On February 10th 2004, a hip-hop artist called Kanye West released his debut album The College Dropout (TCD). Though a promising young producer for Roc-A-Fella records, many doubted his ability to cut it as a rapper and including a near fatal car crash Kanye would have to overcome a variety of hurdles to achieve his dream of releasing a record.
A decade on from West’s first release and it’s hard to imagine what the music industry, let alone the Hip hop genre, would look or sound like without his considerable creative output. Kanye has released six of the most critically acclaimed albums of the last ten years and influenced an entire new generation of hip hop artists in the process. With this past Wednesday marking ten years since the release of his debut album, I thought It’d be apt to take a brief glance at how he’s evolved over the years and how his past work can help us predict what direction he’ll be heading in next.
From The College Dropout to Yeezus, West has always found a way of making his music contrast greatly from what’s going on around him at the time. The success of his 2004 debut was largely down to the starkly different sounds and themes his music presented. In a period where street anthems populated the radio airwaves across the US, the melodic rhythms and soul sampling tracks of TCD, combined with a focus on themes such as family, the materialism of modern culture and religion, meant that Kanye West was immediately the odd one out.
With Late Registration, West built upon this successful formula with deeply personal tracks such as “Hey Mama” and “Roses” showcasing his effective use of sampling. However, his second album also saw West’s first foray into exploring a more complex sound; working with film composer Jon Brion, LR featured brass and string arrangements that gave the record a symphonic gloss unlike anything in the mainstream genre at the time.
Kanye’s musical evolution only intensified with the release of 2007’s Graduation, marking a significant change in his approach to hip-hop. Using U2’s stadium filling anthems as inspiration, Graduation displayed an artist striving for a more expansive sound and saw West sampling outside of his usual library of soul classics. Abandoning the live instrumentation of LR for surging synth and with the use of reggae, dub, electronica and Euro disco now fair game, Graduation showcased a noticeably different Kanye West.
A sardonically introspective album, the social commentary of West’s earlier work made way for lyrical narratives depicting the beginnings of a new celebrity’s existential crisis; the trap inspired “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” detailing how fame served to exacerbate West’s ego and the length of numerous shopping receipts.
Following the culmination of an emotionally traumatic 2007, Kanye’s fourth album 808s and Heartbreaks marked the artist’s most dramatic musical departure to date. An electro-pop album, primarily sung as opposed to rapped, 808s focussed on themes of despair, loneliness and heartache, with West utilising auto-tune and a TR-808 drum machine to convey his distressed state. The complex sampling of his previous records was replaced with a minimalist approach combining tribal drums and droning synths ; in places the album resembled a post punk record, stereotypical hip hop was nowhere to be found.
Though critically adored, 808s took a while to win over West’s usually faithful demographic, with many repelled by such a drastic change in musical direction, his often-shaky auto-tuned vocals and what was perceived as the album’s mawkish subject matter. Nevertheless, by having the confidence to discuss such topics so openly, 808s helped to lay the stylistic foundations for many of today’s successful hip hop artists, such as Drake, Childish Gambino and Frank Ocean.
In a genre usually reserved for alpha male declarations of wealth and power, Kanye’s existential inspection on 808s and the eventual success of the album showed young hip hop artists they were allowed to be vulnerable.
Kanye returned to focussing on themes of excess and the pressures of fame on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a polished fifth album with dozens of talented collaborators. 2013’s Yeezus however, provided another example of West pushing the boundaries of what he could get away with both sonically and symbolically.
Another exercise in minimalism Yeezus was an album born out of West’s frustration at hitting what he perceived to be a creative glass ceiling with his foray into the fashion industry. Sonically abrasive and raw, Yeezus exhibits elements of dancehall, industrial music and acid house, with a hap hazard sampling style that showed complete disregard for traditional looping sequence in hip hop. With no album artwork or promotion worldwide, Kanye instead broadcasted projections of a live performance of New Slaves across buildings throughout the US. Enlisting the help of Rick Rubin, whom Kanye described as a ‘reducer’ not a producer, any songs deemed overly melodic were left off Yeezus entirely.
In interviews following Yeezus’ release, Kanye stated that he was aware the majority of fans preferred songs like Blood on the Leaves and Bound 2 to the abrasive tracks such as “On Sight” and “Send It Up”, declaring that once he satisfied his creative desires in fashion, his fans would receive the melodic numbers he’d made his name producing.
During an interview with Sirius XFM in late 2013, West claimed that work was already well underway on a new album he hoped to drop in the summer of 2014. With Q-Tip revealing that he is co producing Kanye’s next album along with Rick Rubin and our knowledge of the melodic tracks left off of Yeezus, could the eight track record Kanye discussed at Miami’s Art Basel simply be refined versions of those tracks or a new venture altogether?
It’s unlikely that West would release an album of B-sides, though he does have a record of reclaiming old songs and refining them into formidable album tracks, with examples such as “Homecoming”, “Late” and “Gorgeous”.
Seeing as it looks like West has finally gotten the financial backing he’s craved in the fashion world, has recently become a father and proposed to the ‘woman of his dreams’, it’s highly probable that 2014 could see the overdue release of an upbeat Kanye West album.
Yet given the turbulent years since Graduation’s release, it’s hard to imagine what a content Kanye West record would actually sound like, with some of West’s best material to date being that where he airs his frustrations for all to see. However, with his personal life seemingly locked down, one hopes that Kanye moves away from the introspective output and focuses his energy solely on social commentary, an area where he’s unmatched in the mainstream hip hop industry.
Talking about his impending eight-track project, West remarked “it’s just about reducing down the amount of information you need” and given his often meticulous approach to song design, his eagerly anticipated follow up to Yeezus will hopefully be a case of quality over quantity.