The genre to which this column is dedicated has long been pronounced as “dead”, swallowed by the commercialism and greed that its original founders and heroes derided so strongly. It is true that nowadays, “bullshit ice-rap” dominates the charts in the US and UK, with artists like 50 Cent, Chingy, Snoop Dogg, T.I., Chamillionaire et al producing their own angles on the concensus of cannabis (though to a lesser extent now with mainstream artists), cars, girls and money. It seems almost impossible for a hip-hop artist to become successful without returning to those tired, watered-down versions of the classic West Coast ideology. Many predict that rap is well on its way to total oblivion as a respected genre.
But there is one man whose fate seems irrevocably linked to that of the whole industry. Look at Kanye West’s life, and you can see the story of rap unfold. He came from lowly beginnings, growing up in a poor area of Chicago, starting small but through ambition and hard work building himself into a successful producer, and finally a rapper, just as the genre itself began as a street-corner pastime and snowballed into one of the most significant areas of popular culture that exist. We can also see the apt metaphor for rap’s loss of artistic credibility; the car accident which almost claimed West’s life. It was the Lexus, the luxury top-brand car, the status symbol that West was almost destroyed by, just as rap music is now swallowed, in part, by greed and money. And yet it was the crash which directly preceded, and in part led to, Kanye West’s meteoric rise to fame. His first hit was “Through The Wire”, a stripped-down rap track on which West, his jaws still wired together after the crash, praises God that he is still alive and demonstrates inarguably that his miracle was worth performing.
The huge success of his first album, “The College Dropout”, can be interpreted as a sign that rap and hip-hop fans were ready to reject the status quo and embrace the values of skill, conviction and musicality that West’s music stands to represent. This is a truly great album which showcases rap’s variety musically and lyrically, combining inventive, complex rhythms, flawless production, West’s own stylised intonations and inspired guest appearances to produce an array of effects; from whimsical barbershop-esque semi-skits like “I’ll Fly Away”, to the cheesy, smooth soul sound of “Slow Jamz”, to bass-heavy party poppers such as “Get ‘Em High” and the awe-inspiringly aggressive, rhythmic assault of “Jesus Walks”. Themes vary, too, from the direct gospel prayer of “Never Let Me Down”, to a direct attack on “rapping about money, hos and rims” in “Breathe In Breathe Out”. All in all, this album drips credibility, untouchable in every respect. That is not to say, of course, that Kanye West never raps about weed, money, cars and girls, and in fact that would be a barefaced lie, but the fact remains that his talents extend far beyond a repetition of tired iconography. He often injects new life into old ideas, redirecting the use of brand-names etcetera, as part of something more profound. “The kid that made that / Deserves that Maybach”, for example, is a line in the diatribe against the 9-to-5 that is “Spaceship”.
“The College Dropout” was undoubtedly a hard act to follow, winning MOBO awards and nominated for Grammys. In fact, even fans of Kanye may have doubted that a “second coming”, so to speak, was possible. However, 2005’s follow-up, “Late Registration”, was another tour de force. That difficult second album sparked as much gushing praise as the first, managing to maintain the level of quality found on “The College Dropout”, without necessarily re-treading old ground. West used “Late Registration” to mine areas left untouched before, such as the super-cool, iced-out beats of “Drive Slow” and “We Major”, and to forge a more coherent sound for himself with the flawless use of recognisable samples; Curtis Mayfield’s “Move On Up” in “Touch The Sky”, and Shirley Bassey’s “Diamonds Are Forever” in “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” both formed smash hit singles. “Late Registration”, though infinitessimally more polished than “The College Dropout”, is in fact a more experimental album. Tracks like “Roses” and “Addiction” eschew the traditional beat-driven sound of hip-hop in favour of soft melodies and ghostly instrumental loops. Many rap artists use strings in their music, but West’s arrangements in “Gone”, including a stunning mood change, are out of this world. The man is a musical genius.
It is Kanye West’s musicality that seems to be his greatest asset, making him one of a few hip-hop artists who are able to appeal to a wide range of music fans, from lovers of gangsta rap, to “alternatives” and indie kids. He seems to embody a style that rises above common criticisms of rap, embracing as he does values that are more associated with other schools of music, such as sensitive lyrics, complex arrangements and an ear for melody. The only slight barrier to a wide-ranging fan-base is that some white listeners may feel that West’s more political raps are directed at all white people, including themselves, rather than just at racists. For example, in “Never Let Me Down”, West says: “I get down / For my grandfather / Who took my mama / Made her sit in that seat / Where white folks ain’t want us to eat”. This is a tiny criticism, though, and is more about a particular listener’s tastes than about any fault on Kanye’s part. Anyway, if this sort of thing doesn’t bother fans of Public Enemy, who were far less moderate, it certainly shouldn’t perturb listeners to Kanye West.
The message behind his success is clear; the public are ready to experience more than the tired old brand, and the providers of rap’s new wave are Kanye West and his protegés, not to mention some of the more seasoned artists who have supported him, such as Nas, Talib Kweli, and, most importantly, Jay-Z. The stringent parameters of quality that are obvious in West’s songwriting bring new hope to hip-hop fans everywhere. Not since Eminem’s early work has there been anyone in the industry so innovative. One can only hope that, just as West returned from his car crash to become a phoenix from the ashes, hip-hop can rise once more from the shadow it is now of what it once was, and pull off its own prodigal return.
“I’m gonna follow my heart
And if you follow the charts
Or the plaques / Or the stacks
You ain’t gotta guess who’s back.”
“Get ‘Em High” – Kanye West