Contravening music’s categorical genre limitations, dismantling societal constructs concerning artistry, and dabbling his life with the raw ink of controversy, Kanye West completes mankind’s epic historical puzzle of magnitudinous characters. He scintillates the energy of his predecessors in, among many, Picasso, da Vinci, Shakespeare, Newton, Einstein, Henry XIII, Elizabeth I, Franklin, TJ, Napoleon, FDR, Churchill, Marilyn, Kubrick, MLK, Ali, Cruyff, MJ, MJ23, Chomsky, Hawking, Gates, Steve Jobs, Pope Francis, Donald Trump, & Barack Obama.
As a musician, Kanye is the contemporary summit of that “magnitudinous” human expanse. To compare him to Tupac/Biggie/Eminem—all better “rappers” than he—would marginalize, even insult, his celestial influence on the industry. In one decade, he collected 21 Grammy Awards between eight phenomenal albums, four of which are variously deemed the “best hip hop album ever.” He has helped produce hundreds of other artists’ songs. He’s flipping our presumption that music must be jammed under genre labels—bringing classical music, rock & roll, & rap into his works. And he is the glue that bridges hip hop haters (e.g. my younger self) & hip hop lovers—with his seamlessly blended choirs, symphonies, brass horns, sick beats, electronica, artist features, masterful production, & intellectual forethought—thereby drawing mankind into one vast congregation of fascinated listeners. From Stevie Wonder-loving old-timers to Led Zeppelin-obsessed stoners to Future-blasting barhoppers, everybody can dig Kanye’s magically-orchestrated acoustics.
But calling him a musician is like calling Post-WWII Israel a solution; it’s an incomplete picture. Kanye is a “creative genius” (as he put it), artist, designer, public voice, psychology project (see my favorite Kanye quotes below), businessman, and many other things. Every day, almost everything he does, loved or hated, causes people to think, process, & respond. I’ll even attest that Kanye has advanced my own writing process; his artistic maximalism and linguistic nonconformity are reflected in my content. As he put it, “If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me—you’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso.” Perhaps we are Kanye, and he is us. So let’s explore his life, career, & essence. (Note: you’ll eventually see why this post is titled as such.)
Kanye’s Psyche, as Explained by Kanye
For more fun, comment with your favorite Kanye quote(s).
Young Kanye. An inventive, scholarly nerd in Chicago’s South Side, Kanye never flashed the early signs of a “gangsta rapper.” Eventually studying English on scholarship at Chicago’s American Academy of Art, teenage Kanye wrote musical compositions, watched anime, painted, & got bullied. But he dropped college to pursue music and quickly ascended the studio world after producing Jay Z’s “The Blueprint.” But nobody thought he could be a rapper. Marred by a witty, hipster-ish image, he struggled to find a record deal; moreover, falling asleep at the wheel after a long night at the studio, Kanye skimmed the blades of death in 2002. But, as usual, he persevered.
The College Dropout (2004)
Selling 441,000 copies in the first week and scoring 10 Grammy nominations, Kanye’s blockbuster debut album, The College Dropout, blended social commentary, choirs, strings, “chipmunk soul,” & youthful vibrancy—an immediate musical Renaissance that fortified his future’s growing walls. “Through the Wire” was famously recorded with his mouth wired shut (done right after his car crash). “Slow Jamz” stirred late nights at clubs everywhere. “Jesus Walks,” the politically-charged “gospel rap” single, quaked every corner of the world; little did it know that he’d go on a torching haul of 92 music awards and 369 total nominations in the following decade.
Jesus Walks: his greatest song?
Late Registration (2005)
A mere 12 months later, Kanye succeeded his marvelous debut with perhaps an even better album. Going triple platinum, Late Registration blended personal and political matters—poverty, drug trafficking, racism, healthcare, & even the blood diamond trade—with soulful brass instruments & skilled drum programming. This time period also signified Kanye’s assiduous eclipse of the artistically-confining box that was “rap,” with his unforgettable new music videos, unbelievable “fashion” statements, and uniquely set-up tours. Regarding editorialized comments on the tracks: while “Gold Digger” and “We Major” serve much utility as meaningless “bangers,” “Hey Mama” and “Heard ‘Em Say” are two heartfelt—yet still upbeat—pieces of underrated preciousness. “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” was a brilliant Kanye classic, and “Touch the Sky” (see the short film below) was on another level.
“I don’t even listen to rap. My apartment is too nice to listen to rap in,” Kanye bragged (he admittedly prefers James Blake, Radiohead, Phoenix, Grizzly Bear, & Feist—all superb). Competently, Graduation begged listeners to question what “genre” Kanye should fall under; drawing from Daft Punk, Mike Dean, & Coldplay’s Chris Martin, it slapped rap’s 50 Cents with a digitized, entertaining breath of contemporary electronica. It also marked the ostensible death of “gangsta rap”; from “Good Morning” to “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” (Kanye’s favorite Kanye song), it rocked entertaining songs while still stirring art in unique directions—a dichotomy that the aforesaid era never encompassed. On top of that, it accelerated Kanye’s insatiable desire to make his tour concerts a unique environment, as evidenced by the Glow in the Dark Tour. Finally, here are Graduation’s most expensive jewels:
“Stronger” is proof of Kanye’s unspoken ability to stimulate people (in individual as well as group settings) with some truly gratifying fun. “Flashing Lights,” my dark & avant-garde album favorite, foreshadows the philosophical implications—the glamor, hardship, isolation, and life of being fixated at the cross-hairs of the paparazzi—that soon defined him.
808s & Heartbreak (2008)
Humble and low-key as it is, 808s—written with the backwash of both Kanye’s mother’s death as well as his engagement breakup with Alexis Phifer—branded the strain of hip hop that bosses the current scene. 808s’s isolated, romantic, and sappy tones—armed with energetic beats that will splatter the pimples of your saddest memories on the mirror at which you solemnly gaze—was the magma that rose into the works of Drake, Frank Ocean, Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi, Childish Gambino, etc. This genre jousts loud beats with soft lyrics, and songs like “Heartless” are its kings.
Controversial Kanye. At the 2009 MTV Video Awards Kanye stormed the stage to interrupt a teenage Taylor Swift, who had just received “Best Female Video,” and proclaimed that Beyonce deserved the award. The global backlash was serious that ‘Ye resigned to “self-imposed exile” in Hawaii. Then, after locking thousands of studio hours with a full cartel of artists, he froze the music industry in its footsteps.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
An opulent, spine-tingling epitome of achievement, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is perfect in many ways: the name, music, music videos, film, artworks, creativity, technicality, honesty, exaggeration, reality, modernity, futurism, and style (electronica, baroque, soul, & even symphonic). It is the scholarly project of modern anthropology. It is Kanye’s catharsis for the beautiful dark twisted realities all humans share—glory, money, fame, omniscience, beauty, strength, magnitude, improvement, and perfection. It is this century’s Dark Side of the Moon, a champion that continues to accelerate beyond the victory lap.
The center-right work, painted by George Condo, was the original album cover. Classic Kanye. (Plus a nude angel with no arms, of course.) Sandro Botticelli & Edouard Manet—once abhorred dejects for celebrating the nude human body within their provocative art—would be proud.
Weaving individually brilliant, stand-out singles into a balanced cataclysm of painstaking thought, MBDTF begins with a nebulous, transcendental, & ominous “Dark Fantasy”; greeting us with a reworked narration of the story of Cinderella, it introduces some of the album’s ideologies, which are decadence, pipe dreaming, & hedonism in this song’s case. Skip a few (though I did previously review every single MBDTF song) and the next powerful song is “Power.” With stadium-friendly loudness, Power voices the weight of Kanye’s life—his every move, the quarrels that breed from his rebelliousness, & the global culture that drenches him.
Kanye has expedited the way short avant-garde film trickles into culture. And, as if the music videos to his songs weren’t complementary enough, they also provide additional skits, length modifications, extra sound effects, etc. This 102-second clip is yet another example.
“All of the Lights,” the album’s backbone, begins with a wonderful cello & viola interlude and then segways into an atomic explosion of horns, sounds, & diverse vocals (including those of Kanye, Rihanna, Kid Cudi, Elton John & others). It’s a song that radiates the chaos of media indulgence, life’s so-called “fast-lane,” & the pain of going through normal days under the scrutiny of the public eye.
All of the Lights: maximalism at its finest.
The album continues with another global hit in “Monster”—the upbeat song that made a name out of Nicki Minaj. It’s about making a “monster,” a global hit, anyway. Later, we encounter “Devil in a New Dress,” one of Kanye’s lyrically-strongest cuts, which outlines the potent temptations of lust—voiced over a sophisticated melody. “Runaway,” a modern Greek tragedy of similarly astronomical proportions, follows. And while Kanye’s effect on language is usually vindicated by his ability to obfuscate the line between semantic sincerity and satire, Runaway steams from the heated core of raw emotion. Over the song’s simple, but unforgettable, piano tune, Kanye cries out—chastising his petty arrogance, horrible life decisions, & self-inflicted relationship issues. But the single’s true uniqueness dwells on the basis that it doesn’t offer any apologies or solutions. Instead, its submission is that Kanye is irreversibly crazy—that he can’t change his ways, and that those he hurts should simply run away. “Baby I got a plan: run away as fast as you can.”
Notice how Kanye, whose many business adventures, e.g. music videos, have hired people of all vocations—in this case alone: ballerina dancers, dance choreographers, costume designers, set designers, makeup artists, lighting experts, sound experts, actors, & a director (Kanye often co-directs with one or two others). He is a true polymath.
“Blame Game,” opened by the deep John Legend and closed by the blunt Chris Rock, hosts a thematic double entendre—describing a relationship struggle on the surface level and, beneath the ice, a sad memoir of a torn man losing his identity to the altered persona that others see in him. One could liken it to Picasso’s Girl Before a Mirror. And with a hilarious conversation superimposed over the soothing ambiance of a piano, the song’s dilemmas bicker into “Lost in the World.” My favorite of the bunch, it soars from a hushed, auto-tuned Justin Vernon (Bon Iver’s singer) intro into an intriguing, vivacious burst of chaotic energy—choirs, Kanye’s poem for Kim Kardashian, music samples, & great conga drums.
The finale “Who Will Survive in America?” carries those tribal drums into the background of a 1970 speech by jazz poet Gil-Scott Heron. Heron’s words—listing off America’s 400-year history of inequity—pours cold water on the (predominantly Caucasian) student movement’s claim to represent “radical” change, asserting that middle-class & upper-class whites cannot adequately understand the struggles of the poor & disadvantaged. Within the song, however, Kanye twists those words into a symbolic meta-narrative about the profound questions posed within MBDTF. Is the decadence of fame and fortune worth it? What does it cost? Can we understand the coarse relationship between our personal ambitions and those of others around us? What are we? Kanye equips us with answers throughout the album, but—at the tail end of an artistic paradigm whose immortality parallels with Coppola’s “The Godfather”—he dispels an odor of doubt that sends us reaching up to the skies, seeking the elusive truths that we will never grasp.
Contemplating “Can we get much higher?” in its opening moments, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy would eventually go on to receive a perfect 10.0 on Pitchfork, as well as claims from many critics to be the best album of all time. But, make no mistake, it is not about the hollow delusion that is perfection. MBDTF is about the universal cocoon of imperfection—that our various human imperfections, our beautiful dark twisted fantasies/realities, will outlive our personal selves; that, in addition to such personal strife, we must deal with the insidious environments to which we are conjointly exposed; and that they account for the 7.5 billion unique, awe-inspiring individuals scattered within our beautiful biological apparatus. While objective beauty is meaningless, our unique struggles provide the ideas from which we paint the world. “We’re all works in progress. We’re paintings. The oil don’t dry ’til we die.”
Come back and watch Kanye’s 35-minute film for MBDTF when you can.
Watch the Throne (2011)
How do you follow up one of the most critically-acclaimed pieces of entertainment ever? You claim your throne.
Already an ethereal legend by his early 30’s, Kanye (alongside Jay-Z, co-creator of the album) continued his momentum with Watch the Throne—featuring beats that blared over dramatic melodies, progressive & orchestral rock, and unconventional samples. From “Who Gon Stop Me” (a dubstep-fused jammer we all heard in the new Great Gatsby) to “Ni***s in Paris” to “H•A•M,” the album’s 7 hits and 7 music videos (though I’ll cut down on the videos now) led to 7 Grammy nominations. Then, the rap pair embarked on the highest grossing hip hop concert tour in history.
Yeezus is Watch the Throne’s weird, abusive uncle—colored by sophisticated genre-layering, featuring, as its Wikipedia page lists, “industrial,” “acid house,” “electro,” “dancehall,” “punk,” and “Chicago drill” influences. But, though it received widespread acclaim from critics, not many Kanye fans find it enjoyable. It’s more of an avant-garde sound experiment than a rap album, therefore transcending yet another ambivalent societal constraint to Kanye: the idea that his music should cater towards his audience. In Yeezus, he discusses topics like loyalty, respect, threesomes, brokenness, racism within the black community (AKA directed at Kanye), the ambiguity of the word “God,” & ordering croissants—all synced into an underground house-electronica vibe. “I got treasures in my mind but couldn’t open up my own vault,” Kanye articulated in Power. And, in some ways, MBDTF’s minimalist antithesis—this weird, primal commission, mixed with analog components—was the key to his vault.
After Yeezus, Kanye shifted his priorities towards fashion—though he did squeeze out several incredible singles when requested. Spending several years hanging out with designers at fashion shows, he basically decided to basically “make fashion great again.”
Want to donate $800? Please buy me these Yeezy Boost 750 sneakers.
The Life of Pablo (2016)
The Life of Pablo is the first Kanye album that lacks a major statement. But then again, the apparent lack of a statement could be a statement in itself. This contradiction allowed Kanye to freely create songs without the burden of thematic prophesies. He made a song about how he hates Nike. He made yet another gospel rap stunner, one of the year’s best songs (see below). He made a song that openly and sarcastically roasted Taylor Swift (just imagine how weird the music video is). While songs like “Famous” and “Father Stretch Hands Part 1” proved that his beats continue to thrive, “Ultralight Beam” was the true proof that Kanye is free—that he can literally create a masterpiece out of anything he wants.
With a gospel choir handpicked by Kanye and a stunning Chance the Rapper verse, Ultralight Beam (which lacks a music video) is universally attractive—even for us irreligious minorities.
Contemporary Kanye. Kanye will never spiral out of the spotlight. Last week alone, he praised Donald Trump in front of a California audience; canceled the rest of his Saint Pablo tour (though we dejects did get our refunds); checked into a hospital; then went AWOL from the public. Literally, he checked out of the hospital a few hours ago; figuratively, however, as Don Henley would suggest, he will never truly leave—he is inherently delirious. My personal theory is that he (like I) has bipolar disorder type 1, like me. He can shift from “fine” to an emotional vortex of angry, disorderly, careless, impulsive, & self-obsessed feelings. And he’ll go through those shifts while wide awake at 4 am thinking about the soundtrack for Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, for example. If his psychosis isn’t enough, he is married to Kim Kardashian; he is one of music’s gods; he chronically wrecks award shows; he declared his candidacy for the 2020 election; and every one of his comments seems to go viral. Besides, he earns lots of his money (and gratification) acting for the paparazzi, which earns the paparazzi its news revenue, which keeps the reporters coming back for seconds—thus creating a net progressive feedback loop similar to that of Venus’s greenhouse effect.
Whatever “Contemporary Kanye” does, his haters (and the untalented people who call him untalented) will continue to berate him—and that negative energy will continue to fuel his engine, as he warned here: “For every inch they cut the nose off the Sphinx, I make my jeweler add a few more links.” Alas, Kanye ages towards exceptionalism with his every revolution around the sun, like a fine wine.
Don’t mess with Kanye. He will construct an instrument, destruct you with it, and the media will deconstruct his constructed destruction.
Yeezy is the most influential artist in the world, and nobody else is remotely close. Rebuttals to that claim would diffuse significance among a plethora of other big artists—Bob Dylan, Madonna, Thom Yorke, Elton John, Billy Joel, Brian Wilson, Willie Nelson, Paul McCartney, Beyonce, Kendrick Lamar, & the like—but the winning virtues are as follows: Kanye has personally seeded the growth of thousands of musical artists; he vanquishes the limits of “genres,” despite hatching several of them; and the twiddling of his thumbs dictates the workdays of local & mainstream media employees, even if he’s just roasting Wiz Khalifa or complaining about how he “specifically ordered Persian rugs with cherub imagery.” Kanye is the antihero who bangs on the planet’s fourth wall, at will, whether we like it or not; furthermore, in 150 years—when we’re all dead, people are less idiotic, and Yeezy’s personal image is an evanescent past life—his art will still be knocking on the plaster. And if you do not appreciate his music right now, you are wrong.
Immanuel Kant demonstrated that our perceived experiences construct our realities—i.e. everything you experience is subject to your natural interpretations. And if you choose not to penalize Kanye for his congenital insanity in your interpretation of his art, you will end up cherishing everything about him—especially that infamous insanity. You will love the narcissistic, flagrant, & egotistical “international asshole”; you will blissfully churn around the arrogance, openness, provocative art, dull work, raw personality, decorated persona, flamboyance, humility, conformity, anti-establishment, genius, idiocy, ambition, complacency, exaggeration, honesty, utopia, dystopia, questions, & answers that bubble from the eccentric matrix—the celebrity, the career, and the concept—of Kanye West. And behold, nobody, Kanye included, knows what he will do next. We can only sit back, savor his colossal works, and take him with a grain of salt; alas, that itself is the beautiful dark twisted reality of Kanye West.
P.S. Kanye was just announced to have received 8 Grammy nominations for his works in The Life of Pablo. The tally increases yet again.
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