Of Gods and Men: The Evolution of Kanye West
The Rise (1996-2003)
By Jon Tanners
Over the course of his career as a producer and rapper that spans nearly two decades, Kanye West has defined himself as one of the most brazen, ambitious, outspoken, and iconoclastic artists in the history of hip-hop and music at large. He’s an original who knows how to assemble magnificent new toys from wide canvasses of collaborators and influences, and an orchestrator like few others. West has divided opinion about almost every aspect of his existence—his music, his fashion, his politics, his personal life—since he jumped into the limelight on the heels of his 2004 debut album, The College Dropout. To some, he is hip-hop’s savior, a bastion of creativity and inventiveness pushing the boundaries of style, sound, and substance in a genre often derided by diehards as stagnant (though this is a largely unfairly assumption given the output of the last few years). To others, he is a destroyer of hip-hop tradition, a thief masquerading collected influences as genuine inspiration, and a pompous blowhard too high on his own supply.
Before Kanye was outwardly any of these things, he was a young producer from Chicago, hustling beats and pushing to be noticed by rap royalty like his one day boss, collaborator, and “big brother,” Jay-Z. While Kanye worked on the beats that would plant his flag in the commercial landscape—the laundry list of hits and classics is too long to reprint, an undeniable embarrassment of riches, from Jay-Z’s “H to the Izzo” to Talib Kweli’s “Get By” to Alicia Keys’ “You Don’t Know My Name” and beyond—he also honed his craft as a rapper. Bars often overflowed with ideas, punchlines, unusual images, and boasts, occasionally clumsy but suggesting the clever, emotional emcee that would begin to blossom on College Dropout. Songs like “Wow” and “Peace” suggest the bravado and aspirational materialism that have long-marked Kanye’s discography, while songs like “Out Of Your Mind” showcased his ability to explore personal issues with a measure of humor, if perhaps sometimes unintentional.
As Kanye’s ascent from superstar behind the boards to top tier producer and rapper seemed poised for exponential takeoff, Kanye fell asleep while driving, sparking the car crash that would temporarily derail his career progress and spark a career breakthrough with his inspirational debut single, “Through the Wire.”
In Kanye’s Words
“I produced ‘City to City’ for Grav [from Down to Earth, Correct, ‘96] and took the $8,800 and bought myself a big Ghostface Jesus piece and some fly Polo,” he says. He also admits that, believe it or not, “It was the best thing I could’ve done with that money.”
“He pulled me aside when Hov had done seven songs for The Blueprint—and I didn’t have any on it yet—and he said, ‘You gotta bring him joints every day, ‘cause Jay’ll go and get Alchemist,’” he remembers. “Everyone’s parents have the same records.”
“I knew when I started all this that, if I went at it hard, I could do anything that I wanted,” he says, glancing down at the gold Roc chain that hangs from his neck.
(Excerpted from Mass Appeal)
The College Dropout (2004)
Sales: 3,293,417 US (440,670 first week)
Lead Single: “Through the Wire”
#1 Album in the USA: Outkast – Speakerboxxx/The Love Below
#1 Single in the USA: Outkast – “Hey Ya”
After producing hits for Rocafella’s roster and an esteemed cast of rappers and singers—Ludacris, Alicia Keys, Scarface, Talib Kweli—Kanye stepped into the limelight with his lauded debut The College Dropout, one of hip-hop’s greatest debuts and an album now widely regarded as an indisputable classic. Featuring Kanye’s trademark soul-sampling production and the marriage of arrogance, self-deprecation, social awareness, awkwardly charming, often self-deprecating punchlines, and pop sensibilities that would make believers out of skeptics.
Playing to Kanye’s strengths while simultaneously showcasing his ambition (the dichotomy of having a lead single like “Through the Wire” that stuck close to expectation followed by a single like “Jesus Walks” that shattered existing perceptions), College Dropout announced an artist who reflected hip-hop’s past and present, politically and socially-minded, but materially obsessed, at once deeply personal and denying a certain amount of access through sheer bravado. Though the sounds and styles would change on subsequent releases, College Dropout remains the template for much of what was to come.
In Kanye’s Words
“… people are always saying that I’m arrogant, but I just think that when my confidence meets other people’s insecurity, that equals ‘Kanye’s arrogant.’”
“… I’m not just taking what people give me if I feel that I deserve more… Right now, I feel like I deserve a cover and that doing another feature will just hurt my chances at a cover later. I don’t want you to be talkin’ about giving me a cover in 3 months, and then have you ask me if I stole a printer from OfficeMax. You feel me?”
“As far as the impact is concerned, I don’t really think that it’s my place to say… I told people things like, I’m gonna take over the world! because they didn’t know if it was going to happen. Now the work is gonna speak for itself.”
(Excerpted from Vibe)
Late Registration (2005)
Sales: 3,060,116 US (862,582 first week)
Lead Single: “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”
#1 Album in the USA: Hilary Duff – Most Wanted
#1 Single in the USA: Mariah Carey – “We Belong Together”
Following the massive success of College Dropout, Kanye set to aim higher. He enlisted the help of Fiona Apple producer Jon Brion and set to work turning his signature sound into something grander, using samples as inspiration and pieces of a larger, often orchestral tapestry rather than as a be-all-end-all. The result was Late Registration, an ambitious step forward that took its predecessor’s sonic and thematic obsessions and turned them up to eleven. “Roses” showed an unprecedentedly vulnerable Kanye, “Heard Em Say” showed Kanye at his most world-weary, “Crack Music” reminded listeners of his capacity for aggression and anger, while “Gold Digger” loomed large, an indicator that his ear for the charts (and sense of humor) was still firmly intact. Late Registration‘s message was clear: Kanye was not simply a rapper and producer, but an artist of the first order with no intent of loosing his grip on critical and commercial success alike.
Shortly after the release of Late Registration, Kanye would let loose one of his first and most memorable rants during a televised telethon for Hurricane Katrina relief. The outbursts reverberations would continue to be a topic of interviews and debate more than a half decade after its occurrence.
In Kanye’s Words
“How could you be me and want to be someone else?”
“Earlier today I said a lot of things but those cocky-sounding statements just look better in black and white. That’s why they always use them. And I always give it to them. That’s why my interviews are so valued. That’s why I should get paid… That’s perfect!”
“All this is saying is, okay I see now, the ‘hood does not quite want Shirley Bassey yet, so let me still give them this. Crack Music was made after Diamonds. After black people were like, ‘I don’t know about this one.’ It was like me reaching too high for the cookie jar.”
“Really good people like me are scared of falling off. I’m totally scared of falling off. Just imagine it. Just imagine if I woke up one day and I was wack. What would I do then?”
“I guess I’m religious because I really do believe that Jesus died for our sins…But that’s because it was instilled in me. If I had been raised as a Muslim I wouldn’t believe that Jesus died for our sins.”
“I’m the closest that hip-hop is getting to God. In some situations I’m like a ghetto Pope.” If that seems like a tall order, then so is his ambition to redefine hip-hop and “achieve something completely new.”
(Excerpted from The Guardian)
“I still wear T-shirts, sweaters and jackets, but it’s a little bit more grown-up, like my album is. I picked up a jacket from the Liberty store in London today. I like Gucci’s versions of Vans sneakers too, I got a pair as a birthday present form my road manager. He has really good taste too.”
“… a lot of hip hop comes from the hate that hate made. People are making music to try to come out of those situations, but they still speak about what they do to get out of there. Frustrated heavy rock came out of abused white kids, and drug addicts, right? On ‘Late Registration’, I have a track called ‘Crack Music’, which is about the music made by the crack generation. This is music that came out of the ’hood, out of the worst situations. You don’t know why it’s so rude? Well, fuck, look where it came from.”
“Ever since I was at preschool I had little kids following me around. The teacher just said I was a natural born leader. But I’m always going left until everyone is going left, then I’ll go right again. I’ll always push the envelope, try to get a rise out of people, and try to entertain them too.”
(Excerpted from Time Out London)
Sales: 2,437,559 US (957,722 first week)
Lead Single: “Stronger”
#1 Album in the USA: High School Musical 2 OST
#1 Single in the USA: Fergie – “Big Girls Don’t Cry”
With Late Registration amplifying Kanye’s sound and influences, the rapper’s next step was a blast aimed at moving feet and packing arenas. Though Graduation maintained Kanye’s signature awkward charm and personal reflection (songs like “Good Morning” and “Everything I Am,” in particular, feel like they could fit comfortably on Late Registration), it often swung for the fences, placing all of its eggs in an escapist bucket (“Stronger,” “Flashing Lights,” “Good Life,” and the tepid “Drunk And Hot Girls” speak to this mindset). For all its dance floor-filling ambitions, Graduation’s centerpiece remains the searing and cleverly introspective “Can’t Tell Me Nothing,” a shot of disdain and denial that is as insightful into Kanye’s mentality as it is dismissive of anyone that would question it.
Graduation hit store shelves on September 11, 2007, the same day as 50 Cent’s Curtis. Since his 2003 debut Get Rich Or Die Tryin, 50 Cent loomed as the singular titan of popular rap, with a temporarily retired Jay-Z and a mostly dormant Eminem opening the way for Curtis Jackson to become seemingly unconquerable rap royalty. This release day was billed as a heavyweight bout of sorts, one that West himself seemed to recognize that he might not win. Kanye’s star was rising, 50’s waning: Graduation debuted at #1, and Curtis debuted at #2.
In the November 2007, Kanye’s mother Donda West died due to plastic surgery-related complications.
In Kanye’s Words
“I definitely have OCD… I have to be creative at all times and I have to learn. I don’t know any other way. I’m a designer and rap is just one of my designs.”
“My life is work. My career is a labour of love. It’s not like I wanted to leave Murakami’s studio… I wanted to stay as long as possible.”
“I’m an artist that people love to hate… Even if they love me sometimes they just like to talk shit about me, because there are very few artists who stand up for what they believe in.”
“Well, I think it’s a bigger sound… ‘Stronger’ is more of a stadium thing, a throw-your- hands-up-in-the-sky vibe. It still has heavy melody, but we played with the drums a lot. We spent weeks on the drums on ‘I Wonder.’ ‘Stronger’ doesn’t even have a real snare, it’s like a digital open hi-hat. Just to play with those things in the rap world is really interesting.”
“I AM neon.”
(Excerpted from The Guardian)
“I can’t. I’m a pop enigma. I live and breathe every element in life. I rock a bespoke suit and I go to Harold’s for fried chicken. It’s all these things at once, because, as a tastemaker, I find the best of everything. There’s certain things that black people are the best at and certain things that white people are the best at. Whatever we as black people are the best at, I’ma go get that. Like, on Christmas I don’t want any food that tastes white. And when I go to purchase a house, I don’t want my credit to look black.”
(Excerpted from Spin via Stereogum)
808s and Heartbreak (2008)
Sales: 1,737,939 US (451,366 first week)
Lead Single: “Love Lockdown”
#1 Album in the USA: Beyonce – I Am…Sasha Fierce
#1 Single in the USA: T.I. ft. Rihanna – “Live Your Life”
Kanye’s rawest and most reflective album, 808s and Heartbreak, followed the sudden death of West’s mother, Donda. Recorded during the stadium-packing Glow in the Dark tour, 808s marked a sharp turn from the anthemic heights Kanye had built up to on Graduation; icy synths, sparse arrangements, and an occasional lean on the album’s namesake. Though 808s maintains bits of Kanye’s pop sensibility (songs like “Amazing” and over the top album lowlight “Robocop” carry the mantle for Graduation’s arena-sized ambition), it is a stark dive into anti-pop aesthetics.
Downtempo, jagged, and often loose in structure (album opener and standout “Say You Will” gorgeously relies on an expansive, mostly empty soundscape to cue listeners in on the ride to come; lead single “Love Lockdown” funneled heavy bass, taiko drums house-y piano, and obtuse lyrics into an oddball anthem of love lost), 808s simultaneously shunned contemporary radio fixations while sonically and thematically prefiguring the sort of hip-hop that rappers like Drake, Future, and, to a lesser extent, Kendrick Lamar have ridden to great success (much of which, of course, is due to producers like Noah “40” Shebib and T-Minus using 808s as clay for more polished, traditional productions). Largely gone is the humor and self-deprecation that marked preceding efforts.
In one of Kanye’s most memorable public outbursts, the ever outspoken rapper stormed the stage during the 2009 VMA’s, as Taylor Swift took the stage to accept the award for Best Female Video of the year. The words “I’ma let you finish…” would become both a meme and a mark of shame for Kanye that sparked a temporary disappearance from the public eye.
Though Kanye would limit his interviews over the next few years, he did take to Ellen to clear the air a bit.
In Kanye’s Words
“I realize that my place and position in history is that I will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade, I will be the loudest voice… It’s me settling into that position of just really accepting that it’s one thing to say you want to do it and it’s another thing to really end up being like Michael Jordan.”
(Originally appeared on kanyewest.com, excerpted from Huffington Post)
“I was saying it from the gate: I’m into Louis Vuitton, I wanna be pop. I spent my whole check on those two bags I wore for those pictures. Those are some of my best pictures, other than having a really bad haircut. Now, the only thing is pop. I really like popular culture. I’m all about Walt Disney, Coca-Cola, Louis Vuitton, Nike. I want people to remember me the way they know Nike, that level of impact. Who was the last person who really had it like that? When I was a kid, it seems like there was a lot of great pop music. There was George Michael, Michael Jackson.”
(Excerpted from The Fader)
“People tune into me for escapism. When you went to the Glow in the Dark Tour, you were literally transported to another planet. I know there’s anti-rich sentiment right now, with corporate people not using their jets and Obama saying heads of banks can’t make more than $500,000, but I really feel like that tape embodied me and what Louis Vuitton is about. I’d like to think I give optimism to people when I stunt. When I have a pink watch on or tight jeans on, people talk shit about me, but if I wore all gray and black, who would be the one to wear all the bright colors? How depressing would it be if I was always depressed, or should I say, the press. I’m here to entertain people and to be the one that does the crazy, bold stuff so they can live through me and get their mind off the recession and the war and whatever else is going on in the world.”
(Excerpted from Complex)
“People ask me a lot about my drive. I think it comes from, like, having a sexual addiction at a really young age…Look at the drive that people have to get sex—to dress like this and get a haircut and be in the club in the freezing cold at 3 A.M., the places they go to pick up a girl. If you can focus the energy into something valuable, put that into work ethic…”
“This game’s pass or fail. There’s no Bs, Cs, Ds. Either you bricked or you won, and this product’s gonna be an A. Fans out there don’t like it, ’cause of their own snobbery or instant rejection of Auto-Tune? But you can’t reject the melody, you can’t reject the story, you can’t reject the subject. That hook [on “Welcome to Heartbreak”] is fucking Broadway, that hook is like… 1940s.”
Excerpted from Details
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Sales: 1,340,900 US (497,088 first week)
Lead Single: “Power”
#1 Album in the USA: Susan Boyle – The Gift
#1 Single in the USA: Rihanna ft. Drake – “What’s My Name”
After a two year hiatus, Kanye re-emerged in the summer of 2010 with triumphant single “Power,” the first taste of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy that would serve both as statement of purpose and microcosm of the album’s epic scope and sound. When Kanye collected an impressive group of collaborators in Hawaii that included contemporaries like Big Sean, Pusha T, Nicki Minaj, Rick Ross, Lex Luger, Drake, and Rihanna, and legends like RZA, DJ Premier, Raekwon, Q-Tip, Jay-Z, and Elton John, his ambition was as clear as his purpose: to create an album so grand, so sprawling and universal as to be undeniable. MBDTF emerged in the fall of 2010 as a rap album unlike any other, at once deeply personal and reflective and triumphant enough to turn away from the past. Bursting with ideas and soundscapes that pushed Kanye’s previous fixations to cinematic new heights, MBDTF managed commercial success while erasing doubt that the embattled artist had lost his edge and vision in the wake of the quizzically received 808s and the dulling Taylor Swift incident.
Kanye West’s on and off romance with model Amber Rose provided ample inspiration for some of MBDTF’s more sexual and emotional moments, with the album’s tail end (“Hell of a Life,” “Blame Game,” “Lost In The World”) seemingly influenced in no small part by the rapper’s relationship.
In Kanye’s Words
“Once you’re put in power, you have to take advantage of the position you’re in to make the world better. There were times when I thought I was making the world better, or maybe I just wasn’t thinking at all.”
“The single thing that hurt me the most is when I found out how much Taylor Swift wanted to work with me. It wasn’t about Black or White, it wasn’t about wrong or right, it wasn’t about real or fake. It was about humanity, and at no point in life can you think that you’re such a god that you do not have to deal with humanity.”
“Timing is everything. Good timing is a sign of good taste. I’ve heard people say, “Kanye told the truth. Beyoncé should’ve won.” But that doesn’t mean it was the right moment for me to express those feelings. There are certain people that know how to tell you things at the perfect time for you to be able to accept them properly. I wasn’t that person then.”
“Everything is a form of my music, but the style of 808s & Heartbreak is better served by Drake and Kid Cudi than it is by me.”
“Drake was the first thing that actually scared me and put pressure on me, because it was the first thing that was blatantly from a similar perspective and lane. When I feel pressure, I step my game up. So I believe that Drake made great music for people to love and enjoy, but he also forced me to step my game up, because I have to be Kanye West.”
(Excerpted from XXL Cover Story written by Kanye)
“Why Prince can’t be recognized in the moment? So many artists they didn’t even appreciate them until after they passed away. And I think there’s where I get a lot of flack too, because I’m like, no, you’re going to appreciate this now. And not particularly me. You’re going to appreciate someone else. They’ve got to understand, that moment was very — they’re trying to say, ‘Oh, he’s arrogant.’ What was arrogant about that [i.e., Swiftgate]? That’s completely selfless. That’s like jumping in front of a bullet. I lost an arm. I’m walking around trying to put my album out with one arm right now. Every time I try to perform a song, everybody’s like, ‘Well, what’s up with that missing arm, though?'”
“We develop and change rap styles all together. Like, look at say the hashtag rap–that’s what we call it when you take the ‘like’ or ‘as’ out of the metaphor. ‘Flex, sweater red–firetruck.’ Everybody raps like that, right? That’s really spawned from like ‘Barry Bonds': ‘Here’s another hit–Barry Bonds.’ So even like when I sat with Nicki [Minaj] in Hawaii, I was like, for this album, particularly–and I still like that, that style is super fresh–but this album, we not even doing similes. It’s just a series of statements. We get on some real push the culture forward–I think that’s the biggest reason ‘Power’ took me like five thousand man hours to sit there and write it.”
“People are not going to agree with everything I do. I look back and look at stuff I do and don’t agree with it. Man, if I made a dis record of myself, I would kill me. I would be extremely good at it.”
“The media is scared of me. They’re scared of a black man with this taste level, with this connection–with like Pusha, Jeezy, Ross, and sidebar, I’m sitting at this fashion thing. So what they’ll do is, in order to take that power away, they try to turn me into a demon. And it’s happened so many times through history. They knocked the nose off the Sphinx, you know? They trying to tell you aliens built the pyramids. And what’s so crazy is, they really have black people believing it. And people need to understand, like I’m not above the people. I’m of the people. I love the people. I am the people.”
Excerpted from an on-air interview with Hot 97‘s Funkmaster Flex (as transcribed by The Village Voice)
Kanye in the News
A half-decade after his infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” incident on national television, Kanye West felt the sting of the past in a contentious interview with Matt Lauer.
Watch the Throne (2011)
Sales: 1,563,052 US (436,078 first week)
Lead Single: “Otis”
#1 Album in the USA: Adele – 21
#1 Single in the USA: LMFAO – “Party Rock Anthem”
Conceived in the decadent throes of MBDTF‘s recording and completed in castles, swank hotel rooms, and famous studios across the globe, Kanye West and Jay-Z’s Watch the Throne provided the duo’s most complete and audacious testament to their own awesomeness and riches yet. Kept under lock and and key until its leak-preventing digital only release, WTT is as expensive sounding as its gilded cover would have even the uninitiated believe. With little rhyme or reason, the album bounces from stomping, cinematic prog-rock on “No Church In the Wild” to barebones stunt-rap on the now ubiquitous “N*ggas in Paris,” to costly soul-sampling on unorthodox single “Otis,” taking detours into dubstep (“Who Gon Stop Me”), early 90s hip-hop (“The Joy”) and gothic trap (“H•A•M”). While often brashly boastful as a glass of champagne spilled on the public’s head, songs like “Made in America” and “Murder to Excellence” display a pointed social awareness that seems both fitting—a reflection of two men able to reach out and touch the President of the United States—and at odds with the surrounding opulence, particularly the latter, which marked Kanye’s first explicit address of violence in his home city of Chicago.
While certainly not a cohesive unit, WTT sparkles with Kanye’s ambitious sonic gluttony writ large and loose.
In Kanye’s Words
In the wake of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye shied away from interviews.
“Damn Yeezy and Hov, where the hell ya been?
Niggas talking real reckless; stuntmen
I adopted these niggas, Phillip Drummond them
Now I’m about to make them tuck their whole summer in”
-Kanye West, “Otis”
Cruel Summer (2012)
Sales: 453,216 US (205,753 first week)
Lead Single: “Mercy”
#1 Album in the USA: Toby Mac – Eye On It
#1 Single in the USA: Taylor Swift – “We Are Never Ever Getting Back Together”
While not a proper Kanye album, the G.O.O.D. Music compilation bears his obvious sonic fingerprints. The stomping, symphonic, R-Kelly-featuring opener “To The World” is a classic, orchestral Kanye middle finger. “New God Flow” plays Kanye’s post 808s re-dedication to boom bap up to towering, hypnotic heights. “The One” could sound at home as a bonus track on Graduation. “Cold” recasts “N*ggas in Paris” as a solo Kanye stunt-a-thon.
Simultaneously, Cruel Summer suggests what would prove to be just around the corner: the skeletal beats and healthy lengths of “Mercy” and “Clique,” the dancehall chorus of “In the Morning,” the continued focus on Chicago’s violence (both sonic and actual) with a modified version of Chief Keef’s drill anthem “Don’t Like,” and the presence of Hudson Mohawke.
Prior to the album’s release, almost concurrently with the release of single “Cold,” Kanye’s long-rumored romance with reality starlet Kim Kardashian became confirmed reality (infamously sparking one of Kanye’s greatest punchlines: “And the whole industry want to fuck your old chick/Only nigga I got respect for is Wiz/And I’ll admit, I had fell in love with Kim/Around the same time she had fell in love with him/Well that’s cool, baby girl, do ya thang/Lucky I ain’t had Jay drop him from the team”).
In Kanye’s Words
Like 2011, 2012 proved a quiet year for Kanye on the interview front. Of course, the talented Mr. West nonetheless remained in the news (as he puts it on “Mercy”: “Don’t do no press but I get the most press, kid”).
First Week: 450,000 (projected)
#1 Album in the USA: Queens of the Stone Age – …Like Clockwork
#1 Single in the USA: Robin Thicke ft. Pharrell and T.I. – “Blurred Lines”
Arriving with a much-discussed, unconventional rollout—little under two months of lead up, no single, no cover, a series of video projections across the globe debuting “New Slaves,” and an SNL performance debuting “Black Skinhead”—Kanye West’s Yeezus fittingly presents the man’s most challenging work yet.
Dark, nihilistic, sexual, and raw, Yeezus is an impressionistic display of Kanye’s exploits as a rich, hedonistic celebrity. It is aggressively aware of race and stereotype in a way dissimilar from Kanye’s catalog—furious, seething, and often quite sad. Sonically, it is closely related to an unusual array of non-hip-hop predecessors (Ministry, Nine Inch Nails, Depeche Mode, acid house) and contemporary sounds (Death Grips, drill, trap, 2012 and 2013’s EDM flood, 808s-era Kanye) alike, a melting pot explained largely by its laundry list of collaborators: Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, Justin Vernon, Chief Keef, King Louie, Kid Cudi, Frank Ocean, Lupe Fiasco, Travi$ Scott, Charlie Wilson, S1, Arca, and, famously, Rick Rubin.
It positively breaks under the weight of its own ideas at times, often feeling jagged and fragmented in ways few high-profile rap albums ever have—perhaps the clearest encapsulation of the bleakness Kanye has skirted around with his recent fixation on the violence occurring in his hometown of Chicago (beginning on Watch the Throne‘s “Murder to Excellence”). Its delirious darkness comes across as potentially paradoxical, coming at a time when most men might soften, as Kanye welcomes a baby girl into the world with girlfriend Kim Kardashian.
At the time of Yeezus‘ release, not a single album sits within the top 10 of the Billboard 200, with Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’ The Heist coming closest at #12.
In Kanye’s Words
“You know what? I can answer that, but I’m—I’m just—not afraid, but I know that would be such a distraction. It’s such a strong thing, and people have such a strong feeling about it. ‘Dark Fantasy’ was my long, backhanded apology. You know how people give a backhanded compliment? It was a backhanded apology. It was like, all these raps, all these sonic acrobatics. I was like: “Let me show you guys what I can do, and please accept me back. You want to have me on your shelves.”
“There are people who have figured out the exact, you know, Kanye West formula, the mix between Graduation and 808s, and were able to become more successful at it. ‘Stronger’ was the first, like, dance-rap song that resonated to that level, and then ‘808s’ was the first album of that kind, you know? It was the first, like, black new wave album. I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with [the graphic designer] Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.”
“For him, it’s really just inside of him. I’m still just a kid learning about minimalism, and he’s a master of it. It’s just really such a blessing, to be able to work with him. I want to say that after working with Rick, it humbled me to realize why I hadn’t—even though I produced ‘Watch the Throne'; even though I produced ‘Dark Fantasy’—why I hadn’t won Album of the Year yet.
“This album is moments that I haven’t done before, like just my voice and drums. What people call a rant—but put it next to just a drumbeat, and it cuts to the level of, like, Run-D.M.C. or KRS-One. The last record I can remember—and I’m going to name records that you’ll think are cheesy—but like, J-Kwon, ‘Tipsy.’ People would think that’s like a lower-quality, less intellectual form of hip-hop, but that’s always my No. 1. There’s no opera sounds on this new album, you know what I mean? It’s just like, super low-bit. I’m still, like, slightly a snob, but I completely removed my snob heaven songs; I just removed them altogether.”
“Yeah, it’s like trap and drill and house. I knew that I wanted to have a deep Chicago influence on this album, and I would listen to like, old Chicago house. I think that even ‘Black Skinhead’ could border on house, ‘On Sight’ sounds like acid house, and then ‘I Am a God’ obviously sounds, like, super house…Yeah, visceral, tribal. I’m just trying to cut away all the—you know, it’s even like what we talk about with clothing and fashion, that sometimes all that gets in the way. You even see the way I dress now is so super straight.”
“I think that’s a responsibility that I have, to push possibilities, to show people: ‘This is the level that things could be at.’ So when you get something that has the name Kanye West on it, it’s supposed to be pushing the furthest possibilities. I will be the leader of a company that ends up being worth billions of dollars, because I got the answers. I understand culture. I am the nucleus.”
(Excerpted from The New York Times)