On February 10th 2004, Chicago-born artist Kanye West released his debut album, The College Dropout. Sitting in at twenty-one tracks, spanning over an hour in length, and jam-packed full of features including Ludacris (‘Breathe in, Breathe Out’) and Jay-Z (‘Never Let Me Down’), the hip-hop epic announced a new name in the industry. The College Dropout commenced a sequence of hit singles, including the luscious acoustic ballad ‘All Falls Down’ and the polemical protest song ‘Jesus Walks’. The diversity of these tracks, underpinned with production skills that West achieved from his pre-stardom “5 beats a day for 3 summers” lifestyle, further demanded recognition from critics.
Such was this critical reception that the album gained itself two Grammy nominees for Best Album and Best Rap Album, the latter of which West was victorious. As is referenced in the final track, ‘Last Call’, Kanye’s journey had been anything but straightforward. Met with rejection from several labels, including notoriously from Capitol Records, the profound success of the album rang sweeter under the notion that it was something West had worked on for many years and with many collaborators.
Yeezus continues to divide fans to this day
A soulful feather in the Chi-town artist’s cap, The College Dropout is today often bunched alongside West’s ‘old’ persona. By the time Kanye confronted this identity in his playful meta track, ‘The Old Kanye’ from his seventh album The Life of Pablo (2016), comparisons between the artist’s ‘old’ discography and his more recent, experimental releases had already been rife among fans and critics. For West, the “old Kanye” almost exclusively referred to his soul samples (think Lauryn Hill’s ‘Mystery of Iniquity’ guitar sample in ‘All Falls Down’ or Chaka Khan’s powerful vocals featuring in ‘Through the Wire’), and altogether more harmonic rapping style.
These archetypal features began loosening around the time of third album Graduation (2007), where Kanye flirted with the computerised sounds of French electro heavyweights Daft Punk, particularly, in his 2007 hit ‘Stronger’. Not only this, but in the release of the sombre 808s & Heartbreaks Kanye dominated his tracks with the instrument cited in the album’s title, the 808 drum machine. Bold, hyper-digitised beats symbolised an artist who had exhausted his musical resources and, by extension, his emotional palette. In a five-year period, West had faced the death of his mother, Donda West, and the breakdown of his engagement with the model Amber Rose.
Whilst 808s reflected on these hardships, West’s following release, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2009) was a brash and outspoken record that merged a myriad of styles that Ye had built up across his career. Synth, soul piano and hard-hitting drum beats signalled an artist at the height of his powers, and in a space where the lines between experimentation and innovation were forever being crossed. It is perhaps to no surprise that West’s provocative sixth album Yeezus (2013) ramped these pathways to dizzying heights. A self-proclaimed ‘God’, as the fifth track of the album declared, this work pioneered the persona that many see as the ‘new’ Kanye; arrogant, self-aware and, above all, unapologetic.
Outspoken genius? Or simply careless provocateur? Yeezus continues to divide fans to this day, as is also the case for West’s most recent releases The Life of Pablo, Kanye’s second longest release to his debut album, and last year’s Ye, the shortest release in the artist’s discography at only twenty-nine minutes long. What pervades the critical reception of these two albums is an unfortunate lack of focus from Mr. West. A potential explanation resides in Kanye’s continual discussions of his mental health challenges, particularly, with bipolar disorder. Though Kanye speaks of this condition as a “superpower” in track ‘Yikes’, West’s ambivalent political involvement with Republican President, Donald Trump, has raised warning signs for fans. How can the same Kanye who declared that former president George W. Bush didn’t care about black people at the wake of Hurricane Katrina now sign himself off to a man who some view as racist?
It is with this conflicting brush that Kanye is often tarred. Far gone are the days of the soul samples and narrative skits that characterised ‘old Kanye’ yet, so too have we forgotten a solely hip-hop driven Ye. With recent work being firmly in the production chair, working on hit albums like Pusha T’s Daytona and Nas’ Nasir over the summer, could another ‘new Kanye’ be emerging? Nonetheless, with a diverse discography, spread across both vocal and production credits, West’s legacy reflects an artist who is more complex than two musical personas, but instead one who continues to defy categorisation.