A beginner’s guide to the music of Kanye West

A beginner’s guide to the music of Kanye West

Primer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginners’ guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you. This installment: The music of hip-hop’s king of the world, Kanye West. 

Kanye West 101 
By the time “Through The Wire” was released in late September 2003, its creator, Kanye West, was well known to hip-hop fans as one of the architects of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint-era sound. He was one of the hottest and most in-demand producers in the genre, with credits on albums from the high-wattage likes of Talib Kweli, Nas, Scarface, and DMX. 

Before Def Jam and Roc-A-Fella took a chance on the charismatic future icon and controversy magnet, he was already a superstar producer who could easily have enjoyed a lucrative career just providing beats for other artists. But West hungered for more. It wasn’t enough to be the man behind the man; Kanye West wanted to be the man. To find another pop-culture figure who so nakedly aspired to the spotlight, you’d have to go back to Lucy Ricardo on I Love Lucy. 

When West got into a car accident that nearly cost him his life in 2002, he finally had subject matter dramatic enough to match his ambition. Recorded only two weeks after the accident, when his jaw was still wired shut due to the severity of his injuries, the song was the perfect introduction to West as a rapper, artist, and storyteller. “Through The Wire” is defined by its sense of urgency. West raps as if his life depends on it, as if his heart will burst unless he lays his soul bare on one of his own tracks—in this case a beat that takes its title and chorus from a 1985 Chaka Khan single—as quickly as humanly possible, even if the condition of his injured jaw gives the producer-turned-rapper’s voice a slurring quality that makes it difficult to understand at times. 

On “Through The Wire,” West conveys sincere, palpable appreciation and gratitude for having survived such a close brush with death by holding on to the most precious gift of all: life. In a rap world frequently dominated by glowering badasses perfecting stone faces, West’s music and lyrics were proudly, undeniably, and unapologetically emotional. He wore his heart on his sleeve, and the world has come to love and hate him for it.  

In his lyrics and in public appearances, West holds nothing back. On “Through The Wire,” that meant sharing the incredible joy he experienced after surviving his accident. The track is West in microcosm, a distillation of his emotional intensity, autobiographical intimacy, relentless self-focus, perfect fusion of beat and rhyme, goofy humor, labored pop-culture references, and ultimate air of triumph/self-actualization. Much of the song’s charm lies in its ragged edges. A rapper who would one day pen intricate lines like “Next time you see me on your Fallopian / Though the jewelry’s Egyptian, know the hunger’s Ethiopian” (on “The Joy,” a bonus track on Watch The Throne) delivers corny punchlines about Michael Jackson, GEICO commercials, Making The Band, and Vanilla Sky. But only a curmudgeon would begrudge West a few clumsy lines in light of the song’s devastating visceral impact. 

West believed in himself, the song’s potential, and his future as a rapper enough that he self-funded a charmingly homemade video for “Through The Wire” and watched the song and the video become modest hits. The song posits West as a consummate underdog: a producer who wasn’t supposed to rap (the song begins with West slurring, “Yo G, they can’t stop me from rapping, can they?” with equal parts defiance and playfulness) and a man who wasn’t supposed to survive a devastating accident that sent him, in the words of the song, to “the same hospital where Biggie Smalls died.” And West sure as shit wasn’t expected to move huge units with material that, in his own estimation, “was more like spoken word” than the drug-dealing bravado that was currently the rage. Yet there he was all the same, rapping on a song that launched one of the most unlikely and glorious careers in all of hip-hop. 

West has so much to say on “Through The Wire” that he can’t fit it all into his verses, so he repeatedly addresses listeners directly in a sloppy but exuberant voice to apologize for the state of his diction, joke about never making it through another airport metal detector with all the hardware in his skull, and explain some of the horrifying details of his accident. He seems to be talking directly to his listeners with an intimacy and candor that would prove central to his appeal, even as he morphed from a plucky, lovable underdog unafraid to bare his vulnerability and soul to a world-conquering mega-star with an ego to match. 

“Through The Wire” established West as a rapper of infinite promise, and that promise was fulfilled when The College Dropout was released in February of 2004. Like the best debut albums, it feels like something West had been working toward all his life. 

The College Dropout is an album of intense contradictions, a godly album awash in sin and temptation as well as an anti-academic manifesto from the whip-smart son of a college professor. West oscillates between extremes, between leering, lascivious odes to taut-and-toned female flesh (“The New Workout Plan”) and empathetic explorations of the angst and ambitions of women whose assured exteriors mask underlying insecurity and self-consciousness (“All Falls Down”). West can be devastatingly insightful and trenchant about the emptiness and futility of trying to cover up yawning emotional voids with material possessions one moment, and a blatant, unapologetic materialist the next. The College Dropout also has a rich, broad emotional spectrum: It’s funny, sad, raucous, solemn, sacred, profane, irreverent, and melancholy—sometimes all at the same time. 

West called in a lot favors for The College Dropout, an album whose expertly chosen guest roster (Jay-Z, Mos Def, Freeway, Ludacris, Common, Jamie Foxx, Twista, Talib Kweli) reflects his prestige as a producer and Jay-Z protégé. West holds his guests to the same high standards he holds for himself, and The College Dropout benefits from West’s perfectionism, from the sense that even if this were the only album from Kanye West the rapper, his creative legacy would be secure. 

On his debut, West takes chances that would have seemed loopy, perhaps even downright insane, if they hadn’t paid such rich dividends, like releasing a song called “Jesus Walks” as a single and putting two of the most famously conscious rappers around (Common and Talib Kweli) on one of the least conscious songs on the album (“Get ’Em High”). 

This impressive debut ends with “Last Call,” a gorgeously produced track that segues into an extended spoken monologue where West goes into very extensive detail about his evolution from producer to rapper, from the producers he ghost-produced for (D-Dot, a Diddy affiliate also known as The Madd Rapper) to the drums he borrowed for his beat on “This Can’t Be Life” (Dr. Dre’s “Xxplosive”) to where he bought a bed (Ikea) when he moved from Chicago to Newark, New Jersey to chase his dream (which is ironic, since Newark is generally where dreams go to die). In a sign of what was to come, Jay-Z plays a central role in the song’s narrative, as an inspiration, collaborator, and dream-maker. The song actually opens with Jay-Z playfully bitching West out for making him appear on the song.  

The miniature oral memoir that ends “Last Call” and The College Dropout could seem self-indulgent, overly personal, and unnecessary. But in its own way, it’s every bit as central to West’s mythology and aesthetic as “Through The Wire.” He felt such an intense, irrepressible need to explain himself that he couldn’t limit his verbiage to rapping. 

On “Last Call,” West tells his story in ways that are funny, humanizing, and honest, even if the whole spiel reeks of self-absorption and self-indulgence. (Because despite his many virtues, West is self-absorbed and self-indulgent.) He lays bare the steps that led to him releasing such a masterful debut, even if the track’s nearly 13-minute length begs an ADD-addled audience to hit the stop button. It conveys a message that West will never stop telling his story or trying to circumvent the machinery of show business to talk to his listeners directly, even after he’s become so famous and successful that just about everybody with even a passing interest in pop culture knows his name and at least the rough outlines of his life story.

Kanye West has a sense of entitlement that’s remarkable even for a world-famous pop star. In full-on egomaniac mode, West acts deeply insulted when anybody other than himself and his friends win awards, despite his having won more Grammys than any other rapper to date. In the past, West has leapt in front of cameras to chastise MTV Video Music Award voters for having the gall to give Taylor Swift an award instead of his personal choice, Beyoncé Knowles, and used the ostensibly apolitical forum of A Concert For Hurricane Relief to publicly declare that George W. Bush didn’t care about black people. 

On 2007’s stellar Graduation, West actually seemed to be listening to his critics, which marks one of the few times he’s listened to anyone outside the voices in his own head angrily demanding the few remaining accolades he doesn’t already possess. Graduation is largely devoid of the self-indulgence, over-reaching, and skits of West’s previous albums. It’s a relatively tight, concise pop album with a 51-minute running time that, for all its strengths, sometimes inspires nostalgia for the ingratiating messiness of his other albums and exceedingly public personal life.

The monster single “Stronger” gets its turbo-charged kick from a Daft Punk sample so massive it feels less like a sample than wholesale appropriation. Then again, West has always been hip-hop’s least provincial star. Forget being satisfied with conquering his home town or his home country: The world is not enough for him, and he’s never been shy about incorporating influences from around the world and through the sum of pop culture present, past, and future. 

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“Stronger” blasts off into an icy electronic future, but otherwise the album finds West exploring familiar sonic and thematic territory as it oscillates between ambivalence about the compromises and costs of fame and luxuriating in his remarkable success. West has made a career out of challenging himself and veering out of his comfort zone, but Graduation feels a little too safe and tidy, an album of big choruses and corny punchlines West tries to sell with a delivery that unwisely puts rows of exclamation points after jokes best ignored. 

But even at his most mainstream, West, God bless him, is still one of pop culture’s true eccentrics, as evidenced by the music video he commissioned for “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” of Zach Galifianakis and Will Oldham stunting moodily around a farm, along with the occasional line-dancing interlude. 

Graduation’s most nakedly confessional and personal songs are also its most embarrassing and least successful. On “Homecoming,” West tries to create a geographical “I Used To Love H.E.R.” out of his complicated relationship with his hometown of Chicago (complete with a clumsy paraphrasing of Common’s influential and iconic classic), but stumbles with clumsy wordplay and a bizarrely out-of-place chorus from Chris Martin, a patently odd choice to croon a chorus about missing Lake Michigan. Oh well, it’s not like Chicago has any singers of its own. 

“Big Brother,” a characteristically ambivalent, sad, and angry exploration of West’s relationship with mentor-turned-rival Jay-Z, is even more embarrassingly intimate and personal. At times it feels more like passages from a few particularly tortured pages from West’s diary than a proper song. That West felt comfortable publicly airing his dirty laundry and resentments toward both his professional mentor and one of the most powerful and revered men in music is a testament to West’s utter fearlessness and willingness to bare his soul in the most public and lasting of ways; it’s just too bad it didn’t result in a better song. 

Critics and audiences hold Kanye West to almost prohibitively high standards because West consistently sets the bar so high for himself. By 2007, it seemingly wasn’t enough for West to deliver a terrific pop album with a few missteps if he wasn’t appreciably evolving as a producer, and was even regressing a little as a rapper. (The dreary dirge “Drunk And Hot Girls” is another track that should have ended up relegated to a mixtape or, better yet, nixed altogether.) Graduation is very good, but it’s a little safe and tidy by West’s standards. For Kanye West, good but safe has never been good enough. His unexpected follow-up to Graduation was many things, but it sure wasn’t safe or tidy. 

Intermediate Work
For his follow-up to The College Dropout, West yanked a page from the rock-’n’-roll playbook and delivered 2005’s Late Registration, a quintessential over-reaching follow-up that somehow managed to beat even The College Dropout in ambition and scope. West just isn’t the kind to think small, and the surprise success of The College Dropout enabled him to dream even bigger than ever before. That meant hiring composer-musician-producer Jon Brion to co-produce the album and replacing the artfully, elegantly employed electric violin of The College Dropout’s Miri Ben-Ari with a proper string section. 

Over the course of a single album, West had evolved from a plucky underdog to a self-styled playboy of the western world. The monster single “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” reflected the Cinemascope nature of West’s vision, pairing a shimmering, shiny chorus gleaned from Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” with lyrics that juxtaposed the personal with the political, and introspection with West’s ever-increasing grandiosity. 

But first West helped himself to a well-earned victory lap or two with celebratory, anthemic tracks like “We Major,” “Celebration,” and most infectiously, the ingratiatingly cocky “Touch The Sky,” which introduced the mainstream to a skinny, eccentric fellow Chicagoan named Lupe Fiasco. Like Drake and Kid Cudi, Fiasco represented a new breed of hip-hop iconoclasts who benefited greatly from the thematic and stylistic freedom West’s breakthrough success engendered. 

West made it okay for rappers to flaunt their emotions, eccentricities, and off-kilter proclivities, to be equally proud of a knowledge of fashion history and a friendship with Rick Ross, who became a major presence on West’s following album. On Late Registration, West used his new resources to pay tribute to both his mother (“Hey Mama”) and grandmother (“Roses”) and to wrestle with the nature of addiction and compulsion (“Addiction”). Although West’s political commentary on tracks like “Crack Music” veered into the realm of paranoid conspiracy-mongering, it was impossible to doubt his passion and conviction.

Late Registration took a lot of chances but was savvy enough to include infectious pop singles like the smartass “Gold Digger” (with Jamie Foxx once again uncannily channeling Ray Charles) and the aforementioned “Touch The Sky.” But his experiments don’t always work; the symphonic lushness of “Bring Me Down” clashes weirdly with West’s cheeky lyrics. But this album nevertheless proved that West’s sound could get bigger and more expansive without sacrificing the scruffy intimacy that renders him strangely relatable no matter how outrageous and comically narcissistic his public behavior has become. 

After unexpectedly leaving rap behind on 808s & Heartbreak and very publicly enduring the death of his mother as well as the breakup of his relationship with Amber Rose, West returned to straightforward hip-hop with a vengeance with 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album completed West’s evolution from a brilliant producer who rapped to a rapper who happened to have risen up through the production ranks. The corny jokes, labored punchlines, and sometimes mannered and hammy delivery of Graduation give way to a new sleekness and efficiency on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s West’s rock-star album, a tour de force that finds him collaborating with Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon, sampling King Crimson on the electric single “Power,” and joining forces with a new generation of hip-hop cool kids that couldn’t help but make old collaborators like Consequence look small-time by comparison: Rick Ross, who delivers one of his fieriest and most brilliant verses on “Devil In A New Dress”; Nicki Minaj, who opens the album in an affected British accent she seems to find endlessly fascinating; Kid Cudi; and new signee Pusha T, whose mastery of flow pushes West to new heights of lyrical virtuosity. 

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West swings for the fences with every at-bat. In his world, hitting a single or a double is tantamount to failure, so a certain level of inconsistency is to be expected. But My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy skips assuredly from high to high. It’s an album of hits shockingly devoid of misses. 

The College Dropout introduced Kanye West as a Jay-Z protégé fortunate and gifted enough to live out his dream of working with and for his idol as a Roc-A-Fella recording artist. But after My Dark Beautiful Fantasy, West had risen to such dramatic heights that he was now prepared to collaborate on an entire album and tour with Jay-Z not as a protégé working with his hero, but rather as an icon working with a peer. 

Advanced Studies 
Jay-Z and Kanye West’s collaborative project Watch The Throne was originally conceived as an EP, but the high-powered duo was so inspired that it became a proper full-length. The pairing of the most revered rapper alive and rap’s most controversial mad genius inspired expectations that seemed impossible to meet, but West has a longstanding habit of making the impossible look easy. 

Watch The Throne is equally driven by competition and collaboration. Long gone are the days when West would defer to Jay-Z’s legendary status; he’s out to trump his partner on every track. And Jay-Z appears equally intent on showing up West. 

West and Jay-Z’s long, glorious, tortured, and triumphant history together informs every song. This is no Best Of Both Worlds-like commercially ordained cash-in, but rather the culmination of Jay-Z and West’s singularly fruitful partnership. Jay-Z can be glib and superficial on his own projects, content to coast on his reputation and technical virtuosity when his muse is absent, but he seems inspired here by the emotional honesty of his partner. 

On “New Day,” Jay-Z and West deliver heart-wrenching verses about the complicated and sometimes painful legacies they will leave to theoretical future sons over a track that reflects one giant of African-American music—Nina Simone, whose “Feeling Good” provides the haunting chorus—with another in RZA, who produced the song and is referenced by both artists at the beginning of their verses. 

“Made In America” and “No Church In The Wild” boast gorgeous choruses from Frank Ocean, a singer whose incredible success as an openly bisexual soul singer would be difficult to imagine in a world where Kanye West didn’t so dramatically expand the parameters of how a black pop star could look, act, and behave. Frank Ocean is one of the many beneficiaries of a post-Kanye hip-hop universe. 

The international tour for Watch The Throne was a pop-culture event in its own right, a massively successful and just plain massive undertaking highlighted by a climax where Jay-Z and West performed the irreverent, dubstep-leaning “Niggas In Paris” over and over and over again until audiences were exhausted, irritated, and exhilarated in equal measures. 

Leave it to Kanye West to take a stupid commercial gimmick and employ it to bracingly non-commercial ends. That’s exactly what he did on 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, an album so bold and unconventional it might have looked like professional suicide if it weren’t such a critical and commercial success. 

West has long illustrated a genius for twisting and contorting the trends and fads of contemporary pop music to his own devices. It’s difficult to imagine a pop-music trend more ephemeral or transparently stupid than the craze for Auto-Tune of a few years ago. But where other Auto-Tune enthusiasts used the gimmicky technology as a bandwagon it could happily hop off as soon as the listening public came to its senses, West saw a technology whose otherworldliness and coldness he could use to his own advantage. Seemingly alone among the hip-hop elite, West saw it as a tool, not as a means to an end. 

After rising to superstardom as a smartass rapper with a bold pop sensibility, Kanye West decided to re-create himself on 808s as a heartbroken crooner singing enigmatic lyrics over spare electro-pop beats. It’s an unapologetically melancholy album that largely foregoes rapping, humor, and guest appearances in favor of trembling sincerity and gloomy atmosphere. West has always been emotional, but he’s never been as consistently or movingly vulnerable as he is here. Yet the album isn’t entirely devoid of  humor: West spends most of the album wallowing in confusion and sadness, but resurrects some of his goofy irreverence (and knack for clumsy pop-culture references) on “Robocop,” an uncharacteristically upbeat standout that augments the album’s spare beats and pounding drums with soaring strings. 

As is generally the case, there turned out to be a method to Kanye West’s madness. 808s & Heartbreak didn’t just keep his creative and commercial winning streak going; it proved unexpectedly influential as well, casting a long shadow over the careers of sensitive souls like Drake and Kid Cudi, the latter of whom appears as one of four guests on the album, the others being Young Jeezy, who lends a potent blast of hip-hop fire to “Amazing,” Mr. Hudson, and fellow Auto-Tune lover Lil Wayne, who tested out his own pipes on his god-awful Rebirth, an album as thoroughly misconceived as 808s was daring. But West’s experiment was surprisingly assured and moving. 

Demerits:
Kanye West is one of hip-hop’s preeminent wild cards, shit-talkers, and storytellers. So VH1’s Storytellers should, in theory at least, be a perfect vehicle for him. Instead, West ends up unintentionally paying homage to Lauryn Hill’s famously rambling MTV Unplugged with a disc full of rambling stories that go nowhere, half-baked comments on fame and his career, and proficient versions of songs from his catalog, with a strong emphasis on material from his then-recent 808s & Heartbreak. It doesn’t help that West concedes early on that many of the stories behind 808s & Heartbreak are too personal to share with the public. For a man who treats his life and career as an open book, West sure picked a strange time to start protecting his privacy. 

Expectations were high for 2012’s Cruel Summer, which was supposed to be a compilation album showcasing the talent on West’s GOOD vanity label, but ended up looking and sounding more like a Kanye West album with an unusually extensive guest roster. West ventured far beyond the warm, hyper-soulful sound that defined his early production and The College Dropout, generally with inspired results. But Cruel Summer lacks direction, focus, and personality. West is skilled at manipulating the press and the public with his button-pushing fare, but lines on Cruel Summer about Mitt Romney, Kris Humphries, and his new flame, Kim Kardashian, feel like empty provocation from a man who usually is much more adept at backing up his provocation with substance.  

Miscellany
West only produced five tracks on Jay-Z’s 2001 masterpiece The Blueprint, one of which was a bonus track (a remix of “Girls, Girls, Girls” that easily surpasses the original), but it’s difficult to overestimate the role the album played in popularizing his sound (along with that of like-minded beatsmith Just Blaze), elevating his profile, and solidifying his professional and creative relationship with Jay-Z. 

West made sure those credits counted. In the disc that made his name and reputation as a producer, he helped launch the most famous sneak attack this side of Pearl Harbor in the Nas diss song “Takeover” (with its unexpected but smashingly effective Doors sample), appropriated the crowd-pleasing beat of the Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back” on the ubiquitous anthem “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” and perfected his gutbucket approach to soul with “Heart Of The City (Ain’t No Love).” The Blueprint marked the proper beginning of a friendship that has had a profound impact on hip-hop and pop music as a whole.   

By the time he produced all but two tracks on Common’s 2005 album, Be (J-Dilla produced the other two, “It’s Your World Parts 1&2” and “Love Is”), Kanye West had ascended to hip-hop royalty as a rapper and a producer. Be is not just the tightest, most consistent, and best album of Common’s distinguished career; it also ranks with West’s finest. Be soars on the strength of the chemistry between West and Common, who share their hometown of Chicago, a label, and much more. 

Kanye West transforms everything in his orbit into a component of the performance-art epic that is his life, and that extends to his use of Twitter. His much buzzed-about Twitter feed is either a fascinating glimpse into the mind of an artist or the work of a devastating satirist with a masterful handle on the rapper-producer’s eccentricities. In yet another illustration of West’s ability to bridge worlds, some smartass had the brilliant idea to pair those Tweets with The New Yorker cartoons, a bizarre conceptual stunt that works beautifully. 

The Essentials 

  1. The College Dropout: Before he was hip-hop’s king of the world, Kanye West made an indelible impression with The College Dropout, a heartwarming, funny, poignant, and beautifully produced album that laid the groundwork for his brilliant career and remains one of the greatest debuts in any genre.  
  2. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: West nearly trumped the brilliance of his debut with a ferocious 2010 return to hip-hop form that showcased the artist’s remarkable growth as a rapper and lyricist. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy paired its star with a hip-hop who’s-who (i.e. the folks in West’s address book), but this roster of high-powered guests never upstage their host. 
  3. Late Registration: The feverishly anticipated follow-up to West’s groundbreaking debut overreaches occasionally and would have benefited from a shorter, more concise running time, but it offers an embarrassment of riches and nicely balances commercial calculation with moody introspection. 
  4. 808s & Heartbreak: West took the biggest chance of his career with this downbeat, Auto-Tune-heavy electro-pop exploration of heartbreak and romantic angst. He risked career suicide with an album so doggedly different than anything he’d ever done, but emerged with an album that is revelatory, inspired, and audacious.
  5. Watch The Throne: Jay-Z helped make West’s career by employing him on The Blueprint, but in 2011 these two titans clashed on an epic collaborative album that had them working as peers rather than as mentor and protégé. 

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