I MISS THE OLD KANYE, STRAIGHT FROM THE 'GO KANYE
CHOP UP THE SOUL KANYE, SET ON HIS GOALS KANYE
Travelling into London this morning, my brother and I fell into discussion. We talked about Kanye West, an artist which we've both grown up adoring. Sharing one headphone each, we journeyed into central from zone 6, shuffling through Ye classics, Last Call, Never Let Me Down, Homecoming and Family Business, to name a few. We exchanged opinions on his influence on music, the hip-hop genre specifically, and the impact his catalogue of work has had on some of the most talked about artists to grace headlines in the music industry today.
Let me start by saying this piece is no dig at Kanye, despite what its title may imply. Some great artists you are introduced to late. You're given a taste of something and you either bite or you don't, and if you do, you often crave more. I've listened to the likes of Queen and Michael Jackson for as long as my memory stretches, but late greats like Bowie I fell into much later, encouraging almost a sonic journey through an extensive catalogue of albums, songs and styles. Along with so many of my friends who appreciate Kanye like I do, I grew up with his music and fell in love with it all on my own, it was never introduced to me later or force fed. For a kid that grew up on rock and pop, I had never ventured deep into the realms of hip-hop. I didn't know who N.W.A were, I hadn't even heard any of Hov's early stuff. I'd listened to some Tupac and Biggie that I'd liked, but the genre was barely existent in my every day listening, especially in comparison to now, with my iTunes library full of its most influential and distinguished records, from Illmatic, to Stankonia, to Straight Outta Compton. It was Kanye's The College Dropout that created that bridge for me, leading me into a long-term relationship with hip-hop that has since never wavered and probably never will.
This early work was a perfect intro into the genre. Along with Late Registration a year later in 2005, The College Dropout showcased Ye's natural mastery at chopping up soul beats to make a more widely accessible, jocular breed of hip-hop. Since his earliest days on the scene, before he may have even known it himself, Kanye has been a futurist, never a conformist. Fast-forward to present day and look over his catalogue of music, eight albums spanning twelve years, all showcasing Kanye's huge influence on the transforming trends of the genre and it's place in pop culture. Think back. Hip hop wasn't relatable to the everyday fandom, Kanye made The College Dropout. He predicts the imminent wave of EDM culture and samples Daft Punk on Stronger. He sees a need for love and melody in rap and creates 808s and Heartbreak. Hip-hop isn't experimental enough, he introduces Yeezus. Kanye has always been the first. Whilst his first three records we're instantly adored, 808s was something new and entirely unique. A hip-hop artist exploring themes of loss, heartache and a disaffected fame through love songs and electronic beats? It took a bit more time, but it wasn't long before it seeped through the cracks of street-rap, influencing emerging artists and thus, transforming a part of the genre in a massive way. Would we even have hits like Hold On We're Going Home without 808s? Kanye has been a constant pioneer of change in the genre and today, the hip-hop world thanks him for it, often.
How many contemporary artists do you think could achieve what he has done with The Life of Pablo? The album was completely self-marketed, regularly prolonged, name-changed (four times!), and had successfully caught the attention of the world within its first whispers. The pop-culture juggernaut, who once upon a time rapped about his desperate efforts to sign a deal, now has the world at his feet, selling out Madison Square Gardens in mere minutes, along with cinema tickets all over the world to premier his new album.
But what about the music? Whilst listening to tracks spanning Kanye's twelve years of music, this became the sole focus of my conversation with my brother on our journey into London. Listening to the bracketing albums, you'll certainly hear the difference. The College Dropout emblazons a hungry, talented, meticulous artist striving for success at all costs, and as you would imagine over a decade later, The Life of Pablo showcases something completely different. This is not to say that it's bad, or that I didn't or don't enjoy the album. I do. Most of it, anyway. I remember starting my first listen chronologically with Ultralight Beam and feeling chills at its opening gospel sonics, as well as pure elation when Chance's genius verse drops. I was immediately sold. But as I reached the end of the album, whilst I enjoyed it greatly for what it was, something was missing for me. Straight up rap. Many may disagree, but as much as I hugely enjoyed the album for many things, including its production value, style and synth-heavy electronics, I desperately longed for quality lyrical content and good old fashioned rap that I don't feel existed. The elite verses found on tracks like Made In America, No Church In The Wild, Runaway or All Falls Down were replaced with forgettable features from Ty Dolla Sign, Young Thug and even drooly verses from Ye himself.
For as long as i've been a fan, i've been able to quote Kanye. I quoted Graduation endlessly, and I still rap along to so much of My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy. When tracks from Watch The Throne came on in clubs I could rap a whole verse along with my friends with ease and confidence. Did that exist on this album? There was no Family Business flow, no brilliant metaphors like that in Homecoming, or anything like the genius construction of Lost In The World, featuring one of my favourite Kanye verses. Kanye had brought together over ninety contributors on this album, is that perhaps why his own light, as a rapper, didn't quite shine as bright? As a producer trying to make it as a rapper, Kanye worked tremendously hard early on to show his worth, but his knack for clever wordplay, fluid rhyme patterns and vivid imagery were still hugely present in later works like MBTDF and Watch The Throne, so why couldn't I find it in The Life of Pablo?
Personally, I enjoy music for its sound and its melody, but I love it for its words and meaning. As far as rap goes, delivery and lyrical content are what appeal to me. That's why I love J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar, two artists that have such a raw talent when it comes to telling a story, vividly and intelligently. Kanye has always had that. It's one of my favourite things about his music, but I didn't find it here. The Life of Pablo is a great album, and yeah, I love the new Kanye. But sometimes, I miss the old Kanye.