Of Gods and Men: The Evolution of Kanye West

young-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)

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