “(This Is) The Dream of Evan and Chan
58. Three 6 Mafia f/ 8Ball & MJG – “Stay Fly
57. Good Charlotte – “The Anthem
56. The Lonely Island – “Lazy Sunday
55. Darude – “Sandstorm
54. Yellowcard – “Ocean Avenue
53. The Killers – “Mr. Brightside
52. Luomo – “Tessio
51. Blink-182 – “Stay Together For the Kids
50. My Chemical Romance – “I’m Not Okay (I Promise)
49. Freelance Hellraiser – “A Stroke of Genius
48. Daft Punk – “Digital Love
47. Snow Patrol – “Chasing Cars
46. Sean Paul – “Like Glue
45. Ludacris – “Stand Up
44. Britney Spears – “Toxic
43. Kings of Leon – “Sex on Fire
42. Jennifer Lopez f/ Ja Rule – “I’m Real (Remix)
41. Lifehouse – “Hanging By a Moment
40. Plain White T’s – “Hey There Delilah
39. MGMT – “Kids
38. Gym Class Heroes f/ Patrick Stump – “Cupid’s Chokehold
37. Franz Ferdinand – “Do You Want To
36. Kylie Minogue – “Can’t Get You Out of My Head
35. Vertical Horizon – “Everything You Want
34. The White Stripes – “Fell in Love With a Girl
33. Jay-Z – “Takeover
32. Maroon 5 – “This Love
31. Silversun Pickups – “Lazy Eye
30. M.I.A. – “Paper Planes
29. Timbaland f/ OneRepublic – “Apologize
28. Beyonce f/ Jay-Z – “Crazy in Love
27. Coldplay – “Yellow
26. Lil’ Wayne – “A Milli
25. Shaggy f/ Ricardo “RikRok” Ducent – “It Wasn’t Me
24. The Strokes  – “Last Night
23. Kelly Clarkson – “Since U Been Gone
22. Radiohead – “Idioteque
21. Fall Out Boy – “Sugar, We’re Going Down
20. The All-American Rejects – “Move Along
19. OutKast – “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)
18. Interpol – “PDA
17. Justin Timberlake – “Rock Your Body
16. Vanessa Carlton – “A Thousand Miles
15. The Clipse – “Grindin‘”
14. Cam’Ron f/ Juelz Santana & Freekey Zeke – “Hey Ma
13. LCD Soundsystem – “Losing My Edge
12. Soulja Boy – “Crank Dat Soulja Boy
11. StainD f/ Fred Dusrt – “Outside
10. Rihanna f/ Jay-Z – “Umbrella
9. Sum 41- “Fat Lip
8. R. Kelly – “Ignition (Remix)
7. Eminem f/ Dido – “Stan
6. Avril Lavigne – “Sk8er Boi
5. Lil’ Jon & the East Side Boyz f/ The Ying Yang Twins – “Get Low
4. The Rapture – “House of Jealous Lovers
3. Kanye West – “Through the Wire”

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2 Responses to “10 Years, 100 Songs: #3. “In the Blink of a Eye, His Whole Life Changed…””

  1. Justin said

    I really dig this one.

  2. MBI said

    I liked this one a whole lot at the time, but the shine’s come off this a little bit. I mean, for one, a car accident may be a big deal, but not really something to build a mythos around. 50 Cent was shot in the face seven times, man. Seven times!

    The Emmitt Till reference always bothered me some too. It never felt like he earned the right to use imagery that loaded.

    Still (at least until his autotune stuff came out), I don’t think I heard a single Kanye song I didn’t like, and yeah, his contributions have been mostly positive.

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