Before I delve into his body of work, and everything else that goes along with the man, I will be up front with all of you: I am a Kanye stan. It's not as hard for me to admit that, as it is for thousands of anonymous internet keyboard jockeys; but it's the truth, and it has to be established.
Kanye West is, arguably, the most polarizing figure in pop music today. Though he may be classically categorized as a rapper/hip-hop artist, Ye is probably the most recognizable name in popular music worldwide (probably other than Beyonce and, I don't know, Taylor Swift?). This notoriety is not without foundation, he's built a legacy in the last 15 years that seems more like overnight success in comparison to the gods of the music Parthenon (McCartney, Dylan, etc.).
It all started somewhere.
The College Dropout and Late Registration
I was 13 when Dropout, for lack of a better word, dropped. I was also not a fan of rap music in the least at this point in my life. Thirteen year-old me had absolutely no clue who Kanye West was, or what on earth Roc-A-Fella was, but as a white kid going to school in the upper-middle class suburbs who only had black and Latino friends, I quickly got an education as I rode the bus every morning.
It's hard for me to recall what the first song I heard from this album was, but it was either Slow Jamz or The New Workout Plan. I do remember hearing the song on the bus on the way home, as it played on Power 96, but it didn't really strike me as something, or someone, I would continue listening to. A few weeks (or months, 2004 was a blur because of puberty and drugs) later I saw the video for Jesus Walks, and something began to click. I'm not sure what it was exactly, but the guy piqued my interest, and stayed on my periphery.
Then somewhere in the next year, or two, I became friends with some guys in my journalism classes and all they listened to was rap music. One day I came to class, and on my desk was a mix CD of Lupe Fiasco tracks, one of which was Touch The Sky. I began to dig a little deeper, and right after my 15th birthday, Late Registration was released.
Late Registration was (besides Lupe Fiasco's Food & Liquor) the record that made me the fan of hip-hop music that I am today. It is, unquestionably my favorite record from start to finish, that I've heard in my lifetime.
LR is also what really begins to push Kanye in a more political and outspoken direction, it also begins to show his emotional side. Tracks like Heard Em Say, Roses, and Hey Mama become instant classics in the early catalog of Mr. West.
After listening to his sophomore effort, I went back and listened to Dropout, and basically fell in love. It was an immersive experience that opened up doors to so much more than the rap landscape. Because of Kanye's first two major releases, I began to listen to more soul, funk, and blues records because of his sampling techniques and signature soul beats.
Ye's third album came out at the beginning of my senior year of high school, and 17-year old me kinda hated it at first. Graduation is partly famous for being the record that should have retired 50 Cent. It also serves as the next chapter in Ye's education-themed titles, and in his progression/evolution of sounds.
Kanye had just finished a world tour with U2, and adopted the stadium mentality, focusing on big sounds. Synths and booming electro-house beats became the common thread throughout much of the record, with the usual soul samples and chipmunk voices taking a backseat.
While I still believe this is the least-likable of Kanye's major solo albums, it has (to me) some of his crown jewel singles. Can't Tell Me Nothing and Flashing Lights are, in my opinion, two of the best composed, arranged, and mastered songs that he has ever done.
With that said, I still have problems getting through this entire album. Songs like Barry Bonds, Drunk and Hot Girls, and Good Life are the lowlights of a pretty extensive career.
808s & Heartbreak
This album marks a seminal moment in both rap and pop music history for two reasons:
1. Without this record, guys like Drake, Kid Cudi, and any other emo rapper/R&B artist of this century would have had a harder time getting out of the gates.
2. It changed the social norm, or at least the industry norm, for what was acceptable as a full length LP from a titan of the genre.
808s was the first recording from Ye after his mother passed away in the winter of 2007. A switch was flipped in him, and as an avid fan of the guy, who was also starting college at the time of its release, it flipped one in me, too (I hate that sentence). Kanye made sure to classify the album himself, as pop. He knew from the get-go that it wouldn't appease a majority his long time fans, but it made me happy.
It was another step in another direction by a guy who really didn't care to conform to any trend in a genre that always seemed to stay inside industry-imposed boundaries.
808s was minimalistic, but complex in arrangement. And just like Dropout and LR, opened up my tastes to more electronic, ambient, and R&B artists that inhabit my regular listening.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
The magnum opus.
MBDTF is not my favorite Kanye record, but I'll be sure to defend it as his most complete, unabashedly anthemic albums of his career, and probably of the 21st Century.
I can't listen to this album in blocks, or even as part of a shuffle on my iTunes, because I believe it only works as one continuous event. I could probably sit here and blabber on and on about the album, but it would only solidify my stan-dom tenfold.
This album's release corresponds with a really ugly time in my life, when I was caught up in school, the death of a handful of very close family members, and some incredibly irresponsible actions that would essentially cost me a semester's worth of money and time. In other words, MBDTF made me refocus myself.
I own three copies of the record, for some reason: a CD, a digital copy, and a vinyl pressing. Yes, it's that important to me.
Watch The Throne and Cruel Summer
Here is where Kanye begins to really transform into the iteration of Kanye that we know today. These two records are the prototypes for swag/brag rap. Part of this is due to the relationship that becomes even closer with Ye's big brother, Jay-Z, and due to Ye finally snagging his dream girl, Kim K.
At this point in my life, I'm 21 and already diving headfirst into full-blown alcoholism and the most entertaining part of my college career. These records only amplified this mindset because: A) I had fully taken back control of my life, and B) I had built up my ego to an all-time high, and there was nothing anyone (besides the flock... okay... two girls) could do to bruise it.
WTT came out right after I officially re-declared my major and (un)wisely went into the history program. Cruel Summer dropped in the middle of my final semester in college, when I literally spent six hours a day behind a pile of books on the Greek Revolution/War of Independence and a computer screen that would not relent.
This all seemed to work out perfectly because the style of Kanye's production began to morph into very hyper-theatrical, omnipotent walls of sound. Not only was I a senior who was conquering dozens of research projects and massive papers, I had a soundtrack to it.
I still have no fucking idea what exactly Kanye is/was trying to accomplish with Yeezus. I almost feel as though there's nowhere left for him to go, both lyrically and sonically, after unleashing this album on the masses. It's a self-declared ascension.
Every album that precedes it has an imprint on Yeezus. Any element of production, or symbolism, that Kanye has showcased in his career before this point is brought back to life and given a twist on this record.
Obviously, Yeezus is the current stop on my timeline. I'm in the middle of my 20s. I'm two-ish years removed from graduating from college and in a job that I don't like, but have nowhere to go, really.
And that's kinda where I think Kanye is right now. Where does he go now?