The year was 2004 and commercial hip-hop was enjoying steady record sales through stars that left underground fans shaking there head in disgust. Lil Wayne was beginning his ascent to dominance with the release of “Tha Carter”, Lil Jon put out “Crunk Juice” and T.I. further enhanced the South’s grip on the radio. Aftermath was enjoying success with b-list artists like Young Buck and Llyod Banks. Yet real hip-hop fans shunned these developments and looked to artists like MF Doom and Masta Ace to restore there pride in the music. However there was one artist who everybody could love. He burst onto the scene with a buzz that connected mainstream with underground, and even Indie Rock fans with Hip-Hop. His name was Kanye West and his debut album “The College Dropout” gave hope to millions. He was a unique entity, a counter-cultural icon to Eminem and 50 Cent, who at this point had become shoddy imitators of 90′s gangsta rap.
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Every lyric on Kanye West’s album was quotable, every beat resonated on an emphatic level. “The fans want a feeling of A Tribe Called Quest, but all they got left is this guy called West” rapped Kanye on “Last Call”. In those two simple lines he addressed the entire mood of the era. People yearned for a purity lacking from the new breed of hip-hop artists, and Kanye gave it to them with a knowing ease and enthusiasm. When “Through The Wire” hit, he had a classic single on his hands which showcased his story telling ability and ‘everyday man’ appeal. Turning tragedy to triumph without the overt macho nature of celebrity rap stars, made him a relatable artist to an entire generation hungry to connect with a new hero. Just as exciting as his production was his willingness to incorporate his personal story into his music.
His production credits alone were something to behold in this time period, he worked behind the scenes on Jay-Z’s album The Blueprint giving Jay some of his most memorable beats. And he provided the classic instrumental for Dead Prez’s “Bigger Than Hip-Hop”, in effect he was regenerating hip-hop to pave the way for the next wave of Chicago artists like Lupe Fiasco and the resurgence of Common. “Be” & “Finding Forever” were to my mind classics produced by West, worthy of recognition against any rival producers. His own discography strengthened with the release of “Late Registration”. Although it didn’t capture the imagination in such a breathe taking way as “The College Dropout”, in retrospect it was a fantastic piece of work.
Only West could use an artist like Adam Levine of Maroon 5 to provide the vocals for the incredibly catchy “Heard Em Say”. It was a clever cross over album which proved that going pop need not constitute selling out. His artistic endeavors began to highlight the lack of ideas coming from elsewhere and there seemed to be no limit to his future as an emcee and producer. The Rawkus sound received twice it’s previous exposure through West’s relationship with artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli. On “The Black Album” Jay-Z rapped that he wished he could be as lyrical as Kweli and sound like Common, sentiments surely originating from Kanye’s strong endorsements of the artists. West would make national news in 2005 for his infamous “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” comments, an episode which sparked considerable controversy. Appraisal and hatred were dished out in equal measure.
In 2006, he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stones wearing a crown of thorns which many found to be an offensive reference to Jesus Christ. A bitter irony considering the success of “Jesus Walks” on his debut album. Yet, 2007 for me was the last year of the golden period for Kanye West. “Graduation” had some stand out moments and remained fairly solid as an LP. There were signs however that he was moving away from fame as a musician and instead becoming something of an entertainer. His record sales “rivalry” with 50 Cent felt staged and forced, and although he essentially won the battle, it was a watershed moment in his career were tabloids began to use his outspoken and ‘larger than life’ persona as his prime reason for coverage.
It was after this year he began to move away from his early appeal, instead of being relatable he was becoming a self parody. He followed “Graduation” with his worst piece of work to date, “808′s and Heartbrake”, an album were he no longer rapped but sang. To him it was genius, to the rest of us the heartbreak came from watching a promising artist fall to Earth with a thud. Every song was auto tuned and featured tacky electronic instrumentals. It felt as if Kanye had turned his back on hip-hop.
2009 was the defining moment the World recognised this new unlikable Kanye when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s award speech with rambling nonsense about how Beyonce should have won. Of course he had a history of critiquing award shows at this point but the VMA’s that year took it to a new unprecedented level. Not only did his music suck but his personality had become thoroughly repulsive. And it seems he recognised this fact as by the time he released his last solo album “My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy” he was rapping about what an asshole he was and how he reveled in it. Critics called it a return to form but most hip-hop fans reacted with indifference. His flow was off, his content boring and beats barely different from other artists. He was now the man famous for strange unpredictable comments and shoddy music.
It was a sad 360 turn around from the positive energy he once injected into hip-hop. South Park parodied him, highlighting his over confident belief that he was a genius and failure to understand simple humour. Aspects of his character which for the most part seemed true. It turned Kanye into somewhat of a joke to the general public, who made fun of his ego and edgy demeanor. When Kanye released “Watch The Throne” with Jay-Z in 2011, I wondered if it would be a revitalizing moment for his career.
Surprisingly, I enjoyed some of the tracks, “No Church In The Wild”, “Made In America” and “Murder To Excellence” showcased glimpses of the talent that first drew me to him as an artist. Yet I felt unsettled by the lyrics of “Niggaz In Paris” and “That’s My Bitch” not because they were offensive but because they were purposely dumbed down. “Do you know how many hot bitches I own?” Kanye rapped on “Niggaz In Paris”. This prompted Mos Def to release his own ‘conscious version’ of the song. Even Chuck D scrutinized the songs basic premise. But it was through listening to this style that I realised we had lost Kanye West forever, call it selling out or a shift of sound but he is now much closer to the Southern Rappers he once presented an alternative to. So it is with great regret I pick up the papers to see him reduced to a mere tabloid celebrity, now dating Kim Kardashian he has become a dull shadow of his former self. The downward spiral set to tarnish his legacy seems to be only just beginning.