This week alone, Kanye West has kicked off a tour (whilst standing atop a mountain on the stage and incorporating a Jesus lookalike), postponed the next date of said tour, caused a ruckus with said tour’s merchandise, oh and he’s proposed to Kim Kardashian as well. Standard fare then, for Kanye, whose career has been littered with a plethora of controversies, universal acclaim and some pretty crazy rants. Behind it all, however, is a man so devoted to his art he often gets caught up in the whirlwinds it provokes. As recent album Yeezus proves, West is an artist committed to invigorating and reinventing himself. The erratic tendencies of the man often, unfortunately, overshadow his fine musical output. Luckily for you, fan or no fan, we’ve put together a comprehensive collection of entry points from which to appreciate and enjoy Kanye for what he is, an artist. It’s even in chronological order because, you know, we like you.
Izzo (H.O.V.A.): Not a Kanye song, no, but Jay-Z’s The Blueprint is an album often credited with giving Kanye the platform to achieve what he has gone on to do since. Working as a producer on a number of the tracks on the album, ‘Izzo’ bares all the hallmarks of Kanye’s production styles. The pitched up sample of The Jackson 5 and the incredibly jovial string section are just two examples of Kanye bringing his sound to the party and making it work. What West effectively achieved here was getting his name out there. Jay-Z was, and still is, one of the biggest names in the hip-hop world, meaning West’s affiliation with this comeback album was always going to bode well.
Through The Wire: The build up to the release of The College Dropout was a bit shaky to say the least. The album was leaked months before its release, prompting Kanye to head back into the studio and remaster the whole thing, delaying the release of the album for longer than his label would care to think about. This track, as you’ll see in the video, is the beating heart of the album despite being placed toward the end of the track list. Again, as you’ll see in the video, Kanye was in a car crash that almost killed him in 2002. His jaw was wired shut, seemingly signalling the end of his ambition to become a rapper (he had on multiple occasions been denied record deals, with labels unwilling to take a risk on someone they saw as a producer first and foremost. A mere few weeks after going into hospital, this track was recorded, displaying West’s intent and forming a more than solid foundation from which he could go on to create his debut, an album that would redefine and shape contemporary hip-hop from a multitude of perspectives.
Jesus Walks: Limiting this to one track per album would be asking a bit much, wouldn’t it? On ‘Through The Wire’, the world was introduced to a Kanye West full of ambition, belying concerns over his physical health in order to attain his dream. That passion is just as alive here in ‘Jesus Walks’ and we get a first glance at the snarling, menacing Ye who isn’t afraid to tackle taboo subjects. Racism and religion are the two most obvious thematic inclusions on the track, but West isn’t just rapping about them for the sake of rapping about them. He has a voice and he really wants it to be heard, even referencing Happy Gilmore in a line about white supremacy and the way black Americans are often addressed by the authorities: “They be asking us questions, harass and arrest us/Saying “we eat pieces of shit like you for breakfast”/Huh? Y’all eat pieces of shit? What’s the basis?” Also, hear that Auto-Tune in and around the chorus? Yeah, he’s always been ahead of the game.
Touch The Sky: Ah, the difficult second album. Apparently, for Kanye West, difficult isn’t a thing, as proven here in ‘Touch The Sky’. Sampling Curtis Mayfield’s ‘Move On Up’, this track also introduced the world to Lupe Fiasco, who chimes in with a pretty killer verse. I suppose enlisting Pamela Anderson to star in the song’s music video wasn’t a bad shout either. Made as a homage to Evil Knievel, the video has some kind of Instagram filter on it and works as a great nod to the 70s. This track, and indeed the whole of ‘Late Registration’ is the sound of an artist really spreading his wings and testing his capabilities, all whilst incorporating the pop sensibilities that would ensure he would sell records and garner an absolutely rave critical reception.
Hey Mama: This is Kanye’s tribute to, yep, his mama and offers a real, unflinching glimpse at the man behind the music. The track is up there with Kanye’s best, which makes it so hard to write about, because everything that needs to be said is said in the song. This performance is from 2008, the year after Kanye’s mother died. Just see for yourself, it’s absolutely shattering.
Stronger: So where do you go after two massively successful albums? Pop, obviously. Kanye went full on chart-topping crazy for third album Graduation. ‘Stronger’ is the obvious pick of the bunch. Sampling Daft Punk, the track propelled Kanye to new levels of exposure and confirmed his place on the pedestal of modern rap music, as well as ushering in huge crossover appeal by penning collaborations with the likes of Coldplay’s Chris Martin on ‘Homecoming’. Lyrically, ‘Stronger’ finds Kanye at his most egotistical and flashy (bow in the presence of greatness/’cause right now thou has forsaken us/you should be honoured by my lateness/that I would even show up to this fake shit), but that doesn’t detract from the music, instead reinforcing the confidence and bravado that Kanye deservedly gathered as a direct result of his previous releases.
Street Lights: After Graduation, tragedy struck with the death of Kanye’s mother. As well as this, his fiancee left him and it’s safe to say he went through a rough time. Adopting singing via Auto-Tune, West released 808s & Heartbreak less than a year after Graduation. Recorded in less than three weeks, the album is the most personal and introspective work of Kanye’s career, with the prominence of heartbreak and tragedy very much at the fore. Despite having a polarising effect on fans and critics alike, 808s is now regarded as some of his finest work and its influence upon contemporary music is plain to see. This track, ‘Street Lights’ is one of the most profound and emotionally affecting tracks he’s ever done. A looping vocal hook goes round and round, perpetuating the themes present in the song: monotony, fate, insignificance. West claims to know his destination in the lyrics but what he’s really saying is the complete opposite, which is why his words just keep repeating themselves almost autonomously. The lush backing vocals and ethereal textures are what really make this track. It might not jump out on you on your first listen, but repeated listening reaps incredible reward from a track that is hopeful, melancholic and, most importantly, reflective of a man who is at a loss to explain his circumstances. Once understood, it’s an absolutely heartbreaking piece of introspection and self-doubt that should be revered for years to come.
Runaway: Kanye has hailed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as his perfect album and you’d be hard pressed to disagree. Full of grandeur and an essence of nobility, the album flirts with West’s position in the world of celebrity culture and how he is adjusting to his status. At this point in his career, Kanye knew that he could make any album he wanted, so why not make a perfect album? The centrepiece is ‘Runaway’, a delicate, piano led, 9 minute epic that pushes Kanye’s music towards a mythological, literary piece of art that deals with the themes of power and the corruption it brings. Again, this is Kanye at his passionate best. This is an artist at the top of his game, as proven by the fact he can include a crazy-long vocoder solo and make it sound beautiful, not to mention the accompanying video to the song which features some incredible ballet work, fully complimenting the devastating delicacy of the track (the video is an excerpt from the film ‘Runaway’ which was made in support of the album, watch that here).
Black Skinhead: What better way to follow up your perfect album than to shout a big fuck you to every expectation and prejudicial views that the world had on Kanye? Yeezus is Kanye as an auteur, unaffected by what the critics might say or what his fans might think. As an album, it lacks cohesion, it’s stylistically all over the place and tackles issues that are frankly way too serious to ever be taken on by a radio show. Does that bother Kanye? No, of course not. ‘Black Skinhead’ is ferocious. Industrial drums lend a tribal instinct to the track as Kanye snarls and screams his way through politics, sex, race and something about the Romans and I’ll tell you what, it’s absolutely great.
Bound 2: This performance of ‘Bound 2’ just speaks for itself. The cultural references (“start a fight club Brad reputation” is one of my favourite lines on Yeezus), Charlie Wilson’s pipes and West’s excellent delivery combine to perpetuate everything that’s great about Kanye. This is another one of those performances that just speaks for itself, so I’ll stop trying to do it justice.
That just about rounds that up nicely. It’s like we’ve been on a journey isn’t it? I hope after reading this you’ll agree with this Raccoon that Kanye is one of the most influential entertainers of our generation. He may not always say or do the right things, but his idiosyncratic approach to music is one that should be lauded and appreciated, whether you’re a fan or not. Now, enjoy this gif of Kanye saying sorry (he isn’t sorry).