14.06.13

Digging deep: Kanye’s sharp edge

Kanye West is about to release his sixth album. He’s called it ‘Yeezus’ and projected himself performing the first track on buildings across the world. Eyes roll, people laugh a bit and reel out the line about Kanye being a megalomaniac. But no – Kanye’s actually made an album about social injustice that sounds a bit like minimalist nu-metal, new wave or house, features contributions from Chicago street rappers King Louie and Chief Keef and electronic artists like Daft Punk, TNGHT and, most unexpectedly, Arca.

Direct, angry and explicitly political music may be a switch for the superstar rapper, but it certainly isn’t a total surprise. Kanye West’s whole career has been marked by a complicated social concern and an almost evangelical desire to push style and sound. ‘Yeezus’ looks set to highlight an anger at the still-skewed race relations in America and the enlisting of Rick Rubin as executive producer to reduce the record can be seen as a conceptual progression of his well-known grandiose production. “You came to turn it up/I’m ‘bout to tear shit down”, he says on New Slaves – concisely showing a move away from hedonism and sonic excess past and present. 

We’ve picked ten, roughly chronological moments in his discography and history that show that confrontation, forward-thinking collaborations and a nagging conscience are nothing new to Kanye West.

  1. Kanye West – Gossip Files (2003)
    ‘Freshmen Adjustment’ is an unofficial collection of demos and early tracks compiled and released just after the success of ‘College Dropout’. Many of the tracks are sketches and skeletons of later singles – most notably Hey Mama – and Kanye’s underdog spirit and the fierce self-confidence is clear from the off. On Gossip Files (sometimes titled Dream Killers) he riles at unsupportive teachers, nosey neighbours and relatives, bum friends and close-minded industry people – basically anyone that doubts his vision: “they are the virus that corrupts the soul/they are the cubic zirconia in the 10 carat gold/that get green on you/when you get green on them”. It also features an earlier and less pointed incarnation of the “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” line from New Slaves.
  2. Jay-Z ft. Kanye West – The Bounce (2002)
    Working up to the position of an in-house producer at the height of Roc-a-Fella’s power during the early 2000’s was good, but Kanye always had dreams of being an artist all of his own. His work alongside Just Blaze on Jay-Z’s ‘The Blueprint’ helped craft one of the most lauded albums in hip-hop history and “adjusted the game so easy” according to Jay here, and the sequel album a year later gave Kanye West his chance on the mic. The boast “took over the game/brought back the soul” stands in terms of his production but his full emergence as a rapper was still to come.
  3. Kanye West ft. Syleena Jones – All Falls Down (2004)
    In his recent interview with the New York Times Kanye cited the political group Dead Prez and rappers Mos Def and Talib Kweli as key to his artistic development; giving him the motivation and tools to craft the trademark soul sound. He apparently honed his ability to make raps with a message sound cool to the point that he could finish All Falls Down in fifteen minutes. His measured but pointed flow combined the socially conscious and accessible, introducing the Kanye that many fans still reminisce about today. ‘College Dropout’ was about the self-aware outsider eyeing up the hallowed inner sanctums of stardom and his ability to embody that desire and reflect on its little pitfalls with honesty – “we’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it” – and humour – “she couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexis” – helped make it a winner. This MTV Diary from the period shows the divergent pulls of “splurging tremendously” at the Polo store and representing the local youth he still closely identifies with. The film was subtitled “A Backpack Rapper’s Delight” but it’s clear that Kanye’s vision was far from modest.
  4. Kanye West ft. Cam’ron and Consequence – Gone (2005)
    Kanye West got in contact with record producer and composer Jon Brion after hearing his score for the film ‘Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind’ and asked him to help him on his second album. Brion agreed and the pair shaped the grand, orchestral ‘Late Registration’. Gone was originally built as the album closer and builds from a simple drum beat and soul sample to a string arrangement, with Kanye returning for an incredible final verse that charts his ascent but still jars with the “the powers that be won’t let me get my ideas out”. The lush ornamentation is a sign of both Kanye’s rising status and a powerful reminder of the high stakes he plays with when he does things like enlisting someone with no track record in the genre to co-produce his sophomore album.
  5. Kanye West – Can’t Tell Me Nothing (2007)
    ‘Graduation’ is Kanye’s celebratory lap. The lead single Can’t Tell Me Nothing wasn’t a global success like Stronger or Good Life but, backed by veteran co-producer DJ Toomp and Young Jeezy’s Atlanta brawn, Kanye scored his first street anthem demonstrated defiance with abandon – accepting fame with a steely determination.
  6. Young Jeezy ft. Kanye West – Put On (2008)
    Things sadly didn’t last. Shortly after ‘Graduation’ was released Kanye’s mother (and also manager) died unexpectedly and he finally broke off with his on-off partner of six years a few months afterwards too. His feature verse on Young Jeezy’s single Put On shows the cracks in the neon-bright braggadocio of ‘Graduation’ and candidly details how empty he feels: “I-I-I-I-I’m so lonely” crooned in an Auto-Tune voice.
  7. Kanye West – Pinocchio Story (2008)
    The pain in that verse grew into the album ’808s & Heartbreak’ – an astounding effort that scrubbed away much of what Kanye was known for previously – the big warm beats, the impassioned delivery – for cold, minimal electro. He pitched 808 drums, de-humanized his voice and mourned a hollow life at the top – in front of hundreds of thousands. Pinocchio Story is a hidden track recorded at a show in Singapore (the sort of live freestyle rant he’s become famous for) and he figures himself as the fictional puppet lost without a Geppetto figure but cursed by his inability to tell lies.
  8. Kanye West – Dark Fantasy (2010)
    Kanye West holed himself up in a Hawaii studio for six months to make his hugely ambitious fifth album ‘My Beautiful Dark Fantasy’. More stung by the negative press surrounding the infamous 2009 VMA interruption than numbed like he was with ’808s & Heartbreak’, he flew in his most trusted and respected collaborators to make his biggest statement to date. Dark Fantasy opens with appropriate drama and circumstance but, in truth, the album’s attempt at a grand social message is secondary to the sheer musical scope (this track alone is produced by West, his mentor No I.D., his close collaborator Jeff Bhasker, Mike Dean and the RZA) and the will of the man at its centre; jokingly self-referred to as “just a Chi Town nigga with a nice flow”.
  9. The Throne – Made in America (2011)
    Following on from the momentum of ‘My Beautiful Dark Fantasy’ by reuniting with Jay-Z as a fellow icon, ‘Watch the Throne’ was about what it means to be an African-American icon today. Joyous like Otis, aggressive like Niggas in Paris or nostalgic and sincere like Made in America – a ballad invoking the previous generations who fought for Civil Rights and raised them. Always the more abrasive of the pair, Kanye’s story is more intense than Jay-Z’s, a description of his climb to the top of the music world ending with a brash statement of intent.
  10. The “DONDA” rant (2012)
    In the early hours of the morning last January, Kanye took to Twitter for an 85-post outburst outlining his huge creative vision. It was centred around a design company called DONDA which would bring together a range of artists and thinkers in a multi-divisional group set up “to make products and experiences that people want and can afford [and] help simplify and aesthetically improve everything we see hear, touch, taste and feel.” His proclamations were widely mocked (though he has delivered on some of his ideas like the seven-screen cinema experience, debuted at last year’s Cannes Film Festival) but the outburst clearly showed were his mind is. Emphasizing his strength in connectivity and bringing together the best minds to directly effect the world, he echoed ideas behind his intensive “rap camp” collaborative recording sessions, his work G.O.O.D Music label head and the determination to circumvent the traditional release schedule and pare ‘Yeezus’ down to a sharp point.

‘Yeezus’ is released on June 18th 2013.