Kanye West: Hiphop and Pop Culture At Their Finest
by Rapjoint Lagos
One of the most influential and critically lauded artists of the early 21st century, Kanye West went from hip-hop beatmaker to worldwide hitmaker as his production work for artists such as Jay-Z led to a major-label recording contract. And, ultimately, a wildly successful solo career that counted an unbroken string of chart-topping, multi-platinum albums and nearly two-dozen Grammy Awards for classic sets like 2005's Late Registration, 2007's Graduation, and 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Early on, West paired his beats with tongue-twisting raps and outspoken confidence.
With a backpack and brightly colored polo shirt, his dapper fashion sense set him apart from many of his rap peers, while his attitude often came across as boastful and egotistical. This flamboyance made for good press, something that West enjoyed, for better or worse, throughout the course of his career.
Ye (/jeɪ/ YAY; born Kanye Omari West; June 8, 1977), commonly known as Kanye West[c] (/ˈkɑːnjeɪ/ KAHN-yay), is an American rapper, record producer, entrepreneur, and fashion designer. He is widely regarded as one of the greatest and most influential hip hop musicians of all time, as well as one of the greatest musicians of his generation. Born in Atlanta and raised in Chicago, West gained recognition as a producer for Roc-A-Fella Records in the early 2000s, producing singles for several artists and developing the "chipmunk soul" sampling style. Intent on pursuing a solo career as a rapper, he released his debut studio album, The College Dropout (2004), to critical and commercial success. West subsequently founded his record label GOOD Music later that same year.
West explored diverse musical elements such as orchestral arrangements, synthesizers, and autotune on the albums Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007), and 808s & Heartbreak (2008). Drawing inspiration from maximalism and minimalism respectively, his fifth album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and sixth album Yeezus (2013) were also released to critical and commercial success. West further diversified his musical styles on The Life of Pablo (2016) and Ye (2018), and explored Christian and gospel music on Jesus Is King (2019). After a series of delays, his highly anticipated tenth album Donda (2021) was released to continued commercial success, but to mixed critical reception. He released its sequel, Donda 2 (2022), a few months later, exclusively through his tie-in audio speaker service. West's discography also includes the full-length collaborative albums Watch the Throne (2011) with Jay-Z and Kids See Ghosts (2018) with Kid Cudi.
With his outsized personality, he courted plenty of controversy, posing for the cover of Rolling Stone as Jesus Christ, claiming that "George Bush doesn't care about Black people" during a televised Hurricane Katrina fundraiser, and infamously interrupting an awards speech by Taylor Swift in 2009. And yet, his steady presence in the celebrity limelight couldn't eclipse his musical talent. His production abilities seemed boundless, as he not only racked up impressive hits for himself (including number one singles "Gold Digger" and "Stronger") but also had smash hits with longtime collaborator Jay-Z (on their 2011 Watch the Throne track "Ni**as in Paris") and even Paul McCartney (along with Rihanna on 2015's "FourFiveSeconds"). As his career progressed throughout the early 21st century, West became a superstar on his own terms without adapting his appearance, his rhetoric, or his music to fit any one musical mold.
A proud and vocal Chicagoan, West was actually born in Atlanta, moving to the Windy City with his English professor mother after his parents split when he was three years old. One of his major inspirations, Donda West helped shape young Kanye, taking him to China in the late '80s on education exchange and establishing a strong base that made him a top pupil in high school. However, his music dreams would eventually eclipse academics and he dropped out of college, setting the stage for his best-selling school trilogy. With guidance from local producer No I.D., West went on to learn the finer points of studio production, programming, and sampling, the latter technique becoming a hallmark of his early-2000s work.
West first got his foot in the industry door in the late '90s, doing quite a bit of noteworthy production work for the likes of Jermaine Dupri, Foxy Brown, Mase, and Goodie Mob. However, it was West's work for Roc-A-Fella at the dawn of the new millennium that took his career to the next level. Alongside fellow fresh talent Just Blaze, West became one of the Roc's go-to producers, consistently delivering hot tracks to album after album. His star turn came on Jay-Z's classic The Blueprint (2001) with album standouts "Takeover" and "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)." Both songs showcased West's signature beatmaking style of the time, which was largely sample-based; in these cases, the former track appropriated snippets of the Doors' "Five to One," while the latter sampled the Jackson 5's "I Want You Back."
The College Dropout
More high-profile productions followed, and before long, word spread that West was going to release an album of his own, on which he planned to rap as well as produce. Unfortunately, that effort was a long time coming, pushed back repeatedly until a freak accident threatened to end his solo career before it even started. In October 2002, West was in a car accident that almost cost him his life and left him with a jaw wired shut during his weeks-long recovery. He capitalized on the traumatic experience by using it as the inspiration for "Through the Wire" (and its corresponding video), which would later become the lead single for his debut album, 2004's The College Dropout. As the album was further delayed, West continued to create big hits for the likes of Talib Kweli ("Get By"), Ludacris ("Stand Up"), Jay-Z ("'03 Bonnie & Clyde"), and Alicia Keys ("You Don't Know My Name"). Then, just as "Through the Wire" was breaking big-time at the tail-end of 2003, another West song caught fire, a collaboration with Twista and actor Jamie Foxx called "Slow Jamz," which gave the rapper/producer two simultaneously ubiquitous singles and a much-anticipated debut album. As with so many of West's songs, the singles were driven by somewhat recognizable sample-based hooks: Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire" in the case of "Through the Wire" and Luther Vandross' "A House Is Not a Home" in the case of "Slow Jamz."
In the wake of his breakout success, West earned a whopping ten nominations at the 47th annual Grammy Awards in early 2005. The College Dropout won the Best Rap Album award, "Jesus Walks" won Best Rap Song, and a songwriting credit on "You Don't Know My Name" for Best R&B Song award was shared with Alicia Keys and Harold Lilly. Later that year, West released his second solo album, Late Registration, which spawned a series of hit singles ("Diamonds in Sierra Leone," "Gold Digger," "Heard 'Em Say," "Touch the Sky"). The album topped the charts, as did the "Gold Digger" single, and Late Registration eventually won a Grammy for Rap Album of the Year. West's production work continued more or less unabated during this time; particularly noteworthy were hits for Twista ("Overnight Celebrity"), Janet Jackson ("I Want You"), Brandy ("Talk About Our Love"), the Game ("Dreams"), Common ("Go!"), and Keyshia Cole ("I Changed My Mind"). West also founded his own label, GOOD Music (i.e., "Getting Out Our Dreams"), in conjunction with Sony BMG. The label's inaugural release was John Legend's Get Lifted (2004), followed one year later by Common's Be. In addition to all of his studio work, West also toured internationally in support of Late Registration and released Late Orchestration: Live at Abbey Road Studios (2006) in commemoration.
Don't Quit Your Day Job
After retreating from the spotlight for some time, West returned to the forefront of the music world in 2007 with a series of album releases. Consequence's Don't Quit Your Day Job and Common's Finding Forever, both released by GOOD, were chiefly produced by West; the latter proved to be particularly popular, topping the album chart upon its release in July. And then there was West's third solo album, Graduation, which was promoted well in advance of its September 11 release (a memorable date that pitted Kanye against 50 Cent, who in one interview swore he would quit music if his own album, Curtis, wasn't the top-seller). A pair of singles -- "Can't Tell Me Nothing" and "Stronger," the latter an interpolation of Daft Punk's 2001 single "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" -- led the promotional push. It became his third consecutive chart-topping album, and its success culminated in eight Grammy nominations. West was the victor in four of the categories, and he performed two songs during the ceremony, including Late Registration's "Hey Mama," chosen in honor of his recently deceased mother. That loss, compounded by a breakup with his fiancée, informed 2008's genre-busting landmark 808s & Heartbreak, a major change of pace that saw West singing most of his emotionally pained lyrics with the assistance of Auto-Tune. The album went platinum, spawning Top Three hits "Love Lockdown" and "Heartless," while influencing a generation of young rappers wanting to tap into their emotional sides. West toured internationally, even returning to China in 2008 for a stop on his Glow in the Dark Tour. However, after a headline-grabbing turn at the 2009 MTV Video Awards involving Taylor Swift, West retreated from the spotlight to record another album.
In 2010, West emerged with his fifth opus, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which marked the start of a new era for the artist, one focused on fame, sex, and opulent production. Recorded in Hawaii, the star-studded set recruited a staggering number of guest vocal spots from the likes of Nicki Minaj, Kid Cudi, Elton John, Rihanna, Bon Iver, Rick Ross, and RZA. Preceded by the bombastic, King Crimson-sampling single "Power," Fantasy also included the Grammy-winning "All of the Lights," fan favorite "Runaway," and "Monster," which featured a star-making turn by a young Nicki Minaj. A sprawling and audacious album, it debuted at number one on the Billboard 200, won a Grammy for Best Rap Album, and also went multi-platinum. While the album was still hot, West recorded the aggressive and boast-heavy Watch the Throne with Jay-Z and numerous producers and songwriters. Billed as a set by the Throne, it was released in August 2011 and entered the Billboard Top 200 chart at number one. A trio of hit singles -- "Otis," "No Church in the Wild," and "Ni**as in Paris" -- climbed the charts and each won Grammy Awards, capping a dominant run for the rapper that resulted in 21 Grammys within just eight years.
G.O.O.D. Music: Cruel Summer
In September 2012, he released the GOOD Music collaboration album Cruel Summer, which featured artists such as Big Sean, Pusha T, and Lifted. Four singles ("Mercy," "Cold," "New Flow," and "Clique") were released as promotion for the record. Toward the end of the year, there were rumblings from acclaimed producers that a new album would emerge soon. These murmurs were soon confirmed when West himself announced that he was working on his sixth album with the likes of Daft Punk, King L., Justin Vernon, Rick Rubin, Chief Keef, and many more contributing. As one of the most eagerly anticipated albums of 2013, the angry and aggressive Yeezus was released to rapturous reviews from critics. Incorporating industrial-electronic touches, screamed vocals, and soaring gospel, West touched upon both controversial and sensitive topics while delivering an astonishing and bold record, described as his most confrontational and bravest album to date. Despite leaking days before its official release, Yeezus still sold almost 327,000 copies during its first week and singles "Black Skinhead" and "Bound 2" were certified platinum while "New Slaves" received a Grammy nomination.
The Life of Pablo
The year 2013 also proved to be a personal milestone for West, as he became a father for the first time with partner Kim Kardashian. The following year, he announced a new album and released "Only One" featuring Paul McCartney, which, like his 2015 single "FourFiveSeconds" with McCartney and Rihanna, remained a non-LP release. Later, he announced another, different album, titled So Help Me God, which later turned to SWISH, then Waves, and finally The Life of Pablo. The album was released on Valentine's Day 2016 and shot to the top of the Billboard 200. The guest list for the platinum-selling effort included Chance the Rapper, Kid Cudi, Young Thug, Chris Brown, Sia, the Weeknd, French Montana, Frank Ocean, Post Malone, Jay-Z, and many more. In the age of streaming and direct artist-to-fan access, West took advantage of the technology and continued to tinker with the album even after it was released, tweaking production, guest verses, and even lyrics.
During the promotion of Pablo, West canceled the final dates of his revolutionary Saint Pablo Tour -- during which he performed from a "floating" stage suspended above the pit -- and was hospitalized for psychiatric observation. He retreated from the spotlight for nearly a year and re-emerged in 2017 to begin recording material for his next album -- as well as production for artists on his GOOD Music label -- at a studio in Jackson Hole, Wyoming. While there, he also continued to court controversy with his political views and public statements made via social media. Amidst the headline flurry, he released a pair of singles in April 2018: "Lift Yourself" and "Ye vs. the People" with T.I. The following month, West delivered the first of the "Wyoming Sessions" studio productions with Pusha T's critically acclaimed, Grammy-nominated Daytona. A week later, West released his eighth official set, Ye, which featured appearances by Kid Cudi, Ty Dolla $ign, and Nicki Minaj, as well as production by Mike Dean, Che Pope, Francis and the Lights, and Benny Blanco. Singles "Yikes" and "All Mine" were both certified platinum and hovered around the Top Ten on the Hot 100. The third installment of the series arrived the next week, marking the debut of the collaborative project Kids See Ghosts, a duo formed by West and Cudi. Kids See Ghosts featured Pusha T, Mos Def, and Ty Dolla $ign, as well as samples of Louis Prima and Kurt Cobain. West's Wyoming Sessions were completed with the release of Nas' Nasir and Teyana Taylor's K.T.S.E., and he received a nomination for Producer of the Year at the 2019 Grammy Awards.
Jesus Is King
Following the flurry of activity in Wyoming, West released a pair of singles to close out the year. While the drug- and lust-filled "XTCY" was more of a B-side, its follow-up "I Love It" with Lil Pump took off on the charts and became a viral hit, boosted by a surreal music video and equally quirky live television performances. Certified double platinum, the song was West's highest charting on the Hot 100 since 2015's "FourFiveSeconds." Riding the momentum of "I Love It," West announced that another album was imminent. Like the pre-Pablo SWISH and Waves buildup, the proposed Yandhi -- a sequel to Yeezus -- never materialized and, in 2019, West revealed the album would be titled Jesus Is King. To promote the effort, he expanded his "Sunday Service" gospel revival events across the U.S., playing early versions of the album to fans in Detroit, Chicago, and New York City. Issued that October, Jesus Is King became West's ninth straight number one studio album as a headliner. Singles "Closed on Sunday" and "Follow God" landed the rapper on multiple international charts, while the latter was certified gold in the U.S. A companion set from West's Sunday Service Choir, Jesus Is Born, arrived on Christmas Day 2019. Although West's vocals did not appear on the album, the crew intertwined their takes on tracks like "Ultralight Beam" and "Father Stretch My Hands" with their versions of beloved gospel songs by the Clark Sisters and Reverend Timothy Wright.
The 2020s were ushered in with the single "Wash Us in the Blood" featuring Travis Scott. Recording for West's tenth album Donda began in early 2020. Named after his late mother, the release of Donda was surrounded by the same chaotic energy that encircled everything West was involved with. Release dates were announced and pushed back, and after a listening party at Atlanta's Mercedes Benz Stadium in late July of 2021, West took up residence in one of the stadium's locker rooms to continue mixing and finalizing the recording of the album. Another listening party was scheduled around a new, tentative release date. The Grammy-nominated set arrived in August and entered the Billboard 200 at number one.
On July 4, 2020, West tweeted that he is running for president: "We must now realize the promise of America by trusting God, unifying our vision and building our future. I am running for president of the United States."West held his first campaign rally on July 19, 2020, in Charleston, South Carolina. With "2020" shaved into his head, he spoke about Planned Parenthood, marijuana and slavery, among other subjects, in his speech that lasted over an hour.
On October 12, he dropped his first campaign video urging voters to write his in on their ballots.West eventually conceded and alluded to a presidential run in 2024.
West's outspoken views and life outside of music have received significant media coverage. He has been a frequent source of controversy for his conduct on social media, award shows, and public settings; as well as his comments on the music and fashion industries, U.S. politics, race, and slavery. His Christian faith, estranged marriage to Kim Kardashian, and mental health have also been sources of further media attention. As a fashion designer, he has collaborated with Nike, Louis Vuitton, The Gap, and A.P.C. on clothing and footwear, and leads the Yeezy collaboration with Adidas. He is also the founder and head of the creative content company Donda. In 2020, West launched an unsuccessful independent presidential campaign that primarily advocated for a consistent life ethic.
One of the world's best-selling music artists, with over 160 million records sold, West has won 24 Grammy Awards, the joint tenth-most of all time, and the joint-most Grammy awards of any rapper along with Jay-Z.He is frequently lauded as one of hip hop's greatest artists, with his music among the most acclaimed. Among his other awards are the Billboard Artist Achievement Award, a joint-record three Brit Awards for Best International Male Solo Artist and the Michael Jackson Video Vanguard Award. Six of West's albums were included on Rolling Stone's 2020 500 Greatest Albums of All Time list with the same publication naming him one of the 100 Greatest Songwriters of All Time. He holds the joint record (with Bob Dylan) for most albums (4) topping the annual Pazz & Jop critic poll, and has the 5th most appearances on the Billboard Hot 100 (133 entries). Time magazine named him one of the 100 most influential people in the world in 2005 and 2015.Forbes estimates his net worth at $2 billion as of 2022, making him the wealthiest musician in the world.