Kanye West is the definition of the problematic pop star, perhaps at a level of status and vitriol no musician before him has ever received. This month alone he tweeted the moronic sentiment ‘BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!’ started two beefs and perpetuated the most sloppy album build-up of all time. When it was announced he was going to play Glastonbury 300,000 people told him not to, and when there he announced he was the greatest rock star on the planet – few changed their minds. He’s compared himself to Walt Disney and Pablo Picasso and Steve Jobs and called women ‘bitches’ an unforgivable amount of times in the past year alone. Oh, and he announced he was running for President.
It may confound those who only know him as a celebrity with a few hits to his name then why he’s still tolerated. It may surprise those same people to know that in the music community he is considered one of the most consistent, influential, and acclaimed musicians of all time. In a time when it would be fair to forget his incredible discography thanks to his big mouth, and on the day he debuts his seventh album The Life Of Pablo at Madison Square Garden, we look back at how he got his ego in the first place.
Ah College Dropout. Kanye on this album was, dare I say it, rather likeable. Known mainly for his production, it seems Kanye was on his 2004 debut record trying to prove himself as an MC first and foremost. Humble, witty, faithful and political, here West was a charming frontman, and it’s hard to understate the influence this remarkable rap record wrought. Vince Staples was a spokesman for a generation when regarding the album as their Illmatic, and his ‘chimpunk soul’ production style remains iconic to this day. Very much committed to his anti-schooling theme, a series of skits lead hilariously through some of West’s best songs; ‘All Falls Down’ features gorgeous vocals from Syleena Johnson and some of the best topical lyrics ever to appear in rap, ‘Slow Jamz’ sees hip-hop transform into soul, ‘Jesus Walks’ and ‘Get ‘Em High’ set an early precedent for his ear for club classics, while ‘Never Let Me Down’ starts a long allegiance with Jay-Z, in a song which keeps building and building until you’re breathless. The final song is a touching twelve minute origin story to close out the record. To those who find the idea of listening to Kanye West for an hour repulsive, the younger man who fronts this album is a much more welcoming host.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy meanwhile is already solidified as his magnum opus. In an effort to reform his public image in the wake of his mother’s passing and that Taylor Swift moment, Kanye produced what many consider to be one of the best albums of all time, if not then of the century so far. It sees him almost as lyrical as on his debut (“they said I was the abomination of Obama’s nation”) but the production sees an exponential growth. It’s an eccentric, epic, prog-hip-hop odyssey which samples the likes of King Crimson and Gil Scott Heron, and features the likes of Jay Z , Chris Rock, Niki Minaj, Rhianna, Rick Ross, Bon Iver and Elton John. The record really needs to heard to be believed, because it sounds beautiful. ‘All of the Lights’ and ‘Power’ are two of his biggest hits, ‘Gorgeous’ features some of his best bars, while ‘Runaway’ and ‘Lost In The World’ see him as a sonic pioneer, creating music that sounds like nothing else. The album aims to be the best ever made, and almost pulls it off.
2005’s Late Registration was, in many ways, a forefather of Twisted Fantasy, but remains very much of the College Dropout era. A longer record; it may feature two of his biggest hits (‘Touch The Sky’ and ‘Gold-digger’ which, naturally, Kanye has since denounced) but it’s a much tougher album full of moodier soul beats, alongside colder, harder bars. West was still more empathetically human though; ‘Hey Mama’ is a touching song turned tragic since the passing of his mother, while ‘We Major’ and ‘Celebration’ are legitimately joyous songs which see the “38 year old eight year old” developing a more advanced and mature ear.
2008’s 808’s and Heartbreak was an album that received a bumpy reception, but has aged remarkably well. Filled with advanced production that hinted at the layered, innovative sounds which would follow – Kanye overcame the limitations of the hip-hop genre and his own vocal range to create a genuinely icy and heart-breaking record, which tackles fame, the breakdown of his engagement and the death of his mother. ‘Paranoid’ and ‘Robocop’ may be corny pop songs, but opener ‘Say You Will’ sets out a hypnotic new vision with aplomb, while ‘Heartless’ and ‘Amazing’ see the hit maker still in full swing, albeit with a stronger sonic vision at hand. For better or for worse, it was the album which basically inspired Drake and his prodigies’ whole careers.
The releases which broke the Kanye silence following a mixed reception for the record and public condemnation were a series of free mp3 uploads to his website every week in late 2010 in the build up to his fifth album, under the umbrella title GOOD Fridays. While not a cohesive project, they see Kanye at the height of his powers: producing non-album tracks better than much else produced that year, including the fearsome ‘New God Flow’ and Beyoncé featuring ‘See Me Now’.
2013’s Yeezus is not an especially easy access point thanks to both its structural brutality and concept. In the three years since its release it seems to have defined itself as a concept album: upon which, to paraphrase the man himself, Kanye tried to retract all the goodwill his post-Taylor releases had won him. Its viciousness has been over exaggerated (it’s not exactly Death Grips) but it’s a challenging listen, which saw Kanye adorning punk leathers, getting political (and hypocritical), appropriating civil rights slogans as sexual innuendo and showcasing his most jagged production to date. When the most sweet sentiment on the record is “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches” you know it’s not one that seeks to flatter. Featuring production from Daft Punk, the LP divided fans but won praise from Lou Reed and critics, while ‘Black Skinhead’, ‘I Am A God’ and ‘New Slaves’ boast some of his best, and most creative, sonic craftsmanship to date.
For a man with so many smash hits, Graduation is his only record that could really be called a pop album. ‘Stronger’ samples Daft Punk so much they earnt a featured credit, ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ was the first Kanye song to blow up on the streets – and despite being an album of great quality, it doesn’t quite match up to the rest of his solo discography thanks to clean production and an over reliance on features.
Watch The Throne wasn’t quite the ‘new Beatles’ album Jay Z had promised in its build up, but that these two titanic artists came together at all is something be thankful for, and the results were more often than not rather fruitful. The production was the epitome of ‘luxury rap’ era Kanye, with ‘No Church In The Wild’ sounding dense and cacophonous, while ‘Otis’ and ‘Niggas In Paris’ were hits of the level such a collaboration promised.
Despite the various prodigies whose careers have been birthed by a Kanye co-sign (John Legend, Kid Cudi, Travis Scott, Vic Mensa) one of Kanye’s weaknesses has long been the crew he rolls with, and indeed GOOD Music Cruel Summer was really a showcase of that weakness: featuring some excellent Kanye tracks in ‘Clique’, ‘Mercy’ and ‘Cold’ but little fire from the tracks which didn’t feature his name. ‘Don’t Like’ was Kanye’s first dabbling in trap too, which saw him again at the forefront of a new musical movement, but also tipped his music even further towards the ignorant side of rap, which would ultimately culminate in the likes of ‘All Day’ and ‘Facts’.
It’s also worth remembering that Kanye cut his teeth as a hot producer: his five tracks on Jay Z’ classic The Blueprint popularising his sound, while on Be his executive production credit revived Common’s career, and on Get Lifted he made John Legend’s.
The fact of the matter is though, The Life of Pablo has seen the most hit and miss album rollout in his career so far. That’s the fourth title the album has had; his twitter has been the most active, and most petulant, in a while – and while before almost every track he touched turned to gold, ‘Only One’ and ‘All Day’ received such a tepid response that they’ve been left off the album entirely. On Tyler The Creator’s Cherry Bomb and A$AP Rocky’s At.Long.Last.A$AP he was for the first time a spare part on younger, hotter rapper’s LP’s, and ‘Facts’ was easily the worst song he’s made in his career to date. ‘Real Friends’ and ‘No More Parties In L.A.’ were great enough to regain lost faith, but whether or not his long awaited seventh will be of the quality of an impressive discography remains to be seen.
Liam Inscoe – Jones
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