Kanye West Retrospective, Part 2 (2009-2013): Found bravery in my bravado

kanye-2013

Read Part 1 of this Retrospective

To start 2009, Kanye was basking in the sales and critical acclaim of his strange fourth album, 808s and Heartbreak. After a fateful 2008, it seemed Kanye’s world was starting to settle down again. But more upheaval and controversy were just around the corner.

He spent the middle part of the year working on the capstone in the “Education Tetralogy” that he was 3/4 of the way through, and that he’d been planning since the start of his career. The album was tentatively titled Good Ass Job.

And then, on September 13, 2009, the most important moment of Kanye’s career occurred (surpassing the death of his mother):

2009 MTV Video Music Awards - Show

Yo Taylor, I’m really happy for you, imma let you finish, but Beyonce had one of the BEST VIDEOS OF ALL TIME!

Like that, the internet broke. Kanye, that “jackass” (to quote the president), finally took it one step too far — and social (and mainstream) media had plenty to say about it. Whether it was our love for Taylor, or our attraction to drama, or our subconscious racism, we lost our shit. We hated Kanye at that point. HATED him. (Not me, but you know… “we” in general.)

Taylor got gigs on Ellen and massive outpouring of love from every avenue she graced. Kanye got a stern reprimanding from Jay Leno (“What do you think [your mom] would have said about this?”), a canceled tour, and the most vitriolic shit imaginable.

If you like it, then you should have shut up and let Taylor have trophy, then Tweet about it later. Right?

If you like it, then you should have shut up and let Taylor have trophy, then Tweet about it later. Right?

Kind of funny, the music industry. It celebrates people who broke the rules — Elvis, James Brown, Kurt Cobain — but it wants you to follow its rules and norms. It doesn’t want Kanye to have an opinion on the culture he helped create! He should smile and applaud and… oh yeah, let Beyonce win the bigger award later in the evening.

In case you can’t tell, I’ve thought from the start that the whole incident was massively overblown. Sure, it was extremely rude. But it received more press than it should have by an order of magnitude… probably two orders of magnitude, actually. So he was a jerk on a big stage? Is that new? Isn’t this supposed to be a stupid, fun awards show?

And here, to me, is the thing that most people seem to gloss over about Taylorgate… IT SHOWED THAT KANYE GIVES A SHIT AND HAS THE BALLS TO SPEAK UP WHEN HE DISAGREES. It’s not like he was being a d-bag for the sake of being a d-bag.

Kanye doesn’t let slights and falsehoods slip away unnoticed. Yeah, he picked on a sweet country girl at her highest moment. But remember, Kanye is paradoxes. His honesty is his best and worst trait. For someone who apparently doesn’t mind if he’s an asshole, he sure notices and cares more about culture and the world than, like, 99% of people.

Have you ever actually read or listened to an extended interview with him? He’s smart and perceptive and considerate. He wants himself — and his world — to be great, humane, creative, and honest. He wanted Beyonce to win that award because she DESERVED it… and he was right (much as I love Tay-Tay and “You Belong With Me”).

If it feels like I’m going on too long about fifteen dumb seconds at the MTV Video Awards, then you probably haven’t listened to his (or her) next album — it was the fuel for a career overhaul.

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Rap camp (src: Complex Magazine)

Kanye rented out a record studio in Honolulu indefinitely, 24-7, for months as he began building the album that may have been his last shot to rehabilitate his image. At a minimum, everyone was desperately curious to hear how he’d respond. (We knew it was going to be interesting.)

His recording sessions were a revolving door of influential rappers, musicians, and producers that earned a nickname of “rap camp.”

In the process of building what was rapidly becoming a massive project, Kanye visited stylistic ideas from his previous four albums: the chipmunk soul from The College Dropout, orchestral arrangement from Late Registration, anthemic electronica from Graduation, and autotune and drum machines from 808s and Heartbreak.

The prolific West adopted a groundbreaking strategy to build buzz, releasing early cuts every Friday on his website. He called the program “G.O.O.D. Friday” after his record label, G.O.O.D. Music.

kanye-mbdtfFinally, with unprecedented buzz, an egregiously awesome new title, pornographic cover art, and a $3 million bill from the recording sessions, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Family dropped like a nuke on November 22, 2010.

The reviews were ecstatic and the sales were huge. The notoriously finicky Pitchfork doled out its first perfect 10 out of 10 review score in almost a decade.

Kanye’s exploration of indulgence and celebrity and self-defeat, full to bursting with incredible hooks and bizarre sonic blasts and dynamite guest verses, is his ultimate artistic statement.

The album never lets you catch your breath, with one knockout after another. From Nicki Minaj’s mythologizing rant that opens the album to the remix of Gil Scott Heron chanting “Who will survive in America?” that closes it, MBDTF is a fucking masterpiece, one of my ten favorite albums ever.

It’s hard to point out any specific highlights because the entire album is basically one big highlight. Every song has its moments, and there are no songs I’d categorize as anything less than “fantastic.” Even some of the songs I initially thought of as lesser entries – “So Appalled,” “Devil in a New Dress,” “Hell of a Life” – gradually open up as you listen. There’s so much attention to detail.

There are long albums, and there are albums with no down moments, but MBDTF might be the only album I’ve heard that is long AND has no down moments.

Lyrically, Kanye elevated his game to a new level. Where old albums had half-baked jokes, this album has dark ruminations on fame and self-destruction. One of the only jokes I can pinpoint is a long-winded, hysterical X-rated rant by Chris Rock that closes out “Blame Game.”

The texture of the album is — to use a song title — gorgeous, often subversive and surprising. There is astonishing variety here, as if this is the culmination of Kanye’s career. It feels like Kanye is using every trick up his sleeve, every feeling and flavor he knows.

But I want to highlight my three favorite tracks, which also rank as perhaps my three favorite Kanye tracks overall.

"First things first, I'll eat your brains"

“First things first, I’ll eat your brains”

“Monster” has a hard-hitting beat and some classic Kanye raps as he reflects on his “profit profit” from his image as a villain. But the big draw is a pair of world-class guest verses, one by Jay-Z and one by Nicki Minaj. If Minaj ever has a more electrifying moment than her triumph of a verse on “Monster,” I will be astonished.

Runner-up best track on the album — and best Kanye track overall, in my book — is “All of the Lights,” a kaleidoscopic look at the blinding “fast life” that accompanies superstardom. The lyrics are far from Kanye’s most compelling, but the stunning soundscape evokes a race through a city night: Busy, overexposed, intoxicating. Also, check out this lineup of guest stars: Fergie, Alicia Keys, Rihanna, Drake, John Legend, Kid Cudi, Elton John, and a half dozen others. Few tracks you’ll hear have a more stunning sound pallette.

But my favorite Kanye song, and one of my ten favorite songs ever is “Runaway,” his response to the Taylor Swift incident. Kanye spends six minutes unleashing his self-loathing then three minutes transmuting it into the most beautiful coda this side of “Layla.”

“Runaway” is the most moving personal statement West has ever made, a welcome peek to the confusion behind his persona. When I listen to “Runaway,” I feel like I understand Kanye West, or at least a version of him. His self-contradictions, braggadocio, and unflinching honesty are the only way he knows to let his demons escape. But, hard as he tries, his fierce soul is never fully realized in his music. All we get is a distorted version, much like the autotuned voice from the coda that can’t quite break free.

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The show-stealing ballerina scene from the “Runaway” video

As if the album wasn’t enough, Kanye produced and directed a 35-minute film to accompany MBDTF. It’s ostensibly a music video just for “Runaway” but it features most of the songs on the album. It’s full of bizzare images and a very loose plot of Kanye falling in love with phoenix bird-woman. It’s hard to imagine a more audacious or evocative visual representation of this music. I don’t think I’ve ever felt more inspired or moved by a music video, strange though it is.

Kanye was snubbed for an Album of the Year nomination (and win), but he walked away with four Grammies thanks to MDBTF, his biggest one-year haul, so it’s hard to feel too bad about it.

(Okay, my effusive ramblings re: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy are at an end.)

kanye-watch-the-throneKanye barely took a breath from the spotlight before making waves once again. He announced a collaboration album with Jay-Z, perfectly titled Watch the Throne. It started as a pack of promo singles that evolved into a massive 16-track LP.

The reviews for Watch the Throne were almost all positive, but somewhat subdued. It’s a good album, but definitely a minor release for Kanye. (And one could argue that all of Jay-Z’s recent albums have been “minor releases.”)

I’ve listened to Watch the Throne a few times through — it’s a fun listen, one I’ll put on my car stereo or my headphones while working. The obvious highlight is the infectious hit single “Niggas in Paris.” The track “Who Gon Stop Me” also gets stuck in my head pretty easily.

Other highlights from 2011 and 2012 included a massive show at Coachella 2011 and a compilation album from Kanye’s label, G.O.O.D. Music, of which Kanye appears on half the tracks. (At this point, Kanye’s prolific production started to seem ridiculous — a full album and two significant side projects in two years.)

But the attention eventually turned to Kanye’s sixth album. Kanye again created a collaborative, unique environment for recording and practicing. His goal this time was to be anti-commercial, to subvert the beautiful, gushing sound of MBDTF.

Kanye aimed to have promotion and marketing for his album to be minimal. He swore collaborators to secrecy and recorded in private lofts.

Of course, this only seemed to fuel anticipation more (which may have been Kanye’s plan all along).

The stories about the weeks leading up to the release are pretty incredible. Producers (including Rick Rubin) worked long hours for weeks on end to trim a 16-track, 200-minute album into something releasable. Kanye scrapped and rewrote entire verses mere hours before deadline.

The album leaked a few days before its 2013 release, which seems to have ironically built the buzz even more; the album seemed like X-marks the spot buried treasure.

kanye-yeezusIt’s a hell of an album with (again) a hell of a title: Yeezus. If the title wasn’t enough of self-worship, one of the tracks is called “I Am a God.”

The reviews were largely quite positive, bordering on euphoric. But in the midst of that was a lot of chin scratching. Nothing here is really single material, and it all sounds so alienating and insular. Kanye’s sound palette has shifted towards the jarring and hard-hitting, away from the luscious.

At least his rapping is better than ever, full of rhymes with layered meanings and clever allusions. As would be expected of a project shuffled and rewritten until the very last minute, there are moments that lack grace — a line about “croissants” from “I Am a God” went viral, and an unsavory lyric involving “sweet and sour sauce” caused plenty of eye-rolls.

But the production is more confident and effective than ever, tugging you this way and that like an old wood-rails roller coaster. The term “industrial” has been used when describing the sound, and it occasionally fits: there are clangs and crashes and screams interspersed here.

My favorite track on Yeezus is also its least representative and most sentimental: “Bound 2.” Make all the dumb jokes you want about the video, but it doesn’t detract from the majestic, loving song he wrote about his heavily publicized relationship with sex tape/reality star Kim Kardashian.

Bound to fall in love ("uh huh honey")

Bound to fall in love (“uh huh honey”)

(By the way, I’m rooting for the West family to make it. I’m probably one of the few to love that they named their baby North “Nori” West — mostly because I’m jealous of anyone who has a name that could be a protagonist of an SNES RPG. But his new family also seems to make Kanye genuinely happy — which you haven’t been able to say about many things this past decade.)

The rest of Yeezus has been a tough nut for me to crack, but in a good way. I love spinning these tracks once a month to see if I’ve made progress cracking their codes. Other than figuring out Kanye’s hangovers are way more trippy than mine (“Hold My Liquor”), I haven’t gotten far. One thing I’m wondering is if Ye’s repurposing of lynching chronicle “Strange Fruit” is actually — as I seem to understand it — about popping molly… and what the significance of this is.

Oh well. I love the album, and I can’t wait for his next release. (He says mid-2014, but I don’t buy it. Take your time ‘Ye.)

One thing I can say for sure is that Kanye’s career has been an adventure so far, and I will be following it to its conclusion. In the meantime, I’ll be listening to his music on loop. If I may borrow his own words, to listen to Kanye West is to “close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures.”

Dan S.

Dan is the editor of Earn This. He co-founded the site in 2009.

5 thoughts on “Kanye West Retrospective, Part 2 (2009-2013): Found bravery in my bravado

  1. After reading this, I gave MBDTF a straight listen-through for the first time. I’d only heard two tracks before, which would be embarrassing if I professed to know the first thing about hip hop. But even coming from a world of completely different tastes, I find myself truly loving the album as a whole.

    “All of the Lights” features the best French Horn part I’ve ever heard in a radio single of any genre, appealing to my inner high school band geek. “Blame Game” mixed me up because I couldn’t tell how much was regretful, how much was bitter, and how much was levity, but I was interested enough to go look it up on Rap Genius for details. Terror, or at least horror, struck me in more tracks than just “Monster”. But the single greatest moment—one I first had in 2010 but relive every time—is when the King Crimson sample first drops in “Power”. I don’t know how many Kanye fans caught that one on the first go-round, but it fills me with so much joy that I just have to laugh.

    Now, is it worth my time to watch the mini-movie, either for entertainment value or for further insight into the man’s art?

    Oh, and I can’t omit: long live Queen B. I’ve got nothing at all against TSwift, but when you’re right, Ye’s right.

    • I’m glad to hear you could appreciate Fantasy — as I said, it’s a favorite. I actually did not know the origin of that “21st century schizoid man” line, though I figured it was a sample. It’s always strange to hear a song for the first time after you know something that samples it.

      The Runaway movie is, in my mind, worth it as a new lens into Kanye’s art. Then again, 35 minutes is a big commitment (that’s almost a whole Buffy rerun!). You could always watch the first five minutes to get a feel for it.

      • As musical movies go, I’m sure it’s no Trapped in the Closet. I won’t go in expecting that level of high art.

  2. If there’s one thing I don’t know at ALL, it’s rap. I still have the copy of “College Dropout” I won as a Quiz Bowl neg prize…maybe I should finally open it.

    • Haha I remember reading that story on your BTMN post and laughing about it. It’s never too late! (Although, as I noted in my list on the countdown page, that’s probably my least favorite Kanye album.)

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