August 15, 2021
Kanye West’s 10th studio album, Donda, is set to release this August. The rapper and producer sold out the 72,000-seat Mercedes-Benz Stadium in Atlanta to tease the record. He subsequently announced a second showing, reportedly for the record’s final release, selling out half the stadium in under an hour .
Wielding this sort of cultural presence would be impressive for any artist in any era — much less a middle-aged rapper, whose debut was nearly two decades ago, in an era in which new celebrities are spawned every hour via viral TikToks.
For all his wild and unpredictable antics, from donning MAGA hats to ostensibly running for the presidency , West is as unconventional of a rap superstar and cultural icon as they come. He’s a devoted family man and loving father of four — a template for the contemporary rebel.
West’s less outlandish deeds often go unnoticed. In 2019, for example, West performed for prison inmates in Houston. In 2015, West ignored petulant pleas from the “boycott, divestment, and sanctions” crowd, performing in Tel Aviv. And that same year, West performed an impromptu, free concert in the Armenian capital of Yerevan during a trip to then-wife Kim Kardashian’s ethnic homeland.
But mere public escapades aren’t enough to keep an artist firmly tapped into the zeitgeist for two decades. While West’s antics have been entertaining to follow, it’s the rapper’s talents as a songwriter and producer that have buoyed his career for so long, wading through trends and avoiding the pitfalls of stagnation. Say what you will about West, he’s never been boring.
In his debut record, College Dropout, West introduced a fresh sound that eschewed the prevalent style of “gangster rap.” He instead imbued religious themes and pensive reveries into his music, sampling soul classics and rapping about everything from consumerism to Christianity.
In 2007, after joining U2 on its Vertigo tour as the opening act, West sought the same ovations from massive crowds as Bono. With his sights set on the esteemed status of “rockstar,” he intended to make music not just for clubs but for stadiums. Moving away from his usual bag of soul samples and jazzy instrumentation, West introduced electronics and synthesizers into his orchestration — instead of Aretha Franklin, he sampled Daft Punk.
For West, Graduation, his third record,wasn’t just a chance to prove himself as an up-and-coming rapper — it defined the direction of the entire genre. At the time, rapper 50 Cent was also set to release his new record. Hot off the heels of his debut, Get Rich or Die Tryin’, 50 Cent and gangster rap had saturated hip hop, making the soundtrack to drug deals and drive-bys the genre’s mainstay.
But while 1950s ribald romanticism of the gangster scene seemed edgy at the time, it was West’s ambitious exploration into multilayered pop orchestrations and melodic hooks that pushed the genre’s boundaries artistically. His bold new sound and lyrics going beyond fixations with street gangs assuaged listeners. Graduation out-sold 50 Cent’s record by over 300,000 units.
Meanwhile, in his personal life, things were far less glamorous: West’s mother, Donda West, died just two months after the release of Graduation. West largely blamed himself and his ascent to the top for losing the person closest to him. While his mother is the inspiration for his next record, Donda, West channeled much of his loss into his 2008 record, 808s and Heartbreak.
Looking for a new musical direction following Graduation, West wanted to compose and record music that didn’t rely on samples to grip listeners. For all his egotistical ravings, he had always professed his shortcomings as a vocalist. When venturing from rapping spoken word to singing melodic harmony lines, West leveraged his foible to his advantage. Unable to sing like Tina Turner, West instead painted his sonic landscape digitally, embracing auto-tune. At the time, auto-tune was written off as gimmicky. But in recent years, after the far-reaching influence of 808s and Heartbreak, the digital pitch corrector colors most hip-hop albums on the market and has since helped pave the way for hip-hop artists such as Drake and The Weeknd.
It was after West’s most infamous public antic to date, crashing Taylor Swift’s award speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards and saying, “I’mma let you finish,” that the disgraced rapper stepped away from the limelight and returned with the most ambitious album of his career: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
MBDTF is a culmination of everything West had done leading up to it. His deft use of samples, such as King Crimson in “Power,” beautiful melodies with rich orchestration in songs such as “Runaway” or “Lost In The World,” massive soundscapes fit for stadiums in “All Of The Lights,” and acerbic commentary in his lyrics in “Gorgeous” make his earlier records seem nascent in contrast.
Refusing to rest on his laurels, West has since explored psychedelic sounds with Kids See Ghosts, bared his struggles with mental health in Ye, and then dove headfirst into his religious Christian penchants with a 1980s Bob Dylan-esque gospel record, Jesus is King.
Throughout his career, West was not a musical chameleon. He never changed a bar or beat to conform with the ebbs and flows of the musical landscape. Artistically, over two decades, he maintained his grip at the helm, helping shape and influence the sounds that contoured records for years to come.
Originally Published at The Washington Examiner