We have always cared about Kanye West on a more personal level than most rappers, whether it be hate or love, because of the way he represents the best and worst qualities within us. He’s painstakingly arrogant but admittedly self-conscious. He’s crass and destructive but in the most human of ways that mirror how we externalize our biggest fears and our greatest flaws.
For more than a decade, Kanye has been one of the best voices of a generation, not necessarily because of his accomplishments and leadership, but because he captures the anxiety, self-doubt, and discomfort that arise from chasing one’s dreams.
What we have never expected from Kanye, and what he has drifted further and further from over the last 10 years, is a sense of comfort. For Kanye, his career has always been a never-ending pursuit of something even he probably isn’t sure of. There remains a need for acceptance, whether it be from his peers or from mediums and institutions beyond the scope of rap, such as the fashion world. It’s a double-edged sword and a pursuit that we as fans both admire and condemn simultaneously. In some ways, despite all of the fame, money, accolades, and even family that Kanye has managed to gain throughout his career, it’s never felt like enough for him, and moments of genuine peace feel like aspirations rather than inevitabilities.
The last of those moments came 10 years ago, on “Everything I Am,” the 10th track off of Kanye’s third studio album, Graduation. If Graduation felt like Kanye’s transition into a superstar, and his going-away party from the aspirational but frustrated life he was used to living, then “Everything I Am” was the moment Kanye stepped outside to get away from the drunken laughter and loud music, gazed upon the stars in the wee hours, and just relaxed.
Sampling the first few seconds of Philip Mitchell’s dreary, syrupy “If We Can’t Be Lovers,” “Everything I Am” stood in stark contrast to almost anything in Kanye’s discography, including many of his other notable, reflective moments. While the lonesome piano keys slow-stepped their way over the soft hum of the bassline, with only the briefest of background voices from Mitchell’s original song, the track felt solemn yet hopeful about the journey it was about to embark on.
Even in Kanye’s most introspective musical endeavors, songs like “Lost in The World” felt rangier in both sound and purpose, while “Runaway” embraced Kanye’s ugliness, even if we could all relate. “Everything I Am,” however, was without the typical Kanye flair that even his more heartfelt tracks couldn’t help but evoke.
Opening lines in rap songs are often crucial. Whether they begin with a slow-burning, spoken message like Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones, Pt. II” or jump straight into the action like 2Pac’s “Hit 'Em Up,” those first words stick with us. They establish the tone of the track and, from that foundation, its roots grow and branches flourish. The irony of Kanye’s opening lines, “Damn, here we go again / Common passed on this beat, I made it to a jam / Now everything I’m not made me everything I am,” is how contradictory that tone felt to the countless moments of everything from bravado to rage that came before them.
Kanye’s entire career, even now, has always been focused on becoming what he isn’t—or at least he was never allowed to be. Rarely did he take moments to account for all of the things he had become without eventually tethering it to even more emotional baggage. However, a line like “Everything I’m not made me everything I am” carried nothing with it. It was a frank realization of self; a lost city of self-exploration that many ventures to find, only to come up empty. For once, it seemed Kanye realized that separating his accomplishments from his most human of flaws didn’t have to come with its own prison where he was both the jailer and the jailed.
Ye’s first verse echoed much of that same sentiment, as well. Lamentations of “I’ll never be picture perfect Beyonce / Be light as Al B, or black as Chauncey” felt less like condemnations and more like healthy resignations of Kanye’s own limits. From just the first verse, “Everything I Am” became a track Kanye should have placed in a time capsule for himself, only available for listening in his darkest moments. Looking back now, lyrics like “I never could see why people would a reach a / Fake-ass facade that they couldn’t keep up” feel eerily prescient of the Kanye we’ve seen over the last couple of years. The dyed blonde hair, the Twitter rants slut-shaming Amber Rose and proclaiming Bill Cosby’s innocence, and even the infamous visit to Trump Tower feel like the prophecy come true from Kanye’s words almost a decade prior.
Nostalgia also remains a lens through which Kanye channeled such clarity on “Everything I Am,” with mentions of everyone from Chauncey from Blackstreet to Cam’ron to every other rapper that differed from him. These quick cuts down memory lane never came off as weightless name-drops either; they were Kanye painting the landscape around his own portrait. From the rappers Kanye could only admire but never emulate, to the shit-talkers at barber shops who “forget to get their haircut,” everyone helped create the Kanye of his Graduation days, and before he would eventually steal the mic, this was his planned commencement speech.
“Everything I Am” was never void of any social discourse, though, and Kanye’s third verse proved that his prowess for social commentary was often strongest with a clear head. Lyrics like “Man, killing’s some whack shit / Oh I forgot, 'cept for when n****s is rappin'” were shockingly simple but effective, and although Graduation was an album that found Kanye at his most direct in terms of message, “Everything I Am” was nothing but haymakers. For the first time since “We Don’t Care” and “Roses,” Kanye was able to contrast the peace within his own psyche with the madness of the outside world.
The last few words on “Everything I Am” are quite telling. Kanye raps, “The church wanttithe, so I can’t afford to pay / A slip on my door, so I can’t afford to stay / My 15 seconds up, but I got more to say / That’s enough Mr. West. Please, no more today” and at certain points, it felt like he was talking to himself. The most tragic part of “Everything I Am” was its fleeting nature, and Kanye’s inability to remain intact psychologically.
He went on to explore music in ways we may have never dreamed of, with albums like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Yeezus as benchmarks for any upcoming emcee to aspire to. It’s quite possible that a moment like “Everything I Am,” and a Kanye West, stranded without faith, a home, or even his newfound clarity, was only meant to last as long as it did and would have only impeded his journey into the pantheon of hip-hop. Yet, it’s interesting to think about who was speaking to Kanye, saying, “Please, no more today,” and to wonder if it wasn’t himself, scared of what he had uncovered within.
Most of us don’t choose to remember Graduation as Kanye’s finest album, even if it is a masterpiece in its own right, but it does contain the final remnants of a man before his darkest days. Kanye’s mother would tragically pass away, his relationships with Alexis Phifer and Amber Rose would deteriorate, and even though he would find love and family with Kim Kardashian, North, and Saint, he has never been able to truly settle himself down. Kanye searched for those moments of clarity in other ways, with MBDTF finding comfort in the company of his closest musical friends, while Yeezus wrapped Ye in a blanket of racial frustration and sonic distortion as some sort of coping mechanism for his newfound fatherhood. Neither of those outlets, however, ever felt permanent, and any happiness Kanye found felt more like a mirage than an oasis.
For the last 10 years, Kanye has still managed to capture our hearts and minds, allow us to act as judge and jury for his career, and separate everything that he is as an artist and everything that he hasn’t been.
On “Everything I Am,” even if only for a brief, few minutes, Kanye was able to make that distinction himself, and put his soul at rest.