Coming out of left field (i.e., Chicago, a city rarely praised for its Hip Hop exports), West was an unlikely sensation and more than once defied adversity. Like so many others who were initially inspired by Run-D.M.C., he began as just another aspiring rapper with a boundless passion for Hip Hop, albeit a rapper with a Midas touch when it came to beatmaking. Indeed, it was his beatmaking prowess that got his foot in the industry door. Though he did quite a bit of noteworthy production work during the late '90s (Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, Mase, Goodie Mob), it was West's work for Roc-a-Fella at the dawn of the new millennium that took his career to the next level. Alongside fellow fresh talent Just Blaze, West became one of the Roc's go-to producers, consistently delivering hot tracks to album after album. His star turn came on Jay-Z's classic Blueprint (2001) with album standouts 'Takeover' and 'Izzo (H.O.V.A.)'. Both songs showcased West's signature beatmaking style of the time, which was largely sample-based; in these cases, the former track appropriated snippets of the Doors' 'Five to One', while the latter sampled the Jackson 5's 'I Want You Back'.
More high-profile productions followed, and before long word spread that West was going to release an album of his own, on which he planned to rap as well as produce. Unfortunately, that album was a long time coming, pushed back and then pushed back again. It didn't help that West was in a tragic car accident in October 2002 that almost cost him his life. He capitalized on the traumatic experience by using it as the inspiration for 'Through the Wire' (and its corresponding video), which would later become the lead single for his debut album, 2004's The College Dropout.
As the album was continually delayed, West continued to churn out big hits for the likes of Talib Kweli ('Get By'), Ludacris ('Stand Up'), Jay-Z (''03 Bonnie & Clyde'), and Alicia Keys ('You Don't Know My Name'). Then, just as 'Through the Wire' was breaking big-time at the tail end of 2003, another West song caught fire, a collaboration with Twista and comedian/actor Jamie Foxx called 'Slow Jamz' which gave the rapper/producer two simultaneously ubiquitous singles and a much-anticipated debut album. As with so many of West's songs, the singles were driven by somewhat recognizable sample-based hooks: Chaka Khan's 'Through the Fire' in the case of 'Through the Wire', and Luther Vandross' 'A House Is Not a Home' in the case of 'Slow Jamz'.
In the wake of his breakout success, West earned a whopping ten nominations at the 47th annual Grammy Awards, held in early 2005. The College Dropout won the Best Rap Album award, 'Jesus Walks' won Best Rap Song, and a songwriting credit on 'You Don't Know My Name' for Best R&B Song award was shared with Alicia Keys and Harold Lilly. Later that year, West released his second solo album, Late Registration, which spawned a series of hit singles ('Diamonds in Sierra Leone', 'Gold Digger', 'Heard 'Em Say', 'Touch the Sky'). The album topped the charts, as did the 'Gold Digger' single, and Late Registration eventually won a Grammy for Album of the Year. West's production work continued more or less unabated during this time; particularly noteworthy were hits for Twista ('Overnight Celebrity'), Janet Jackson ('I Want You'), Brandy ('Talk About Our Love'), the Game ('Dreams'), Common ('Go!'), and Keyshia Cole ('I Changed My Mind'). West also founded his own label, GOOD Music (i.e., "Getting Out Our Dreams"), in conjunction with Sony BMG. The label's inaugural release was John Legend's Get Lifted (2004), followed one year later by Common's Be. In addition to all of his studio work, West also toured internationally in support of Late Registration and released Late Orchestration: Live at Abbey Road Studios (2006) in commemoration.
After retreating from the spotlight for some time, West returned to the forefront of the music world in 2007 with a series of album releases. Consequence's Don't Quit Your Day Job and Common's Finding Forever, both released by GOOD, were chiefly produced by West; the latter proved to be particularly popular, topping the album chart upon its release in July. And then there was West's third solo album, Graduation, which was promoted well in advance of its September 11 release (a memorable date that pitted Kanye against 50 Cent, who in one interview swore he would quit music if his own album, Curtis, wasn't the top-seller).
A pair of singles -- 'Can't Tell Me Nothing' and 'Stronger', the latter an interpolation of Daft Punk's 2001 single 'Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger' -- led the promotional push. It became his third consecutive chart-topping album, and its success culminated in eight Grammy nominations. West was the victor in four of the categories, and he performed two songs during the ceremony, including Late Registration's 'Hey Mama', chosen in honor of his recently deceased mother. That loss, compounded by a breakup with his fiancée, informed 2008's 808s & Heartbreak, a major change of pace that saw West singing most of his emotionally pained lyrics with the assistance of Auto-Tune. As polarizing as it was, it went platinum.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, most of which was recorded in Hawaii and involved guest vocal spots from the likes of Nicki Minaj, Kid Cudi, Rick Ross, and the RZA, was released in November 2010. It was preceded by the bombastic, King Crimson-sampling single 'Power'. A sprawling and audacious album, MBDTF debuted at number one on the Billboard 200 and also went platinum. While the album was still hot, West recorded the aggressive and boast-heavy Watch the Throne with Jay-Z and numerous producers and songwriters. Billed as a set by the Throne, it was released in August 2011 and entered the Billboard Top 200 chart at number one. In September 2012, he released the GOOD Music collaboration album Cruel Summer which featured artists such as Big Sean, Pusha T and Lifted. Four singles ('Mercy', 'Cold', 'New Flow' and 'Clique') were released as promotion for the record.
Towards the end of 2012 there were rumblings from acclaimed producers that a new album would emerge soon. These murmurs were soon confirmed when West himself announced that he was working on his sixth album with the likes of Daft Punk, King L, Justin Vernon, Rick Rubin, Chief Keef and many more contributing. As one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of 2013, Yeezus was released to rapturous reviews from critics. Described as his most confrontational and bravest album to date, West touched upon controversial and sensitive topics and delivered an astonishing and bold record. Despite leaking four days early upon its release, Yeezus sold almost 327,000 copies during its first week and the single 'Black Skinhead' was released. 2013 also proved to be a personal milestone for West as he became a father for the first time, with partner Kim Kardashian giving birth to a baby girl in June 2013.
Producer Kanye West's highlight reels were stacking up exponentially when his solo debut for Roc-a-Fella was released, after numerous delays and a handful of suspense-building underground mixes. The week The College Dropout came out, three singles featuring his handiwork were in the Top 20, including his own "Through the Wire." A daring way to introduce himself to the masses as an MC, the enterprising West recorded the song during his recovery from a car wreck that nearly took his life -- while his jaw was wired shut. Heartbreaking and hysterical ("There's been an accident like Geico/They thought I was burnt up like Pepsi did Michael"), and wrapped around the helium chirp of the pitched-up chorus from Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire," the song and accompanying video couldn't have forged his dual status as underdog and champion any better.
All of this momentum keeps rolling through The College Dropout, an album that's nearly as phenomenal as the boastful West has led everyone to believe. From a production standpoint, nothing here tops recent conquests like Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name" or Talib Kweli's "Get By," but he's consistently potent and tempers his familiar characteristics -- high-pitched soul samples, gospel elements -- by tweaking them and not using them as a crutch. Even though those with their ears to the street knew West could excel as an MC, he has used this album as an opportunity to prove his less-known skills to a wider audience. One of the most poignant moments is on "All Falls Down," where the self-effacing West examines self-consciousness in the context of his community: "Rollies and Pashas done drive me crazy/I can't even pronounce nothing, yo pass the Versacey/Then I spent 400 bucks on this just to be like 'N*gga you ain't up on this'."
If the notion that the album runs much deeper than the singles isn't enough, there's something of a surprising bonus: rather puzzlingly, a slightly adjusted mix of "Slow Jamz" -- a side-splitting ode to legends of baby-making soul that originally appeared on Twista's Kamikaze, just before that MC received his own Roc-a-Fella chain -- also appears. Prior to this album, we were more than aware that West's stature as a producer was undeniable; now we know that he's also a remarkably versatile lyricist and a valuable MC.
Words - Andy Kellman
And then, in a flash, Kanye was everywhere, transformed from respected producer to big-name producer/MC, throwing a fit at the American Music Awards, performing "Jesus Walks" at the Grammys, wearing his diamond-studded Jesus piece, appearing on the cover of Time, running his mouth 24/7. One thing that remains unchanged is Kanye's hunger, even though his head has swollen to the point where it could be separated from his body, shot into space, and considered a planet. Raised middle class, Kanye didn't have to hustle his way out of poverty, the number one key to credibility for many Hip Hop fans, whether it comes to rapper turned rapping label presidents or suburban teens. And now that he has proved himself in another way, through his stratospheric success -- which also won him a gaggle of haters as passionate as his followers -- he doesn't want to be seen as a novelty whose ambitions have been fulfilled.
On Late Registration, he finds himself backed into a corner, albeit as king of the mountain. It's a paradox, which is exactly what he thrives on. His follow-up to The College Dropout isn't likely to change the minds of the resistant. As an MC, Kanye remains limited, with all-too-familiar flows that weren't exceptional to begin with (you could place a number of these rhymes over College Dropout beats). He uses the same lyrical strategies as well. Take lead single "Diamonds from Sierra Leone," in which he switches from boastful to rueful; more importantly, the conflict felt in owning blood diamonds will be lost on those who couldn't afford one with years of combined income. Even so, he can be tremendous as a pure writer, whether digging up uncovered topics (as on "Diamonds") or spinning a clever line ("Before anybody wanted K. West's beats, me and my girl split the buffet at KFC"). The production approach, however, is rather different from the debut. Crude beats and drastically tempo-shifted samples are replaced with a more traditionally musical touch from Jon Brion (Fiona Apple, Aimee Mann), who co-produces with West on most of the tracks. (Ironically, the Just Blaze-helmed "Touch the Sky" tops everything laid down by the pair, despite its heavy reliance on Curtis Mayfield's "Move on Up.") West and Brion are a good, if unlikely, match. Brion's string arrangements and brass flecks add a new dimension to West's beats without overshadowing them, and the results are neither too adventurous nor too conservative. While KRS-One was the first to proclaim, "I am Hip Hop," Kanye West might as well be the first MC to boldly state, "I am pop."
Words - Andy Kellman
Graduation's pre-leak talk wasn't as substantive as it was with Kanye West's first two albums. As with just about any other artist's third album, it had to be expected. The College Dropout was one of the most anticipated debuts of the early 2000s, while Late Registration had people wondering why Kanye would feel the need to work so extensively with multi-instrumentalist rock producer Jon Brion (the J Dilla of the chamberlin) and whether or not Kanye's hubristic tendencies would get the better of it. With Graduation, there was Takashi Murakami's artwork, a silly first-week sales competition with the decreasingly relevant 50 Cent, and chatter about synthesizers running wild. That was about it, but it all seemed loud and prevalent, due in part to a lack of high-profile rap albums released in 2007. Graduation is neither as bold nor as scattered as The College Dropout, and it's neither as extroverted nor as sonically rich as Late Registration.
Kanye still makes up for his shortcomings as an MC and lyricist by remaining charmingly clumsy, frequently dealing nonsense through suspect rhyme schemes: "I never be picture-perfect Beyonce/Be light as Al B. or black as Chauncey/Remember him from Blackstreet, he was black as the street was/I never be laid-back as this beat was." The songs that are thematically distanced, introspective, and/or wary -- there are many of them -- are, in turn, made more palatable than insufferable. That his humor remains a constant is a crucial aspect of the album, especially considering that most other MCs would sound embittered and hostile if they were handling similar subjects, like haters new and old, being a braggart with a persistent underdog complex, getting wrapped up in spending and flaunting, and the many hassles of being a hedonist.
Those who have admired Kanye as a sharp producer while detesting him as an inept MC might find the gleaming synth sprites, as heard most prominently throughout "Flashing Lights" and "Stronger," to be one of the most glaring deal-breakers in Hip Hop history. Though the synthesizer use marks a clear, conscious diversion from Kanye's past productions, highlights like "I Wonder," "The Glory," and "Everything I Am" are deeply rooted in the Kanye of old, using nostalgia-inducing samples, elegant pianos and strings, and gospel choirs. So, no, he's not dreaming of fronting A Flock of Seagulls or joining Daft Punk. He's being his shrewd, occasionally foolish, and adventurous self.
Words - Andy Kellman
Having been through both a break-up and the sudden loss of his mother, it was a brooding, brokenhearted West that headed to Hawaii to create his fourth studio album. Known for his audacious, rule-breaking approach to Hip Hop, ‘808’s & Heartbreak’ was a risky record, even by Kanye standards. Steeped in vocoder and Roland TR-808 drum patterns, and with more singing than rapping, the No I.D and Jeff Bhasker co-productions were a total departure from the soul-soaked sounds of ‘College Dropout’, ‘Late Registration’ and ‘Graduation’. Critics predicted potential failure, but the numbers soon silenced them, with huge first week sales and millions sold since.
With lines like “My friend showed me pictures of his kids/ All I could show him was pictures of my cribs”, the KiD CuDi featuring ‘Welcome To Heartbreak’ pitched West at his most vulnerable as he questioned the price of fame and fortune. One of the best selling singles of West’s career, the heartbroken ‘Heartless’ was accompanied by an animated video from Hype Williams, as Kanye contemplated a cold-hearted ex. The 80’s synth-pop and tribal drums of ‘Love Lockdown’ was another best seller, while Young Jeezy and Mr. Hudson featured on the contemplative ‘Amazing’. ‘808’s’ established West as a visionary risk-taker unconcerned with following regular rap rhetoric. Emo-acts like Drake, The Weekend and Frank Ocean soon followed in ‘808’s wake, while West continues to be one of the most innovative creative’s working in popular culture today.
Words: Hattie Collins
As fatiguing as it is invigorating, as cold-blooded as it is heart-rending, as haphazardly splattered as it is meticulously sculpted, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an extraordinarily complex 70-minute set of songs. Listening to it, much like saying or typing its title, is a laborious process. In some ways, it’s the culmination of Kanye West's first four albums, but it does not merely draw characteristics from each one of them. The 13 tracks, eight of which are between five and nine minutes in length, sometimes fuse them together simultaneously. Consequently, the sonic and emotional layers are often difficult to pry apart and enumerate. Nothing exemplifies its contrasting elements and maniacal extravagance as much as “All of the Lights.” Rattling, raw, synthetic toms are embellished with brass, woodwinds, and strings.
It’s a celebration of fame (“Fast cars, shooting stars”) and a lament of its consequences (“Restraining order/Can’t see my daughter”). Its making involved 42 people, including not one but two French horn players and over a dozen high-profile vocalists, only some of which are perceptible. At once, the song features one of the year’s most rugged beats while supplying enough opulent detail to make Late Registration collaborator Jon Brion's head spin. “Blame Game” chills more than anything off 808s & Heartbreak. Sullen solo-piano Aphex Twin plays beneath morose cello; with a chorus from John Legend, a dejected, embittered West -- whose voice toggles between naturally clear-sounding and ominously pitched-down as it pans back and forth -- tempers wistfully-written, maliciously-delivered lines like “Been a long time since I spoke to you in a bathroom, ripping you up, fuckin’ and chokin’ you” with untreated and distinctively pained confessions like “I can’t love you this much.”
The contrast in “Devil in a New Dress,” featuring Rick Ross, is of a different sort; a throwback soul production provided by the Smokey Robinson-sampling Bink, it’s as gorgeous as any of West’s own early work, yet it’s marred by an aimless instrumental stretch, roughly 90 seconds in length, that involves some incongruent electric guitar flame-out. Even less explicable is the last third of the nine-minute “Runaway,” when West blows into a device and comes out sounding something like a muffled, bristly version of Robert Fripp's guitar. The only thing that remains unchanged is West’s lyrical accuracy; for every rhyme that stuns, there’s one deserving of mockery from any given contestant off the The White Rapper Show. As the ego and ambition swells, so does the appeal, the repulsiveness, and -- most importantly -- the ingenuity. Whether loved or loathed, fully enjoyed or merely admired, this album should be regarded as a deeply fascinating accomplishment.
Words - Andy Kellman
Despite having worked together since Jay Z’s 2000 classic ‘Blueprint’, the two masters of modern day Hip Hop only officially joined forces in 2011 for what became the ultimate regal rap album. Powered by beats from Yay, Swizz Beats, Mike Dean, RZA, Jeff Bhasker and 88 Keys, the two went toe-to-toe, creating some of the most memorable moments in recent Hip Hop history. ‘Murder To Excellence’ addressed black on black crime, the Frank Ocean featuring ‘No Church In The Wild’ explored religious decadence, while the audacious Will Ferrell sampling ‘Ni**as In Paris’ delivered various rap quotables and numerous reloads at concerts around the globe. Selling some 2 million copies worldwide, ‘WTT’ truly became the best of both worlds when the pair embarked on a worldwide tour that became the biggest seller in Hip Hop history. Jay and Ye truly went H.A.M.
Words: Hattie Collins
Everyone professionally involved with the creation of Kanye West's sixth solo effort was sworn to secrecy, and with no preorders allowed, plus the news that producer Rick Rubin was still tinkering with tracks seven days prior to the drop, this instant, no-singles, anti-hype album got pre-release hyped on an Olympic scale. Think of the roll-up as a revolutionary blow against the empire or the supernova ego of West in full effect, and while it's probably a little of both, Yeezus the album is a lot of both, with good taste and bad taste both turned up to 11. This aggro-industrial earthquake with booming bass and minimal synths balances groundbreaking Hip Hop lyrics ("New Slaves" is a bizarre, layered concept clash where high fashion, slavery, and "I'd rather be a dick than a swallower" all collide) with punkish, irresponsible blast-femy (during the draggy, trap track "I'm in It," West's melodious and melancholy voice shouts its dreams to the multitude, pleading "Your titties, let 'em out, free at last/Thank God almighty, they free at last" as if civil rights and booty calls were equally noble quests), and it all works in an astonishing, compelling manner.
It's as if West spent the last year listening exclusively to Death Grips and Chief Keef and all the political, social, and musical contradictions became his muse, inspiring moments like the Keef and Bon Iver meet-up that fuels the mile-high hangover number "Hold My Liquor." "Blood on the Leaves" is recklessly bold as it uses Nina Simone's performance of "Strange Fruit" under its snide tale of ex-girlfriends, groupies, and date rape drugs; then there's the obviously volatile "I Am a God" ("Hurry up with my damn massage!/Hurry up with my damn ménage!"), which still outdoes its provocative title with a swelled-head manifesto plus an unexpected, Magic-Mike-meets-Aphex-Twin boom production courtesy of Daft Punk. The closing beauty called "Bound 2" finds veteran singer Charlie Wilson reuniting with that Gap Band bassline but in chilly, new wave surroundings, but the most spellbinding juxtaposition on the album comes on first as claustrophobic electro-clasher "On Sight" offers "Black dick all up in your spouse again/And I know she like chocolate men/Got mo' n*ggas off than Cochran" -- stunning because Kanye is family now with the OJ Simpson trial's "Dream Team," seeing as how he's dating Kim of the Kardashian family and the couple welcomed a child three days before the album's release.
Coming from the man who jumped on-stage and grabbed Taylor Swift's VMA award, or called the American President a racist during a nationally televised charity event, this angry, cathartic, and concise album (punkishly running 40 minutes), and its unconventional road to release seems like a personal quest for the next provocative, headline-making, and unforgettable fix. That's an unfathomable thing for most and irritating for many, but it's Kanye's unbelievable reality, so complaining about Yeezus being unrelatable is like complaining the sky is untouchable. At least he has decided to indulge his giant hunger with the help of art, and if anything, this is the moment he becomes a swashbuckling Salvador Dali figure, chopping down all that's conventional with highly imaginative work and crass, attention-grabbing attitude. Unlike Dali's separate delivery of the two, Yeezus is an extravagant stunt with the high-art packed in, offering an eccentric, audacious, and gripping experience that's vital and truly unlike anything else.
Words - David Jeffries
For the 300 or so people lucky enough to be at Abbey Road studios on 24th April 2006, they were able to experience an intimate live show quite unlike any other. Joined onstage by John Legend, Lupe Fiasco, GLC, Consequence and a 17-piece, all female orchestra, a typically impassioned Kanye West performed tracks from ‘College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’. Show opener ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ saw a suited and booted West admonish the audience for not being feeling the vibe enough. “When I say throw your diamonds up, I want everybody from here to the back to throw their diamonds up,” the Chicago rapper insisted. Among the 13 tracks performed, ‘Bring Me Down’ and the Chaka Khan sampling ‘Through The Wire’ were standouts, while Jesus Walks ensured the night ended on an emotional high. “A dream come true” noted West.
Words - Hattie Collins
VH1 Storytellers is a live album by American hip hop artist Kanye West, released on January 5, 2010 by Roc-A-Fella Records.