written by Josh Smith
“Put these on dude, you gotta hear this.” It was 2004. We were hanging out in the gym at lunch, spending yet another 9th grade afternoon weaving in and out of games of dodgeball and basketball until afternoon class started. My friend Martin was tapping me on the shoulder, his eyes wide from whatever he had just been listening to, and he urgently held out his discman and a pair of headphones. I put them on, ready to hear whatever had him so hyped. I heard the grandiose sweep of a short little string intro and suddenly…
drug dealin just to get byyyyyy / stack ya money til it get sky hiiiiiiiigghhhhh
Damn. I mean DAMN. I had never heard anything like it. There were bright, sunny synth stabs and a full children’s choir, but they were set to the toughest, dirtiest kick-clap drum loop with a rapper going in full tilt over the top. It was like Curtis Mayfield had stepped straight out of 1970 and into a Jay-Z hit, with some extra sauce on the side.
In 2004, there was still an ongoing war within hip-hop about “mainstream” vs. “underground.” It was as if you had two choices: you were either a dense, artsy, political “backpack rapper” like Talib Kweli, or you were a catchy, commercial giant like 50 Cent or Ludacris. It was as if there were rap industry haves and have-nots, and never the twain shall meet. Whoever I was listening to on Martin’s headphones did not believe in these kinds of limits. Oh, boundaries? this song seemed to say, those were so 2003.
I took the headphones off of one hear and looked at Martin, slack-jawed. “Who is this?”
“Dude, it’s the Kanye West album. The College Dropout. He just put it out this week.”
We had heard Kanye West before. He was that dude who produced “Izzo” for Jay-Z. That dude who had just put out that super soulful, kinda-cool-but-definitely-kinda-weird single about getting into a car accident. That dude whose name was still being misspelled “Kayne” by half of the internet because so few people had even heard anyone say it out loud. This song was Kanye West??? I put the other headphone back on.
we wasn’t supposed to make it past 25 / joke’s on you, we still aliiiiive
At a mostly-white, progressive private school in Upstate New York, no one I knew was actually “drug dealing just to get by.” Though not all of my friends did in the end, everyone I knew was “supposed to make it past 25.” Still, listening to Kanye’s song, I could tell a lot of people in a lot of places around the world were going to hear this music and feel the grind of their day-to-day turned into swagger, defiance, and pure joy. It felt like Kanye was inviting everybody into this music, but he was specifically inviting folks in his community to throw their heads back and laugh at those who expected them to die young in neighborhoods with so much struggle and so few opportunities. “Joke’s on you, we still alive.” I was many years away from understanding the social reality behind Kanye’s lyrics on “We Don’t Care,” but even as a 9th grader, I knew instantly that this song was going to be huge for so many listeners. It just sounded massive.
throw your hands up in the sky / and say we don’t care what people saaayyyyyyy
These days, you hear people talk a lot about Kanye’s ego. “He’s a great musician, but he’s so arrogant.” What has always struck me as so strange about the latter caveat is that if not for Kanye’s boundless belief in himself, his music would be completely impossible. He would never have been able to make it. “We don’t care what people say.” Kanye West did not care what anyone said about what rap music was supposed to sound like in the year 2004. To him, a church choir felt like the perfect landscape for drug rap. To him, putting Mos Def on a song with Freeway was not career suicide – as many would have called it back then – but rather a perfect marriage. To Kanye, rapping about civil rights one moment and a platinum chain the next was not a contradiction, but rather the most natural thing in the world. Kanye’s supreme confidence propelled him toward a sound no one else could hear was possible, and as I walked around the gym deliriously listening to “We Don’t Care,” I could hear him breaking down every wall in his way. Nothing would ever be the same.
Josh Smith, also known as Josh the Word, is a rapper, writer and educator from Woodstock, NY. He is currently based in Brooklyn, where he is eating chocolate chip cookies and working on a new album.