Kanye West will go down in history for five reasons.
One. For saving hip hop when it was in its darkest hour. Literally. At the turn of the century, with the supremacy of bling bling and the unstoppable decline of an entire tradition, of a sound and a way of creating, when it seemed that the genre no longer had any hope left, his formula for redemption based on analogue beats and accelerated samples of soul and funk not only gave shape (and physical and conceptual constitution) to “The Blueprint”, the best rap album of the last decade, but it also gave value to a modus operandi –the sampledelic cut and paste, the MPC, the search for samples in strange old soul albums—that seemed condemned to extinction, returning soul, life, and strength to the rap productions of the time. But the final, perhaps more significant reason might be how he has outlined a universal, global, integrating discourse that has allowed hip hop social, popular and media growth without taking away from its credibility in the least.
Two. For becoming the most exposed, closest, and most tangible artist for his fans that hip hop has ever given. Blogs, Internet, YouTube, Twitter: aware of the media, the repercussion and impact these networks currently provides, Kanye West has completely changed the relationship that successful rappers have with the world, and he has managed to take the greatest possible advantage of this, even when so much public exposure has caused his headaches.
Three. For saying in public that George Bush didn’t care about black people. For messing up the most important night of his career for Taylor Swift. Or for showing his penis in a session of cybersex. Or even for starting to rap in the middle of a flight over the flight attendants’ speaker. For being incapable of controlling his reactions and impulses, for living addicted, consciously or unconsciously, to scandal. For having definitely become the most publicised, necessary figure on the contemporary music scene.
Four. For having totally redesigned the aesthetic of hip hop, not only his musical discourse. Without even trying to, he has ended up acting as a trendsetter and absolute point of reference for understanding the changes and visual, aesthetic evolution of an entire genre, from an explicit as well as a creative and expressive point of view. The planning of his concerts, the staging, the design of his video clips, or the pains taken with the packaging of his albums has given them greater authorship and ambition, marking a before and after in terms of gestures of hip hop. Five. For having patented and given wings to emo-rap and for having the daring and lucidity to introduce a new sensitivity into a musical style that is historically reluctant to speak of feelings and intimate emotions. And by extension, of course, for having acted as the spiritual and creative guide of the new sap of 21st-century hip hop, from Drake to B.O.B.
Having made the introductions to a person who no longer needs them, we will now develop the five key points of his career and personality in order to explain why Kanye West has become the most relevant, important, and necessary musician of our time.
2. Black on White
The most important revolution that hip hop has experienced in the last decade is neither musical nor commercial. New producers, new sounds, new rappers, new scenes, and new trends have arrived, but the most decisive factor in the popular and media expansion of the genre has come from the rise and radical consolidation of the black middle class as the flagship of this reform. Kid Cudi, Drake, Lupe Fiasco or J. Cole represent a more cultured, learned, and global African-American people on whom a wide cultural spectrum has had an influence, with an undeniable white influence, from aesthetics, to music, including language or a way of interacting. All of these have had Kanye West as the true point of reference and instigator in this change of habit and dogmas, the main bridge connecting the great stars of the ghetto firmament, from Young Jeezy to Lil Wayne, including Jay-Z himself, still the great idol for the black American community despite his status, and a new batch of authors for whom the target audience is more eclectic and mixed. Before Jigga publicly confessed his admiration for Grizzly Bear, ‘Ye had already been announcing his passion for Radiohead, Franz Ferdinand and TV On The Radio amongst others on his blog, connecting disparate public audiences and sensibilities with his creative and also aesthetic discourse.
Kanye is the only great contemporary star of the genre who keeps a symmetrical balance between his followers. If Jigga, 50 Cent and Lil Wayne continue to have their greatest core groups of fans in black audiences and Eminem, for example, in white ones, West has managed to be more complex and difficult to decide on in this sense. Although “The College Dropout” is an album with eminent, irremediably orthodox hip hop guidelines, his later recording career incorporates dozens of sound elements that allow a widening of the battle field and a definitive entry into the margins of a majority, universal taste. The equation is given by the melodic charge, the use of arrangements, the more domesticated sound, and a global vision that absorbs everything, and which is impossible to flee or escape from, for better or for worse. His plan for conquest is perfectly measured in this sense, but it is neither forced nor prefabricated: outside of the limits of a downtrodden ghetto or a traumatic childhood taking place in the midst of gunfire and drugs, West, like Cudi or Drake, is someone who grew up equally exposed to the influence of soul or funk and the influence of pop, electronic music, and indie-rock, and this results in an artistic concept that has no limits or horizons, and which has undoubtedly made it possible to connect with a profile of followers and consumers that was previously neither counted on nor expected.
The merit is significant, because through Kanye West many white people reluctant to fully engage with hip hop feel they’ve found the point of reference they needed to discover a world that was unknown to them, or that they understood differently or more opaquely. In this sense, his influence on the genre is incalculable and always remarkable, as not only has he managed to improve it musically, but he has also been able to attract thousands of potential customers and followers who were waiting for a hook like his to bite once and for all. Future generations of MCs with ambition and expectations owe him their respect and undying gratitude.
3. Blog Confessional
He has taken extreme advantage of communications media and especially Internet as a vehicle for self-promotion, growing closer to the public and more notorious, 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Some time before Twitter became one of the most efficient tools for self-promotion and information-spreading—as well as the most frequently-visited, active portal in the rap universe, where gossip and beefs take place at the speed of light, hardly giving one time to digest it all—back then, West made his personal blog into a surprisingly active multimedia platform. He has confessed on various occasions that a team of people helped him hang new contents; as well as putting all of his tastes and preferences in areas like music, architecture, fashion, painting, and women within everyone’s reach, he also put out thoughts, opinions, confessions, and first-person reflections that only reinforced his tendency towards public exhibitionism.
In an industry where the vast majority of blogs simply act as promotional puppets, or even worse, as travelogues without personality, neutral, with an obvious informative aspiration in which the most interesting contribution of the day might be the name of the restaurant where the artist ate today, ‘Ye’s blog didn’t take long to become an anomaly that inspired following, fidelity and untiring attention. It’s hard to come up with another point of reference with such a wide media, popular, and social appeal who has bared himself like that on a personal Internet website. And it’s even more difficult in the rap universe, where the big stars always give an image of distance, coldness, and moral superiority that is very hard to get close to. Every incident, every controversy, every problem encountered in his life had continuation, shock treatment, catharsis, and a wrap-up on his blog, and all at the reader’s fingertips. Of his own free will, for egocentrism, for the need to communicate with his followers, but also with his haters—a great source of feedback throughout his career, since the very beginning when they tried to convince him from that he couldn’t rap and that it would be better if he didn’t leave the fishbowl—for his unstoppable urge to explain himself to the world, for his addiction to that constant presence in the public eye, for whatever reason, the producer and MC has always held himself accountable to the outside world, without it mattering to him that this amplified the repercussion of his words even more.
So where does that leave the twisted, manipulated, and devalued idea of televised reality of Big Brother if we compare it to what ‘Ye has proposed all of this time? Crumbs. Shortly after witnessing his incident with Taylor Swift, our attention wasn’t on what might be said on MTV itself or on the news, but rather it was as easy as connecting to the artist’s blog and waiting for his reaction, which wouldn’t take long to appear. This is an example that we recover here, but which could be applied to each of the countless events that have accompanied him: reactions to his face-off with a paparazzi in the Los Angeles airport, his beef with 50 Cent before the release of “Graduation”, his problems with associations like PETA, criticisms of his egocentricity or his alleged diva attitude. There has always been a response and a confession, making his blog a sort of Truman show with boundless foundation, sincerity, and honesty.
Unfortunately, in March of this year, ‘Ye redesigned the blog to make it into a sort of arty website where his words and testimony are barely present. Now his personal notes have to be sought out in his Twitter account, created at the end of August and which already has more than a million and a half followers. In a sense, his Twitter recovers part of the essence of those early years of his blog, to the point that websites like MTV’s make a list every once in awhile of the ten best tweets of the week. It’s also interesting to see how Twitter has become the launching pad for the series G.O.O.D. Fridays, where every Friday of the last three months the artist has put out a new song from his studio. The debate is whether so insistently anticipating the songs from “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, his new album, may have damaged its impact and ability to surprise or whether, on the contrary, this has served West as a gauge or indicator of the course to take during the final recording. Who knows? What is clear is that, for now, Twitter allows us to stay tuned to ‘Ye’s channel 24 hours a day, and this is something special, unique and inimitable.
4. Scandals and Marketing
If we type “Kanye West + Taylor Swift” into the Google search engine, we’ll get more results than if we type in Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan or—I don’t know, let’s choose someone from the same generation, say Outkast. This is a good way to measure the impact that each scandal starring our man has on the Internet, but also on today’s society. The producer has the record for controversial actions and appearances per square metre in recent years, but surprisingly (and this is a virtue that warrants consideration and study), they have never caused him artistic problems, and besides that, they have helped him to increase his notoriety in the media. He has come through all of the unscathed, as if he were untouchable or impermeable to this type of situations and had the gift of turning these dramas to his own advantage, leading him to be accused on many occasions of having promoted himself at others’ expense. But I don’t entirely agree with this claim.
It’s true that he harangued the black population a bit imprudently when he proclaimed that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” in the midst of the post-Katrina crisis, but no marketing consultant in his right mind would have promoted such a crazy statement to get a little bigger market share. In spite of everything, and surprisingly, the effects of his declaration could be said to be more positive than negative for his image. In a declaration more fitting to a leader of the Nation of Islam, his words resounded and made more of an echo than any justified and proven accusation from non-governmental organisations on the role of the President of the United States and the manoeuvring of the FEMA, and they even earned him credit within a sector of the black population that might have seen him more as a designer product than a face with consciousness and commitment. And the echoes of that moment are still heard today, after the appearance of Bush’s book “Decision Points” and the former president’s declarations indicating these words as one of the worst, most unpleasant moments of his term. Even when it comes to settling accounts, ‘Ye wasn’t able to avoid causing another schism recently, this time with presenter Matt Lauer and the NBC program “The Today Show”, in a new controversy where we have been able to follow his steps through Twitter, and which was caused by the video of another event marked with gold letters on the artist’s curriculum: the interruption of the VMAs to protest Taylor Swift having won an award that in his opinion should have gone to Beyoncé.
For Kanye, that interruption was a “very punk rock and idealistic” gesture, while for others it was a bit of macho bravado fruit of having had too much alcohol, and for many others, it was a new publicity stunt to remain present in the media even when it wasn’t about him. The more critical complain that free publicity is a constant in his career, from the incident with Bush to his brawls with paparazzi, including the Taylor Swift case and his face-off with Matt Lauer. At the bottom of the list would be the leaking of a couple of nude photos that he himself would have sent to some girls in cybersex sessions. It isn’t difficult at all to give way to the theory of those who see a marketing strategy in this series of false steps, but I am one of those who prefer to stick to the hypothesis of West’s impetuous, unpredictable, impulsive, chaotic character, apparently a more interesting, coherent fit with his musical career than a simple publicity stunt to kick up television or cybernaut rows. Even when he apologised repentantly to Taylor Swift on his own blog or he appeared on the Jay Leno show to apologise before millions of people, his gesture appeared sincere and honest, with just the right pathetic touch, more as the result of a dual, ambivalent, unstable personality than as part of a Machiavellian plan to sell more albums.
In reality, this idea of the controversial artist always on the brink of public scandal has a close relationship to the manifest, explicit display that I was talking about in the previous point. A person incapable of contention, measure, or control, ‘Ye televises and broadcasts his life at all times, even when he makes mistakes or crosses the lines of the politically correct, and this overexposure gives everything a larger-than-life size. The importance of the scandal is directly proportional to the importance of the figure involved. Does it really matter to anybody if a guy like Pete Doherty interrupts Taylor Swift at an award ceremony? The cool thing about Kanye is that there is no middle ground or balance in his career, and this makes him even more fascinating and indispensable on the current socio-artistic scene. The world needs improper remarks and acts of sincerity, however mistaken or out of place they may appear to people.
5. Beacon for Hypebeasts
Kanye West’s penetration into the urban social fabric is not due solely to his music and his public appearances. There is a factor that might seem minor or trivial in any other area or context, but which has been of vital importance to the artist’s curriculum from the very beginning. ‘Ye’s fascination with fashion and an aesthetic idea on all fronts, from clothing to architecture, including art, cars, decoration, or interior design, has marked his career and has also been a determining factor in his ability to influence and affect people. When at the beginning of this decade the bling bling aesthetic imported from the dirty south reigned, West appeared with nautical motifs, university jackets, and pastel polos, and those who accused him of being gay and crazy, among other things, soon saw how his look completely redesigned rappers’ images, entirely changing the way the black universe dressed.
We often forget that aesthetic trends and changes in fashion form an indivisible part of the evolution of music, especially in an area like that of hip hop, always closely tied to appearance and the way that one presents oneself to the world. If Kanye designs a collection of shoes for Louis Vuitton, it’s not an anecdote or an exotic footnote, not at all. His participation in this project was due, first of all, to his friendship with Marc Jacobs, but especially to the fact that due to the influence of rappers like him, large luxury firms like Gucci, Prada, Vuitton, Lanvin, have realised that there was an urban market share for their shoe collections. The importance of someone like ‘Ye in the boom of prêt-à-porter sneakers is not within the reach of many, and explains why publications like Askmen have chosen him as the most influential musician of the moment. Not to mention his Nike Yeezy, a prototype designed exclusively for the “Graduation” tour, and which Nike found itself obligated to sell in limited editions at outrageous prices to satisfy the heavy popular demand.
Everything that Kanye has worn has become trendy and sought after by the public. We have talked about shoes, but we can also talk about clothes ( Bape or, above all, the spreading of skinny jeans as the main aesthetic change in the rap community), art ( KAWS or Takashi Murakami), backpacks (Louis Vuitton) or watches ( Nooka), to the point that the rapper has become a constant, referential presence for websites like Hypebeast or Highsnobiety, two cornerstones for the diffusion and propagation of contents related to urban culture and its satellites: shoes, art, technology, design, or streetwear. Undoubtedly, ‘Ye is one of the main reasons for the relevance and currency of the term “hypebeast” these last three years, and he is still today one of its main points of reference and gurus. When a publication like Complex dedicates a special issue to reviewing the entire collection of shoes in which Kanye West has been seen, then something monstrous is up with the dude.
This aesthetic refinement is also reflected in the care with which West has organised all of his tours, and the staging he has designed for his shows, really elaborate works more closely linked to a big concert by U2 or Peter Gabriel, in terms of their grandeur and spectacular quality, than to the performance of an MC (the “Glow in the Dark” tour is still the most inspired, special, dazzling spectacle that yours truly has ever seen). Not to mention his video clips: from that portentous “Good Morning” created by Takashi Murakami, to the short “We Were Once a Fairytale”, Spike Jonze’s small masterpiece, including the 35 minutes of “Runaway”, an absolute climax, halfway between Bergman and an editorial of Purple, with which “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” was presented.
All of the negative implications that the concept of emo may have gathered recently among adolescents and the rock musical spectrum, Kanye West managed to translate into fresh air, interest, and groundbreaking manners for rap with the release of “808s & Heartbreak”. A genre eternally stuck on a bigorexic idea and not very romantic with their feelings, hip hop uncovered for itself a face and a side that until then had been explored little or not at all—in any case never in conceptual approaches or in entire albums—with a title that will go down in history as one of the most poorly understood by critics that I can recall. It is a pity that not everyone was able or wanted to see the revolutionary, regenerating aspect of this work, and they only noticed the traces of the autotune; it was the beginning and the foundation of emo-rap, a variant that already seems fully accepted today through Drake or Kid Cudi, and which will be highly important and relevant in the future.
Even the general aesthetic of the album has had an important effect : the nerd glasses, common currency already among the black population; the use of the 808, an indispensable weapon for the most hard-hitting producers of the moment, especially Boi-1da; the combination of rap phrases and sung choruses, the cornerstone of Drake, Cudi or Theophilus London’s discourses; and the dramatic, emotional, introspective use of the autotune, the case of The-Dream, nothing to do with the tacky festive essence of how it had been treated so far by T-Pain or Lil Wayne. The big find of this album—which will be surpassed in time by new, more consistent, solid proposals, but which already has its spot in history reserved because of its overwhelming daring—lies in its passing of ideas, resources, and arguments clearly inherited from pop, folk, and rock, that idea of an album of emotional break-up and depression, to a musical territory unfamiliar with personal confessions, introspection, and sentimental exorcism. It is as if due to its impact, the hip hop universe had lost its fear or shame of talking about things like sadness, fear, despair, or falling out of love, as if it had freed itself from an archetypal image of misunderstood aggressiveness.
The influence is musical, but especially generational. “808s & Heartbreak” is, above all, the manifesto of a change of course and a changing of the guard. The guard that all of those betting on distancing themselves from stereotypes and clichés want to take up, and who have found in this album a torch to light their way. One might say that it is almost more relevant for the artists themselves, as a sort of consciousness raising, than for the public, perhaps because for a good part of Kanye’s followers, especially those who don’t come from a rap background, this more emotional side of the lyrics and melodies was already thoroughly assimilated and understood. The problem, if it can be understood as such—it’s clearly not—is that in barely a year, West himself has completely left behind the wake of this album to raise a new revolution, that of epic hip hop for large stadiums, which is already clamouring for its role and taking a prime position in the genre’s immediate future.