Kanye West (2005)
Kanye West is perhaps the most important modern musician, since he effortlessly combines the spheres of public opinion and critical adoration while finding ways to satiate and challenge both. He’s obviously a polarizing, brazen figure, but you have to grant him that. I find him to be mildly overrated. He’s far, far more creative and ambitious than most other modern rappers, especially considering he’s earned the right to rest on his laurels and yet keeps evolving.
The opulent, distinctive Late Registration is a perfect example of his willingness to shake things up. The cross-pollination of underground indie rock and mainstream hip-hop it engendered was a subtle, but important trend. Status symbols of artsiness and enigmatic aesthetic choices started to mingle with old-school beats and rep-bolstering. At long last, some rappers turned from the rough, heavy, nuts-and-bolts Atlanta style and began copping the lush production and orchestration used by pop acts of the era. It won the hearts of indie music crowds, while still maintaining a rhythmic sound.
This was a modest evolution of music, so of course the chameleonic Kanye would be one of its early proponents. He went on to projects obtuse and intimate (the largely autotuned and robotic 808s And Heartbreak); and grandiose and overpowering (the heavily indulgent My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy); as well as raw, angry punk-ethos statements (Yeezus). But for me personally, these experiments were never as uncompromising or fleshed-out as I wished they were. In that sense, I always feel like Kanye is a tiny bit overpraised, since he always teases taking one step forward and retreats at the same time. I guess in that respect, he challenges the public while still maintaining their trust and being consistent with the conservative, entrenched values of modern hip-hop. So I would give Yeezy some credit for minor innovation. Plus, like I said, he’s still better and more creative than the vast majority of chart-topping rap (and rock, for that matter) these days.
At any rate, the record at hand is definitely his best. College Dropout did present him as a viable, unique talent, but it was crammed with an insulting amount of filler and had a now ironic lack of confidence. Graduation is solid, but shows the fewest signs of change. Late Registration keeps chugging along, and doles out its ideas at a steady pace. West’s collaboration with baroque producer Jon Brion pays off, and the guest musicians are all very good. Kanye sells units like no other and handily functions as a symbol of the times, but his music also stands up and demands attention, and that’s worth celebrating.
Key track: “Gone”
See also: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – Kanye West (2010), Yeezus – Kanye West (2013)