Rapper(s) of the Decade is a mixtape series curated by myself that will span 2010. In theory, each month I'll be dedicating a mixtape to the 12 Rappers and Groups I felt proved most instrumental in shaping the last decade in Hip Hop in no particular order. April's slightly delayed installment belongs to Kanye West.
Download: The Power & The Glory
You begin with a chip. All the great ones have it. It sits there on your shoulder and whispers in your ear at night. It taunts you, it insults you and most importantly it pushes you. You convince yourself, what you believe is that if I can just get out this album, if I can just gain my mentor’s approval, if I can just lease that ride or bag that chick.... There has to be an amount of money, or respect, or love that will make me happy, that will finally free me from this nagging unnameable restlessness.
These days it’s easy to forget just how far Kanye West has come as a popular artist in the six years since The College Dropout’s release. How outside the critical elite, he was known and reviled more for his ostentatious, obnoxious egoism and penitent for needless scene stealing than his talent. How it took forever to get the Purists on board with what was first quite obvious, straightforward (what Primo, Rza and Dilla fans considered hackneyed) soul-jacks and sophomoric wordplay. They would say, as if the entire world had gone crazy, “But this kid can’t spit!” And they were right, he raps awkwardly and lands nothing but goofy punchlines, all in all a terrible voice and he's even hinted at not writing his own shit. But it got crazier, on Graduation he ushered an introduction of European Electronic, unseen since Bambaataa, to the modern Hip Hop vernacular. And most improbably, at the peak of his fame released a heart-on-his sleeve, Robo-Emo album……That was chock full of hits and managed to once again be received with adoring praise and platinum sales. We take these things for granted now, our one name superstar and what in retrospect appears to be an obvious path to super-stardom, in reality his weird and rocky ride has been anything but.
It’s a good thing Yeezy got wildly famous, because without that fame as a catalyst there might have been nowhere for him to go. There’s great progression between all four Kanye albums, but the first two, from a thematic standpoint are more or less a collection of (albeit brilliant and addictive) biographical concept songs. (“Spaceship”, “Roses”, “Family Business”, “Never Let Me Down”, “Drive Slow”, “Heard Em Say”, I could go on) I suspect Late Registration is the popular pick for least favorite Kanye album for this reason. Because in many ways it’s a polished College Dropout. A some what highfalutin retread, it’s stagnant.
The narrative that fuels these first efforts, that would become infinitely more interesting when the fame and money did come as opposed to claimed and obsessed over by an outspoken young man with a transparent tendency to overcompensate, was the conflict of id and idealism, the desire to be righteous battling with plain old self serving desire, religious guilt and the allure of glitz. He was the stylistic heir of the Golden Era everyman rappers he grew up worshiping, Q-Tip, Posdnous, Dres and Sadat, with a modern bling infusion. (And without any of those rappers’ verbal dexterity, perhaps to his great popular advantage) From the beginning he differentiated himself from these legends, showed great strength as a writer (be it literal or conceptual) in his willingness to tackle his own contradictions and hypocrisies head on. At his best on songs like "I Wonder" Kanye plays like he's having an argument with himself, taking his own side while letting on he's pretty sure he's wrong but still sticking to his stubborn guns. Kanye has always been willing to play unreliable narrator, not positioning himself as a classic hero but a very troubled and confused young man, unhappy working his shitty part time retail job and sitting on top of the world for many of the same reasons: he can't escape himself.
But instead of hashing and rehashing themes of conflicted spirituality and his righteous sounding Civil Rights roots, Kanye West became the first RAP superstar for our grotesquely saturated, 24 hour news cycle, TMZ ridden times. His later work has taken on what is perhaps an even more universal message than the by-any-means dark shadow of the American Dream cast by Raekwon and Biggie. It’s gotten past Crack Rap’s desperation of poverty, its romantic immediacy of need and looks inward, asks to what end is it that we “make it” and what do we do, what do we want, once we’ve attained everything?
He’s gotten closer to reality rap then any rapper before him has tread. That is, the stuff of his everyday life, his fears, concerns and disappointments. He’s offered us a true window inside the life of a rich and famous rapper, rather than a rich and famous rapper trying to approximate what it used to be like selling crack. The early campaign promises of greatness have been fulfilled, but with them Kanye has introduced the Fitzgeraldian angst that comes coupled with success and in this he’s practically given birth to a burgeoning genre: Fame Rap.
In retrospect, Graduation and 808s and Heartbreak fit together, make a weird sort of sense: the party and the hangover. Even the brief sad notes on Graduation (“Flashing Lights”, “Drunk and Hot Girls”) have a touch of “it’s not all that bad” and are practically early Beatles songs in comparison to the weeping clown we find on 808s. We can look at his great, heart wrenched verse on Young Jeezy’s “Put On”, his first true event cameo, as a tipping point. Where Kanye dismissed any sort of humor or ambition beyond moving backward, the impossible desire to regain the things he finally has realized he lost. You could argue it was Kanye, not T-Pain that found autotune’s true worth at that very moment. The disaffected, mechanized alienation and sadness he manages to coax out of the tool adds another layer of complexity to that emotional whopper of a verse. He’s hardly cracked a smile since.
The story behind 808s comes off like an Onion spoof. A grief stricken Kanye holes himself up in his studio in Hawaii for three weeks and makes an album using nothing but auto tune and an outdated drum machine which worms its way into the album’s title. But it was his greatest triumph, the greatest showcase for his boundless talent and probably the greatest mid career risk a popular Rapper has ever taken. The next generation of emo driven, R&B friendly rappers heading the charge into this decade would not hesitate to site Kanye and this album as a mentor and great influence.
Of course, just to be clear, the reason he’s kept us intrigued has little to do with narrative thrust or dramatic tension, but an undeniable ear for beats and gift for melody. Kanye West doubtlessly has had the lion’s share of popular moments spread over the last ten years. He’s introduced a new ceiling, a new level of “event” and ceremony to the live Hip Hop show. He has restated and redefined, perhaps more forcefully than any artist before him,
Without ever realizing it, I suspect Kanye’s happiest moments were those formative years at the old Rocafella, surrounded by legends he was blessing with instant classics, grateful yet tirelessly insisting he could be just as big a star as those benefiting from his tutelage in Chicago making five beats a day for three summers. The ostentatious braggadocio of this in-house, big mouth producer falls on understandably deaf ears. He had his fiancé, he had his Mom, he had his whole career in front of him. He isn’t aware he’s happy. He’s up every night with that chip in his ear demanding “MORE”, but when he looks back he’ll see it for the time of blissful ignorance, of innocence, that it was.
I like to imagine him in
1. Def Poetry Jam Freshman Adjustment Vol. 2 (2006)
2. Ego (Remix) I Am...Sasha Fierce (Deluxe Edition) (2009)
3. Gettin' Out the Game Freestyle The Lost Tapes (2007)
4. I Can't Say No Thug Mentality (2008)
5. Drive Slow (ft. Paul Wall & GLC) Late Registration (2005)
6. In The Mood (ft. Roy Ayers) Ear Drum (2007)
7. The Food (Live on Chappelle Show) The Food (Single) (2004)
8. I Wonder Graduation (2007)
9. Mayback Music 2 (ft. T-Pain & Lil Wayne) Deeper Than Rap (2009)
10. Never Let Me Down (ft. Jay-Z) The College Dropout (2004)
11. Big Brother Graduation (2007)
12. Put On The Recession (2008)
13. Addiction Late Registration (2005)
14. Arguments (ft. Martin Lawrence) The Lost Tapes (2007)
15. Apologize Freshman Adjustment (2005)
16. Amazing (ft. Young Jeezy) 808s & Heartbreaks (2008)
17. Us Placers (ft. Lupe Fiasco & Pharrell Williams) Can't Tell Me Nothing (2007)
18. Heard 'Em Say Late Orchestration (2006)