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Meaning

In the dead of night on 23 October 2002, Kanye West's life took a horrible wrong turn—literally. But it was a wrong turn that, after just barely failing to kill him, somehow ended up launching the fledgling rapper to megastardom.

West, not yet 25 years old at the time, had already carved out for himself a promising reputation as a producer of soulful and catchy hip-hop beats. On that fateful night, he stayed at work in a Los Angeles sound studio until after 3 a.m., trying to perfect a rhythm track he was producing for the rappers Beanie Sigel and Peedi Crakk. Exhausted by the time he finally began driving his rented Lexus back to his hotel, West fell asleep behind the wheel, veered into oncoming traffic, and smashed head-on into another car.

Kanye West was lucky to be alive. His face smashed beyond all recognition, he was rushed to the hospital, where a metal plate was put in his chin and his mouth was wired shut to help heal three fractures to his jawbone. He had to be hospitalized for two weeks before he had recovered enough to go home. His jaw had to stay wired shut for nearly two months.

The accident couldn't possibly have come at a worse time for West's musical career.

At the time of the wreck, Kanye West was one of the hottest producers in hip-hop—but he was having a hard time getting anyone to take him seriously as a rapper. He had put together the beats underlying a number of hits for other MCs—among them huge stars like Nas, Scarface, Talib Kweli, and, most importantly, Jay-Z. (The latter's 2001 album The Blueprint, largely produced by West, re-established Jay-Z 's reputation as the biggest player in rap and established Kanye West's status as a hip-hop force to be reckoned with—but as a producer, not a rapper.)

But Kanye saw a future for himself in which he made his mark through his work on the mic, not just behind the mixing board. One problem: Kanye West didn't look like the popular stereotype of a rapper. The product of a stable middle-class family, he was more likely to wear a pink polo shirt than a throwback jersey; he was more likely to drop rhymes about old cartoons or '80s TV jingles than about killing rival rappers. He was not, and had never been, a gangsta. He had nothing to say about slinging drugs, shooting thugs, or otherwise "keeping it real." In a rap world dominated by figures desperately striving to be (or at least to look) hardcore, it was easy to think that this oddball kid with the amazing beats would never make it as an MC.

Even Jay-Z's Roc-A-Fella Records, which had adopted Kanye as a kind of beatmaker-in-residence, was reluctant to give him a chance to front his own album. After months of pleading, though, West finally convinced Roc-A-Fella to give him a tentative green light to produce his own album. Then, in one fateful moment of sleep-deprived driving, his world came crashing down.

Just weeks after the accident, though, West was back in the studio. His jaw still wired shut—literally forced to spit rhymes "through the wire"—he recorded the song that would become his first hit single, the song that would prove he could really make it as a rapper: "Through The Wire."

He later said that the idea for the song came to him as he was laid up in the hospital, when in a state of half-consciousness he overheard Chaka Khan's "Through The Fire" playing on the radio. That song's message of perseverance in the face of all obstacles spoke to him, he said, as he fought to recover from his injuries: "Through the fire, to the limit, to the wall / For a chance to be with you, I'd gladly risk it all / Through the fire, through whatever come what may / For a chance at loving you, I'd take it all away / Right down to the wire, even through the fire."

A slight tweak to the lyric—from "to the wire" to "through the wire"— described the way he was literally forced to talk following his surgery and also gave him the perfect metaphor to describe his own struggles: "But I'm a champion, so I turned tragedy to triumph / Make music that's fire, spit my soul through the wire."

"Through The Wire" contained all the key elements that would soon make Kanye West the biggest star in hip-hop music:
  • Deft use of classic soul samples (in this case a pitched-up version of Chaka Khan, who called the effect "Chaka on helium"), simultaneously respecting a nostalgia for dusty old records and transforming them into something fresh and new.
  • Creative and original wordplay, as in turning a story about not being able to eat solid foods into a hilarious rhyme of "Ensure," "dessert," and "sizzurp" (syrup).
  • A rich and often surprising array of pop-cultural and historical references, ranging from MTV reality shows to M. Night Shyamalan movies to Dickens novels to old commercials for Pepsi and Toys R Us.
  • A certain emotional vulnerability, moments when Kanye's typical mask of bravado is lowered to reveal his own doubts that he's been too focused on money or done too much "stupid s---" in his life.
  • Ample ego, with Kanye describing himself in the third person while declaring that his raps are "ill", that he's "really putting it down," that he's making "music that's fire."
  • A flair for the (melo)dramatic, casting his own struggle to record a rap record as a heroic triumph over great obstacles, accomplished by risking it all to pass through the fire in pursuit of glory.
The result was an irresistible hit. In its own way, the ordeal of the accident and his recovery from it gave Kanye West a kind of "street cred" he never could have found otherwise within his ordinary middle-class biography. He had faced down death (or at least grave injury) and triumphed. By spitting his soul through the wire, he became a star.

"Through The Wire," released as a single before most of the tracks on Kanye's debut album The College Dropout were even recorded, peaked at #15 on the Billboard pop chart late in 2003. More importantly, it built up tremendous public anticipation for the full album, which then debuted at #2 when it was released several months later and went on to sell more than three million copies in the United States.

Kanye West was on the road to superstardom—to multiple Grammys, staggering fame, and tens of millions of record sales. How incredible that that road began with a terrible car wreck.
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