Among the best musical minds of our time

Harrison explores range and impact of Kanye West


Roman Harrison, Columnist

One of the most controversial and influential artists of the 21st century, Kanye West transcends the boundaries and common subject matter of the hip hop genre. West’s music is an art form that embodies his thoughts through music. Collaborating with icons such as Paul McCartney, Jay-Z, Pusha T, and Rihanna, West has become a highly-revered producer. Despite his peculiar personality and controversy surrounding his off stage antics, Kanye will no doubt go down as one of the best musical minds of our time.

Born in Atlanta in June of 1977, West moved to Chicago with his mother, Donda, following her divorce from his father, Ray West, in 1980. Kanye started rapping in the third grade and began composing music in the seventh grade. West entered music production in the mid-1990s, and this is where his style began to develop, including his characteristic of speeding up vocal samples of classic soul tracks. Despite much success producing for various artists, Kanye still aspired to pursue rapping. He was routinely ignored by record executives due to not having the “gangsta image” that many record companies were looking for in rappers.

In 2002, West was involved in a head-on collision with another car after falling asleep at the wheel. His jaw was broken in three places, causing it to be wired shut in surgery. Two weeks after the crash, with his jaw still wired shut, Kanye went to the Record Plant and recorded what has become my personal favorite of his, “Through the Wire,” a powerful song that displays a tremendous amount of emotion. This track laid the framework for his debut album, College Dropout.

College Dropout was nearly a disaster as it was leaked long before its set release date, but ever the optimist, West decided to make lemonade out of the lemons. West improved the album through remixing and refinement, such as adding string arrangements, gospel choirs, and even new verses to some tracks. The down side to this repeated editing was that the release date was postponed three times before finally being issued in February, 2004. The standout track on the album, other than “Through the Wire,” is a track called “Jesus Walks,” which features Kanye taking a marketing gamble by delving into Christianity and faith. The track calls out record executives that felt a song with such a concept should not be in the genre, as compared to a song with more explicit subject matter. West then went on to release two other albums, Late Registration, which includes hit singles “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” “Gold Digger,” “Heard ‘Em Say,” “Touch the Sky,” and “Drive Slow,” and Graduation, with singles “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” “Stronger,” “Good Life,” “Flashing Lights,” and, my personal favorite on the album, “Homecoming,” to create a legendary trilogy. West prepared for Graduation by listening to folk and country musicians Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash in hopes of developing their wordplay in his lyrics. Consisting of uniquely personal subject matter and stellar instrumentation, the first three albums of Kanye’s career are certainly some of his best.

In November of 2007, West’s mother, Donda, died from complications with cosmetic surgery. Months later, Kanye and his fiancée Alexis Phifer ended their relationship. This weighed heavily on him and sparked the idea for the follow-up to Graduation, 808s & Heartbreak. Feeling he could not present his feelings through rapping, Kanye decided to sing using the voice processor Auto-Tune. The singles included are “Love Lockdown,” “Amazing,” “Paranoid,” and the most popular, “Heartless.” Although 808s & Heartbreak initially sold very well, debuting at number one on the Billboard 200 and selling 450,000 copies in the first week, it received mixed reviews from fans, likely due to the songs included sounding very similar. 808s & Heartbreak is certainly a far-cry from his previous work but Kanye West conveys his emotions across through the music, emotions of hurt and loss as well as heartbreak. 808s and Heartbreak is West’s most moody piece and, though I was not personally a fan of it at first it is growing on me as I recognize that the highly saturated vocals represent Kanye’s attempt at trying to conceal his emotions.

Following an incident at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, in which Kanye got on stage during an award announcement, grabbed the microphone, and in the midst of Taylor Swift accepting the award for Best Female Video, he proclaimed that, despite Swift’s victory, Beyoncé still had “one of the best videos of all time,” Kanye devoted himself to fashion, eventually ending up in Hawaii where he began writing and preparing for his next album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It is my personal favorite album and West’s fifth studio album. It is a masterpiece, full of complex instrumentation and mixing, and showcases his skill and the skill of producers and artists he brought in to assist in the making of the album. It presents a considerable contrast from 808s and Heartbreaks which utilized a minimalist sound. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was placed at number seventeen on Rolling Stone’s “Top 500 Albums of All Time.” As I listened to the album in preparation for writing this column, I honestly could not pick four songs to highlight. Instead, I opted to showcase the most powerful songs on the album viewed as Kanye’s comeback, although I would highly recommend listening to the album in its entirety. The tracks I chose are “Runaway,” a complex, almost theatrical track featuring beautiful piano that shows West’s composition skills, “Devil in a New Dress,” which is a call back to some of Kanye’s older work by sampling classic soul tracks and altering and looping them, which he does on this song with Smokey Robinson’s “Will You Love Me Tomorrow?” The final song I chose to highlight is “Blame Game,” featuring John Legend on vocals. The song delves into a relationship and the arguments that the couple goes through, which makes for a very deep and powerful song. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy serves as the crowning jewel in West’s already legendary repertoire.

In 2011 Kanye West released a joint venture with Jay-Z called Watch the Throne, featuring “N***** in Paris,” the album’s highest charting single, peaking at number five on the Hot 100. Creating a solo album to follow up My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is no easy feat. This was obviously on West’s mind when he began his sixth studio album Yeezus and brought in legendary producer Rick Rubin. The album was released on June 19, 2013. Ultimately, Def Jam records, Kanye’s label, issued “Black Skinhead,” the album’s lead single, to radio in July of 2013. Two years later, West released a single with Rhianna and former Beatle, Paul McCartney called “FourFiveSeconds,” a terrific song that I enjoy a considerable amount. In this same year West announced his partnership with Adidas that would facilitate the creation of his Yeezy Boost sneakers.

An album of many names, including SWISH, Yeezus II, and So Help Me God, The Life of Pablo was released in February 2016. It included Rick Rubin’s producing talents as well as a star-studded lineup of artists including Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, and Kendrick Lamar, among others. I enjoy this album a lot. It features one of my personal favorite Kanye songs in “Ultralight Beam.”  Such a powerful album with complex instrumentation and piercing lyrics, featuring singles “Famous,” “Father Stretch My Hands,” and “Fade,” I recommend listening to this album in its entirety. The Life of Pablo was very well received, eventually being certified Double Platinum by the RIAA.

In 2018, Kanye announced two new albums, one, a solo album called Ye, dealt with issues regarding his diagnosis of Bipolar disorder, ultimately calling it his “superpower.” Ye was well received, especially the singles, “Yikes” and “All Mine.” Although relatively short compared to his other works, Ye is still a very good album. The other album announced in 2018 was a joint venture with Kid Cudi called Kids See Ghosts. This album gave us “Reborn,” the best known song off the album.

More recently, Kanye West released Jesus is King in 2019. A Christian hip hop album, it was not well received although it was the first of its kind to top the Billboard 200. Many fans did not like it, which is understandable given they were most likely expecting a second Life of Pablo. It does consist of good music, including complex choir arrangements and heavy synthesizer, although not necessarily exceptional Kanye music, given the level of scrutiny he faces. West is slated to release a tenth studio album later in 2021, Donda, though the release date has been pushed back multiple times already. Many suspect, based on leaks and the listening events he has hosted, that the “old Kanye” is back. I personally am not expecting that. I would like to see him combine his older styling with his new outlook on life, keeping the themes of Jesus is King while utilizing his early techniques of expertly produced music full of samples and guest appearances.

Despite being a very unique personality, Kanye West unmistakably has created music that will long outlast the lives of those who witnessed its release. He will continue experimenting with new techniques and tactics rather than rest on his laurels. Through adversity and hardship, Kanye is truly just Kanye. He always will be.