The Kurth Memorial Library was trying to free up space, so they were selling boxes of books. You’d show up in the lobby, fill up as many paper sacks from the Brookshire Brothers grocers as you’d like, then pay a dollar for each full sack of books. I was a pimply, awkward high school freshman looking to buy mostly baseball books, but I saw a month-old copy of XXL Magazine and stuck it in one of the bags. That weekend, I read the issue cover-to-cover during our family’s weekly two-hour trek to Houston for soccer.
This is the story of how I got into Kanye West.
The magazine mentioned Kanye in a tiny blurb. It was one of those “up and comers” sections and it just briefly mentioned that this young guy who was known mainly as a producer would be releasing his own debut album soon. I remembered the name later on and got a friend to burn me a CD. He gave it to me on the bus headed towards our first JV soccer game. I popped out my copy of The Killers’ first album, put in The College Dropout, and heard the intro for the first time.
From the first time I heard those sped-up soul samples and the album’s groundbreaking chipmunk sound, I was hooked. I’d never heard anything like it. I’d never heard anything close to like it. Throughout that entire soccer season, The College Dropout lived in my CD player. Of course, it didn’t have much competition as far as rap went beyond an Eminem album I’d only listen to after my parents went to bed, a couple of mixes, a compilation from a Christian rap label. Kanye skyrocketed to the top of those meager power rankings and was there to stay.
I probably would’ve gotten into Kanye eventually. But, without that XXL Magazine, it would’ve taken years. Jesus Walks would’ve caught my eye on MTV, but his sophomore effort would’ve escaped my notice and I wouldn’t have had a reason to explore the Chicagoans’ work until Graduation a full four years later. But, because I found a month-old magazine in a public library, I was able to score a torrented CD that became a lifeline to so much more music. It took about five or six things breaking right for that CD to end up in my hands.
Nowadays, finding new music is easier—much easier. Spotify literally curates a playlist for me each week, full of songs I’ve never heard but that sound like the songs I love the most. It creates special radio stations exclusively for me based on my listening habits. My phone will buzz and I’ll look down to see that a friend has sent me a song, or concert footage, or the poster for some new music festival. Some weeks, there’s so much new music coming my way that it stresses me out; it’s a fire hydrant of new sounds I don’t know how to turn off.
We don’t really discover new artists anymore, and we certainly don’t dive into albums when they come out like we used to. The internet has changed all that. When the eject button in my car’s CD player stopped working, I was happy to listen to Tha Carter III ad nauseum for literally months at a time. When’s the last time you learned the words to every single song on an album?
Instead, the internet (and really the fast-paced nature of daily life in general) has changed the way we interact with music. Spotify tells me that I listened to literally thousands of unique artists last year; it’s too much for any one person to keep track of. I can put on Big Gigantic to work out, a podcast for my ride home, some Turnpike Troubadours while I read Lonesome Dove for the umpteenth time, and then transition to Phoebe Bridgers when it’s time to get ready to get in bed and in my feelings, all with a few taps on my phone.
But for that goofy kid in small town East Texas, discovering an artist was a revelatory moment. You couldn’t just sample whoever you wanted, so you had to know what you were looking for going in. You had to search. You had to work for your jams.
In the few months before I downloaded Spotify and changed my life forever, I was living abroad with extremely spotty internet access. Any music I wanted had to be purchased and downloaded, so I would agonize for hours over which new album to buy. I’d scour reviews, talk to friends, and would generally treat the process like car-shopping. Even if the album wasn’t that good, I’d drive it into the ground.
And now, a few short years later, I have basically the entire history of western music accessible anywhere I go. There’s no more scarcity, so I don’t have to think about my listening choices nearly as much. We don’t really discover new artists anymore—we discover new songs. We don’t collect albums—we curate vibes and distill them onto playlists. I could list dozens of artists off the top of my head who have a song that I love… and I’ve never bothered to explore any of their other music. There’s simply too much!
This is great. In so many ways, this is great. Technology almost always makes things better, even as it makes us feel out of sorts and uncomfortable when it stares us in the face. The amount of music I’ve discovered through the internet and the ways that music has carried me through memories good and bad is worth the lost joy of discovery those first few moments with The College Dropout gave me. Having a perfectly-curated playlist for every mood and occasion more than makes up for the fact that I’ll probably never know an album as intimately as I know Good Kid, Maad City.
Like watching a child growing up too quickly, we find ourselves simultaneously in awe of the developments we see even as we deal with the nostalgic sense of watching a moment in time disappear forever. I love this brave new world of music discovery for plenty of reasons, most of them obvious. Still, I will always look back fondly on those halcyon days when the effort that went into finding new music made the payoff that much sweeter.