Artist Spotlight: Kanye West

Kanye West. What a singular artist. No other rap musician has created so many classic albums, each with a unique sound and each so influential in its own way. At the same time, very few figures in any sphere of the entertainment industry have been the source of so much controversy. The VMAs, “BILL COSBY INNOCENT!!!!”, the lyrics to “Famous”, his recent Trump comments… Is Yeezy an egotistical prick, or a misunderstood mad genius? How self-conscious is he? Is he having a breakdown? Is it all an act?

However real it is, one thing is certain: Mr. West has created an incredibly unique body of work. In my view, Kanye’s albums tell a story. It’s the timeless story of the struggle within a man’s soul, the endless war between our inner demons and our better angels. This might sound like a ridiculous way to describe the career of the man who released “Slow Jamz”, but I stand by it. If you really take the time to listen, you might see it too.

Before Kanye was a rapper, he was one of the best producers in the business. He produced many hip-hop tracks, most notably for his friend and mentor Jay-Z, but the one I’ve chosen to illustrate his technical virtuosity is an Alicia Keys song, included below. Notice the use of a vocal sample as a melodic backing track, as this would be a staple of Yeezy’s early years. This love of R&B, along with a knack for stimulating aural pleasure centers, foreshadows the first few Kanye albums very well.
You Don’t Know My Name:

In 2004, Kanye released his first album, The College Dropout. It was a bold move, one that risked his reputation as a producer, but it turned out marvelously. The College Dropout is an album full of youthful energy, musical innovation, and pop appeal. Two songs would become hits: “Slow Jamz” and “Jesus Walks”. However, the two songs I’ve chosen to include as part of the Spotlight are a single that barely charted and a non-single. The first, “The New Workout Plan,” while being extremely misogynist, is one of the most fun, danceable songs Kanye would ever release. There’s also a notable optimistic spirit to it, a certain brightness. You can tell that this guy is going somewhere, or at least thinks he is. It also conveys Kanye’s ability to create more than just a catchy hook—the entire song sticks in your head.

Thanks to Kanye’s workout plan
I’m the envy of all my friends
See I pulled me a baller man
And I ain’t gotta work at the mall again

I’ve chosen “Never Let Me Down” as the second example from this album, as it shows off a lot of the qualities that would be important to Kanye’s later work. For one, the lyrics are rather personal and touching, which has always been one of his strengths. For another, it proves that Kanye has the power to bring out the absolute best in his guest rappers. J. Ivy delivers a mind-blowingly rousing verse, and he’s not even really a rapper. But the real reason i included this song is that it shows the elevated, self-important nature of Kanye’s work at its finest. The stakes are impossibly high.

Yo, first I snatched the streets then I snatched the charts
First I had they ear, now I have their heart
Rappers came and went, I’ve been here from the start
I seen them put it together, watched them take it apart

After Dropout came Late Registration. This is often considered to be the best Kanye album, and on a sheer musical level, it very well might be. The beats and samples are ingenious, each one creating a unique atmosphere for the song. The lyrics are also somewhat more sophisticated and mature than they were on Kanye’s freshman effort. That doesn’t take away from any of the pop genius, though—“Gold Digger” is to this day his biggest hit. What Late Registration does best is creating sheer musical ecstasy from the samples and hooks. For the first example, I’ve chosen “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”. It’s one of Kanye’s first political anthems, but the lyrics also cover some very personal territory for him. (Mixing the individual with the worldly is a recurring theme in his work.)

Throw your diamonds in the sky if you feel the vibe

My second example from this album is “Hey Mama”. I chose this one because it has one of Kanye’s all-time greatest hooks. The sample is sheer beauty, and the lyrics are touching, a far cry from the Kanye you see today. Listening to this, it’s hard to see him as anything other than a tender soul, one with ambition, to be sure, but one who will never lose sight of where he came from. Having this background makes his later work all the more heartbreaking.

Forrest Gump mama said, life is like a box of chocolates
My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate
Somethin to fall back on, you could profit with
But still supported me when I did the opposite

Kanye finished out the “College Trilogy” with Graduation, his tightest record yet (no skits, unlike the first two), and yet, somehow, his slightest. The album mostly hits one emotional note: “triumphant”. It hits that note very well, but it lacks the sheer breadth that made his first two albums bona fide classics. That said, there are still some very good songs on Graduation, one of which is the Daft Punk-sampling “Stronger”. It’s very much an ego song, but there’s still a certain innocence to it. Kanye is more serious than before, but he’s still a likable guy.

You know how long I’ve been on ya?
Since Prince was on Apollonia
Since O.J. had isotoners
Don’t act like I never told ya

And now for something completely different. After Kanye’s mother died and his engagement was broken off, he retreated from hip-hop. His fourth record, 808s and Heartbreak, is full of melancholy pop, all filtered through Auto-Tune, which lends it a chilling emotional distance. Full of Casio keyboards and drum machines, with little prominent sampling, this was his simplest record so far when it was released. However, it’s arguably his most emotionally powerful to this day. The lyrics spoke of despair and loss, as well as the omnipresent Heartbreaker—the evil woman who serves as the target of Kanye’s misogyny, (most notably in the #1 hit “Heartless”). The bleakness of 808s is distilled in the record’s penultimate song, “Coldest Winter”. Gone is the energetic young soul with a bright, happy future.

It’s 4am and I can’t sleep
Her love is all that I can see
Memories made in the coldest winter
Goodbye my friend, will I ever love again?
Memories made in the coldest winter

This record contains the much-overlooked “Amazing”, whose themes would foreshadow much of the next Kanye album, which was to be his greatest. “Amazing” is an ego song in part, but it’s also full of self-doubt. It’s the first time Kanye acknowledges his dark side. The inner conflict here is a perfect microcosm of the Kanye metanarrative.

I’m a monster, I’m a killer
I know I’m wrong
I’m a problem
That’ll never ever be solved
And no matter what, you’ll never take that from me
My reign is as far as your eyes can see

Two years after 808s, Kanye made his triumphant return to the rap scene. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been hailed as one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, and one of the twenty-first century’s best in any genre. The album’s production adopts a maximalist ethos, giving it a high-stakes feel and creating a lush, immersive listening experience. While it wasn’t a commercial smash like the College Trilogy, there were some successful singles off of it. One of these was “POWER”, a self-obsessed banger with lyrics covering all sorts of topics. (The song samples King Crimson’s “21st Century Schizoid Man”, which raises some interesting questions about prog rock’s influence on this album, but this isn’t the place for that.) Listening to this, you might think that the dark side that first showed its face on 808s has completely won out.

I’m living in the 21st century doin’ something mean to it
Do it better then anybody you ever seen do it
Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it
I guess every superhero need his theme music

However, there’s a little bit of self-consciousness left. “Blame Game” is a heartbreaking portrayal of a broken relationship, full of nothing but humility and self-flagellation (other than the bizarre coda). The struggle between these two sides of Kanye permeates the album, creating a fascinating story. Whether it’s genuine or not is beside the point; the fact is that it’s uniquely and intensely human.

Things used to be, now they not
Anything but us is who we are
Disguising ourselves as secret lovers
We’ve become public enemies
We walk away like strangers in the street
Gone for eternity
We erased one another
So far from where we came

The album comes together with a grand finale called “Lost in the World”, which sees Kanye achieving a kind of musical and personal nirvana. It’s free from both ego and self-flagellation, and carries a powerful message about the trappings of fame and fortune. It’s also the most melodically beautiful track he has recorded to this day.

If we die in each other’s arms
Still get laid in the afterlife

Kanye’s next album was a collaboration with Jay Z, called Watch the Throne and while it was a step down from Fantasy, it’s nonetheless full of very good over-the-top glam rap. One of the greatest songs, and the biggest single, is called “N-words in Paris”. It’s an outright gleeful track; Kanye’s ego has clearly won out over his humility. He knows he rules the world, and he revels in it.

Yeezy’s next move is one no one would expect. Almost two years after Watch the Throne, he released an album full of electro, acid house, and industrial beats that formed the minimalist antithesis to Fantasy. (It also brought the return of the eclectic vocal samples that characterized early Kanye.) It was called Yeezus, and there was a track called “I Am a God”. Kanye appears here as an outright villain, angry and aggressive, but he has some legitimate points to make. The most political song on the album, typifying the aforementioned legitimate points, is called “New Slaves”. Kanye appears here as Magneto, a ruthless man who will do anything it takes to free his people (in this case, from the cages of commercialism and the prison-industrial complex).

My momma was raised in the era when
Clean water was only served to the fairer skin
Doing clothes you would have thought I had help
But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself

Along with the political, Yeezus contains a strong strain of the sexual. But these are not makeout songs á la “Slow Jamz”. Songs like “I’m In It”, included below, are complete sonic nightmares—nearly repulsive, yet somehow mesmerizing. Kanye’s ego is on full show here—he knows what he wants and will take it by any means necessary.

They don’t play what I’m playing
They don’t see what I’m saying
They be balling in the D-League
I be speaking Swaghil

The sexual and political threads of the album are united in the record’s pinnacle, Blood on the Leaves. This is the angriest song Kanye has ever recorded, and in a way, the saddest. Accompanied by a Nina Simone sample, Kanye puts his hatred of the world on full display, and you can tell that this is the song of a broken man.

Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side
Gotta keep ’em separated, I call that apartheid
Then she said she impregnated, that’s the night your heart died
Then you gotta go and tell your girl and report that
Main reason cause your pastor said you can’t abort that
Now your driver say that new Benz you can’t afford that
All that cocaine on the table you can’t snort that
That going to that owing money that the court got
On and on that alimony, uh, yeah yeah, she got you homie, yeah
‘Til death but do your part, uh, unholy matrimony

The light has not gone out, though. There are strains of redemption in Kanye’s newest album, The Life of Pablo, which was billed as a “gospel rap” album. While Pablo doesn’t fully live up to that label, there are prominent traces of its attempt to reach it, particularly in the opening track, “Ultralight Beam”. “Ultralight Beam” is a track filled with bursts of silence, which ring louder than any noise. The construction is piecemeal, with some minimal lyrics from Kanye, a gospel choir, and an all-time great verse from Chance the Rapper. It shows Kanye returning to his religious roots (“Jesus Walks”), but more than anything, it sets a heightened tone for the rest of the album. Nothing is more important. This is a god dream. This is everything.

I’m trying to keep my faith
But I’m looking for more
Somewhere I can feel safe
And end my holy war

While the light in Kanye’s soul has not stopped shining, the darkness hasn’t backed down either. On Pablo, Kanye’s ego, aloofness, and cruelty reach comical levels, best exemplified on the single “Famous”. Kanye plays an expert provocateur (one of his most adept roles) here, stating “I feel like me and Taylor might still have sex”. The song is musically beautiful, providing an odd-yet-fascinating contrast to the crude misogyny of the lyrics.

Put one up in the sky
The sun is in my eyes, whoo!
Woke up and felt the vibe, whoo!
No matter how hard they try, whoo!
We never gonna die

Finally, here’s a rundown of his entire career on piano, if you’re into that kind of thing.

Kanye West is a multifaceted artist, one whose talent is undeniable, but one who often makes himself difficult to like. Is that the point?