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Kanye West – Understanding A Genius

There isn’t exactly a more polarising character in the music industry than Kanye West – trying to convince someone who thinks he’s an arrogant douche that he’s actually the music equivalent of sliced bread, which is pretty great, is not the easiest of feats. With seven albums under his belt, Kanye has presented himself as an ever changing and a selfishly evolving musician, and this is the foundation for his success and intelligent risks. 2018 looks like Yeezy season approaching, so now is the perfect time to anticipate the bloodthirsty return of Ye and reflect on the impact he’s had on rap and music in general from day one.

Kanye West started as producer, and a successful one at that, being able to take some credit for the success of Jay-Z The Blueprint, but it wasn’t his end goal. While it was a struggle, Kanye eventually realised his dream and signed a record deal, with his first single being Through the Wire, which he recorded after he nearly died in a car crash and his jaw was wired shut as a result of his injuries. The most consistent thing about Kanye is that he isn’t too afraid to keep his mouth shut about anything, and even when his jaw is wired shut he still had something to say – you cannot stop him. Throughout his career Kanye was so driven to deliver his own music integrity to audiences that he could not be stopped until everyone had to hear what he had to say – this would be one of the more divisive characteristics of him as it may come across as arrogant, but it’s truly him trying to show we don’t have to settle for the same thing with the same beats, we can listen to music that’s abnormal and enjoy it.

A complaint we hear in recent years is missing the old Kanye, which usually refers to the first three albums, because his albums since have been so fluid in tone and different from the consistency of the earlier albums, but if we look at the earlier LPs they were also not targeted at appealing to the current rap audience. The rap genre was all about gangster rap when Kanye came to the forefront, with the likes of 50 Cent and P. Diddy being the cream of the crop in their respective areas. Kanye released The College Dropout, which was focused on a mix between humour and the meaning behind lyrics, with songs such as Family Business putting the idea that family is more important than material goods; he went and found his own niche within the genre at the time. We would see this battle between Kanye’s style of rap and gangster rap continue until it came to a head with the release of Kanye’s Graduation and 50 Cent’s Curtis releasing on the same day, with Graduation being critically and financially more successful – Kanye had changed rap.

Kanye West had never been about appealing to the masses, with the only attempt at that being Gold Digger. He said himself in an interview with Zane Lowe that he “never  really liked Gold Digger” – and this jarring attempt to be different became even more apparent with 808’s and Heartbreak, which was his delve into auto tune. The album was met with a lot of backlash for the departure from his normal sound that was, but the album was conceived as a result of the death of his mother, which he blamed himself for. As far as I see it, the dependence on auto tune was Kanye’s way of showing that this music you were listening to wasn’t from the person you were used to, it was someone who needed to exert all the pain he was feeling in what can only be described as beats that were alien to the average listener, and lyrics that were like nails screeching down a blackboard. Personally, 808’s is my favourite album of his; it’s just so different, and I’ve never listened to an album where someone so effectively showed that they’re feeling like the worst thing in the world and don’t know themselves anymore. One thing to side-note about this album was the fact that this was Kanye’s first public battle with his mental health, which would become more prominent in later years.

The following album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, went somewhere in between the tone of 808’s and the first three albums, where it was a lot more accessible but split the spotlight between Kanye as a person and idea of the American Dream for all, especially as it relates to race. The two songs that provide a representative juxtaposition for me are Lost in the World, and RunawayLost in the World can be interpreted in a number of ways, but if we return to the idea of auto tune from 808’s we see a particular incorporation here (it’s a mix between auto tune and Kanye’s actual voice), and it is undoubtedly distorted. The song in its entirety, I would argue, is about the contrast between feeling trapped in the unknown and being found, he’s confused and doesn’t know where he is; using Bon Iver’s Woods as a sample lends to the being in unfamiliar surroundings. If we look at Runaway, it’s a credit to Kanye West that he has basically trademarked a single note on a piano because it’s such an iconic opening to a song. It’s a song about the fault within himself and people in general, from failed relationships to his actual arrogance, it’s “a toast to the douchebags” – and Kanye fully recognises his own faults as well as others, and it’s about running away from this, people shouldn’t have to put up with it.

While My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy appealed to a lot of his normal audience, what followed with Yeezus was the complete opposite. This album is Kanye’s battle against “industrialised rap” which he ironically helped create when he made rap more accessible, thus making it easier to create because it wasn’t focused on a particular background or topic. The beats are so janky and awkward, yet display this addictive quality that it’s hard to turn away from – a likely reason for this is the attachment of Daft Punk to the project. Yeezus is purposely ‘anti‘ the masses. Kanye as a musician is about being Kanye, not being anyone else, and once his style starts getting industrialised, adapting is the only thing he can do. I’ve got to address Kanye’s arrogance, and Yeezus is the peak of that with songs like I Am A God – and while everything may come across as him being a bit up his own hole, but what it was in reality was a diss track about fashion where Kanye was saying ‘look at how well my Yeezy’s are doing and I’m breaking into fashion when everyone said I couldn’t!‘ – Is it still a bit arrogant? Yeah, a bit. Is it justified? Also yeah, a bit – I don’t think anyone can deny him the fact that he was quite good at diversifying himself away from music. 

Last in his current catalogue is The Life of Pablo (TLOP)… where do you start with this? As described by Kanye West, TLOP is a living piece of music which can change, this was seen mostly by the interesting launch of the album, where the pitch on parts of some songs (and even full songs) would be completely changed, but possibly Kanye was also referring to the range the album hits, it covers so many areas and beats that there’s a large complexity to it, just like a living person. While there is 20 songs on the album and a lot to highlight, I would refer to TLOP  as a general phase that included songs like Only One, and All Day, and a song called I Feel Like That which fully addressed Kanye’s mental health. Kanye has a tendency to become public enemy number one, where it’s easy to hate him, but this song that uses his raw vocals (something we hadn’t seen since before 808’s) showed the toll that everything had taken on him. We forget that behind this celebrity persona there is a human being, and Kanye definitely displayed how fragile he was at this time.

And now here we are again with Yeezy season approachin’, as photos of Kanye in and out of the studio are popping up every few days, so it’s only a matter of time before we’re listening to the next bop by Ye. Kanye West gives this surface appearance of an unstoppable, egotistical maniac – yet delving into his character and songs, we see someone who only fights from his own corner and always questions society – the world we live in, and his own place within it. He is a person who wants us to question norms, and doesn’t believe in settling, he wants himself to be ever changing and always evolving – and that is something that should be recognised, not scorned as being completely arrogant. When we look back in years to come at his impact I think we’ll appreciate it a bit more, especially in terms of his cultural impact where he is a household name, and what he did for not just rap music but music in general. Kanye West will keep being Kanye, but being Kanye is such a defining characteristic that no one else could have been Kanye, and he’s tried to show that since he’s been involved in music. Everyone should be their own Kanye – be yourself, be no one else.