Perhaps this is common knowledge by now, Kanye West’s first album, The College Dropout, turns 10 on February 10. Whether the project represents West at his best---or just provides a hint of what is yet to come--- is subjective. What isn’t is the fact the LP encompasses Kanye at his most transparent.
His fear of failure is exposed, revealing a young man at his wit's end, trying to maneuver throughout a world with more hurdles than finish lines.
The sequencing from track-to-track painted the profile of a dreamer who seems mighty familar---someone who shares all of our DNA, even.
His self-doubts reminded us of our own. The ambitions did, too.
For me, Dropout’s highlight was “Family Business,” the song nestled comfortably between the triumphant battle cry “Through The Wire” and autobiographical “Last Call.” Leaning heavily on introspection and choir-driven harmonies, Kanye’s tale of familial security and memories of yesteryear supplanted itself as a musical sanctuary.
Ten years later, that same purpose has continued its practice in repetition. After 2014 arrived with news of a close friend’s incarceration----one making our next meeting outside prison walls sometime well into the next decade---soon came word of a newborn (albeit distant) cousin’s mysterious death. Sprinkle in increased insecurities via career, financial and relationship spaces and referring to January as a vexing month would be an understatement.
The most sobering news, however, was college classmate and friend Yusuf Neville’s death by suicide.
“Who knew that life would move this fast? Who knew I’d have to look at you through a glass?”
What still shines most for me about “Family Business” is the open-door policy Kanye employed when discussing topics otherwise normally dealt with in private. He made his intimate feelings available for public consumption, a characteristic that has intensified as his career and celebrity have grown over the past decade.
With College Dropout track 20 running on loop in my head, my scattered reflections catapulted back to the last time Yusuf and I crossed paths. That was at Hampton University’s 2013 homecoming, where we shared jokes and memories of the undergrad life from which we were just five years removed. He was the same Yusuf I had always known, the dapper young man who, on the surface, played the keys of life with precision and ease. He wasn’t aware, but he was a primary inspiration behind exercise becoming a part of my daily routine. He motivated people to do and be better.
The lucidity in the lyrics of “Family Business” ironically represented the regret associated in Yusuf’s death, as so many of us struggle to wonder why and what we could have done differently. Upon news of his passing, former 106 & Park host, Terrence J. tweeted, “My heart is so heavy right now. You mean so much to all of us. I can’t even articulate right now.” That’s because every mind represents a fingerprint. No two are alike and discovering what haunts and inspires each one is futile until an effort to unravel its contents is made. We only know what we ask. We only know what others are willing to tell.
“I feel like one day you’ll understand me, dog You can still love your man and be manly, dog...”
All that’s left now are memories, uncertainties and prayers, three universal staples of the grieving process. Memories told through the stories, pictures and videos Yusuf starred in. Memories rehashed at gatherings as he would have preferred: with a red cup in hand. Uncertainties haunted by an engagement to his beautiful fiancé and a wedding that will never take place. Uncertainties further lumping themselves in the snowball-rolling-downhill debate on mental health awareness, notably in the African-American community. Excruciating uncertainties no parents should encounter, struggling to find peace after burying a child.
Prayers, because similar to those found in “Family Business,” help produce clarity in a world severely lacking such. Prayers, because when stripped to our bare essentials, prevail as our most valuable form of spiritual currency.
Death often serves as a reminder of how life should be lived. Take risks, step out on faith and understand nothing lives forever except the depth our legacies cultivate. Kanye’s Dropout mimicked the same principles in its own fashion. As life inevitably trudges forward, Yus’ death and Kanye’s “Business” implement themselves as benchmarks for areas of change not only in how my mind operates, but how actions are and should be presented to others.
Ten years ago, Kanye West released what might be his most important body of work. It was an album coinciding with the life-changing journey that was beginning college. It was in college that Yusuf Neville and I would cross paths.
Ten years later, Dropout is still here while Yusuf isn’t. Life’s unpredictable like that. If returning to Homecoming 2013 was possible, I would change just a few things. I’d play Yusuf “Family Business.” And I’d tell more people I loved them.
Peace comes in knowing at least one of them can be rectified.