Transformation Tuesday: Kanye West

January 21, 2014
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Kanye West has become such a legend within the music industry I sometimes wonder whether he’s actually a myth. However, since the man in question has produced a delightful offspring with fellow-gorgeous celebrity Kim Kardashian, I will accept that he is, in fact, real.

With this in mind, dear readers, we take a look at how this 36-year-old Atlanta native went from producer to highly sought after behemoth of rap.

Born Kanye Omari West on June 8th 1977, he showed signs of early world-domination potential by becoming a high achiever in school. Artistic talent earned him a scholarship at Chicago’s American Academy of Art but West was no one-trick pony, deciding instead to major in English at Chicago State.

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However, when you’ve got the music in you it’s hard to deny it and by the age of 20, West eschewed college in favour of the pursuit of musical happiness. He dropped out of college because he was an idealist, who believed music would change his life for the better.

West the musician was born.

A stickler for perfection, the albums that emerged throughout the years, “The College Dropout”, “Late Registration”, “Graduation”, “808’s and Heartbreak”, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” and his latest “Yeezus”, all have one thing in common: a tremendous amount of attention to detail. Notably, “808s & Heartbreak” had a huge effect on hip-hop music, encouraging other rappers to take more creative risks with their productions. Artists saw West as ahead of his time, someone to behold.

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Rewinding to 2000, whilst producing for Roc-A-Fella Records, West was credited with revitalizing Jay-Z’s career and his contributions to the rapper’s 2001 album “The Blueprint”, which is widely considered one of the greatest hip-hop albums of all time, resulted in West being the man you went to if you wanted to achieve greatness. Indeed, Ludacris, Alicia Keys and Janet Jackson were quick to notice, requesting as they did for West to create hits for them.

Producing was all well and good (and without doubt a nice little earner) but his heart lay in rap and in October 2002, West was involved in a near-fatal car crash. The resulting injuries required his jaw to be wired shut, but the rapper soldiered on and created music to distract him from the pain. The music was intended to describe the experience through his eyes but to the world, it was simply sheer genius.  Whilst he had our attention, West announced he was working on the album “The College Dropout”, an album which held an overall theme of “make your own decisions. Don’t let society tell you, ‘This is what you have to do.’ ”

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So far, so respected. Inspired by English trip hop group Portishead and their use of orchestral strings, West incorporated string arrangements into his productions, hiring a string orchestra for his second album “Late Registration” – an album which by the end of 2005 had gone on to sell 2.3 million units across the US, making it the only successful major album release during a time of declining record sales. Not too bad for the artist who in the previous year, had stormed out of the “American Music Awards” after losing Best New Artist! Now, that’s not very sporting is it?

However, West and controversy would meet once again when he attended and NBC broadcast for “A Concert For Hurricane Relief” in 2005 where he threw in a few special lines ‘off piste’ from the script. Taking the mic away from fellow entertainer Mike Myers, West delivered the following: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”. This made George Bush, well, rather cross actually, he later referred to it as one of the most”disgusting moments” of his presidency. Seemingly unsatisfied with his ability to stir up the pot, West persisted by wearing a crown of thorns on the 2006 January cover of “Rolling Stone”.  If he was trying to suggest he was bigger than Jesus he might have done well to look to the reaction of the world when John Lennon tried it.  But something tells me he knew exactly what he was doing.

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After touring with U2 on their “Vertigo” tour, West was inspired to create rap songs so anthemic, they could fill arenas and to his way of thinking, synthesizers were the key. Electronic pop in general, in fact. Not only that, he looked to The Rolling Stones and Led Zeppelin for inspiration in terms of melody and chord progression. Last but not least, West observed the folk and country greats, Bob Dylan and Johhny Cash in order to obtain an insight into the perfection of their lyricism and their ability to create stories.

When West’s 3rd studio album “Graduation” was released in 2007, it was directly up against rapper 50 Cent’s “Curtis” but it outsold “Curtis” with some conviction. The lead single from “Graduation”: “Stronger” – which sampled French House duo Daft Punk –  has been accredited to not only encouraging other hip-hop artists to merge house and electronica elements into their music, but also for playing a part in the revival of disco and electro-infused music in the late 2000s.

West was changing hip-hop. People were appreciating and imitating and by now, the rapper’s musical ability was matched by his business acumen. With a clothing line already under his belt and a deal with ‘Nike’, nobody laughed at the collection he bestowed upon Paris fashion week in 2012. By 2013, he’d added Adidas to his list of partnerships.

The effects of his mother’s death coupled with the end of his engagement to long-term partner Alexis Phifer in 2007 resulted in a somber period of music for the artist, “808s & Heartbreak” featured extensive themes of love, loneliness, and heartache alongside the heavy use of  his new love, a Roland TR-808 drum machine. Controversy reared it’s head once again as West crashed the stage during the 2009 “MTV Music Video Awards”, grabbed the mic from winner Taylor Swift and declared that Beyoncé’s video for “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)”, nominated for the same award, was “one of the best videos of all time”. He was thrown out of the show and the awards stopped flowing quite so freely – he was being punished by the industry, for being a bit unsporting, yet again.

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It didn’t matter though, because the rapper’s fifth studio album “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” – released in November 2010 –  met with rave reviews. A headlining set a “Coachella” 2011 (described by The Hollywood reporter as “one of greatest hip-hop sets of all time,”) set him up for a collaborative effort with Jay-Z for the album “Watch The Throne”. The album was released digitally weeks before its physical counterpart, thus avoiding a digital leak. A highly successful sales move.

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And so we arrive at the present and “Yeezus”, West’s sixth and most recent album. But after all these years, West has not veered from the original mantra he held close to his heart in the early days, he remains determined to “undermine the commercial,” and do it his way. He’s still a perfectionist, often changing vital aspects of production close to the release date. He’s still getting the rave reviews and he’s still controversial.

Writing this Transformation Tuesday I’ve discovered that in truth, ‘Yeezy’ really hasn’t changed. He may be wealthier and have more recognition and respect but he never strayed from his core beliefs.

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The only difference is that now, he has a beautiful little girl and a fiancée to share the success with.

-Lucy Jenkins.

@LUCYJENKlNS

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