Hood Phenomenon, The Lebron Of Rhyme

I had to write a (re:this) research paper a few weeks ago on a topic of my choosing. Obviously I wrote about Kanye West. For those that didn’t know, yesterday marked the 5th anniversary of his 5th album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. For those who don’t know, it’s the greatest album of all time. And for those who don’t know, my prof gave me an F. She’s probably a Taylor Swift fan. Anywhoo, I used parts of our Yeezy roundtable and added some pretty pictures incase your averse to reading and just want to look cultured, complicated and cool. -Thomas

[UPDATE] She’s a Fleetwood Mac fan. Go figure.

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One of the five covers done by artist George Condo. The rest will fill up black space for the rest of the article.

Rap has always been maligned with the less charming aspects of its culture. Tropes of violence and hedonism acted as fuel for it to chug through hoods where warfare was conventional. It was conceived in the ghetto, where beats and breaks provided brief respite from bullets. But rap has evolved. No longer just an Eden from gang warfare, its now a utopia for the most expansive creative movement of our time. Rap has transformed into an amorphous, all-encompassing art form, radically altering our cultural landscape. At the forefront of this renaissance is Kanye West. Either directly developing ulterior lanes for it to flow, indirectly by pervasive influence or through brute force of his conviction, West has brought about seismic change in, and continues to do so. He has called himself “the nucleus” of culture. But he’s more than that. He is the culture. Kanye West is THE zeitgeist.

His influence seems to know no bounds. In a glowing review for his fifth album, Matthew Cole of Slant Magazine said Kanye has “spent the last decade or so pushing himself and his fans to come to terms with a vision of hip-hop so wildly expansive that it could annex whole genres, swing to any mood, freely mix piety and pitch-black humor with snarkiness and swag.” That’s not hyperbole. Since the late aughts, the sounds he has created have defined the following few years of commercial dominance. He single handedly brought sampling[1] back to the peak of rap production. He redefined what a rapper could be, snatching what was a genre ripe with gangsters and violence from 50 Cent and molding it in his image. He created a new era of rap where artists were able to critique the world, not simply abiding by it. He made it possible to be aware. His fourth album, 808’s & Heartbreak has quietly gone on to become the most influential album of the century. It became the alternative to a “shoot first ask questions later” mentality; emotive, passionate, morose. Sonically, the cold atmosphere of his post-agony ballads swept a path closely followed by artists like J Cole, The Weeknd, Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco and Drake, all superstars in their own right, not to mention countless lesser imitators. His G.O.O.D. Fridays campaign, where he would release a new song online once a week, has spawned enumerable strategies, none of which have been remotely as victorious. His lowest selling album is well into Platinum status[2].

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Artwork for the “Power” single.

Never has another hip-hop artist had such a hand in the juxtaposition of the genre’s duel between the common good and megalomania. Of his six-album catalogue, three hold positions in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums Of All Time[3]. The cynical humorous and wildly radical College Dropout, dripping in nostalgic soul, forward thinking in its dialogue. The lush Late Registration, where his angst and growing frustration sit atop some of the most grand arrangements rap has ever seen. His magnum opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF), where all concepts of restraint and caution are stripped away in favor of hubris and anger. Disillusioned student, to superstar. Affluent one-percenter to marginalized minority. With each subsequent release, West has cast away his former aesthetic in order to adopt another. Usually one more progressive than the last.

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His reverence goes far beyond the infinite borders of rap though. He was named a Titan[4] by Time Magazine in their 2015 list of The 100 Most Influential People In The World. He said: “Kanye does think. Constantly. About everything. And he wants everybody else to do the same: to engage, question, push boundaries. Now that he’s a pop-culture juggernaut, he has the platform to achieve just that. He’s not afraid of being judged or ridiculed in the process.” Acclaimed director of 12 Years A Slave, Steve McQueen has said of him: “Over the course of [his] sustained creative run—an almost unprecedented one in the world of urban music, which thrives off constant novelty—West has perhaps done more than any other hip-hop artist to bring the bold experimentation and cathartic emotional energy of rock ‘n’ roll to rap.” His business deals with Nike, and now Adidas, have led to record breaking results.[5] His directorial debut, Runaway, which he co-wrote received rave reviews, dubbed one of the greatest music videos ever.

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As great as his devotion has grown, his detractors and critics are nearly as impassioned. His constant run-ins with the media, some of which have regressed to violence, and aloof attitude have dealt him a great deal of controversy. Jon Carmicana referred to him as: “a frequent lightning rod for controversy, a bombastic figure who can count rankling two presidents among his achievements.” It’s been proven true, on many occasion. He’s received flack from any mentionable publication for several spectacular outbursts. In 2005, dawning a Ralph Lauren polo and standing next to Mike Myers, Kanye delivered a monologue at a fundraiser for Hurricane Katrina relief. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The former president would go on to say that was the lowest moment in his tenure. More notorious however, was his legendary stage crash at the 2009 VMA’s. A drunken West leaped on stage and grabbed the microphone from Taylor Swift. He disagreed with her win, believing it should have gone to Beyoncé. The fallout was nuclear. While it causes friction, there does seem to be a method to his madness. His confidence, the most common reason attributed to his rhapsody is the driving force behind his music. Without it, would he have been brave enough to challenge the norms rap had abided by for decades? Would he be the voice of dissent, refashioning convention after convention if he kept his mouth shut? Unlikely. While momentarily uncomfortable (and eternally infamous), there are always silver linings. After the VMA’s West withdrew from Hollywood. Quietly, he flew to Hawaii on a self-imposed exile; restitution for his actions, and catharsis for himself. There, he worked on his fifth album, one that would cement his legacy.

An unwritten, but very loose standard in rap tends to favor albums about ten songs long, falling around 40-50 minutes. A few features here and there, but lean. When a rapper goes out to make something that will stand the tests of time, something that will rest in the pantheon of rap’s crown jewels, that is the framework they use. That’s what Kanye set out to do with his fifth album, but Kanye doesn’t use blueprints. Many rappers report on what they see in their hometown. Kanye secluded himself in a studio in Hawaii, flying collaborators out so he wouldn’t leave. A generic artist would attempt to improve upon their proven model. Kanye did a 180. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has 13 tracks over the course of its 68 minutes and 36 seconds. There are 21 separate vocalists. 10 co-producers. A Chris Rock cameo. Kanye neither opens nor closes the album. All things considered, it should be a mess. There’s a folk singer that made a breakup album alone in a Wisconsin cabin sharing a posse track with Ye[6], Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj and Jay-Z, where the former two put what are maybe (read: definitely) the best verses of their careers. “All Of The Lights”, the pre-eminent club banger of the century, has 14 singers; Alicia Keys, Alvin Fields, Charlie Wilson, Drake, Elly Jackson, Elton John, Fergie, John Legend, Ken Lewi, Kid Cudi, Rihanna, Ryan Leslie, The-Dream & The World Famous Tony Williams. He interpolates the former king of pop on “Lost In The World.” He calls himself a douchebag and picks himself apart on the nine-minute centerpiece, “Runaway”. “Devil In a New Dress” pitch shifts Smokey Robinson, squeezes an acid guitar solo in between two of Kanye’s most heartbreaking verses and Rick Ross’s best and somehow manages to be what can only be considered a flawless song. Through all that, it remains perfectly curated, and singularly concentrated based on West’s impossible vision. There’s not a wasted second, and anything extra would have been overkill. It’s the most succinct portrayal of living in the 21st century; life with no privacy, where fame is as loathed as it’s sought after, where minorities are treated like third rate baggage by what’s supposed to be a first tier country. He made a concept album about being a famously conceited asshole sound tragic. An album about being a 21st century schizoid man, a hopeless romantic, a womanizer, and a good person struggling with his sins. I.E. a universally relatable album. It’s one of the highest rated albums ever on Metacritic[7]. The Independent’s Andy Gill called it “one of pop’s gaudiest, most grandiose efforts of recent years, a no-holds-barred musical extravaganza in which any notion of good taste is abandoned at the door.” URB likened it to Miles Davis. Pitchfork named it the best album of the decade. It’s seen as a momentous instance in the history of popular culture. It’s that good.

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The original artwork. It got famously censored on iTunes because, and I quote, “It was just so fucking dope.”

In the MBDTF review for Slate mentioned earlier, Matthew Cole “I see Kanye as nothing short of a hero.” It’s a role he fits well. Seeing as he has changed our idea of both, he could be the villain too. He’s played both roles multiple times. There has never been a public figure of Kanye’s order. One that speaks for the people, but living a life they never could. A guilty millionaire, an angry artist. A genius as standoffish as his ideas. As necessary as his ideas. The most culturally dominant and important icon of all time. He’s said it himself; “ At the end of the day, goddamn it I’m killin’ this shit.” He really is.

 

 

[1] A technique where the producer would cut a small snippet of audio and use it to create the beat for a song.

[2] A million copies sold.

[3] College Dropout at 298, Late Registration at 118, MBDTF at 353.

[4] The list’s highest denomination. Elon Musk was shared the title in the 2013 list.

[5] His multiple sneaker collaborations with both have been some of the most successful of their kind. He was the first non-athlete to have a signature sneaker with Nike, and his latest Adidas sneakers sold out in 10 minutes.

[6] As his fans affectionately refer to him. See also: Yeezus.

[7] An online aggregate of professional reviews. It was the highest rated album of the year by a landslide. Regardless of genre.

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