Artist of the week: Kanye West
Kanye West is, by far, the most polarizing and talented hip hop artist of the last two decades. In fact, he’s some kind of a Renaissance man: recording artist and producer, lyricist, beat maker, fashion designer and entrepreneur. In the past, one might have felt tempted to compare him to Jay-Z, as examples of self-made men that made their way up from underground to mainstream. Nowadays, though, is it rather obvious there is a massive difference between their influence, personas and work ethic. Jay-Z is one cool, cold businessman with a two or three musical classics in his pocket, while Kanye West is never-growing child genius prone to exasperating ramps, beefs and other shenanigans, but with a discography that is nothing but stellar. Even when some of his records received a lukewarm reception upon their release, time managed to prove their visionary influence in the musical landscape.
After becoming known as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records in the early 2000s producing hit singles for Jay-Z, Ludacris and Alicia Keys, West started his solo career with a critically praised and highly popular trilogy of seminal LPs that showcased an acute sensibility to melody and sonic details, such as the revolutionary The College Dropout (2004), the baroque-inspired Late Registration (2005) and the electronic-tinged Graduation (2007).
Things changed with the release of 808s & Heartbreak (2009), which features extensive use of the eponymous Roland TR-808 drum machine and contains themes of love, loneliness, sorrow and heartache (his mother, Donda West, had died of complications from cosmetic surgery involving abdominoplasty and breast reduction in November 2007). Music audiences and critics were taken aback by the uncharacteristic production style and the presence of Auto-Tune, which typified the pre-release response to the record. In the following years, the record turned out to be his most influential piece of work from his career, being repeatedly praised by a new wave of rappers, singers and producers, such as Drake, J. Cole, How To Dress Well and The Weeknd.
His next album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010), was unanimously greeted by both fans and critics as his magnum opus. Its maximalist philosophy was a radical departure from the minimalist sound of his previous record and, for the first time, showcased what would become his thematic obsession over the following years: celebrity and excess. He quickly released three other LPs in the three following years: a collaborative album with Jay-Z (2011’s Watch The Throne); a collection of tracks by artists from his record label GOOD Music (2012’s Cruel Summer); and, most importantly, his most abrasive and sonically experimental album, incorporating elements of industrial, acid house, punk, dancehall, electro and Chicago drill (2013’s Yeezus).
To end what has been his biggest hiatus between albums and a series of unfortunate social media ramps and the release of a series of uneven singles, The Life of Pablo has finally arrived last Saturday. Though it is pretty premature to evaluate such a complex, long and collaborative record, a few spins were already enough to prove that his thirst for new sounds has not been quenched. Obviously, no other record will be more talked about and dissected in the following weeks.
Yeezy is back and it’s damned good to be able to listen to one full hour of new, challenging music from him.
João Pedro da Costa is a web studies scholar and a music fan.