Looking back at "Through The Wire," Kanye West's debut single, which dropped 12 years ago today.
"It's funny how wasn't nobody interested
'Til the night I almost killed myself in Lexus"
- Kanye West, "Last Call"
The evening of October 22nd, 2002 began like any other for Kanye West, by that point a tried-and-true hitmaker who had inked a deal with Roc-A-Fella just two weeks prior. He was holed up in a Los Angeles studio, making beats for Beanie Sigel, Peedi Crakk and The Black Eyed Peas-- just a few of the top-tier artists who had requested his services at the time. At that point, the number of people who had heard his beats outnumbered those who had also heard him rap by the millions, with his career prospects as an MC dwindling since the late '90s dissolution of The Go-Getters, his early group with fellow Chicagoans GLC, Timmy G, Really Doe and Arrowstar. Apart from a feature on an obscure Abstract Mindstate track and 16 bars on a Blueprint 2.1 cut, West was first and foremost a producer in the early 2000s, and landing beats on platinum albums then seemed like a much easier task than getting people to listen to his bars.
At the time, West had been in talks with A&Rs from Jive, Def Jam and Capitol, all of whom were interested, but weren't sold on him as a rapper/producer. Def Jam A&R Jessica Rivera explained, "At a meeting... the president (I won’t name him) said straight to Kanye: 'If you had an artist that you were writing and producing for, I would sign that artist.'" This hungry, persistent period in Kanye's career is immortalized in College Dropout's closing track, "Last Call," where he sums all of it up perfectly in four bars:
"Last year shoppin my demo, I was tryin' to shine
Every motherfucker told me that I couldn't rhyme
Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem
Or use my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams"
Eventually, he got Roc's Dame Dash to begrudgingly believe in him ("'If he do a whole album, if his raps is wack at least we can throw Cam on every song and save the album, you know?'"), and in September 2002, he got a deal as a solo artist. As we now know better than ever though-- what with major label artists such as Gunplay, Jeremih and Jay Rock getting their albums put on hold for years-- that deal was no guarantee that West could put his many production jobs for other Roc artists on hold to instead focus on his solo career. Even though he impressed Jay Z with that "mayonnaise colored Benz, I push miracle whips" line, West was clearly not a priority for his label, until one tragic night sparked a creative flame that's still burning strong today.
Driving back to his hotel at 3 AM on October 23rd, West crashed his rental car (either due to falling asleep at the wheel or being cut off by another car, differing reports claim), and the resulting injuries left him "gagging on blood," with his jaw broken in three places. He was lucky to have escaped with his life, but then had to endure two painful weeks in the hospital, and four additional weeks of having his jaw wired shut. Less than three weeks after the crash, West used his handicap as inspiration, deciding that he would rap his lyrics "through the wire" on a track recounting the accident. His encyclopedic musical knowledge had already provided dozens of rappers with samples of classic songs that perfectly reflected the themes they explored in their lyrics, and so it was no trouble for him to locate two triumphant songs about overcoming the odds. Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire" would not only provide the new track's backdrop and hook, but also its clever title; Elton John's "Still Standing," while stricken from the commercial version for copyright reasons, provided a defiant outro on the original demo (below).
Comparing his mangled face to Tom Cruise's in "Vanilla Sky" (and, more than a little problematically, Emmett Till's), West came through with the best two verses of his career at the time, both of which set the stage for his future lyrical exploits. The first begins by playing on the "-izzo" sound used by both Snoop Dogg and Jay Z in the early 2000s, then addresses his mother and girlfriend, and ends on the line, "I swear this right here, history in the making, man." At the time, he couldn't have known how prescient that line would be (although knowing Kanye, he probably assumed that he'd be right), with the track drumming up enough attention on his Get Well Soon... tape to get Roc executives finally thinking about a Mr. West full length.
It took almost a year for the label to begin rolling out Kanye's debut, but when that commenced with the official release of "Through The Wire" on September 30th, 2003, it was almost immediately clear that Dame wouldn't need to throw Cam'ron on every College Dropout track to make the thing sell. The track went gold, was nominated for a Grammy and had a video (financed by West himself) that won a Source award. Consisting of clips displayed via Polaroid photos, the video was certainly unorthodox, but was the first example of Kanye taking things into his own hands and walking away victorious. He made it without Roc-A-Fella's approval, with the video's director claiming, "If we would have wrote a treatment, they would have shot that down. They had to see it to understand. Otherwise they'd have said, 'No, Kanye should be rapping at a party, with lots of girls poolside.'"
Soon followed up by the even more successful "Jesus Walks," and finally West's debut album a few months later, "Through The Wire" was a perfect storm of sorts for West. Like other tracks with real-life narratives that were impossible to ignore, such as Diddy's "I'll Be Missing You" or Snoop Dogg's "Murder Was The Case," it was almost impossible to separate the song's success from people's investment in the story, but unlike other sensationalized retellings of true events, West's was honest, candid and even hilarious at times ("If you could feel how my face felt, you would know how Mase felt"). The timing was perfect, with the Grammy-nominated West finally a recognizable enough name for MTV to cover the story, the "chipmunk soul" sound just taking off and Kanye's deal finally in place after years of label courting.
What began as a near-tragedy became the near-perfect start to a rapping career, thanks to a chain of events that make "what if?" scenarios almost impossible to play out. Had West not been in a crash, and not thought of such a novel way to capitalize on his injuries, it may have taken months, even years for the Roc to release his album. Then again, he did have the almost-surefire hit "Jesus Walks" in the works. It's highly doubtful that he would choose to relive the events that led to "Through The Wire," just as it's unlikely that he'd want to relive the emotionally painful time he spent making 808s & Heartbreak years later, but if there's one strength of Kanye's that doesn't get enough credit, it's his ability to turn potentially life-ruining situations into muses for his music.