Every time he puts out an album he literally changes the face of hip-hop, and to an extent popular music as a whole.
The College Dropout, his first album, was one of the first to unify the underground and mainstream hip hop sound since the days of De La Soul, or Wu-Tang. It appealed to everyone, pop fans, hipsters, the ghetto, the middle class. At the time of its release, the music dominating the charts was the kind people think of when they talk about how they don’t like rap…50 Cent, Eminem right at the time he was getting really bad, and the like. College Dropout helped change a lot of that and brought rappers like Lupe Fiasco and Common into the pop charts. It’s poppy yet still personal, along the lines of a mid-period Beatles album. Stuff like that doesn’t come around very often. Compare this and this and tell me they’re the same thing. Late Registration started bringing in more orchestral sounds, making his music grander and more important-sounding. It’s also really good, but as you’re about to see, it’s more of a transition album for him. Graduation is where we really start to see direct influence on today’s music. “Stronger,” (you know, the Daft Punk sampling one) really kicked off the trend of mixing hip-hop and electronic which is all over the charts today. David Guetta, that Flo Rida song, all that stuff is directly from Graduation, and I’m of the opinion that a lot of EDM’s mainstream popularity today is in part due to that album.
“Now hold up, cranestyles, you might say, all the stuff you’re mentioning is crap. Kanye is indirectly responsible for David Guetta? Fuck that noise. Why is this good?”
Yes. All this stuff I’m mentioning is pretty crap, but Kanye does it really well and the amount of imitators something has often tends to be proportional to how good it is. A lot of shitty bands tried to copy the Beatles, a lot tried to copy Neutral Milk Hotel, and a lot of it was crap but it doesn’t make the original any less genius. Kanye’s first three albums are seriously solid pieces of hip hop, chronicling the rise of him as a rapper in a very personal way. I guess I neglected that, but seriously, Dropout is about being younger, poor, and struggling, Late Registration is the celebratory album, with darker hints creeping in at points like “Diamonds From Sierra Leone,” a song about the bling rappers sport so proudly coming from African oppression and genocide. Graduation gets even more soul-searching.
But strap the fuck in, cause you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.
808s and Heartbreak is a weird anomaly. It’s probably his weakest album, but by far his most influential. Released after the death of his mother and a bad breakup with his longtime girlfriend, it’s a stark, minimalistic affair to a degree not usually seen in pop music (noticing a trend here?). The sad R&B rap thing you see today? Rappers talking about their weaknesses, their flaws? All of that, all of that, is straight from 808s. Drake? Post-808s. Kid Cudi? Wouldn’t be possible without it. The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, all of that is post-808s music.
And then he released My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Seriously, if you take one thing from this long and completely unnecessary diatribe, go listen to that album all the way through. It’s an amazing reflection on celebrity, loneliness, drowning yourself in drugs and women to numb the pain, all that fun stuff. It is, for my money, going to be remembered as the definitive album of the last decade. It’s not just good for pop music, it’s good music, period. Who else would do a 9-minute long song where 3/4 of it is just piano and vocoder moaning? Or sample aphex twin? On the biggest, most hyped rap album of the year? You don’t get innovation and pop success like that unless you’re someone truly special.
And i realize this is long as fuck, but here’s a short other thing. If he didn’t rap, he would still be remembered among hip hop fans as one of the greatest producers of the decade. You ever hear songs with those sped up soul vocals? That’s all him and once he started doing that, so did everyone else. Electronic/rap fusion, as stated? All him. Giant orchestral epic raps about fame sucking? Kanye did it first and best. And this is just what he did on his own albums. Before he did that he produced half of The Blueprint, Jay-z’s most critically adored album, as well as Beyonce, TI, Ludacris, Alicia Keys, countless others.