KANYE WEST: An Odyssey of Power Pt. I - I Want You To See Me
Indulge in part one of our deep dive on the myth, the career and the discography of Kanye West.
Kanye West, the man Rick Rubin described as "the most consistently great" creative artist he’d ever worked with, somehow seems to simultaneously stand above the rest of his peers while also standing on the shoulders of the greats before him. With the release of his newest album, Jesus Is King, we take a look back at the discography of, undeniably, one of the most impactful and influential modern recording artists and producers of his time.
Kanye's uncompromising vision — this unparalleled trajectory that he paved for himself during the early years of his career would, evidently, exceed the industry's expectations. Looking back at Kanye’s discography as a whole brings new meanings to his artistic intentions and growth, and how he (perhaps) inadvertently shaped the future of hip-hop and music as we know it. So, rather than a ranking of his work, simply take them as they are. There is one for whatever mood you are in. Just listen and enjoy the greatness.
Interior, 11 AM, South-Side Chicago. The camera tracks into a small bedroom, the blinds are wonky and they let the late morning sun stream in sweaty to make the dust dance. Sounds of a busy street bustle into the sedentary room, it is messy but homely. There is a desk and a bed. The dregs of last night's coffee turn milky on the wood of the desk alongside a college diploma repurposed as scribbled notes, a phone-book and an Akai MPC. Strewn across the floor are battered, second hand records whose cardboard dog-ears and peels: they are the kings and queens of soul – Aretha, Nina, Otis – and on the walls are posters of their prodigies: Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, Outkast and Jay Z.
The light guides the camera to what it spotlights: the head of a felt, mascot bear. Its owner is snoring on a single bed, over-sized paws hanging pins-and-needles off the side. Pan up. And picture this. He dreams of music, but he has no idea of the power it will unlock. He has no idea about all of the lights that will be turned onto him, no idea about the things he will say and the things others will say about him. For now, he is just trying to give the kids something to sing. Wake up Mr. West.
The College Dropout sat for a long time on a demo tape. As Kanye West adorned beats for Jay Z with soul, he took any opportunity he could to stop and rap for him over songs that had been rejected for years. It was the height of the bling era and despite Kanye's affinity for jewelry and fashion, it was impossible to imagine the songs' creator wearing any chain unless a crucifix dangled from the end. Kanye was not Jay Z: Jay Z sold crack, Kanye worked at GAP.
But when he finally got signed, it was clear that his headstrong vision paid off. Nominated for countless Grammys and multi-platinum selling, The College Dropout offered gospel heralded anthems for the new generation of hip-hop, those that were scholars of the pioneers, who sat in bedrooms with the radio loud and excitedly observed the dawn of a genre that offered a voice for the people. They involved themselves as it etched its way into popular culture and themselves. And then Kanye decided to squeeze himself into its wave, needed to. But wouldn't announce himself quietly. Although it is decidedly 2000s (one only needs to listen to "Slow Jamz" again to hear that bouncy sheen and cheese), it is also an album that sees Kanye West proudly present himself as canon in hip-hop, as opposed to wildly attempting to stretch beyond and defy it as later in his career.
It is an irrefutably smooth album with springed, weight-y drums that any protege of J Dilla would chase and songs like "All Falls Down" and "Jesus Walks" hold that oak-y, neo-soul spin that Lauryn Hill and Biggie could tap into: songs that sound like rummaging through old record crates. It is also still very Kanye, also from "Slow Jamz":
"Got a light-skin friend looking like Michael Jackson.
Got a dark-skin friend looking like... Michael Jackson."
His penchant for controversy and playful, middle-finger humour was evident even here from the very first track and perhaps that consistent self-awareness is what has kept him relevant despite the characteristics of his music changing over and over again. Before his debut album, Kanye West had been pigeon-holed as a producer and he refused it, and now the space he occupied was only about to get wider. The College Dropout plays like a contrarian manifesto: anti-school, anti-establishment, anti-opinion, anti-category...
"So I live by two words:
Fuck you, pay me."
It's been eight years since I started out
Forced into education, the traditional route
Go to school, get a job, get a wife
This, my son, this is the good life
But I knew it wasn't for me, I had no doubt
I didn't fit in, so I simply dropped out
And look at me now, I did it, a late bloomer, fine
But so much more than just another nobody college dropout
I don't pretend that I'm a genius
Just one of many more billion children of Jesus
But that's not gonna stop me trynna beat this
Will my success into existence
With nothing more than my faith and persistence
Self-actualising myself into bein' royalty
My self-actualisation will be nothing short of fuckin' holy, man—
Greek myths and renaissance men aren't just fantasy, like
Sisyphus rolling the boulder up the mountain for all eternity
Believing that what he was doing was somehow worthy, heavenly
And who am I to call that vanity?
Roll a boulder up a hill just to watch it come straight back down and still keep your sanity
How can you imagine a man doing something like that anything but happily?
If The College Dropout was Kanye’s introduction to the world, Late Registration is where Kanye made a statement: many of the tracks, namely "Gold Digger" and "Crack Music" were exactly the type of reason every suburban mum put a ban on Kanye's music in their homes as soon as they dropped. This type of thematically provocative music on the charts and mainstream radio, from a voice unheard to a lot of people (that of a black man from Chicago), Ye had nothing to prove and something to say. And he said it in such a way where it seemed he didn't care what you thought, as long as it made you think. And while this is what my mum would call arrogance (his public antics included), I call that bravery.
Looking back, Late Registration may have some stale moments and a few rough spots where Kanye is trying to reach for concepts he (and we) just weren't ready for yet (his follow-up instrumental album, Late Orchestration is another one of those examples), though his head and heart were in the right place. The passion was certainly never vacant. In fact, there are some of Kanye’s most affecting tracks on here; that unpolished sort-of excited sparkle behind his vocals — moments of barely controllable emotion behind his voice — and the erratic, jazzy beats on tracks like "Drive Slow" and the pop-influence of tracks like "Touch The Sky" make this a fun and fascinating album to revisit.
Even if Late Registration isn’t lyrically, or even consistently, one of Kanye’s strongest albums, his brand of sly, biting humour and unflinching enthusiasm in his verses shines through the rough cracks of someone attempting to break free of the form — something Kanye has always struggled with. But witnessing Kanye try, seeing someone struggle, hearing someone’s voice break at notes they’re not ready for but sensing the passion behind them, and the music driving and underlying sense of love — is still special to hear. Seeing someone reach out and try to simply touch us, while fully aware that they aren’t clean or polished — a perfectionist's nightmare — is heartbreakingly beautiful. Passion in art is something Kanye has always done unimaginably good. And, maybe, he never did it better than here.
To the class of 2007,
There is more out there than this. You make think that it is noble to struggle, you make think it is honest to be true to where you started. But believe me when I say that letting go will let you fly. Remove your baggage and jump weightless into the clouds and don't look down until you have reached the top. You may think that it is crude to simplify all you have to say but believe me when I say that there are millions waiting if you are willing to speak their language. You may find it reductive to speak to the heart of the masses but believe me when I say there is nothing stronger than the unity of one crowd. Forget the rules, break the box, leave education. Believe George Clinton when he says "free your mind and your ass will follow".
It's time for my victory lap.
"I got to shine, Now throw your hands up in the sky."
Graduating from what, to where?
Kanye West supported U2 on tour – a rap star in a pop stars world – and found conducting the emotions of thousands irresistible. Found power in symphonising euphoria; nothing was more alluring than a packed arena moving in clustered waves, blooming into dance at the pound of the drums beneath their feet and then drowning out their roars with your own music. For Kanye, a man who had defied all expectations and found himself still unsatisfied, he had had a taste of the good life; for an hour of mingled expression and ego in front of the largest crowds of his life, he had seen his desires crystallised. And he understood that a new paradigm of hip-hop needed to be uncovered if he wanted to make home these arenas and make monuments out of these building-high speakers.
Graduation is Kanye’s diploma to fame. Having begun his career by dropping out of the producer role laid stiflingly out for him, he now decides to leave the traditional lyricism of hip-hop behind to build anthems for the masses. Graduation's string of hook-heavy bangers are motor-pushed by trance beats with a club scope and overlooked by lightning synths. They sound better the higher the volume is and the volume will never crank high enough.
He graduates from soul. It is not a complete departure from the sample decked spins of West’s previous efforts, but Graduation samples Steely Dan on "Champion", Daft Punk on the now iconic "Stronger" and isn’t afraid to lace guitar and rock into its hip-pop brew and any soul remaining is still run through liquor and electric, dripping in UV paint. His vision is a futurist utopia: to sing alone from stratospheric storm clouds hanging above the great coming together of neon stadiums. Heaven is a party and Mr. West’s set is next.
"I’ve been waiting on this my whole life. These dreams be waking me up at night. You say I think I’m never wrong, You know what maybe you’re right."
He graduates from the grind. Tired of playing in the sand with the petty rap game, numbers race and list debates (of which he never truly felt a part of from the start), he aims for the stars, launched by the thrust of a subwoofer. His crosshairs centre on the top and takes on 50 Cent in a sales battle and demolishes him, easily. Perfection possesses and "Stronger" takes on 75 different iterations before release. Its abundance in popular culture proves his efforts worth it.
He graduates this life and flies to the next, embraces celebrity in a sky where the stars are LED’s and you can lounge on a crescent moon. Graduation marks the first collaboration with Takashi Murakami, who concludes the trilogy by transforming the dropout bear into psychedelic anime, an inhabitant of a fantasy world that we no longer recognise. From all the way up there, Kanye becomes determinedly populist. Tricks of the trade learnt, he no longer will be called a "rapper" or a "producer". Now, instead, a "musician". He prophesises that one day hip-hop will be the new pop – perhaps in Kanye’s head it always was.
The soothing crackle of a since stopped-spinning record fizzles out as the pin is knocked off its course. The hand reaches for a half-empty bottle of Hennessy, almost sending it plummeting over the edge of the table. The hand brings it to the lips, thirsting for the numbness. They move in unison, the whisky sumptuously sliding down the throat. The hand returns the bottle to the table, restarting the record. The familiar poppy tones of Michael Jackson's Thriller echoes throughout the studio. The body stands, swaying gently alone in the room. The heart beats. This is where the music comes from. No more "hey mama", no more fiancé. The women have left the man all alone. The dark night of the soul. The body stops swaying. The body stands still. The brain thinks. The heart keeps beating. The music comes from there. The ideas and melodies, they don't come from the man's brain or genius. But from his heart. This is where they flow from. And they don't stop.
With dropout bear rocketing off to space on the cover of his last album, in this one Kanye truly takes us there. 808s & Heartbreak is perhaps the ultimate "throwback" album, both for Kanye as a musician and for us, the listeners, looking back now. The nostalgia present revisiting this album is undeniable; the memories that highlights such as "Love Lockdown" and its bass thumping into my heart brings back (mostly of year-five school disco's) is filled with a certain sentimentality. That eight-oh-eight manufactured heartbeat, pulsing incessantly, is like some sort of sense memory. Songs such as these were the soundtrack to many of my generation's adolescence, and 808s boasts some of the most played tracks of anyone who ever owned an mp3 player.
This album is Kanye at his most "Kanye", musically-wise; the collision of electronic 808s and choir music, even from the first track, is distinctly "Kanye" and is something that even has traces in albums as recent as TLOP. This is Kanye at his most raw; after the loss of his fiancé and death of his mother, this is Kanye receding to the sounds he remembers listening to as a child, simple, stripped back synth and electronic tones. This is Kanye at his most emotional; his obvious use of autotune, the warped robotic voice is how he coped. By masking his pain with autotune and synthesising his emptiness into music, the distance and detachment I'm sure he was experiencing becomes intrinsically woven into the album.
And this stands apart as Kanye's most cinematic album (with tracks such as "Robocop" even going as far as to lift samples from films), with some of the album such as "Welcome to Heartbreak" almost feeling as if it is playing in slow-motion. This track (with an undeniable introduction into the absolute mainstream for Kid Cudi), constantly feels like Kanye is playing with time. This track, especially compared to his post-North tracks, is a time capsule of a certain time in Kanye's life... maybe even a certain Kanye. The "old Kanye". The difference between Kanye today and Kanye back then isn't as great as people think, but when people say "the old Kanye", I'm sure this is what they mean.
There is a golden metropolis and it stands at your feet. The window is open and in the marble penthouse behind you lies the rubble of your hedonism: violence and coke, spilt bottles and women. It evaporates and they sleep, you haven't and your eyes forced open are burning. Though the city glimmers obsessive and spent below you, the sky is starless and bitumen, the wind screeches. It would be a hell of a fall. Sometimes you dream of a boy who one day decided to close his eyes and sprint, but you can't remember who that boy was, all you know now is the man he came to be: halfway to God, halfway to hell. And you come to understand that true power is a finger on the button, not what you have gained but the opportunity to lose it all. And you know how it feels to tempt it, to dance with failure and evade it at the last second. True power is not what lies behind you, sticky and consumed, all that nothing - true power is a jump that will turn it finally to dust. A beautiful death: to bring it crumbling, hand in hand with fame as you fall weightless through the whipping night. Jump.
"I don't need your pussy bitch, I'm on my own dick."
Cop lights, strobe lights, spotlights - an iris dilates as they hone in tight upon it, high on ego, high on fame. Addicted to it ("Ain't no question if I want it, I need it".) Kanye's beautiful, dark, twisted fantasy is this: it is fame and how it has warped him, tore away at his soul and changed his DNA. It's his relationship dying in the public eye, it's interrupting Taylor Swift at the VMA's, it's those that hated 808's and everything he has worked so long for with reckless abandon. It's how despite all the damning voices that try to grasp at his ankles, he still rockets further to the God that he worships, power. He won't stop until he rests in its hand with black angels.
On MBDTF, Kanye West is not only a rapper but a conductor, weaving multiple musicians, producers and compositions into a tapestry of disillusioned celebrity. Though he no longer resembles the begrudged dropout that he started as, he finds the persistent plague of skinny wrists and plastic smiles trying to exploit him – for his money, because of his race, for his power – and as a result, MBDTF is an oddly melancholic album; its symphonic hard-hitters are underlined with a confused rage: Kanye is lost in the world and this is his score.
A watershed moment in his career, MBDTF is now (the) staple in West's discography, but upon release it sounded like the apex synthesis of all he had hinted at prior to this point. Choirs, orchestras and an operatic scale, it is astounding that the album works so well and slotted so perfectly into modern rap history. Now, we take it for granted. Sometimes you will sit with goosebumps as you listen to the obsessively perfected arrangements and have to pinch and remind yourself that "this is hip-hop". The word isn't able to contain what you hear.
The grandiose sum of West's efforts is transcendence, of genre and of past in an album that marks the killing off of previous Kanye's and the beginning of one burned flesh and bone into the public eye. Kanye signs his soul to invincibility, dons the cape of a supervillain, and centrepieces his own censorship on the album art. The transgression penned by George Condo, pixelated and framed against block red is so emblematic of the record's content that it is perhaps more iconic now than the original painting. Sex and power: censored. Art: censored. Kanye's attempts to relay his new life to you are in vain, it is deemed to outrageous for the public eye. Each aggressive anthem seems to scream "handle me": the 21st-Century schizoid man.
The paint hits the canvas, a wide smear as the brush gently glides along erasing any white and replacing it with a pastel of gold. The painter looks at his subject, atop the throne: his snowy fur coat draping down to the spotless stone floor, and on his head sits an immaculate gold crown matching the one in the painting. Somewhere in the distance church bells chime, and the subject removes his crown and steps down from the throne. The painter protests, nowhere near done with his portrait. The king dismisses him; they will finish another day.
He sits on the step, letting the cool breeze from the open window calm his nerves. He fingers the jewels on his crown... this hollow crown. He is covered in blood, but he doesn't mind. What's done is done, what's foul is fair. The ambition to be a great man, let alone a great king makes the crown feel heavier than it actually is. Ruthless? Holy? Merciless? Good? What is he when he turns to dust? He stands, looking out the window, over the city as it burns. And everyone below still shuffles about, oblivious. The city crumbles. The church bells stop. And the king replaces the crown on his head.
Kanye West and Jay-Z. With the beautiful gift of hindsight, looking at these two giants who have continued to consistently produce culture-shifting works and are currently standing on the Mount Olympus that is the music industry, it is difficult to conceive of a time where a track title like "Who Gon Stop Me" might have been anything but rhetorical. Nevertheless, Kanye, who started out as a producer selling many of his beats to Jay-Z, is not even ten years later dropping a collaboration album with the man. Looking back this album feels like it must have always been inevitable, but at one time it probably felt like a pipe dream to many.
The relationship between the two artists is central to the concept of the collaboration. Much like "Big Brother" on Graduation, this album poses an interesting perspective on the idea of idol worship. Tracks like "No Church in the Wild" is seemingly a renunciation of this false hero worship. While this may seem like a contradiction, with track titles like "Illest Motherfucker Alive", and "No Church" opening with the soulful tones of Frank Ocean asking, "Human beings in a mob. What's a mob to a king? What's a king to a god? What's a god to a non-believer? Who don't believe in anything?" But Jay-Z later clarifies, preaching, "Socrates asked, whose bias do y'all seek? // All for Plato, screech // I’m out here balling, I know y'all hear my sneaks // Jesus was a carpenter, Yeezy laid beats".
The case could (and has) been made for whether both Kanye and Jay-Z have earned their place on the Mount Rushmore of modern rap (or, just music). Basquiats, Warhols... they're the muses. Now the Kanyes, the Jay-Zs... they're ours. The rap laureates of Brooklyn and Chi-Raq. When the man who gave us Thriller (a man who's been maybe the primary case study for questioning idol worship in recent years) deems Kanye worth playing and playing over and over during the final years of his life, maybe (maybe...) Kanye usurped even his own wildest dreams. The new king was crowned. Who would’ve believed it?