If anything, (sensible) music audience agrees on one thing: Kanye Omari West has been one of the most successful artists in the 21st century. Eight critically acclaimed albums(ninth is on the way), all charged with a different, often groundbreaking sound, and plus breaking his way into the fashion, made him one of the most important and influential artists in the world today, and I mean it — not just producer, rapper, or designer — but an artist. And this has reasons.
I’m always thinking, “Are we doing something that’s already being done?” If so, we should stop.
— Noah Goldstein, producer of Kanye
Well, first of all, West is a really really talented producer. That was one of the main reasons why The College Dropout became that successful. But. BUT. From the very beginnings, Kanye started to push. In this blog, I’m not going to talk about his music per se, but his workflow, work ethic and artistic journey instead.
From the beginning, he developed and embraced his own production style, picking samples from soul and R&B records. He used gospel choir on Jesus Walks — a song, which was about, bear with me — a religion. And made an album comprised of themes of self-consciousness, family, religion, racism and higher education.
They say you can rap about anything except for Jesus
That means guns, sex, lies, videotape
But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh? — Jesus Walks
And because of the dominant gangster persona back then, he faced difficulty being accepted as a true rapper. Jay-Z’s Roc-A-Fella Records eventually signed him. And then the car accident and Through The Wire happened, which West recorded while his jaw wired shut. He had already started pushing boundaries, having released 1 single.
He continued the trend with Late Registration, providing very rich production and consistent themes. Now this is an album where West actively starts to add producers and collaborators to the work, being different in a way that on The College Dropout he solely produced most songs(exceptions being “Last Call” and “Breathe In, Breathe Out”).
The album’s music blends West’s primary soulful hip hop production with [Jon] Brion’s elaborate chamber pop orchestration, and experimentally delves into a wide array of different genres, including jazz, blues, rock, R&B, spoken word, funk, turntablism, western classical, and psychedelic soul.
- Rob Sheffield, Rolling Stone(August 25, 2005).
But his departing sound change came with Graduation, filled with fucking hits. The album was inspired by “stadium tours, house-music and indie rock”, and the lyrics were simplified. In essence, he wanted to make good “people’s theme” songs. And he triumphed at it.
But probably, the most important thing that happened after the release(which was the same day that 50 Cent’s album Curtis was released!) was that Graduation utterly outsold Curtis and ended the dominance of gangsta rap in hip-hop. Also, “It’s accredited to paving the way for other hip-hop artists who did not conform to gangster conventions to find commercial acceptance”.
And then, in 2008, what he did with the new album, 808s & Heartbreak.. was decade-defining. What he did, what he did.. was unbelievable. While hip-hop sound was clearly visible in Graduation, with the new album it had completely vanished. Synthetic, electronic, experimental pop sounds and singing through Auto-Tune vocal processor replaced traditional hip-hop and rapping. That was an excellent decision by Kanye, who felt that his emotions and feelings couldn’t be well expressed by rapping, and he deployed that Auto-Tune charged sometimes cyborgish voice, which proved to be just spot on. He enlisted T-Pain for coaching him on Auto-Tune, And Kid Cudi to help define the sound, who is credited as a co-writer on four songs.
And the album’s legacy is undeniable. It influenced and inspired good number of new wave artists, including Drake, Childish Gambino, Kid Cudi, Frank Ocean. No one man should have all that power.
Four acclaimed albums is no joke. There is a potential for an ego to burst. And yeah, it led Kanye to do some douchebaggeries. And amid negative media response and coverage, he became a ghost. And he started recording a new album to fully outshine his talent and prove that he was, in fact, the best.
Act like I ain’t had a belt in two classes
I ain’t got it I’m coming after whoever who has it
I’m coming after whoever; who has it? — Gorgeous, MBDTF
I consider My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy of being the peak of Kanye’s collaboration and craftsmanship skills. And maybe not only Kanye’s, but peak of collaborative efforts in hip-hop.
Noah Callahan-Bever wrote an excellent piece for Complex, which I wish I could quote in a whole.. Because it’s really, really good and informative. Anyway, he arrived in Hawaii, where Kanye had a studio. And the people who he saw during the day were: RZA. Kid Cudi. Pusha T. Q-Tip. Consequence.
Now let’s get into the genius of a workflow that they employed.
“Despite the heavyweights assembled, the egos rarely clash; talks are sprawling, enlightening, and productive … we are here to contribute, challenge, and inspire”.
Their schedule looked like this: ‘Ye had in-house chefs, so they had leisure breakfast every morning, and “music is the only thing discussed at the kitchen table — or anywhere else”. Then, some of them would play basketball, someone(Cudi) would smoke marijuana, and the other one(RZA) would work out in the weight room. After that, they would make music.
“Kanye never slept at his house, or even in a bed. He would, er, power-nap in a studio chair or couch here and there in 90-minute intervals, working through the night. Engineers remained behind the boards 24 hours a day.”
Numerous artists have spoken about the artistry and creative process of Kanye, and all of them have been extremely positive. West understood that only way he could deliver an excellent project like Dark Fantasy was to listen to everyone. Process every idea. Focus, focus, focus. Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon said:
He’s not just a rapper. He’s not just a producer. He’s a musician. He’s a true artist in every sense. Every part of his expression, from his clothes to everything, is a part of how he lives his life, and I think that’s why he’s so successful. I would show him what I did and he would come back and be like, ‘Oh, that’s awesome.’ Or, ‘Oh, that’s not cool.’ And we would just work on it — there was no ego involved, it was just what’s best for the song.”
This is just… awesome. This could be inspiring to every person who is studying, working, or making anything. The amount of focus and motivation is amazing. His work ethic proves that collaboration is one of the most important aspects of product delivery. Here’s what A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip said about this:
“I’d never worked the way Kanye was working in Hawaii. Everybody’s opinions mattered and counted. You would walk in, and there’s Consequence and Pusha T and everybody is sitting in there and he’s playing music and everyone is weighing in. It was like music by committee. [Laughs.] It was fresh that everybody cared like that…By the end of the sessions, you see how he integrates and transforms everyone’s contributions, so the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. He’s a real wizard at it. What he does is alchemy, really”
But, in the middle of the sessions, Pusha T made it clear that even if Kanye was working on one song and heard an absolutely different sound from the producer and he liked it, he would turn the attention to that sound and would try to find its place in the album.
“That’s what he was doing — running back and forth from room to room to room to room” — Pete Rock
If that’s not awesome and crazy at the same time, I don’t know what is.
“The guy’s the maestro”— Pusha T.
“I showed people that I understand how to make perfect. Dark Fantasy could be considered to be perfect. But that’s not what I’m here to do — I’m here to crack the pavement, break new grounds, sonically and in society, culturally.”
- Kanye West
Okay. When it comes to Yeezus, I am not sure where to start.
Before ‘Ye starts working on an album, he needs clear and big inspirations. And when it comes to Yeezus, as I mentioned in the previous post, they included a single lamp by Le Corbusier, 80s Chicago house music, and the film The Holy Mountain. Minimalism and surrealism all over the place.
He started bringing in his collaborators, old or new; again. Plus Daft Punk — whose song Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger was sampled in Kanye’s one of the most popular singles, Stronger. The moment when I first went to Genius and saw that producer credits: Daft Punk and Kanye West on On Sight..I can’t really describe the joy. Because I love Daft Punk. I really do.
A monster about to come alive again — On Sight
I think the process of collaboration during Yeezus sessions comes really close to the efforts off MBDTF. Most probably both in similarity and quality.
Everyone’s given a song and asked to go produce on it and bring it back the next day, then we’ll all sit around and critique it. It’s kind of like an art class [laughs]: “This is what we did this afternoon, what do you think?”
— Anthony Kilhoffer, producer of Kanye
Yes. It’s impossible not to be reminded of sessions from 2010.
It was a lot of coming up with design, like solving riddles. If the song called for something aggressive, it was up to three or four people to design what in their head was the best solution for that aggression in that moment. Everyone would approach it in completely different ways, and ultimately, it would all be edited by Kanye himself. In a weird way, he kind of produced it. Not only did he select it, but he stylized it. — Arca, producer
Even though Kanye’s creative process obviously borders perfectionist sometimes, he is famous for making important progress and bringing crucial changes to albums when the deadline is coming up. Yeezus is a good example of this, because ‘Ye enlisted Rick Rubin to strip down the album to a more minimalist approach. Rubin recalls:
Five songs still needed vocals and two or three of them still needed lyrics. He said, ‘Don’t worry, I will score 40 points for you in the fourth quarter.’ In the two hours before [he] had to run out to catch the plane, he did exactly that: finished all lyrics and performed them with gusto. A remarkable feat. He had total confidence in his ability to get the job done when push came to shove.
This introduces us to his new skill and an artistic capability: delivering at an extremely fast pace in critical situation. Can we say that many artists can boast with this? I don’t know. But intuitively, I wouldn’t say so.
with Yeezus, Yeezus finally proved(once again) that he could do anything in music, he could fuse anything. The experimental masterpiece angered some fans, though. I mean, hip-hop album with direct influences of industrial/acid house/electro/punk in the mainstream music?
But in 5 years, a lot more of them label the album as an undeniably outstanding. That’s beautiful.
In 2016, Kanye released The Life of Pablo, previously named Waves and SWISH beforehand. I don’t want to retell all the controversies and all before/after release, because it received significant media coverage. But, aside from all that controversy, there are a lot of interesting details about it. Mainly, I think, is this:
Essentially, Kanye attacked the concept of an album. Have you ever seen an album that is changing after the release? This poses a question:
- Should albums be reworked? Should they be a “ living, breathing, changing creative expression” and if so, for how long? How would it affect the music industry?
It’s a good one to think about. As much as I want that I had been Kanye fan in 2016 to live these moments, I’d maybe..say no.
Another interesting thing about The Life of Pablo is that even though it definitely has a narrative, it’s kind of seems inconsistent and mood-swinging at times. I’d call it nonlinear narrative, but I don’t know if that’d be correct really. Nonetheless, messiness is definitely divergence from his previous albums.
The Life of Pablo is the first Kanye West album that’s just an album: No major statements, no reinventions, no zeitgeist wheelie-popping. But a madcap sense of humor animates all his best work, and the new record has a freewheeling energy that is infectious and unique to his discography.
— Pitchfork; February 15, 2016
P.S. Skits were back, too.
P.P.S. I wonder if the album would get higher reception if critics revisited it after changes. I’m sure it would.
Note: For comparisons with the artistic journey of real Pablo(Picasso), check out this great twitter thread!
The year of 2018 was something else. He produced five albums that year, including his ye, Kids See Ghosts collaboration with Kid Cudi and arguably one of the best rap albums of the year, Pusha-T’s Daytona. And he still didn’t get a Grammy.. I wonder why. Did he push too much?
Anyways. I want to dedicate another blog post for ye and Kids See Ghosts. They are the most personal for ‘Ye and deserve separate time dedication. And they are very interesting if you care about the profound exploration of psyche, values, and opinions.
.. Because Kanye West isn’t mad. He’s conscious. He’s always been. And, on top of that, the best artist of the 21st century.
I’m living in the future so the present is my past
My presence is a present, kiss my ass
— Monster, MBDTF.