An outspoken voice, yet an enigma. A genius, yet often the source of highly questionable statements and opinions. Kanye West is like no other—starting from his humble beginnings in Chicago and continuing through his winding career path to becoming one of the most famous and critically acclaimed artists of all time, the man has been a major influence on the music industry. His impact is palpable in the works of countless performers over the last two decades—it’s most impressive. Let’s take a closer look and trace Mr. West’s path to becoming a living legend:
Early Career—2006: Soul and The College Dropout, Orchestration, and Late Registration
A little background is necessary in order to begin analyzing West. His career began as a producer—so let’s look at where he first became a big name, with Shawn “Jay–Z” Carter’s The Blueprint. After the success of his early records, Carter’s career had been ambling on slowly. Enter West. With a penchant for soul samples, he generated the instrumentals for nearly half of the album, which would go on to receive critical acclaim and be recognized as one of the greatest hip–hop releases of all time. Building off the success of The Blueprint, West was able to work with artists such as Alicia Keys and Ludacris. However, he longed to be a performer himself.
Enter an infamous 2002 car accident and the subsequent release of “Through the Wire,” which discussed the aftermath of the event and made waves in rap circles. Soon enough, West had put out The College Dropout, an album full of soul samples and gospel–based production that dealt with unusual themes of materialism, racism, and education. This was where his impact began.
Prior to the release of The College Dropout, the gangster personality dominated hip hop—Jay–Z, 50 Cent, Ja Rule, Nas, and others were the dominant figures of the era. After the album’s release and ensuing critical and commercial success, however, a sudden shift in the industry became evident. 50 Cent was never able to replicate the success of Get Rich or Die Tryin’, Jay–Z’s work became less about the “streets” and more introspective, and the sound of hip–hop itself evolved. The year after, soul–based albums such as Common’s Be and Missy Elliot’s The Cookbook reached number one on the rap charts as gangster rap slowly began to fade away. West had done something new, and others had started to copy him—an effect present throughout the rest of his career.
As soon as his proclivity for soul samples began to flow into others’ music, however, West immediately ditched it. This is also a recurrent theme for him: a focus on being a trendsetter. Within months, West released Late Registration, which made heavy use of live orchestration and string arrangements. Once again, he attained critical acclaim and commercial success, as more artists continued to emulate his newer styles, particularly fellow Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco. Listening to Fiasco’s Food & Liquor and The Cool, the influence of West’s string orchestration is extremely clear.
2007–2009: Electronics, Graduation, Sadness, and 808s & Heartbreak
Additionally, if The College Dropout was the beginning of the end for gangster rap, Graduation was the fatal blow. West released the electronic–heavy record the same day as 50 Cent’s Curtis and dominated it in sales, marking hip hop’s rejection of its once most dominant subgenre. West had singlehandedly changed the entire course of both rap and the music industry as a whole. With heavy use of synthesizers and self–analysis on hits such as “Stronger” and “Flashing Lights,” the standard club hit was being reinvented.
The most important work (by far) of West’s career, however, is 808s & Heartbreak. It isn’t necessarily his masterpiece, but it is his most impactful work. Building off the electronics of Graduation as well as personal struggles with his mother’s death and breaking up with his fiancé, West created a melancholic pop album that inspired countless artists both inside and outside the hip hop industry. The rise of introspection and “emo–rap” found heavily in the music of artists such as Kid Cudi, Drake, and Childish Gambino can be traced directly to the themes of 808s. The most popular members of the newest generation of rap are arguably more heavily influenced by this record than any other.
2010–2012: Excess, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Collaborations
There’s very little to say about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, and Cruel Summer besides this: the first is West’s magnum opus, the second is an outstanding collaboration album, and the third was a solid compilation album. All three deal with notions of self–analysis, the excesses of fame, and braggadocio in their own ways. During this period, West didn’t create something new so much as cement his talent. There’s not really an impact that can be found here, but there didn’t need to be. West was perfecting the central tropes of hip–hop in his own creative way.
2013–2015: Dark Minimalism and Yeezus
Whereas his prior works were grandiose in nature and flair, West went in the opposite direction with Yeezus. Combining angry auto–tune and rap on the vocal side with minimalist beats, the album was a stark transformation in his style once more. Incorporation of dancehall, electronic house, and other seemingly random genres turned into a remarkably jarring work that once again shifted the course of hip hop. The clearest example of the effect of Yeezus? Travis Scott. In releases such as Rodeo, Scott makes heavy use of these same thematic elements and vocal effects found on Yeezus. In general, a lot of similar dark production and use of the rap–auto–tune combo can be found on recent works of artists such as Young Thug and Future.
2016–Present: The Life of Pablo and the Mutability of Music
Truth be told, it’s only been two years since The Life of Pablo came out, so it’s difficult to measure the effect it has had so far. For the first time in West’s career, he didn’t release something that felt different—rather, the album seemed as if it were an amalgamation of all of his previous solo releases, while also feeling fragmented and unfinished. It experienced multiple alterations after its initial issue on streaming services—a rare first for a much–anticipated record. Perhaps that will be how it changes music—maybe artists will keep trying to perfect their work even after they have already made it available to the masses.
When looking at West’s career to date, it’s important to note something very important: no two records sound the same. His ability to constantly shift his dynamic is unprecedented and unparalleled—it’s nearly impossible to name any other artists that have been able to change their style with every single solo work and influence newer generations of music fans. That, folks, is the impact of a god.