“I don’t care about having a legacy; I don’t care about being remembered. The most important thing for me is while I’m here, while we’re having fun, going to sleep, breathing oxygen, living life, falling in love, having pain and having joy is what can I do with my voice, what can we do for each other that can make life easier, make life doper for our kids as they grow.” – Kanye West, Time Magazine 2015
The antics, comments and misadventures of one Mr. Kanye West over the past four years – endorsing Donald Trump as President, the slavery is a choice outburst on TMZ, his erratic Presidential campaign – have grown so quantitative, and illicit such visceral, almost violently negative responses, one almost forgets that he’s a recording artist.
Now, the moniker “recording artist” is in fact made with premeditated distinction. To call Kanye West a rapper is a disservice – depending on how you look at it, it can either a disservice to him because he’s much more than that, or it can be a disservice to other rappers who think that Kanye isn’t authentic because he hires writers to help him with lyrics.
To call Kanye a producer gives him more weight, because it was his abilities in the recording studio to craft infectious beats for rappers and singers that got the world’s attention to begin with. In fact, suffice it to say that his fingers working a sample on either an MPC or an ASR is his more authentic voice than his actual voice.
However, to identify him chiefly as a producer would miss the point, as well.
West sees himself as an artist. After all, he was a visual artist as a youth. He was so serious and talented, he attended an art college before ultimately dropping out to work on music full time. However, his passion for making music videos, shoes, fashion and live staging speaks mostly to his roots as a visual artist.
“I am a pop artist, so my medium is public opinion and the world is my canvas,” West said at the Art Institute of Chicago after being giving a 2015 honorary doctorate. He considers himself a provocateur and futurist, a generator of product that will last forever and will inspire or provoke the common man and woman.
This is why West carries a resentment for his fifth album. An album that was released 10 years ago today: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF). If you ask fans and critics, this album is considered a masterpiece. Pitchfork gave the album a 10 out of 10 score, calling it “an instant greatest hits, the ultimate realization of his strongest talents.” If you ask Kanye, that what he was trying to do…and that was the problem.
The success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy plays on a striking duality:
Kanye West wants his music to be a reflecting his progressive spirit, and not sound like the last record.
Kanye West needs to feel like the world is against him in order to do his best work.
“I’m not here to make easy listening, easy programmable music.” – Kanye West, BBC1 2013
When it comes to his music, West has never wanted to repeat himself as a solo artist. After establishing himself as a premier record producer, pioneering the “Chipmunk Soul” soul sound after speeding up the vocals on R&B records from the 1960’s and 1970’s, it reached its zenith on his 2004 debut, The College Dropout.
The following year, when fans expected more of the same, he enhanced his sound with symphonic orchestral arrangements, courtesy of co-producer Jon Brion. Late Registration was birthed and fans ate it up.
Then in 2007, West took the lessons he learned from opening for U2 on tour and crafted a stadium sound, with more electronic instrumentation, simpler hooks and samples of pop. With Graduation, West achieved his dream of being the biggest rapper in the world.
Unfortunately, the death of his mother, Dr. Donda West, shortly after Graduation’s release dampened what should have been a victorious time for West. Coupled with the end of his engagement, West abandoned all previous convention for his next album, opting to sing instead of rap, and recruiting Kid Cudi, mentor No I.D. and Jeff Bhasker to match his somber lyrics of loss with synth pop and icy polyrhythms. The result was the polarizing, but insanely influential 808’s & Heartbreak.
West managed to reinvent himself at every turn and he pushed Hip-Hop to heights that few have tried or thought was possible. Then on September 29, 2009, everything changed.
At the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards, West infamously interrupted Taylor Swift after she won her award for Best Female Video of the Year. “Imma let you finish, but Beyoncé had one of the greatest videos of all time!”
Needless to say, West was panned by every fan, critic and news outlet for his disrespectful act, prompting him to go into a self-inflicted exile overseas. After stints in Japan and Rome, West headed to Hawaii’s Avex Studios, where he remained for six months.
Determined to win back the respect of this public, he crafted a “rap camp” of the best group of rappers, producers, beat makers and singers he could muster:
Drake, Alicia Keys, Elton John, The RZA, Pete Rock, Rick Ross, John Legend, Jay-Z, Q-Tip, Pusha T, Raekwon The Chef, Kid Cudi, Fergie, Nicki Minaj, Teyana Taylor, Mike Dean, Bink!, No I.D. and more. He was on a mission to create an album that would guarantee that fans would love and appreciate. The result of course was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
The album debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, was universally praised by critics and sold near two million copies domestically. Songs like “POWER,” “Runaway,” and “All of the Lights” joined the previous classic Kanye singles. The album received five Grammy nominations, winning three.
Kanye West was back, and with popular follow-up collaborative projects of 2011’s Watch The Throne with Jay-Z and 2012’s Cruel Summer with his G.O.O.D. Music label roster, West was in the prime of his success.
But he wasn’t satisfied with merely being popular, because to him, all it meant was that he did what he hadn’t before: compromised his artistic integrity.
Ever since 2013, West has tried to distance himself away from MBDTF, stating that it’s an “apology” album, not a representation of his natural artistic progression.
“So many people rate Dark Fantasy as one of the best albums, and Yeezus and 808s are so much better and stronger. Dark Fantasy is almost like an apology record,” West would say in a 2015 interview, On Camera.
“‘POWER’ was the least progressive song that I ever had as a first single. It was me going back and spending six dedicated months and kind of piecing together what people liked about me to make an entire bouquet that they loved, that was the most listenable, that was the least challenging.”
When analyzed, MBDTF does indeed is an amalgamation of his preceding solo efforts, as well as foreshadow future releases:
“Devil in a New Dress” was the soul sound of The College Dropout. “Runaway” is carried by the orchestral arrangements reminiscent of Late Registration. “POWER” has Graduation’s anthemic stadium bombast. “Lost in the World” features the blend of melody and worldly drumming heard on 808s & Heartbreak. And “Hell of a Life” informs what Yeezus will be later.
Yeezus carries more favor in West’s mind, because it was the anti-MBDTF. It was a defiant album. A direct reaction to the premeditated record approach of MBDTF and the incorporation of contemporary Hip-Hop trends on Watch the Throne and Cruel Summer. West no longer wanted to “to speak with textures of the time,” such as the trap drum programming heard on hit songs like “Mercy,” “Clique” and “Cold.”
“I showed people that I understand how to make ‘perfect.’ Dark Fantasy can be considered to be perfect,” West told Zane Lowe during a 2013 interview. “I know how to make perfect, but that’s not what I’m here to do. I’m here to crack the pavement and make new grounds sonically and in society, culturally.”
Like 808’s, Yeezus was polarizing to fans. It’s blend of abrasive, industrial production with dancehall vocal samples was either loved or loathed by listeners. To West, he enjoyed both opinions, as long as the reaction was strong and obvious
“Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it; I guess every super hero needs his theme music.” – Kanye West, “POWER”
The entirety of Kanye West’s success is predicated by the endless throng of people telling him he can’t do something. As he began to ascend as a go-to producer for acts like Jay-Z, Beenie Siegel, Scarface, Talib Kweli and Twista, West’s yearning to be a rapper was bubbling over. He’d been in a rap group in his younger days, but after hitting pay dirt with beats like “Izzo (H.O.V.A),” “Overnight Celebrity” and “Get By,” every one was telling him to leave rap alone.
When West go to record companies in search for a deal, executives found him literally laughable. On one occasion, executives laughed at West behind closed doors, mere moments after he performed an early version of “Jesus Walks” before them.
Even his own label boss, Dame Dash, only signed him to a contract to secure his infectious beatmaking exclusively for Rocafella Records artists. After West self-financed his debut music video, “Through The Wire,” a song that embodied West incomparable spirit to overcome adversity, Dash finally put more energy into promoting what would later become The College Dropout.
Right from the get-go, West let everyone know how much the naysayers fueled his drive to succeed. In public, fans were taken aback by West’s bravado and arrogance when it came to his artistry and rap acumen. What seems like egocentrism on the surface is just the byproduct of a man converting negative energy into positive movement. He explains in College Dropout’s closer, “Last Call:”
“Last year shoppin’ my demo, I was tryin’ to shine,
Every motherfucker told me that I couldn’t rhyme,
Now I could let these dream killers kill my self-esteem,
Or us my arrogance as the steam to power my dreams,
I use it as my gas, so they say that I’m gassed,
But without it, I’d be last, so I ought to laugh.”
Fast forward to 2009. Up until the VMA’s incident, West had risen to superstar status as a rapper, producer and live performer. Once he interrupted Swift, his good cache with the public and press all but completely went out the window.
Ironically, it gave West the type of motivation to create his best work like it did prior to College Dropout. On “POWER,” he says, “Screams from the haters, got a nice ring to it/I guess every super hero needs his theme music.” West once again was feeding on the racist comments and death threats he’d been repeatedly receiving on social media, and it led to MBDTF’s overall sheen of sophistication and sonic maximalist production and arrangements.
However, once again, West resented the success of MBDTF, not only because of the motivation behind creating it, but because it turned him into the biggest music star on the face of the earth. So, he was now ready to get back to being a icon of polarization with 2013’s Yeezus.
On the track “I Am a God,” Ye explained his rationale behind creating an album that alienated himself from what most fans had grown to love about him.
“As soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you/’cause kissin’ people’s ass is so unlike you.”
From that point on, West has been on a mission to create strictly from a stream of consciousness point of view. The approach of recording 2016 The Life of Pablo live in the open, constantly making tweaks and adjustments, even after the album is released, speaks to his need to be in the moment at all times.
The impulsive choice of re-recording 2018’s Ye album after his “slavery is a choice” fiasco with TMZ is the latest example of West’s defiantly surrendering to the muse; with little concern for the fans ability to digest the music.
Another factor for Kanye’s resentment of an album that everyone loves is that causes fans to ask for more of the same. When you done something so radical that it becomes law, fans expect you to repeat what they love.
West is not alone in this sentiment.
Miles Davis’ resents the public’s perception of Kind of Blue. “Well, my main thing is to create and not to compare. You understand that? I don’t wanna be like I used to be years ago, you know what I mean,” the trumpeter said in a 1983 Jazz Forum interview. “I hope I’ve advanced through all the years in the sound and composition. Stravinsky never wrote anything the same way.”
Rapper Nas recently said in Haute Living Magazine stated that he’s fed up with the deification of his debut album, Illmatic. He stated, like Davis, that there’s more to him then that one body of work.
“I’m tired of celebrating it,” he admits. “I’m very grateful—it’s so crazy—but to celebrate one album when I’ve made over 10, all the things I’ve worked on—and I’ve been working for so long—to celebrate one album over all else is corny to me. I don’t want to celebrate another Illmatic anything. I’m done. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you for appreciating that record, but it’s over.”
Then there’s Michael Jackson. The late pop superstar that’s influenced West the most. The man that MBDTF is dedicated to in the liner notes. He was forever judged by Thriller, and spent the second half of his life trying to live up to the public’s and critic’s expectations that the 1982 blockbuster establish.
“Invincible is just as good if not better than Thriller, in my true, humble opinion. It has more to offer,” Jackson told USA Today in 2001.
To bring it back full circle, MJ said in his 1988 autobiography, Moon Walk, that Thriller conception was the result of his anger due to not receiving enough recognition from his 1979 multi-platinum album, Off The Wall. After one receiving a single Grammy-nomination for Best R&B Vocal Performance for “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough,” Jackson vowed not to be relegated to being just a Black artist. “They won’t be able to ignore the next album,” he wrote.
No one could ignore MBDTF when it dropped either. Kanye West had succeeded in his plan to regain the public’s respect, but he wasn’t interested in spoon feeding music listeners with relics of the past. Why? Because West couldn’t evolve by doing so. In the process of staying true to first reaction is the only version way of making his solo projects, that has been just as responsible for destroying the public good faith in him as a recording arts as his public antics, rants, breakdowns and rhetoric.
But then again, the man did tell us, after all, that he didn’t care about having a legacy. And as he moves past music into growing his billion dollar shoe and fashion empire, he continues to seek evolution.
“I have to define who I am. All of my aspirations are things that currently only 60-year-old white people do. So, I have to redefine and let people know exactly who I am.”