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Kanye West is one of modern culture’s most polarizing individuals due to his unfiltered and unpredictable nature. However, you shouldn’t discredit his musical accomplishments because of his personal conduct. Kanye has won 21 Grammy awards and his discography has pushed the limits of hip-hop music ever since he debuted in the early 2000s. Like any great artist, Kanye has evolved significantly, both personally and creatively, over the years and this change can be heard in his music. Every album he’s released has had its own distinct persona, which reflects Kanye’s mindset during that particular period. As he preps his seventh solo album Swish Waves, which is scheduled to release on February 11th, many are anticipating what sonic direction he’ll take this time around. If you actually plot out his progression over the years, it’s actually pretty intriguing to see how much his musical style has changed.

Pre-Debut

Kanye West generated a lot of buzz after producing on Jay-Z’s Blueprint. This was a pivotal period in hip-hop when production was shifting away from the synthesized sounds (e.g. The Neptunes, Timbaland) and turning back to old soul and R&B samples. This was greatly refreshing and Kanye established this as his signature sound. Early on, Kanye was primarily a producer who stayed behind the scenes and out of the spotlight, which now seems really out of character for him.

The College Dropout

Kanye released his debut album The College Dropout in 2004. Maintaining that foundation of soul-driven production, he rapped with extreme passion and motivation, almost like he was determined to prove his worth as an artist. Kanye faced a ton of adversity in his pursuit of a record deal, experiencing numerous rejections, doubters, and even a car accident that broke his jaw. So when he finally released The College Dropout, it symbolized a victorious rise from the bottom. Kanye had a very underdog persona, and was an anomaly in a predominately hardcore, gritty hip-hop scene. This, plus his workhorse ethic made him very relatable to the average person.

Late Registration

Late Registration was released in 2005 and demonstrated a progression in Kanye’s sound. Sampling still served as the basis, but it was more layered with string arrangements and other “non hip-hop” instrumentals. Kanye enlisted film score composer Jon Brion as co-executive producer, and with his help, took his music to a much more elaborate level. At the time, Kanye is growing more confident as his celebrity factor was increasing with “Gold Digger” becoming his first #1 song. He’s also starting to be more publicly vocal and convey that current Kanye brashness (e.g. “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and a couple award show rants/takeovers).

Graduation

After touring with U2, Kanye was highly inspired to make inspirational, hip-hop anthems that would ignite stadiums of tens of thousands of fans. With this goal, he dropped Graduation in 2007 and it was a big deviation from the “classic” Kanye production using soul samples. Instead, Graduation utilized a lot of synthesizers and electronic music influence, which helped the songs achieve Kanye’s desired “stadium status” sound. The mission behind the album mirrored Kanye’s ambition of becoming the biggest pop star in the world.

808 & Heartbreak

What goes up must come down. After reaching superstar status, Kanye experienced setbacks that extremely affected him and his music. His mother, whom he was very close with, sadly passed away in late 2007. Several months later, he ended things with his ex-fiancé. These scenarios would be crushing for anyone, so for someone as emotional as Kanye, it was probably very distressing. He released 808s & Heartbreak in 2008, and it was a major departure from his previous albums. Minimalistic electro-pop and R&B was the dominant sound, as Kanye utilized Auto-Tune to express his loneliness and loss. Even though 808s & Heartbreak was Kanye’s musical lamentation, some found it to be very influential in spawning today’s more “sensitive” rappers (e.g. Drake). From a personal standpoint, Kanye went off the deep end at this point (e.g. Taylor Swift VMA incident), and actually disappeared out of the spotlight for a couple years.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

After a self-imposed exile where he practically disappeared for a year, Kanye returns with his most ambitious album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It combined all of Kanye’s sounds from the four previous albums, but takes production to a new level, as every song is precisely crafted with detail. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had a very opulent and premium feel to it, almost like a fine painting. There was even an accompanying film for album. Among his catalogue, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is probably Kanye’s best work to date.

Watch the Throne

Watch the Throne is a collaborative album with Jay-Z, and not a solo project, but it represents a big step in Kanye’s evolution. On My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he establishes a more refined aspect to his music, and on Watch the Throne, he raises that new lavish levels of opulence, or as he calls it “luxury rap”.

Yeezus

At a certain point, Kanye just got really mad. Yeezus brought us what we’ve known as the current Kanye: critical, abrasive, and fearless. He hates how the media portrays him, and how corporations hold him back from achieving creative greatness. Yeezus is about him rebelling and practically proclaiming that nobody is going to stop him from anything he wants to do. Kanye takes an a very experiential approach, leveraging punk rock, acid house, dance hall, trap, and electro to craft a very minimal, yet ultra brash and dark.

In summary, Kanye has changed a lot since his initial debut, but that’s expected from an artist like himself who is very passionate about creative expression. Art should mimic real life situations, and Kanye has been able to capture periods of his life into his music. The big question now, is what will his new album Waves sound like? Kanye is older, married with two kids, and has a fashion line. One would expect a more “lighter” sound than Yeezus, and maybe something a little more celebratory like Graduation. He dropped a new song “No More Parties in LA” a couple of weeks ago, and if that’s a hint, expect a more “classic” sound from him. We’ll see soon.

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Rex Pham

Originally from the Bay Area, who then moved to Los Angeles, then out to New York City. NYU Stern MBA c/o 2014. Inspired by the grind of NYC to create something that has value. Lover of all things digital, culture, and brand strategy.

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