Y-Day: Kanye West’s trip from “College Dropout” to “Yeezus”
The rapper you might love to hate is still producing gems
Yesterday was Y-Day round these parts, a day when we went back again and again to “Yeezus”, the new Kanye West album (streaming below). We’re now six solo albums deep (and “Watch the Throne”) into the wild, wicked world of West and he’s finally getting the attention and profile he was always demanding a decade ago when he was setting himself up as hip-hop’s Special One. Much of that attention comes down to projected personas as celebrity boyfriend or fashion industry player or all-round narcissistic loudmouth, but “Yeezus” reminds us that West is at his best (and occasionally worst) when he’s loose in a recording studio.
The West who made those five previous albums is worth reconsidering. The rapper who emerged with “College Dropout” and “Late Registration” was, as you can see from the archive interview with him below from 2004, a kid in a hurry. He’d made his bones as a producer (Jay-Z’s “Blueprint” owes much to West’s soulful flavours) and he was trying to make up for lost time as a rapper. He talked a magnificent game back then, a skill he has never lost, judging by this recent piece in the New York Times.
But it’s the last three releases which really mark the rise and rise of West’s musical wow factor. 2008′s “808s & Heartbreaks” remains an alien, unsettling, jarring experience. Written after the break-up of a relationship and the death of his mother, West was questioning what the hell was going in his world with songs which revealed a very vulnerable and fragile performer. Using the sparse clatter of a Roland 808 drum-machine and the Auto-Tune vocal-pitch tool rather than the sampled breaks and beats which usually added texture and depth, West’s laments were previously unchartered terrain for a big-league rapper.
In ways, it probably signalled that there was a hugely promising creative rebirth afoot and 2010′s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” took that trajectory a step further. It was a magnificent, headspinning, audacious work, full of jaw-dropping moments like “All Of the Lights”, “Monster” and “Power”. The “Watch the Throne” album hook-up with Jay-Z was a dynamic, expansive work from the leaders of the pack, West shouldering his way onto the plinth to be seen as a peer to the man who had hired him years earlier. The tour which followed was a next-level shizzle too, two-and-a-half-hours humdinger of massive tunes and large-ass projections of jungle animals.
Enter, then, “Yeezus”. The main problem that most people will have with this is down to perception. At this stage, people have made up their mind about West and the polarising effect on audiences and pundits is in full effect – half the room loath him the moment he walks in – so many will approach the new album with scorn and closed minds, if they approach it at all.
A pity because “Yeezus” is a bit of a trip. There’s no bulk or sprawl here – 10 tracks in 40 minutes, a punk rock record in hip-hop terms – just a lean, mean, focused album full of visceral, thrilling, spectacularly pitched noise and ego. West sounds as if he doesn’t give a damn – all musicians say this but few really mean it as much as this lad. Read that New York Times’ interview linked above and tell me that’s someone who cares deeply about his public persona.
Lyrically, well, that’s another matter. West’s prowess has always been the sounds, putting the sonic rigging in place to make a beat pop and sparkle in all the right ways. By contrast, his time at the microphone often grates as he appears to shoot first and think a couple of years later. For every “hurry up with my damn croissants” meme from “I Am A God” on the new album, there are other lines which will only reinforce those negative perceptions at large. Now, of course, that West will give two hoots about that.
What’s truly interesting about “Yeezus” is that creative edge which West brings to the proceedings. Hip-hop is in remarkably fertile fettle at the moment with a whole bunch of tyros doing more than just slinging bling-beats and the usual cliches, but it’s not quite the done thing for those at the top of their game to take chances or try out new shapes like West has done with “Yeezus”. Just as Jigga has shown how older rappers can reinvent themselves as businessmen (or business, man), West’s restless need to always move on and change up is a lesson in how to keep the musical fires burning. The day he starts repeating himself or running on the spot will be the day you know the jig is up.
<Back in November 2004, West was in Dublin to play shows at the old Point Depot and Vicar Street as part of the tour around his debut album "College Dropout". He talked to The Ticket on that occasion and that interview is below. And yes, somewhere in OTR’s gaff, there is a tape of West freestyling about the Gap and gold chains>
Sacking Kanye West was a bad day’s work for The Gap. Years before he became hip-hop’s most illustrious producer-turned-rapper, the young West worked as a greeter at a Gap store in his native Chicago. It was the job he took after finding out that he wasn’t quite suited to selling knives door to door.
“My job was to stand inside the door and welcome people to the store,” he recalls. “But I put my own spin on it, I used to freestyle.”
He then gives The Ticket a taste of what he used to do for The Gap on a daily basis. “Welcome to the Gap/We got jeans in the back/And we got some khaki slacks/And if you like that/You’ll probably like the shirts/Try one on, it won’t hurt/You got red socks on/Why don’t you put a red hat on?/We’ve got all that/And it’s all at the Gap.”
He pauses for a moment. “And to think that they fired me for rapping”, he says indignantly.
If The Gap still want West to hawk their jeans and t-shirts, he’s probably prepared to talk, but you can bet he’ll be looking for hundreds of thousands of dollars rather than the minimum wage. They’ll also have to join a long queue because a lot of people want a piece of the action right now.
This is the year that Kanye West went from iconic underground name to hit-making, video-toting, mainstream marvel. Having first made a splash with low-key productions for Mase and the Madd Rapper, he gathered much acclaim in 2001 for his warm, evocative soul-drenched production contributions to Jay-Z’s seminal album, “The Blueprint”. He scored his own deal with Jay-Z and Damon Dash’s Roc-A-Fella label the following year and was in the middle of working on his debut album when a near-fatal car accident left him in a Los Angeles hospital with his jaw fractured in three places.
A couple of weeks after the accident, his jaw still literally wired shut, West was back in the studio to record “Through The Wire”. Over a speeded-up sample of Chaka Khan’s “Through the Fire”, West talks about the car-smash which nearly ended his life with wit and emotion. “It was part of the healing process”, he says now of the recording, but it also provided a way for him to fine-tune his debut album.
Sitting in the lobby of a Dublin hotel, West may have a gold chain around his neck, but that’s where comparisons with hip-hop’s usual braggers and blaggers begin and end. Quiet-spoken, thoughtful and reflective, the 27 year old doesn’t have any need to employ a crew of yes-men or strong-armed security.
“College Dropout” has already sold a couple of million copies, while his flying visit to Dublin sees him playing two sell-out shows, one at the Point Depot followed by a late-night club bash at Vicar Street. Yet few of the other hotel guests walking by the table pay any attention to him. Just another guy in a stripy jumper.
Instead, it’s “College Dropout” which does all the talking that needs to be done. The album of the year and hip-hop’s most innovative release in years, it merges beats tailor-made for the charts with a thought-provoking lyrical flow straight from the underground.
A superb social observer and commentator, West tackles issues ranging from materialism and empowerment to education and under-achievement with the kind of humour and biting insight so-called backpack hip-hoppers never utilise. Over grooves which ooze soulful basslines and samples, the self-proclaimed “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack” hits his targets every time with lines like “she couldn’t afford a car so she named her daughter Alexus”.
“I didn’t know the album was going to turn out like that,” says West. “After I had all these songs done, I started putting together a direction for it. It had a positive feel to it because all the songs are really inspirational. They show how you can get over a situation, they’re about taking the worst possible thing and turning it into a good thing, like the accident. At the end of the day, you’ve overcoming something.”
For West, accentuating the positive is vital to what he does. “I’m providing a service to people who need real music with real meaning, so it was important that the lyrics had as much heart as the beats. They’re songs for someone who thinks ‘I’m going through this today and he’s singing about what I’m feeling’. They needed that from a rapper. Alternative music had that, but hip-hop had no-one doing that. But right now, they do.”
This is hip-hop, says West, for those appreciate the fine things in life. “It’s for those who appreciate that the 10 seconds of strings which appear in the middle of “Jesus Walks” contain 100 tracks of strings”, he elaborates. “Those who appreciate that I drove to the Harlem Boys Choir’s summer camp to record them in a barn for “Two Words”. Those who appreciate the layers of piano, the layers of vocal and the poetry on “Never Let Me Down”.”
In fact, as far as West is concerned, anyone who doesn’t recognise “College Dropout” as a work of absolute genius is just in denial. “If I was to die on the plane going home, people would go back to the “College Dropout” album and hail it as one of hip-hop’s greatest works”, he claims. “As long as I am here, though, they can’t give me that credit, they won’t give me that.
“The only thing you can do with this album is praise it. I’m really annoyed that some people have the audacity to knock it. All these songs like “Spaceships” and “Jesus Walks” were made to help people out. For people to knock these songs would be like someone knocking a philanthropists who is helping out his community for not giving enough to the kids. When something is helping someone, how can you knock that? People can knock me for saying I’m arrogant or if I mess up or if I sleep with some girls before I get married or whatever. But “College Dropout”? You can’t touch that.”
Previous West interviews have provided similar views, so he’s obtained a bit of a reputation for self-confidence which veers over to the arrogant side of the road. He knows his self-confidence puts off some people, but what the hell.
“People either love it or hate it,” he says, “but people loved and hated Muhammad Ali. My grandfather loved Muhammad Ali and my grandmother hated him. But I bet more people love and remember Muhammad Ali than less. He used to talk shit like “float like a butterfly sting like a bee” and I think I say the same kind of things partly to provoke people. But don’t worry, I know you can’t please everybody.”
That said, West still picks holes in his own skills. He says he still needs to improve as a rapper. “My flow isn’t like Jay-Z or my voice still can’t be compared to Nas but I’ve figured out things. On the next album, I will have developed as a rapper and my flow will have improved because I now know how to use less words to get my point across.”
That album, provisionally called “Late Registration”, will be released next summer and a sneak preview of some of the work-in-progress shows West has not lost his touch for rich, soulful strings and uplifting grooves. “Music goes in phases and this seems to be the time for a warm sound”, he says. “Jay-Z’s “Blueprint” put the soul into the music, but I wanted to bring back the soul, the music and the lyrics.”
Since “College Dropout” was released, West has been surprised to discover how much he enjoys getting up onstage. “I love creating new music the best, but performing live is just so much more rewarding than working in a studio and letting someone else perform those songs. I wasn’t made to be in the background.”
He’s also acutely aware that as long as he is out there playing the shows and doing the promotion, the album will sell. He is, he says, his own best manager in that regard. “After the accident when I went into the studio to record “Through The Wire”, it was like me as a manger saying ‘hey, you nearly died, go in there and capitalise on it’. I’m everything in my career. I have people who are way better at certain things and I get them in to help me out, but I’m the first stylist, the first video director, the first manager, the first writer and the first marketing guy.”
West’s need for helpers appears to increase on a daily basis as new projects come on stream. There’s the de rigueur clothing line, Mascott, about to hit the rails, while there’s also a jewellery range co-designed by celebrity designer Jakob the Jeweller to finalise. On the music side of the fence, West recently signed a record label deal for his Good Music imprint with Sony-BMG, which means a home for such excellent talents as John Legend and longstanding Chi-Town rapper Common.
Yet none of this distracts from the main game. As West talks about how some rappers wear gold chains to feel more self-confident, he teases the theme some more and, before you know it, he’s freestyling away and telling his tour manager to write down some lines for future use. If a track called “My Chain Made Me Famous” makes its way onto the next album, you’ll know it all began in the lobby of a hotel on the banks of the Grand Canal.
A couple of hours later, West shows that it is possible to put on a hip-hop show in 2004 without resorting to clichés. There’s a full house in Vicar Street, but West doesn’t get one side of the room to yell louder than the other side or encourage everyone to throw their hands in the air like they don’t care.
Instead, the bangers come hot and heavy – “Jesus Walks”, “We Don’t Care”, “Spaceship”, “Breathe In Breathe Out” – and the room crackles with energy and euphoria. Who needs clichés when you have music this good? Hip-hop has a brand new bag and Kanye West is the man with his hands on it.