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At the onset of the 21st century, hip-hop arguably entered into one of its most stagnant periods. Due to the rise of the mogul image and the commercial-rap impresario as the main consumptive materials for conventional audiences, representational standardization of the lived cultural experience, which hip should represent so well, were allowed to diminish. As a result, the genre hardly strayed out of its commercially-prized boundaries, until the pivotal introduction of Kanye West into the hip-hop game. To briefly summarize a career as dense, sprawling and important as Kanye’s in any way could be considered criminal, but here are ten songs for all those detesters to understand the beautiful, twisted mind of one of hip-hop’s greatest.
Tracing his discography finds a whole spectrum of sonic landscapes, from the maximal grandiosity of The College Dropout and Late Registration, to the icy and sincere vulnerability of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. With 808s and Heartbreak, he utilized unprecedented vision with damned digital aids like AutoTune, and still came out larger than life, utterly defiant of the boundaries popular hip-hop had set for him. By 2013, he essentially leveled the perception of what hip-hop production could be with the visceral but minimal Yeezus.
Throughout his career, he has called upon the creative talents of other artists in order to fulfill the grandiosity of his own artistic vision; whether featuring Bon Iver and Chief Keef on the same song, or putting on talents that would go on to make their own massive impact on the hip-hop world like Lupe Fiasco, Kid Cudi, Travi$ Scott and Vic Mensa. Representing both sides of hip-hop culture, from Jay-Z to Nas, The Game to Common, he has brought talented artists together under the same creative roof, all for the contribution to his artistry and the greater progress of hip-hop as a genre.
No matter the media run-ins or egotistical outbursts, Kanye stands at a precarious yet undeniably important and monumental position in pop culture. He offers a commercial capacity that is able to reach mass audiences while creating in a universally challenging fashion, whether it be musically, politically, emotionally, racially, or beyond. In his own stubbornness to ‘follow the rules’ in his art, he has in turn led the charge in revolutionizing the creative and sociopolitical impact of hip-hop.
From the intro sounding like a military march you can tell immediately that this was no ordinary debut. Highly contrarian to the general cultural climate of hip hop in the post-9/11 world, Kanye explores hyper sensitive political matters through an individualized perspective of his struggle between faith and independence. Declaring that, ‘I want to talk to God but we haven’t spoke in so long,’ was an outright taboo at the time. To throw religious references in popular rap was nothing short of astounding, at the time.
While his early material is more cherished for its instantly classic, timeless hits and magnetic hip hop energy, Late Registration was no exception to Kanye’s searing political tongue. Under Adam Levine’s silky croon and lulling piano melodies, Kanye spits eye-opening bars in the most casual manner about police brutality by declaring, ‘nothing’s ever promised tomorrow today, but we’ll find a way.’ The sheer level of contradiction between the lyrics and the beat is staggering. Never has government distrust, contemplation on socioeconomic failure and somber faith in goodness sounded so laid-back.
He can effortlessly throw down some serious self-awareness and consciousness when needed, but ‘touch the sky’ is classic braggadocio, ‘chop up the soul,’ Kanye. His lyrics ooze self-confidence over blaring jazz trumpets and the kind of beat that demands to be danced to. Every second is an adrenaline rush of cunning positivity. Even in the face of the financial destitution of craving high end material goods, Kanye shines through with his creative perseverance. More importantly, however, is his introduction of Lupe Fiasco in the song’s third verse. Lupe’s feature set the course for his career, which was an important watermark moment for Kanye as a hip-hop tastemaker and trendsetter.
While he had already established his celebrated career on unconventional sampling, left-field production techniques and a trailblazing variation of featured talent, ‘Stronger’ is the song in Kanye’s catalog that proved his creative potential. The rest has been history ever since. A rap power anthem out of Daft Punk? This type of rule-breaking is what leaves people so jarred by Kanye’s music. It’s either loved or hated, but it can be recognize as the next cultural step towards shifting the genre.
Almost immediately after the astounding success of Graduation that skyrocketed the rapper to godly heights and cultural ubiquity, Kanye’s life took some seriously dark turns: his mother (and manager) passed very shortly after the release of his third album, and his engagement fell to pieces not long after. Needless to say, the climate of Kanye’s life in 2008-2009 was torrential. However, even in his veritable darkest hour, he released some of his most groundbreaking and controversial music to date. One glimpse into the where he would head can be heard in ‘Street Lights.’ A sleeper hit from his ever-so-controversial 808s & Heartbreak, this song portrays Kanye in a deeply vulnerable light (a perspective virtually unseen to this degree in his career). The entire song glides along in a distorted, somber glow equipped with heartbeat-thumping bass, grand piano and nonstop auto-tuned singing. While a complete left-turn from his earlier discography, the song finds Kanye exploring the deepest, darkest reaches of his emotions with a hopeful tone buried away under all of the layers, while accepting that ‘life’s just not fair.’
Where ‘Street Lights’ existed in a vulnerable yet hopeful place, Kanye shocked the world over with the kind of utter self-loathing found on his grandstand My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. At quite possibly the lowest point in his career with the VMA disaster interruption and the mixed reception to his auto-tune opus in 808s, Kanye penned a sprawling, defiantly challenging and emotionally expansive album with ‘Runaway.’ Stretching over eight minutes, Kanye examines his own inclination toward self-destructive behaviors, co-dependence, neediness, and infidelity with a searing and ruthless tone. Over the now-iconic and harrowing piano melody, Kanye’s main point throughout the entire song is to tell his unnamed lover to, ‘run away as fast as you can.’ The song exemplifies some of Kanye’s most unflinchingly honest and critical lyricism, and sheds a brighter light on the dimensions of his infinitely-fascinating personality and creativity. Don’t believe that? Check out the short film he made to prove it.
Coming off of the same album, ‘Power,’ finds Kanye entering a new realm of wisdom, not just as an artist, but a pop culture icon. Spitting rapid-fire bars over a completely left-field production choice of sampling King Crimson’s, ’21st Century Schizoid Man,’ Kanye thematically reaches the light at the end of the long tunnel he had entered the years before. Instead of cutting himself down or allowing others to do it for him, he embraces his egotism and creative intentions whole-heartedly: ‘They say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation… At the end of the day, goddamn I’m killing this shit.’ What better way to find creative liberation than to ditch the unending stream of disapproval to his confidence and aspirations? Despite the omnipresent ego throughout the song, every part of it becomes humanized and respectable with his final question: ‘Do you have the power to let power go?’
‘Black Skinhead’ is a full-fledged return to the ego. The song possesses sonic similarities to Marilyn Manson, sure, but instead of trying to claim it as a sampling swipe, it’s more representative of the completely uncharted waters Kanye dove head-long into with Yeezus. Likening his blackness to a horrific tribal imagery, Kanye empowers himself racially and creatively almost entirely in spite of those that have tried to keep him down in this song. He has finally accepted himself and how the world loves to hate him, and he has learned the liberating effects of that hatred. What a beautiful reciprocation to hatred, no?
Where Kanye has exhibited his sociopolitical cunning with wordplay, clever consciousness and bombastic flashes of ego, ‘New Slaves’ is perhaps the only song in which he drops all composure or poise. This allows him to rage against the entrenched institutions that systematically destroy the impoverished non-white communities in the United States. For an artist as unmatched in status and reach as Kanye, this song is simply impossible to overlook, not only for its bizarre and hard-line progressive production techniques, but for how totally anti-authoritarian and rambunctious the song’s content is to the very corporate foundations that he simultaneously operates in! Far from mere hypocrisy, his willingness and ability to demarcate these very systems within these systems is absolutely crucial to exposing mass audiences, disadvantaged or otherwise, to the possibility of resistance and self-empowerment in the face of overwhelming corporate/commercial influence in everyday life.
This article has featured the various musical twists and turns Kanye has taken throughout his career, but ‘Ultralight Beam,’ even in its ripe young public age of three months, is a monumental breakthrough for the hip-hop legend. ‘Ultralight Beam’ is a modest five minute gospel epic that hardly even features the rapper himself! Rather, the song is graced by the flooring vocal powers of Kelly Price, Kirk Franklin and his gospel choir, and the immediately recognizable rasp of Chance the Rapper. While it is a song able to bring even the coldest heart to tears, this track is hugely representative of Kanye’s collaborative abilities and strengths. His career has been faced with countless masses of people calling B.S. to his focus on creativity before fame, but ‘Ultralight Beam’ undeniably seals that truth.
Note: While we’ve done our best to encompass the staggeringly-nuanced and impressive career of Kanye West with these songs, a full exploration of his discography is absolutely encouraged, especially if you like what you’ve heard here.
By Josh Rau
Josh is a media studies student at the University of San Francisco. When he’s not working or writing essays, he’s roaming new and unfamiliar streets in his own world between his headphones, listening to as much new music as possible. That, or he’s just playing it himself and scrolling through Tumblr.