In Donda West’s biographical account of her son’s early years ‘Raising Kanye’, she tells the story of how when still a struggling Rapper/Producer he was flown to New York by Columbia Records to examine the prospect of joining the label. Getting there he walked into a meeting with label executive, Michael Mauldin where he boasted “I’m going to be bigger than Jermaine Dupri” referring to the pint sized Atlanta rapper’s then run as the premier rapping Producer. Unbeknownst to him, Mauldin was Dupri’s father. He didn’t get that deal but with the way his career has turned out, I doubt he would have any regrets. I bet you’re screaming “Classic Kanye”. Political correctness never hinders the confidence. This being a trait picked up from his maternal grandfather who being a Muhammad Ali buff socialized him to appreciate the art of sound bites and trash talk. His mentor, No I.D under whose tutelage he gained inroads into the art of Producing tells of how during those studio sessions in 90’s Chicago, his friends who were older than Kanye would enjoy his company till he went into outlandish statement mode.
Kanye West sets trends. As Noah Callahan-Bever, Editor of lifestyle magazine, Complex said on the night ‘New Slaves’ was released “Some artists are great at perfecting conventions, and others are great at creating new ones”. Mr. West was probably the first Hip Hopper to transcend the class and race divide that exists between the genre and other genres. For one, he has a middle class background. His mother was a University lecturer and he spent a year living in China as a child. As has been documented to the point that it has become cliché, his Polo wearing, jeans non sagging way of dressing set him apart from an industry milling with football jerseys and baggy trousers. Whilst at the Watch the Throne stop in London, my then lady friend who I went with remarked “Wow! I am so surprised at the number of white people here. For some reason, I thought only black people listened to rap”. Mr. West is a man who has a song dedicated to Christian Dior models and is a regular feature at Anna Wintour curated events. At his shows, there’s one constant: him stopping his set during ‘All of the Lights’ or ‘Golddigger’ to remind the Caucasians present that it would be the one time they would ever get a pass to say the n word. For his 2007 smash hit ‘Stronger’, he sampled Daft Punk’s ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ to become the first mainstream artist in living memory to fuse EDM and hip hop. In the conduction of his music, he is lucky that he is a Producer first and wordsmith second in that he can hone his sound and instrumentation in a way a Jay Z or Drake can’t. For someone whose discography is built around taking elements of other people’s sounds, he consumes wide ranging genres and once got heat for saying he did not listen to rap in his New York apartment. To encapsulate this, his haul of 21 Grammy Awards (the most of anyone with a Hip Hop background. 4 more than the Carters, 1 behind U2 and Stevie Wonder and 10 off record holder Georg Solti) highlights the appeal to a Recording Academy that tends to be traditionalist and conservative. Although, the fact that he is yet to record any success in any of the main categories does count against him with the snubbing of 2010’s excellent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy being the most grating. Then again, no contemporary artist has been as critical of the awarding process. The long and short being that despite his constant outbursts and protests at being ignored, he still gets more than anyone we would classify as his musical peer. The Grammy Album of the Year has been won by only two hip hop associated acts: Lauryn Hill and Outkast. Ms. Hill has spent the last decade or so in hiding perfecting her baby making prowess and only released music recently as a result of her tax woes. Andre 3000 is a recluse who drops 2 verses a year whilst Big Boi has released some decent material that hasn’t exactly registered in the mainstream.
Every time Yeezy Season dawns, we get emphatic answers to the questions that have plagued our minds over the previous months. “Where is Kanye going with this album?” “He’s 5 over 5 on his solo stuff, can he keep that up?” “Kim K tends to tie people’s destinies. Hope her and Kris Jenner haven’t sucked Kanye with them”. That is all part of the Kanye copybook. He embarks on periods of musical anonymity to direct his next attempt at musical dominance highlighting the importance of secrecy in enhancing appeal.
No one has reinvented himself as often. After dropping the conscious hip hopper’s orgasm that was ‘The College Dropout’, he went a notch higher with ‘Late Registration’ where he engaged in a session of “urban culture journalism”. ‘Graduation’ was his peak in terms of commercial viability and public adulation selling almost a million records in the opening week. His mother died a few months later and it marked a change in his outlook culminating in a break up with his fiancée and the somewhat alternative record ‘808’s & Heartbreak’. That album, partially directed by his protégé Kid Cudi helped pave the way for a certain Toronto rapper making waves on the underground scene for his sung raps. Taylor Swift happened and he was nowhere to be found. 2010 was his year of public redemption outdoing himself on ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ creating an impossible to ignore album that surely stands as one of the most critically acclaimed albums of the post millennium era. In attempting to classify it, Sasha Frere Jones of the New Yorker writes “Good luck figuring out what kind of music this is, though it does contain rapping. West’s music is born of hip hop but now includes so many varieties that it feels accurate to call it simply Kanye”.
The music has been great, the marketing behind it genius. For ‘Graduation’, he changed his release date to go head to head with then Goliath, 50 Cent and came out on top. For ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, he released a free song every Friday under the ‘G.O.O.D Friday aegis whilst embarking on his media obligations in well-fitting suits under what he termed the Rosewood movement. He had the fans excited as we saw him craft songs via social media every week. (Remember how he used Twitter to propose he and Raekwon appear on a Justin Bieber record ). G.O.O.D Fridays provided a platform for some more underrated rappers (The likes of J Cole, Cyhi da Prynce and Big Sean highlighted their credentials before the release of their debut albums.)* Some people are great at influencing the culture; lesser beings specialize in jacking other people’s ideas. G.O.O.D Friday’s success lies in the way in which it was jumped on and mimicked by certain struggle rappers who came across as disgustingly unoriginal. Three years later, some are still at it for music no one exactly cares for. That would be the rant for another day. He channeled Michael Jackson by filming a movie using the album tracks as an accompaniment. Having a half-naked Selita Ebanks helped too. It also laid the foundations for last summer’s collaborative effort ‘Cruel Summer’ from his G.O.O.D Music collective. As we count down to the release of his next album, he has succeeded in another decent marketing exercise. On a random Friday evening, he tweeted that a song off the album would be projected/played at 66 locations in some major cities (Y NO LAGOS OR JOHANNESBURG, YEEZY!?) a day before his Saturday Night Live appearance. He had everyone’s attention and it came across as one occasion where one could argue that the notion of Monoculture was alive. It goes without saying that appearance enhances a product. By insisting on presenting his music in such unconventional but genius ways, he succeeds in creating a product held to higher standards than others. Royce da 5’9, Solange Knowles, Talib Kwali, Lupe Fiasco, Chris Rock and Macklemore all tweeted of their respect and admiration. @hexmurda, a hip hop blogger said “What Kanye West does is put pressure on his peers. Now artists have to decide whether that was confusing or genius and support it or hate it”.
Kanye has perfected the art of making music with a strong cinematic element. When he made 'Graduation', he said his aim was to create stadium/arena music after gaining inspiration from U2 after touring with them. He has become a specialist in that regard. It's no surprise that his records constantly feature in movie trailers and soundtracks. Based on the two releases off his forthcoming album, one could argue he has gone full circle. ‘New Slaves’ is essentially 'All Falls Down' 2.0 as he documents the ills of the materialistic world that Capitalism undoubtedly has instilled in us. Whilst it is hugely hypocritical coming from the man behind the Air Yeezy's (His massively successful limited edition Nike trainers) that have become the staple of hypebeasts that inspired his boast on ‘New God Flow’ that “the Yeezy's jumped over the Jumpman”. Then again, Kanye is mired in contradictions. His first single was ‘Jesus Walks’, yet as he promoted that album he unashamedly pointed out his addiction to porn likening himself to Kirk Franklin who suffered from the same affliction. He touched on his hypocrisy on ‘All Falls Down’, rapping “I ain't even gon act holier than thou/ ‘Cos f*** it, I went to Jacob with 25 thou/ Before I had a house and I'd do it again”. In 'Raising Kanye', his mother writes about one of her philosophies being to “Take the message and black out the Messenger” so it would make sense that Kanye embodies that. There is also a significant racial undertone in both 'Black Skinhead' and 'New Slaves' bringing to mind that line on his debut album “Racism still alive/ They just be concealing it”. For a long time, I had wondered why since his promotion stint for 'Absolut Vodka' years back he had a poor commercial presence in contrast with the likes of Jay Z, Dr Dre, 50 Cent and Diddy around whom he tends to stand around on Forbes’ annual Hip Hop Cash Kings List. Whilst the others are prolific endorsers, Mr West’s money tends to come mainly from his gigs and tours. Despite his love for high fashion, Kanye doesn't seem like one whose life is centred around money. His concert sets are some of the most extravagant around and he claims his desire to go the extra mile tends to come from his own pocket. His constant rants against the corporate machine surely come across as the by-product of someone not particularly keen on fronting billboards and making adverts. Yeezy lacks the diplomacy of a Jay Z who is generally calm and laidback, meaning that he is carefree in his conduct and his behaviour is not shaped by what he stands to lose in corporate dollars thus giving him a greater degree of legitimacy. He does not have to rap about Pepsi being God's greatest invention when he probably pours it down the sink in his private moments. In his own words, this part of him was born in the aftermath of the Taylor Swift incident “Because of everything that I’ve been through, it’s led me to the point to be able to be a way more expressive artist… To deal with way more reality. You can’t take anything away from me at this point. Cancelling a tour? I was touring with Lady Gaga… I completely lost everything but I gained everything because I lost the fear”. To an extent, that encapsulates why he's so great. He is a truly fearless artist and when combined with the air of vulnerability he passes, it makes his music seem more honest and less contrived.
@kanyewest is incredible. He has a ton of courage; he never plays it safe. For those who do, know this--you'll soon be forgotten.
— Lyor Cohen (@LyorCohen13) November 20, 2010
Listening to new @kanyewest proud of my brother for making RELEVANT music! He's over some of y'all heads right now, but leaders lead!
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) May 19, 2013
None of these pop acts are making music as courageously as Ye. New Slaves & Black Skinhead are the truth. Real always recognize real.
— Talib Kweli Greene (@TalibKweli) May 19, 2013
Kanye West is a threat to the average thinker.. You have Good and then you have GREAT.. Smh
— NiCKLE (@Royceda59) May 18, 2013
New Slaves.You damn right, Kanye.
— solange knowles (@solangeknowles) May 18, 2013
Well, that new kanye video/song got me inspired enough to write for the last hour & a half. Off to bed for my typical 3 hours of sleep
— Macklemore (@macklemore) May 18, 2013
Peter Rosenberg, the radio host tweeted “Kanye never stops trying. That is one of my favorite things about him.. Constantly evolving and changing.. Dope performance as usual”. Lyor Cohen, the legendary label executive tweeted “Kanye West is incredible. He has a ton of courage; he never plays it safe. For those who do, know this- you’ll soon be forgotten” capturing the crux to my argument as to why Mr. West is the greatest music maker of our time. When Vibe created their list of ‘The 20 Greatest Musical Geniuses since 1993’ earlier this year, he came in at #2 behind R Kelly who would surely be classed as belonging to an earlier generation. No one has innovated and influenced the sound of music the way he has. No one has had such an influence on the trends of music in the 2000s like he has. No one has transcended boundaries like he has. When the next generation want to get familiar with past acts, Mr West despite being very unlikeable would be first on the list because he is truly one of a kind. Premier Rapper/ Producer. Amazing Performer. Fearless Artist. Genre creator. Creative genius. Marketing/Packaging innovator and so much more. Yeezy taught us. Yeezy taught us well.
*Cyhi da Prynce is still yet to drop his debut album