I can't remember if I heard the Turtles' "You Showed Me" before or after I heard De La Soul's "Transmitting Live from Mars," the 3 Feet High and Rising interlude built around the intro from the Turtles' final big hit. It doesn't really matter, though. A recognizable sample, artfully employed, wields retroactive influence, sort of like how Kafka's stamp seems to be all over Gogol, even though that's backward. I can't hear "You Showed Me" as anything but the song Prince Paul and De La boosted and later had to pay a ton of money for, and I'm pretty sure that "Slow Jamz," Kanye West's brilliant collaboration with Jamie Foxx and Twista, has forever reshaped Luther Vandross's "A House Is Not a Home."
At this point, you might be thinking, So what will your next point be, that the automobile changed how we think about horse-drawn carriages? Sure, it's a truism that sampling transforms its source, but West's off-kilter embrace of identifiable samples feels new all over again. For over a decade bohemian hip-hop producers have generally forsworn recognizable samples as either too expensive (literally) or too cheap (aesthetically). One of the things lost with clandestine samples and the sampler-as-cover-band strategy is the listener's ability to spot transformation: Mutilated fragments of obscure records function as a new thing, not a rejiggered thing, and "interpolations" tend not to stray enough from the source material to change it retroactively.
Without being a ho-hum throwback, Kanye West recalls the lawless early days of hip-hop sampling. In the great tradition, he uses old soul records both lovingly and irreverently. Like Prince Paul, Ant, and every drum 'n' bass producer, he likes the sound of 33s played on the 78 setting or faster. I can't think of anyone else outside of David Seville who's so in love with the sound of pitched-up vocals. He turns an elegant Vandross adlib into bebop and even seems to hurry Michael Bolton into Soulville.
West's flow isn't as deft as his production, but he never gives credence to the division-of-labor theory. The way he retards the word "alcoholics" in "Get 'Em High" is ingenious enough to overshadow guests Talib Kweli and Common. College Dropout isn't perfect--I count two or three throwaways, and the skits don't warrant repeated listening, but Jesus, that battle was lost long ago. And speaking of Jesus, can you sinners live without hearing West's liberation-theology masterpiece, "Jesus Walks"? (Hint: the answer rhymes with "dough.")
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