Wednesday, October 21, 2009

The Rise & Fall of Kanye West

Has Hip Hop's Artist of the Decade Finally Lost His Cool?

A little under a month ago, rising country star Taylor Swift won the Best Female Video award at MTV’s annual Video Music Awards show. Of course, the VMAs are more of an industry promotional tool than anything else, and certainly not a measure of video-making or “artistry” by any stretch, but 19 year-old Swift seemed genuinely excited about her moon man, and we all felt warm and fuzzy inside for her. All was well. Then, twenty seconds into her cute, little acceptance speech, something really, really bad happened.

When Kanye West suddenly appeared onstage, calmly yanking the microphone from Swift, we all knew what was about to happen; West is probably as well known for his manic, ego-driven diatribes and award show freakouts as he is for his vast, influential body of work, experimental music videos, and dazzling live performances. This was supposed to be the Kanye we all knew and loved (or put up with). Swift was supposed to toss her head back and let out a good chuckle, tell Kanye where he could shove it, and finish her speech. But amid a thunderous mixture of boos and sympathy cheers from a stunned audience, Taylor Swift just stood there, tears welling-up in her eyes, humiliated and utterly speechless. And thus, Kanye West’s career meltdown had officially begun.

At this point, you might begin to wonder if perhaps “career meltdown” is a little strong. Well, let’s look at the facts, shall we? In the days that followed the infamous VMA incident, everyone from Pink and Kelly Clarkson to Bill O’Reilly and President Obama have commented on it, with Obama even calling West a “jackass” (off the record, of course). Whether its or, every news item that even mentions the word “west” is met with a slew of angry comments, filled with vicious, brutal words for the Louie Vutton Don. And mind you, this is almost a FULL MONTH after the incident. His highly anticipated joint tour with pop sensation Lady Gaga, aptly-titled “Fame Kills”, was cancelled a few weeks ago, with Gaga herself citing the cause as Kanye’s need to “take a break”, obviously a result of the overwhelmingly negative publicity West has received. In other words, Kanye West’s career was going 300 mph just two months ago, and it is now at a complete stand still. For arguably the most influential figure in hip hop this decade, it’s a bitter, disappointing way to ring in the New Year.

Yes, you read that right. Kanye West is the most influential hip hop artist of the 2000s. Don’t believe me? Well, once again, let’s look at the facts (Ok, maybe these aren’t “facts”, but bear with me). Before Kanye West, there were mainly two major stylistic approaches to hip hop; Gangsta shit and, for lack of a better way of putting it, Conscious shit. Since the early 90s, when Dr. Dre’s The Chronic made violent, materialistic, misogynistic hip hop melodic and palatable for the mainstream to consume, Gangsta rap had been the money-making approach to hip hop. Meanwhile, groups like A Tribe Called Quest and De La Soul were setting the template for the alternative hip hop movement; melding thought provoking examinations of the very same culture gangsta rap reveled in with complicated, jazz and soul-inflected beats. Both approaches had their artistic merits and limitations, but aside from a few obvious exceptions (Fugees, for example), the darker, more hardcore approach always won out at record stores with a more-overt embrace of mainstream pop sensibilities (Puff Daddy, for example).

And then came OutKast. Rising out of the Dirty South, a location consistently ignored by the hip hop elite well into the 1990’s, OutKast’s approach to hip hop was ingenious. Big Boi and Andre 3000 presented themselves as “The Player and the Poet”, allowing the two major perspectives and stylistic approaches in hip hop to coexist and play off one another, thus bridging the gap between the two. Their very existence made a statement; both sides have something worthwhile to offer and often signify the same thing, but simply take different routes in getting there. There was something for everyone in OutKast; their music, always intelligent, could be rough and raw one minute (e.g. “Snappin’ and Trappin’”, “You Scared?”), and then melodic and pop-oriented the next (“Hey Ya”, “Ms. Jackson”). However, the stress and strain of holding these two complimentary but divergent artists together under one roof must have proven too great a task for Big Boi and Dre, and since the release of 2006’s Idlewild, they have yet to reemerge as a duo.

And then in walked Kanye West. After providing some of the best production hip hop had ever seen at that time to Jay-Z’s The Blueprint in 2001, Kanye signed to Roc-A-Fella Records and released The College Dropout in 2004. This is significant for a number of reasons. For starters, West’s music sounded absolutely nothing like anything Roc-A-Fella had released prior. When Cam’ron and Beanie Siegel were writing songs about fucking bitches and busting shots, Kanye was writing about working the night shift at a dead end job, spirituality, and the pressure that comes with dropping out of college to pursue a dream. He collaborated with Jay-Z and Ludacris…and Common and Mos Def. The beats were soulful, almost vintage, firmly embracing the long, often-forsaken history of Black music from which the entire Billboard top 40 (now or then) comes. And Kanye had an everyman quality to him; he wasn’t the best emcee, he wasn’t the best looking guy, and he wasn’t talking about anything the listener couldn’t identify with or experience themselves. He was…real. Like OutKast, Kanye’s very existence embodied the two halves, the player and the poet, into one glorious, if somewhat egotistical whole.

The College Dropout sold over 3 million copies and made Kanye West into a superstar. And he was only getting started. The sprawling Late Registration (2005), with its lush string arrangements, heartfelt subject matter and majestic melodies, took things to an entirely different level. First single “Diamonds (from Sierra Leone)” even had the audacity to condemn the rampant, irresponsible materialism that was downright ubiquitous at the height of the bling bling, big-booty-hoes-in-every-video era of hip hop. West’s outspokenness took many forms; from the noble (e.g. West is one of the first and only hip hop artists to speak out against homophobia), to the widely-controversial (e.g. “George Bush don’t care about black people” perhaps?). And while it wasn’t hard to tell that the man’s ego was growing exponentially at this point, so was the number of hit singles under his belt. 2007’s Graduation replaced lush strings with haunting synthesizers, and contained some of West’s best work, including “Stronger”, “Can’t Tell Me Nothing”, and the astounding “Flashing Lights”, arguably his most mind-blowing production. And of course the infamous Kanye vs. 50 Cent chart war generated lots of headlines and embarrassment for 50 (remember when he said he’d retire if Kanye won?), but the significance of this is far more profound that that. When 50 Cent, quite possibly the most successful Gangsta rapper of all time (and up until 2007, the most popular artist in the music industry, period), sold far less copies that Kanye West, it typified a major shift in hip hop; Gangsta rap was losing its hold on the imagination of the public, in favor of something more thoughtful, relatable, and…conscious.

At the height of his career, West embarked on the Glow in the Dark Tour, easily the biggest, most outrageous stage production hip hop has ever seen. It was the kind of production that seemed unthinkable for a hip hop artist, reserved for mega-selling pop/rock stars like Britney Spears, U2, and Madonna, complete with an eleven-piece chamber orchestra and a cutting edge, world class light show. Later that year, Kanye won 4 Grammys, bringing his grand total to 10 (a year later he’d win two more, bringing that total to 12), but not before two major personal tragedies would lead to a major change in his career trajectory. In May of 2007, West’s long engagement to model Alexis Rainey ended, and in November of 2007 West’s mother, Donda West, died from complications during a plastic surgery procedure. West understandably took these two events extremely hard, but seemed to be dealing with the pain as well as anyone could, finishing out the Glow in the Dark tour, and even getting to work on a new album. Everything seemed great…until the album came out.

2008’s 808s and Heartbreak is one of those albums that no one ever sees coming; A great artist with a well-known, consistent style suffers great personal trauma, resulting in a radical shift in the direction of their music. Over fuzzy, brittle production, West sings the entire album in autotune, creating a strange distance between himself and the listener that is both unsettling and fascinating. He is practically having a nervous breakdown for over 50 minutes, detailing the loneliness and regret fame has brought him and the shattered relationships it’s left in its wake. And with the relatively surprising success of the album came even more trouble, including multiple arrests for assaulting members of the paparazzi and a really funny South Park episode that didn’t exactly caste Mr. West in the best light. But West seemed on track, helping to usher in the careers of multiple young artists, including Estelle, Kid Cudi and Drake. Kanye was everywhere, doing guest appearances on hit song after hit song, producing the bulk of Jay-Z’s The Blueprint 3, and preparing for the Fame Kills Tour with Lady Gaga. Kanye had successfully blurred the lines between Hip Hop and Pop like no one before him. Everything was great, until….

And now we come full circle. And where things go from here is anyone’s guess. But Kanye West’s genius cannot be denied. He gave Talib Kweli his first and only mainstream hit (“Get By”). He brought the world John Legend. He helped get Common, a respected but only mildly-successful emcee, both his most successful and best album (2005’s BE). He cleared the way for artists like Lupe Fiasco, Drake, and Kid Cudi, and do I need to remind you that this is the same man that produced “H to the Izzo”, “Let The Beat Build”, “Swagga Like Us”, and fucking “Gold digger”!?

So Taylor Swift was sad…fine that sucks. But Taylor Swift has also been catapulted into a level of fame that is absolutely insane, her album sales have probably quadrupled, and last time I checked nobody’s had to talk her down from any ledges or cliffs. I think she’ll be ok. Meanwhile, we’re about to lose one of the greatest talents popular music has ever seen to…the VMAS!? Like the great Jim Morrison once said, “Learn to forget.”

Or just shut the hell up about it already.

No comments: