Reprint Special – From Dropout to Yeezus – Kanye West’s Rise to Immortality

Last night, I had a dream that Pac-Man parasites had infected the world and claimed the life of my brother, and my father was one of the leaders in the fight against them, in a quest for vengeance.

Needless to say, I’m still pretty sick, so no original content today.  I promise we’ll get back on track on Monday.

Now, as for this article, I wrote this about a month after Yeezus was released, in July 2013, because I wanted to see how West’s career led to what we got on Yeezus.  This is one of Yelling About Music’s last articles, so it’s a lot closer to my current writing style.  Hope you enjoy, and I hope it makes sense, since I’m not in the mindset to proof-read it.

Kanye West’s discography can be cleanly divided into two “eras”: the education-themed first era, consisting of The College Dropout, Late Registration, and Graduation – and new-era Ye: 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, and the fresh-off-the-press Yeezus.  This second era could be further subdivided with the release of Yeezus: the minimalist, personal style of 808s and Yeezus, and the maximalist, self-aggrandizing nature of MBDTF and Watch the Throne.

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These three divisions are tied directly into West’s life when they were recorded, reflections of West’s mindset and status at the time of their releases. The College Dropout, if not for its excessive length, could be the perfect debut album, textbook early Kanye: soul samples (both pitched up and slowed down), features all over the place (from Common to Ludacris), interludes that make up a quarter of the tracklist, and clever, thoughtful lyrics about a host of subjects, from criticism of traditional gangsta rap to personal tracks about the struggles of West’s family against racism.  Late Registration follows in its footsteps, creating a unified subplot in its numerous interludes, expanding on the production techniques and lyrical themes of Dropout in an expected but welcomed way.

Graduation was the album where West began to branch out of his comfort zone, two years removed from Registration: gone were the soul samples, gone were the intros, interludes, and outros.  The album drops you directly into West’s production with “Good Morning”, and continues straight through until the last seconds of “Big Brother.”  Graduation demonstrated West’s increased confidence in his own beats, delivering a more concentrated, focused album than his previous two, which pushed at the limits of the CD medium in regards to length.  Graduation also cut back on the featured artists, though not entirely – the entire middle section of the album has a featured artist on each track.  With these changes in place, it seemed as though West was laying the groundwork for an evolved version of his typical style up until that point, with his planned fourth “education” album poised to be the best of the four.

Life, however, had other plans, and two events signaled the start of the current era of Ye: the breakup between West and then-fiancee Alexis Phifer, and the death of West’s mother.  These tragedies completely derailed West’s plans, and he dealt with the pain the best way he knew how – through his music.  The pain resulted in a complete reinvention, a radical departure from the first era of West’s musical career.

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That result, of course, was the sparse, deeply personal 808s & Heartbreak, an album driven not by soul samples and numerous features, but by an 808 drum machine and excessive Auto-Tune, manipulating West’s (sung, not rapped) vocals into a robotic, emotionless caricature of itself.  808s is an album about nothing but relationships, both successful and failed, reflecting the failure of West’s relationship with Phifer.  The album, however, could possibly have been motivated more by the death of Donda West than West’s breakup with his fiancee; the only hint of this motivation is the album’s closing track, the live freestyle “Pinocchio Story”, included on the album at the request of Beyoncé Knowles.  “Story”, like the rest of the album, is a deeply personal song; unlike the album it’s included on, however, it is untouched by Auto-Tune, leaving it rawer and more powerful than the entire album that preceded it.

808s‘s experimentation with different musical styles ended up being reflected in West’s next three releases, though nowhere is its influence more obvious than on Yeezus.  But before he reached back to 808s for his most recent effort, West recorded two other albums in the space of two years, both of which finally thrust him into immortality.

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My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy can be perceived as the opposite of 808s in a number of ways, most obviously the absurdly dense production style the album employs, with layers upon layers of sounds that at times can’t even be distinguished from each other.  The album also features Dropout / Registration-levels of guest features, particularly “Monster” and “So Appalled”, featuring eight other rappers between them (as well as the return of Jay-Z to West’s discography, a prelude to 2011’s Watch the Throne collaboration).  But Fantasy is not a regression to early Ye – on the contrary, Fantasy was heralded as the epitome of the new Kanye West sound, with gigantic production and heavy lyrics about fame and power that West had avoided on 808s.

Fantasy, thus, was West’s first album in which he fully embraced his stardom and fame in his lyrics – particularly on “Power”, which is essentially a giant middle finger to West’s legions of naysayers throughout his career.  “Dark Fantasy” and “Monster” follow in this vein, serving to puff up West’s ego, bragging about his prowess as a rapper and producer and the subsequent fame it earned him.  But the personal, introspective nature of 808s is not entirely absent here – “Runaway” in particular is a blend of Fantasy‘s imaginative production and 808s’s lyrical content about the difficulties of maintaining a relationship, including a rare instance of an un-Auto-Tuned West’s singing voice.

As mentioned above, Fantasy gained the highest praise of West’s career, with some reviewers going so far as to call it one of the greatest – if not the greatest – hip-hop albums of all time.  It is undoubtedly the highest point of West’s career thus far, the Album of the Year Grammy snub notwithstanding.  West, as a result, took a couple years off to pursue less artistic musical endeavors, one of them being his collaboration with Jay-Z, Watch the Throne.

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Watch the Throne is the odd one out in regards to West’s discography – consisting mostly of self-congratulatory pats on the back with his old mentor Jay-Z, Watch the Throne is the sound of two kings of hip-hop talking about how great they are, with just enough songs about “serious” issues to dilute the amount of ego.  It’s still a great album, a great accomplishment – but it’s not essential, and it didn’t do anything to further West’s ever-changing style.  The album took Fantasy‘s dense production to absolutely ridiculous levels, most clearly on “H.A.M”, with its high-soaring string arrangements and haunting choral melodies.

Perhaps Watch the Throne was bogged down by the very catalyst of its existence – Jay-Z, the man responsible for giving West his big break.  With both of them taking up equal time on the album, many critics pointed out that West’s verses were better than Jay’s, thus implying that perhaps Watch the Throne is not just the sound of two kings, but a “passing of the torch”, so to speak, as Kanye West fully cements his stranglehold over hip-hop the way Jay-Z did ten years before.

Which brings us to West’s most recent achievement and latest Album of the Year contender (in the public eye, at least): Yeezus.

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Elements from 808s, Fantasy, and Throne were thrown in a blender to create Yeezus.  It contains the stark minimalism of 808s, the star power of Fantasy, and the ego trip of Throne, all taken to previously unheard levels in West’s repertoire.

Yeezus is most closely tied to 808s – both of them are heavily stripped down albums centering around failed relationships, making use of much more electronic sources than the rest of West’s catalogue.  But where 808s is quiet and lamentative, Yeezus is vicious, unrelenting, with its teeth constantly bared.  It’s as if Ye held 808s down and injected it with several doses of steroids.

West spent months working on Yeezus, obsessively tinkering with it right up until the last possible moment.  Executive producer Rick Rubin wasn’t even brought in until a week before the album’s deadline – and yet Rubin stripped the album down even more than before, tearing away layers of the production to make the album feel more raw and hit harder.

(This stripping away even applied to the album artwork – when “New Slaves” premiered, Kim Kardashian posted a photo on Instagram that showed Yeezus‘s album title and preliminary artwork, featuring a red piece of duct tape, no cover insert, and an image of a distorted, partially melted Jesus piece on the CD.  The CD artwork would be gone a few weeks later, leaving nothing but the red tape holding the album case closed.)

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West’s ego has inflated to absurd proportions on Yeezus as well.  Though most obvious in his lyrics, it’s also worth noting that none of the featured guests on the album are properly credited – except, of course, for “God” on “I Am a God”.  Instead, West treats them like tools in his production toolbox, their vocals just another facet of the music for him to rap over.

Though Yeezus‘s production style demonstrates numerous outside influences, West does reach back to his roots at certain points – though the first instance of this, in opening track “On Sight”, is more of a mockery of those who continually wished for West to return to his soul-sample origins with his music, dropping an interpolation of “Sermon (He’ll Give Us What We Really Need)” immediately after asking “how much do I not give a fuck?”

(Incidentially, this interpolation is another example of West tinkering on the album right up until the deadline – the interpolation had to be recorded because West’s legal team was unable to clear the rights for the original sample.)

Album closer “Bound 2” is West’s only true return to his roots, with West rapping over three samples: Wee’s “Aeroplane (Reprise)”, Ponderosa Twins Plus One’s “Bound”, and Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s”.  The lyrical content, however, is very much new-era Ye: the song, on the surface, is a proclamation of solidarity in a relationship, with statements like “hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas” and “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches”.  However, the lyrics imply something less romantic: West includes several digs at the woman he’s professing his dedication to, and the song’s title “Bound 2”, while connected to the primary sample “Bound”, implies a less-than-voluntary connection to the subject of the song.

This leads directly into the most fascinating aspect of Yeezus: its musings about the nature of relationships, building on 808s‘s subject matter.  The situations surrounding the album are quite different: with 808s, Ye had been dealing with the fallout from his failed relationship with Phifer, whereas Yeezus was recorded while current girlfriend Kim Kardashian was pregnant with West’s first child (who was born a day after Yeezus leaked, incidentially).  Yeezus is just as dark, if not darker than 808s, despite the supposedly more positive situation West has found himself in during the recording of the album.  I won’t speculate on West’s personal life, but perhaps Yeezus is exploring things that West hasn’t been willing to talk about lately.

Nowhere is the central theme of Yeezus more apparent than on its hardest-hitting track, “Blood on the Leaves”.  Built around a highly-loaded sample of the Nina Simone version of “Strange Fruit”, a song about the lynching of African-Americans in the early 20th century, the song focuses on West’s uneasy relationship with an unidentified woman, and the troubles of the relationship going public.  The story takes a different turn, seemingly no longer autobiographical, with the last verse, describing the troubles of having a wife and a mistress, particularly when the mistress gets pregnant, smashing everything the subject had to pieces.  At the end of the verse, West’s vocals call back to the end of “Runaway” from Fantasy, with wordless vocals that become increasingly distorted by Auto-Tune until they finally collapse in a mess of electronic distortion.

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Autobiographical or not, Yeezus is the sound of an angry, angry man, both determined to pump up his ego to the highest possible level, and dragged down by responsibilities and burdens previously unknown.  Musically, Yeezus is a monster; lyrically, it may prove to be West’s most provocative work.

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