Yes, another Kanye article.
It’s the rapper/producer/singer/designer/self-proclaimed creative genius’ 39th birthday today, and I’m sure he’s off somewhere eating foods we can’t afford with his family right now. Or maybe not, but either way, love him or hate him, Mr. West is one of the most talked about musicians of the past decade, easily. Let’s put all of his talk show rants, crazy color contact-related antics and anything that has to do with Taylor Swift to the side (please), and just discuss what made any of us give a fuck about Kanye West in the first place: his music.
While it is his birthday today, it’s Yeezer who’s given us gifts over the years, in the forms of albums that continually challenged the status quo of modern hip-hop (and music as a whole), bursting at each of their respective seams with innovation and creative flourishes. Here’s a quick look back at Kanye’s discography, explaining how each album has left a distinct footprint on music and pop culture.
The College Dropout (2004)
The style of hip-hop production now called “chipmunk soul” experienced its heyday in the mid-2000’s, which is thanks in no small part to Kanye’s classic debut LP. Prior to the album’s release, ‘Ye had been sampling classic soul records and then speeding up their pitch in his production work for years, including tracks for pretty much every artist on the Rocafella Records roster. But it was here that he truly mastered the technique (or perhaps just saved his best beats for himself, more likely). His beat featuring a “chipmunked” sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through The Fire” for his first single “Through the Wire” is a clinic in modern hip-hop production. Yeezy took Just Blaze’s most known sound at the time and made it his own, which made many other producers follow suit.
Also, at a time when a lot of hip-hop was taking itself super seriously, Kanye’s debut featured shamelessly goofy songs like “New Workout Plan” and “School Spirit”, mixing them with the serious, relatable subject matter of “Spaceship” and “Family Business”. This album proved hip-hop didn’t have to be “hard” to sell well in the mainstream market.
Late Registration (2005)
On his follow up, Kanye swiftly avoided the “sophomore slump” by taking the framework of the sound he popularized the year before and adding a motherfucking orchestra to it. Late Registration is like College Dropout on steroids, with organic, non-sampled strings added throughout, courtesy of legendary producer Jon Brion (known for his work with other famous rappers such as Fiona Apple…oh, wait). After this album dropped, hip-hop as a whole began shooting for a bigger, fuller, more “crossover” sound in a lot of its sonics.
Lyrically, Yeezy kept with the same balanced nature of College Dropout, switching from goofy, likable and relatable to chest-thumping swagger with ease through the albums 21 tracks. He paved the lane for tightrope walking rappers who were comfortable being themselves while still not afraid to be braggadocios when they felt like it.
It was on his third LP where Kanye’s production took a real left turn, opting for a bigger, 80’s synth-inspired “stadium rap” sound on Graduation. Singles like “Good Life” and “Stronger” had the hardest drums of his career, and even more traditionally soulful joints like “Everything I Am” and “Homecoming” got sonically enhanced. Kanye’s crossover pop appeal had never been stronger, and the album’s success (crushing the sales of 50 Cent’s Curtis album) is proof of that.
His lyrical style still remained in the same general “endearingly cheesy while still confident” wheelhouse, but it became a bit more quotable here. He seemed to have truly mastered the easily memorized, but still clever one-liner style he’s become so known for these days; a style that everyone from Drake to West’s own signee Big Sean can’t deny being influenced by.
808s and Heartbreak (2008)
This album may be the most influential (and underrated) that Kanye has made to date. T-Pain (and before him, Roger Troutman) had been having fun with AutoTune for years with catchy, robotic-sounding hooks. But it was the dark twist (pun intended) Kanye put on the vocal editing software that has transcended former AutoTune pioneers to carry into a sound that’s still being built upon today by artists like Future and Travis Scott. This was far from a “feel good” album, and it was certainly not embraced universally when it dropped; but in retrospect, it was Yeezy’s biggest artistic risk. From the simple but very dark lyrics to the constantly morphing production, 808s was truly ahead of its time.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
This is, damn near objectively, one of the greatest hip-hop albums ever made. I’ve already discussed how much the lyrics meant for ‘Ye’s career AND personal life, which you can read here. It was a deep, unapologetic glimpse into the mind of a man who had just about lost it, due to fame, heartbreak (pun intended as always) and his mother’s death. But sonically, MBDTF was audio maximalism personified, with each song containing layers of production and vocals that surpassed any hip-hop production up to that time. It made other artists realize that hip-hop had the potential to be a ton more than a beat and a rhyme, with an R&B hook here and there; no, this was something entirely different, transcending genres and opening minds to yet another new sound.
Like 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye’s long awaited 6th album didn’t receive the warmest public embrace when it came out, but in time, more open-minded folks have warmed up to its wildly experimental nature. West himself even said, other than soulful finale “Bound”, this entire album was meant to “test” his listeners in a way, to see how they’d react to him letting his creative id completely take over. From Nine Inch Nails-influenced cyber-grunge, to EDM-tinged bombast, Yeezus didn’t give any fucks what anyone thought about it. The uncompromising piece of work doesn’t contain the Luis Vuitton Don’s best lyrics by a long shot, but if you don’t think this album’s sound has anything to do with the waves of experimental, abrasive hip-hop bubbling into the mainstream as of late, you’re kidding yourself.
The Life of Pablo (2016)
Kanye’s most recent effort is also his least influential musically, but the seemingly cut and paste, “collage” vibe coursing throughout still manages to set it apart from most albums dropping these days. Lyrically, it wasn’t too much of a step up from Yeezus (arguably a step down), but the awesome abstract hook melodies, feature choices and West’s manic delivery throughout maintain the listener’s attention for 18 tracks. Say what you will about the Yeezinator, but he’s certainly never boring.
What arguably made a bigger splash than the actual album itself was the incredibly disjointed, unorganized way it was released, with new changes being added to the songs in real time after they were already debuted on streaming services. It may not have been the most convenient way to release an album, but it definitely got people talking, which is one thing Kanye’s always been good at; after all, here we are again, right?
Now go have yourself a happy birthday, sir.