04 November 2010

Profiles: Does Kanye Deserve Humility? Part I

It seems like the last week or so has been all about Kanye West, and with a recent shout-out in George W's new book today seems like a good one to talk about the Voice of A Generation, a Genius and Gay Fish, Kanye West.

Kanyeezy is an interesting rapper. He started his career producing some of the hottest tracks in the early 2000s, including a good amount of Jay-Z's The Blueprint among a pretty impressive list including Nas, Ludacris, DMX, Mos Def and T.I. According to authoritative Wikipedia sources, Roc-A-Fella Records was cautious about supporting Kanye when he turned to rapping himself because of his atypical anti-street image.

There is a lot of complex societal ideas that swirl around this guy. The marketability of a genre, persona or a human being, individuality, music video art, free expression, critical acceptance with personal disdain and finally hubris out the ass. Is Kanye actually humble among the field of Rappers though? Does he deserve his self-appointed Kingship? On a few occasions he proclaimed himself the next Michael Jackson - a King of Pop - is this declaration self-deluded or accurate? There's no other living rapper as committed to his craft as an art form on a scale that can rival the best of any other genre - breaking free in a very mainstream way from the limitations that had seemed to guarantee prior success - the kind of success that Roc-A-Fella was used to and the risk they feared with Kanye. Let's start charting his professional career.

Early Success and an Anti-Gangster Image, 2004 - 2006

Kanye first came out with The College Dropout in 2004. Both his lyrical content and image were highly contrasted to typical hip-hop tropes at the time. He came out with a polo and nice jeans, branding himself as the eponymous College Dropout, a kid with education, class and a sense of decorum and formality. Looking at other popular hip-hop videos of the era, the bankability of this image seems ludicrous. This was  Kanye attempting to reevaluate what it meant to be a public Black figure in America. He was not going to dance and act like he should to get his money. He's out to create a dignified art form instead of dishing on rims, weed and girls.

While "Slow Jamz" is probably his most famous track off Dropout, "Through the Wire" and "Jesus Walks" are his most personal, most Kanye-like singles. They're both lyrically honest and well-produced songs. There's a reason why Kanye gets the honour to open up Dave Chappelle's Block Party (2006), here is a full version, the embedded below cuts out a bit of the intro, which is worth it.

All I'm saying here is that when Kanye came out there were a few other rappers (all of whom seem to be in Block Party, by the way) who had this closer approach to hip-hop as this genuine art form, a means of expressing values other than slurred, speedy words, negative stereotypes and violence. While cats like Mos Def and Talib Kwali had their own success though, none rose like Kanye, which gave him a certain amount of power within the musical community. Here was a guy tremendously successful who managed to still spit about his true emotions and feelings. This trend, though, would also be his downfall.

It's so difficult to pick a favourite Kanye album because they really are all so good. He followed up his freshman effort with Late Registration, which had incredible tracks such as "Diamonds from Sierra Leone,"
"Roses," and "Touch the Sky." The latter of those three is probably my favourite track of the album. It's so smooth and has a cool 70s beat that reminisces about a time of a more homogeneous Black Culture. It's also proud, boastful while maintaining a unifying theme. But of course we need to talk "Gold Digger." Watch the vid:

I'll point out a few things, first listen to this kick-ass Remix. Jamie Foxx is here capitalising on his uncanny Ray Charles impression, for which he won an Oscar in Ray (2004). His hook layers over the entire song beautifully. Check out Kanye's complete disinterest in the video, both to the girls and the audience. His back is turned to us with his hands in his pockets for the majority, as if he really doesn't need to be or like to be in the spotlight. His stylistic choices are again reminiscent of a simpler time while seamlessly placing black models in pin-up positions that would have been filled in their own time with white chicks. As immensely popular as "Gold Digger" was (during my college years this was a very rare song that just about every clique of people could get behind and love, it was bizarre. I mean, hippies, jocks, gangsters, potheads and nerds, it was insane), Kanye seemed as though he could eschew the recognition.

Which of course we'd learn was simply untrue. In our next installment I'll discuss his best album, Graduation, his personal controversies (which are endlessly ridiculous) and his pending album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which could prove to be one of his greatest successes to date. All of this praise, should we be shunning him or bowing down like he wants us to? Where are the lines between adoration, hubris, humility and rationalisation? Do I ask too many questions? Stay tuned!

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