Hip-hop Indoctrination: Kanye West's meandering saga

    I was raised on rock 'n' roll and in high school decided to investigate the mysterious genre that is rap music. Now I love the genre, and Hip-hop Indoctrination is a column designed to help spread that love with others. So whether you're new to the rap game or are just looking for a refresher course, stay tuned for the most seminal artists in the genre's storied history.

    You know the Kanye West story by now. Don’t we all? Young hotshot producer tries his hand at rapping with the backing of genre legends – most notably Jay-Z – and is startlingly successful, before committing a series of PR stunts killing his image and eventually making a couple brilliant comeback albums to cement his legacy in the hip-hop canon. It’s a mouthful, and Kanye probably wouldn’t have it any other way.

    But I jumped into the Kanye West saga at its first true pinnacle. It was September 2007 and Kanye was gearing up for his third album’s release; Graduation was going to be one of the greatest things to ever happen to hip-hop, according to Mr. West, and he publically bet 50 Cent that whichever MC sold the fewest copies of their new album – dropping on the same day – would drop out of the rap game. Rolling Stone ran a cover with the two head-to-head and reviewed the two albums side-by-side; I vowed to buy whichever one came out on top, and it was Graduation, by a lot.

    I had never bought a hip-hop album before, and my entry into the genre was guided by the opinions of middle-aged white men – a weird introduction, but one that definitely paid off. Why? Because Graduation is one of the best rap albums to come out in recent memory and captures Kanye in a nutshell: obnoxious egoist, passable lyricist and brilliant producer.

    Still, it’s essential to look at Kanye’s rise to hip-hop dominance. He did it the old fashioned way – years of hard work – but took the producing route rather than freestyling night after night. Production is the feather in Kanye’s cap and is a topic he repeatedly comes back to in his lyrics.  His big break was producing some of the best tracks on Jay-Z’s 2001 classic The Blueprint.

    After Jay took him under his tutelage, West got to work on his debut, The College Dropout. The record was already controversial when it came out in 2004, garnering praise for Kanye’s revolutionary production style (see: conspicuous use of Auto-Tune in pop music) but also attracting criticism because of the MC’s lyrical shortcomings. It’s true: Kanye doesn’t possess the hard knock stories of Jay-Z or Eminem’s lyrical gifts.

    Then Kanye exploded. In August 2005, West released Late Registration, a staggeringly ambitious album that was close to perfect sonically (thanks in part to production help from Jon Brion) and had the rhymes to match. Late Registration featured immaculate guest spots from Lupe Fiasco, Common and Jay-Z – West is notorious for pushing his guests to perform their best – and showed Kanye’s lyricism growing, especially with the deeply personal “Hey Mama.” When Kanye was in the news days after the album’s release for accusing George W. Bush of hating black people in Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, the press only spread the word about Late Registration and helped push “Gold Digger” to the top of the charts.

    From Late Registration Kanye’s public life spiraled out of control, at least from a media perspective – but since he continued to produce high caliber music his self-centered ravings had retained some credence. Part of what makes Graduation great is Kanye’s unabashed love of himself. Songs like “Stronger” and “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” were boastful in completely new ways because West wasn’t rhyming about slinging drugs or running the streets; he was bragging about buying the swankiest designer brands and getting recognized at New York’s Fashion Week.

    Eccentricity and ego are the two factors that have driven West’s career since Graduation. In the effort to shake the rappers who were after his musical style, West changed gears with 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak, an album he described as more of a work of pop artistry that hip-hop prowess. The album was Kanye’s coping mechanism for the death of his mother and his high profile separation with fiancée Alexis Phifer.

    808s dropped the day after I got my wisdom teeth removed, and I asked my mom to pick me up a copy from the record store. The album didn’t exactly cheer me up, and critics felt the same way, giving it mediocre reviews in comparison with West’s earlier work. The fizzle of 808s was followed months later by Kanye’s infamous “Imma let you finish” fit at the MTV Video Music Awards (if you somehow missed that seminal moment in pop culture history, relive it here) and like that one of the genre’s most important figures began to fade into the annals of America’s collective memory.

    Kanye laid low for months, and just when it seemed that he might be done for good, the MC started taking small steps back into the spotlight. First came the Twitter account, then the subtle acknowledgements that he had in fact been in the wrong when it came to the Taylor Swift incident, and then the murmurs that West was in Hawaii recording a new album. In late summer of 2010 Kanye kicked it up a notch, starting the G.O.O.D Friday series: a new song every week, featuring eminent hip-hop names like Common and Jay-Z and garnering nearly universal acclaim. Kanye was back, and with the blessings of both hip-hop royalty and music critics across the country.

    In his newly resurrected career, ‘Ye has already erected two of hip-hop’s greatest recent accomplishments: his solo magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and his collaboration with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne. The two stand in stark contrast, with Fantasy acting as a candid look inside Kanye’s tortured soul and Throne functioning as a self-promoting testament to decadence and musical glory. Like the G.O.O.D. Friday series, Fantasy featured an all-star lineup of guests, including Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, a notable Gil Scott-Heron sample and a Chris Rock comedy bit, in addition to the typical rap greats. Fantasy and Throne both showcase West’s producing skills, showing the MC’s willingness to think outside the box as well as his penchant for classic R&B.

    Kanye has had his ups and downs and certainly has his weaknesses – if you’re looking for the slickest rhymes around he isn’t your guy. But from an accessibility perspective, he’s unparalleled, mainly because his recordings are well-rounded and focus on musical production as well as lyricism. This makes West an excellent starting point in anybody’s hip-hop journey.


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