Today, Kanye West turns 38. It’s almost crazy to think over ten years ago, the Chicago-native shook Hip Hop with his Roc-A-Fella debut The College Dropout. Following his time as the label’s in-house producer, he was giving the opportunity to deliver the year’s best album and essentially made sampling cool again. There’s a reason why RZA found himself passing the torch to Yeezy years prior after hearing The Blueprint. Oh yeah, took middle-class rap to a new level through tracks on “Through The Wire,” “All Falls Down,” “Slow Jamz” and “Spaceships.” Since then, Mr. West has gone to change the trajectory of not only Hip Hop, but popular music in general. That doesn’t even count his status as a polarizing pop culture icon for better or worse. Then again, that’s another post for another time.
For right now, let’s look into three special albums within Kanye’s catalog that’s delivered seismic changes within contemporary music.
Kanye West Releases Graduation
Andre: Graduation represented the handoff from the gangster aestheticism that dominated the charts up until that point, to a newly minted Kanye West as cultural-hegemon. There was the ridiculousness of the Rolling Stone Cover, in which Kanye West and 50 Cent “faced off,” boosting sales for both. Of course, Ye won the sales battle and 50 has yet to release an album with the same lethality of his early work. There was the Daft Punk / Hip Hop crossover, which, for the most part, introduced the french electronica duo to urban audiences. Arguably Kanye’s most fetishistic album, it remains a stalwart change of guard for Hip Hop. And, after “Big Brother,” Kanye would be crowned. A position he continues to hold, although he has admitted otherwise about the man who took 808’s & Heartbreak to a new level.
Ural: For some, the competition between 50 Cent and Kanye West represented a cultural cold war over Hip Hop tradition vs. progression. Though the argument still takes place even to this day, one could pinpoint its start here. Even if you look into the singles for Curtis and Graduation, there was subversive changing of the guard from gangsta fantasists to some more grounded to the everyman. While Fiddy was flaunting his then status of Hip Hop’s top commercial emcee with “I Get Money,” many felt “Can’t Tell Me Nothing” featuring Young Jeezy was more relatable. Sure, Kanye would go on to sell more after the much-publicized sales lead up with Curtis Jackson. Alongside becoming rap’s new king, commercial gangsta rap suffered a large death with Graduation.
808s & Heartbreak Creates The Lane Cudi & Drake Would Dominate
Andre: He’d just lost his mother and his long time lady left him, and, for what would seem an infinite amount of time, Kanye West fell into an abyss of deep despair. To combat this trenchant melancholia, he poured himself into an all-autotuned R&B album. Titled 808s & Heartbreak, the album was divisive in a real way for Hip Hop. The Boston Globe gave the album a four out of ten, calling the lyrics sophomoric and the opposite of clever. But how do you pan a man’s sadness? Especially as it opened up a lane in Hip Hop stormed through by a young Toronto upstart named Drake and a protege of Mr. West’s own making in Kid Cudi. Now the rap streets are littered with straight up R&B-as-rap, but most would argue that making an entire album of that sort would begin here.
Ural: Only Kanye could use the loss of his mother and fiance to fuel one of the most important genre-changing albums in modern rap history. 808s & Heartbreaks was a futuristic R&B/rap album filled with depressing tones and cold beauty. Autotune transformed from tool from vocal masking for pitch correction or special effect to something used to channel emotional distortion. The G.O.O.D. Music head allowed a level of vulnerability in Hip Hop unheard of at the time, influencing new artists who would take those emotional themes to new heights. That means Drake, Kid Cudi, Future, Childish Gambino and even Fetty Wap.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy Is A Watershed Moment In The Genre
Andre: MBDTF came on the heels of a West sabbatical in which he wandered in the Hip Hop desert after the infamous Taylor Swift incident. An outpouring of support came with the faux pas for Swift, and the once relatively unknown, budding country music star suddenly took center stage in the American consciousness. Waving around a bottle of Hennessey, he took umbrage with Beyonce´not winning the award for “Single Ladies.” A long fit of silence followed and then an intense non-apology. Both of which the American public ate up. Here was this arrogant, untenable black man showing bad taste. The public shaming was swift and intense. Kanye regrouped, though. First releasing “Power,” firing back at all those who’d taken shots at him while he was down over a King Crimson sample. Then the red suit. The film. The ballerinas, and the gorgeous winged shabine sent to earth just for him. Then, of course, the album. It was perfect. An album so swiftly all-encompassing of what was happening right then in music that it serves as a timestamp for the age. Some call it a bookend of the 2000s, others thought it was a new beginning for the 2010s. Either way, it was a masterpiece, and it began Hip Hop anew after a tumultuous and seemingly lackluster decade in the 2000s.
Ural: Some could call MBDTF the ultimate Hip Hop/Pop album. Since then, there hasn’t been an album to feature a bitter break-up song featuring Chris Rock, three minute anthology of various stories revolving around famous black men with everyone from Rihanna and Kid Cudi to Elton John and even spoken word from the late Gil Scott-Heron. It’s almost easy to forget MBDTF is a rap album until one realizes the collaborations with RZA, Rick Ross, Jay Z and Raekwon. Oh yeah, there’s Nicki Minaj’s turn from rap curiosity to serious star on “Monster.” Then again, this was Kanye’s show. And boy, did he show out. Following the Taylor Swift controversy, “Power” was one helluva comeback. Yeezy grabbed his nuts, gave the proverbial “fuck you” to all doubters and we all loved it. While most rappers and music listeners in general treat “pop” like a dirty word, Kanye successfully embraced those notions. Kanye formulated a lush soundtrack to his luxurious and terrorizing life as a celebrity in the world’s eye. MBDTF was brash, beautiful, easy, uncomfortable and phenomenal all at the same time.
Andre Grant is an NYC native turned L.A. transplant that has contributed to a few different properties on the web and is now the Features Editor for HipHopDX. He’s also trying to live it to the limit and love it a lot. Follow him on Twitter @drejones.
Ural Garrett is a Los Angeles-based journalist and HipHopDX’s Senior Features Writer. When not covering music, video games, films and the community at large, he’s in the kitchen baking like Anita. Follow him on Twitter @Uralg.