Kanye West: Arrogant, inept rapper or hip-hop genius?

Most of America does not like Kanye West.  They do not like his recent demeanor, antics, and apparent ignorance. However, behind the mask that shows a man who can’t seem to give the media enough reasons to ridicule him lies one of the greatest musical artists the world has ever seen.  If you are too quick to discard him for media appearance, you will miss out on some of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, albums that have inspired every single modern hip-hip artist and will inspire for years to come. Kanye has seven albums, each telling a different story, with release dates spanning from early 2004 to just last week in 2016. All of them will be covered here in depth to help you understand the influence and greatness Kanye has blessed music with.

In February 2004, Kanye released his first album, The College Dropout, to immediate mainstream success. The College Dropout is considered a millennial hip-hop classic for one simple reason; it’s fun. It is a lighthearted album that uses unorthodox instruments such as handclaps and the vocoder to create an incredibly upbeat album, which also deals with serious issues, such as his religion and struggle to maintain rapping about Christianity on “Jesus Walks,” or on “Through the Wire” where he talks about a car accident in 2002 that almost cost him his life. Kanye ends with “Last Call,” where he tells the story of how he gained mainstream success and the struggles he endured to get there. This album has been incredibly influential throughout the genre of hip-hop with artist Chance The Rapper directly citing College Dropout as his biggest influence and favorite album of all time.

Kanye’s sophomore album, Late Registration, was named in direct correlation to his first album, College Dropout, because Kanye said he was “Taking these [expletive] back to school.” It’s this classic braggadocio Kanye that was so attractive to the average listener at the time, the idea of a cocky underdog to cheer for.

Late Registration contains one of his saddest songs, “Roses,” where Kanye talks about the struggle of trying to convey his emotions to his fans, who just want him for the signatures and songs, similar to Earl Sweatshirt’s “Burgundy.” The issues of social welfare are also brought up numerous times in skits where he talks about a fraternity named “Broke Phi Broke.”  Late Registration is where Kanye, only 27 at the time, established himself to both dedicated rap fans and the mainstream listener as a great musical artist with plenty of talent.

Graduation is the end to the trilogy of albums themed around education, and it is a suitable grand finale. Kanye focuses much less on creating complex rap schemes with this album; rather he works on his storytelling and taking the genre of hip-hop in an ambitious direction.  This marks a transition in Kanye’s discography, where he starts to focus on the production of his art more than the rapping. Kanye also makes the transition of focusing on the social issues around him to focusing  on issues within his personal life in the tracks of this album, a trend he continues for the remainder of his album.

What makes Graduation such a great album is the atmosphere of grandiose that the production creates. It’s as if this whole time Kanye West has been talking about how great he is, and this is the album where it catches up to him. To understand the influence of Graduation you have to first understand what happened before the album came out.  50 Cent announced he was releasing his album, Curtis, at the same time as Kanye was planned to release Graduation so naturally a sales competition formed between 50 Cent’s gangsta rap and Kanye’s music. Kanye blew 50 out of the water selling almost 300,000 more copies than him in the first week and this paved the way for artists such as Wale, Kid Cudi, Lupe Fiasco, and Childish Gambino to become more successful in the mainstream.

808s and Heartbreaks was made at a time in Kanye’s life when he was broken.  His mother, who he was very close to as seen on his first two albums, had recently died and his fiancée had broken up with him as well. When he was asked to describe the album he said “808s came from suffering multiple losses at the same time—it’s like losing an arm and a leg and having to find a way to keep walking through it.”

Despite all of the hardship surrounding the creation of this album, Kanye created possibly the most influential rap album of the last 15 years. Almost every single pop, RnB, and rap song you’ve heard in the last five years has had 808s drums on them, which Kanye made popular through this album. T-Pain’s auto tune was also expanded on in depth to prove that it is a creative instrument instead of just a tool for correction, and many artists use it as such in 2016. The aesthetic Kanye created of a drawn out love story was essentially copied by Drake on his mixtape So Far Gone, and Drake has cited Kanye West as “shaping his own sound.” Many people do not like this album, as much as Kanye’s other albums because of the pop direction it goes in, however its influence is undeniable.

Kanye’s fourth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a masterpiece and one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time for a number of reasons. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is simply the best-produced hip-hop album of all time, whether it is the distorted singing for 3 minutes on the end of “Runaway,” or the gospel choir that echoes throughout the entire album, much of the production Kanye does on this album had never been seen before on a hip-hop album. The amount of features this album had was unheard of, as well as the number of hip-hop artists that worked on the album, over 60. Although this album does take a few listens to fully grasp its concept and appreciate its depth, it’s 100 percent worth it. Despite the album only being six years old, it has already inspired artists, such as Kendrick Lamar, who said that Section.80 was largely influenced in concept by My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Listening to this album front to back is a truly awe-inspiring experience unlike possibly any album I’ve heard in the 21st century.

Yeezus is without a doubt the least accessible of all Kanye’s projects, but in a way, it’s also the most brilliant. Kanye was fed up with the world at the time; his last solo album has been his worst selling project to date, and people were starting to really like him a lot less then they had in the past. Some critics describe Yeezus as minimalistic, and I’ve got no idea how to describe it. It’s a mash- up of so many sounds that apart from in the music of artists like Death Grips have almost never been used in music before. Yeezus hasn’t been around long enough for the influence to be seen yet, however it could be the 808s of the 2010s. It focuses on the sound rather than the rapping, and goes for something completely new that truly represents how far Kanye is ahead of our time.

The theme of Yeezus is very much centered around God, with songs such as “I Am A God” on the album. Some may see this as Kanye’s ego taking its final bow, however, it is much more than that. This is Kanye’s stand against the music industry. The album cover is just a red stamp and almost all of the songs have very little radio play at all. This is Kanye’s rebuttal to the masses that consider him a sellout, and it is incredibly good.

Kanye’s most recent album, The Life of Pablo, came out less than a month ago after a strew of mishaps about the nature in which it was released. It is only available on Tidal, Jay-Z’s streaming service, but anyone can sign up for a free trial and listen to it. The Life of Pablo in my opinion serves as a tribute to the rest of Kanye’s albums as he factors parts of all of them into it. The name, The Life of Pablo, is in reference to Paul the Apostle, one of the most successful missionaries of all time, and through the album Kanye attempts to show how he relates to Paul. The album starts out with the joy of College Dropout, and an incredible Chance The Rapper verse, and the song finishing out with some of the same preaching seen on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The myriad of RnB singing throughout the album is a reminder of the feeling 808s and Heartbreak had throughout itself. We can hear the same minimalism we heard on Yeezus on many of the songs, for example on the end of “Waves” before the Frank Ocean part. Graduation’s directness shines through on songs such as “FML” and “Father Stretch my Hands pt. 2.”

Some of Kanye’s saddest songs also appear on this project, similar to Late Registration with “Roses,” we have “30 Hours and Wolves,” which talks about Kanye’s frustrations in his personal life. While The Life of Pablo isn’t as cohesive as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, it has the same number of great songs and is a must listen to despite the obstacles in place at the moment to do so.

Kanye West is an incredible musical artist, despite recent issues that have painted him in a negative light. I recommend you give him just an hour out of your day to listen to whichever album seems the most appealing to you; you won’t regret it.

The writer of this piece is the leader of the Hip-Hop Appreciation Club. The club welcomes members who like hip-hop or would like to learn more about the genre. The club’s Facebook group has weekly posts outlining an album or an artist similar to this piece but with more detail. There are also almost daily posts from members with songs they enjoy and hip-hop news. If you would like to be invited to join the Facebook group, email the writer of this piece at [email protected]