Is Kanye West just a hip hop shrew with money on his mind or a true rap visionary? Mark Robertson examines the evidence
How many times have you heard some over the hill rap star attempt to dismiss any attempts at innovation and excuse creative treading water by claiming their doing it ‘old school’? I still hear it a lot. This rosy, Ray Ban-ed view, which in actuality was more Everybody Hates Chris than Dave Chapelle’s Block Party — dudes in polyester slacks, big specs and loafers hot wiring turntables and making it up as they went along. The nascent charm of such endeavours was, and still is, irresistible but there’s so much water under the bridge, so many twelves in and back out of the DJ’s crate, that being old school alone just doesn’t really cut it anymore. This is the 21st Century and hip hop is as futuristic a music as you can find, constantly morphing with sub-genres, from crunk and Baltimore club to hyphy and snap.
If one hip hop artist personifies this new millennium attitude it is Kanye West, a proper love ‘em or loathe ‘em rap star who has pioneered his own distinct style and is growing above and beyond the production techniques that made him famous in the first place.
The unpleasant side effect of this musical progress is that mainstream hip hop (of which West is an intrinsic part) has become more about shifting units, diversifying the brand and expanding the portfolio. The über-bling portrayed by West’s mentor and friend Jay-Z has taken the aspirational and turned it into little more than shallow gloating. The most galling thing of all is that at the heart of this is still some great music. You wish the music sucked so you could say they got big and lost their musical edge. Not so.
Musically, Kanye West has always been ahead of the curve. Ever since selling his first beats in his teens he developed a style his own. The chimpmunk soul sound he pioneered may be the inspiration for a thousand cheesey dance tracks now, but in his time he’s added new tones and colours to rap music’s musical palette.
After the global success of his Education trilogy: 2004’s The College Dropout, 2005’s Late Registration and 2007’s Graduation, his fourth album is what is purported to be his ‘break-up album’. Elements of 808s and Heartbreak have been leaked in various forms across the web. One fascinating side effect of this was that a first mix of the album’s lead single ‘Love Lockdown’ was given a decidedly lukewarm response by fans online. West subsequently reworked the trippy Jap-pop tune, adding heavier beats from taiko drummers. The kids loved it.
The one-time super producer is now a self-styled futuristic soul singer. As likely to sample Tears for Fears as he ever would Notorious BIG these days, 808s and Heartbreak is billed as his break up record — and is also his first since the death of his mother Donda West in early 2008 — and is awash with autotune vocals (that’s the weird sound processor that makes the vocals sound a bit like Cher’s ‘Believe’) and Soft Cell-esque synths.
Following three multi-platinum albums with a song as weird, sad and distant as ‘Love Lockdown’ is either brave of just plain stupid. Chances are it’s the former; if anyone is sophisticated and savvy enough to pull off such a shift it’s the boy Jeezy.
Kanye West plays SECC, Glasgow, Sun 16 Nov.