Before Donda West passed away, before fiancée Alexis Phifer broke off their engagement, before he took the mic away from America’s de facto sweetheart, and before you felt obligated to preface your fandom by saying, “I think he’s an asshole as a person,” Kanye West had put together one of the most successful and impactful runs of any pop artist in modern American music. That’s not hyperbole, nor is it news; publications have been willing to give the “College Era” of Yeezy’s career its glowing due diligence since we were in medias res.
Back then, the mainstream audience was willing to match the adulation of critics without the nervous reservations that seem to occupy most casual conversations about the man who was once facing down 50 Cent on the cover of Rolling Stone and who moved us to tears with performances of Hey Mama at the Grammys and on the Glow in the Dark Tour in tribute to his passed idol. While his award-show stunts and other cringe-worthy moments began long before the VMA incident, we were generally willing to love Kanye as much as he loved himself because his arrogance gleamed more in amicable swagger rather than in vibrant, albeit directionless, invectives. Kanye knows it, too. As he aptly (and mockingly) observes on the self-rhyming track of The Life of Pablo, we miss the old ‘Ye.
Who exactly was the Old Kanye and how did he arrive at New ‘Ye? From a fan’s perspective, the entire transition from superstar to ultra-scrutinized pseudo-villain (with a few other identities along the way) serves as a fascinating commentary on the art of Yeezus and our cultural sensitivity, but it’s impossible to describe in brief. This is my own, fan-driven take on the evolution of Kanye West.
In 2004, Facebook was in its heyday, Tobey Maguire was still Spider-Man, and George W. Bush was on the verge of a predictable reelection. We were sporting iPods with music loaded off CDs and bought digitally from iTunes with legal music streaming years away rather than smartphones with their infinite powers.
The rap genre was dominated by Eminem via the massive success of his pair of alter-ego LPs and The Eminem Show, 50 Cent with Get Rich or Die Tryin’, and Jay Z “retired” off The Black Album. Despite these historic entries into rap’s canon, the mid 2000s was a time of stagnant uncertainty for hip-hop, a setting ripe for revolution.
Kanye documents his own rise into the mise-en-scène through his rap monologue Last Call, the outro of The College Dropout, in which he speaks casually of his newfound success as if it were annoyingly unsurprising. He had emerged as a producer in the late 90s under the mentorship of fellow Chicagoan No I.D. and elevated himself to a producer star, reviving the soul sample most notable for Jay Z’s The Blueprint, a style he would showcase on his own albums.
Dropout famously broke away the gangster-rap mold that had persisted into the new millennium as a dominant sub-genre in hip-hop music. It’s equal parts corny and cocky, showcasing vulnerable, sarcastic and genuine explorations of working- and middle-class woes generally absent in the lyrics of his older contemporaries. Kanye muses on the all-timer All Falls Down, “We’re all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it.” He was unafraid for us to perceive him exactly as we should in his early years: cocky, innovative and, naturally, accessible.
As a freshman in college six years ago, I once heard a girl rapping the second verse of Get Em High. I turned around and continued: “At NYU, but she hails from Kansas, right now she just lamping, chilling on campus!”
She smiled but wasn’t surprised. We agreed: Who didn’t love Dropout? In the short term, it was so damn relatable, personally and collectively, for friends and acquaintances on a massive campus all agonizing over degrees, success and the uncertainties of adulthood.
In the long term, he was laying groundwork for a genre for which he would serve as the principal driver throughout the remainder of the decade. Drake, Childish Gambino, J. Cole, Kid Cudi and countless others have cited ‘Ye’s creativity and willingness to turn hip-hop on its head as major influences on their own careers. While Dropout was massively successful at the time, it has since received extreme praise as its influence became timeless. Still, critics, as they would with any newcomer, quietly wondered if he would fall victim to the artistic cliché: “the Sophomore Slump.”
If The College Dropout was soulful cookout music, Late Registration was an opera. Joining forces with film composer Jon Brion of such elegant soundtracks as Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Kanye produced an album that was 21-tracks deep of orchestration style strings laid over more chopped-up oldies intermittent with brazenly humorous skits. The result is the most refined, classiest and complete album he has ever made.
On both Dropout and Late Registration, he exuded his lyrical strengths that he has not quite matched since. If “Yeezy Yeezy Yeezy just jumped over Jumpman” is shallow and uninspired, back in the college era, Kanye showcased full verses of an effortless storyteller that were simplistic and surprisingly meaningful. Kanye was never going to be as poetic as Nas or Kendrick Lamar and never as technically brilliant as Eminem or Andre 3000. But he trades in advanced rhythm schemes, vague poetics, and a speed-demon flow for in-your-face cultural imagery and colloquially driven prose that has made him one of the most relatable rappers we’ve ever heard.
On Hey Mama, for instance, it’s not difficult to be moved by a young Kanye promising his crying mother on their kitchen floor that one day she won’t have to work anymore, or the opener on the second verse: “‘Forrest Gump,’ Mama said, ‘life is a like a box of chocolates/My mama told me go to school, get your doctorate/Something to fall back on, you could profit with/But still supported me when I did the opposite.”
He dropped maybe the most cliché movie reference of all time and transitioned right back into heartfelt mom idolization. This exemplifies Kanye’s lyrical art form, especially in his early discography: Back then, the movies, models and other references were not cheap filler but expertly interwoven with his believability, and the result is a series of stories that are surprisingly down-to-earth.
Even on Crack Music and Heard ‘Em Say, which are more social commentaries than personal anecdotes, we find ourselves understanding—or at least appreciating—some pretty heavy subjects. Kanye, at the height of lyrical accessibility, had successfully shed producer-rapper syndrome to become rapper-artist.
Graduation was a victory lap, one Kanye would never quite run again. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is his magnum opus, but it was a labor of redemption, whereas Graduation was a product of the neck-break momentum drawn from the enormous success of Late Registration.
Kanye concluded his College series with an exclamation point of synth-driven stadium music that all but affirmed his superstar status. The more serious tones of Late Registration gave way to unchecked bravado on super hits Stronger and Can’t Tell Me Nothing and tributes to Chicago and Jay Z on Homecoming and Big Brother.
Graduation’s highlights, though, lie in the entries that showcase his vulnerability at a pseudo tipping point, a man with enough introspective baggage to reflect rather than retell. I Wonder and Flashing Lights are two of his fan favorites and feature lyrics which, beneath an overdose of trademark swagger, suggest the toils of fame coming on in ways that were not as obvious on the first two albums. Dropout and Registration were relatively grounded and self-aware, channeling his past and immediate present, whereas Graduation foreshadowed a future in which superstardom and immeasurable adulation would begin to challenge level-headedness, fairly or not.
For his first three albums alone, Kanye won 10 Grammys, nearly went one-week platinum on the latter two, has since reached at least double platinum on all three, received consistently raving remarks from contemporary reviews and end-of-decade lists alike. He helped revive the soul sample, brought orchestration and electronica to the proceedings and shaped dozens of careers in the process.
During his VH1 storytellers’ appearance, which aired in January 2009, Kanye told us something we already knew: He was never going to make the same album twice, not the way so many other artists do. Just as Dropout broke the mold of rap music, Late Registration and Graduation followed in consistent succession of evolution, sonically and thematically. What denoted a trilogy, though, beyond the titles, was the vulnerability, relatability and amicable bravado that defined the mindset of their maker.
As Kanye prepared for his worldwide Glow in the Dark Tour, he was already reeling from the death of his mother. 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, in all its minimalist beauty, served as Kanye’s grief fully on display, delivered in shamelessly maudlin, honest, vulnerable lyrics on the back of catchy synthpop that was a necessary, if not deserved, break from the triumphs of his College Era.
It was the staple of his blue period, which we will explore in Part II.
Following his mourning, though, we were sure he would return in prime form to the same, swagger-ish showman that had rocked the polos and the shutter shades, evolving his sound all while telling his stories with the same simplicity, cheese and charm that he always had.