I’m going to talk about this man like a myth because he’s a myth.
I wasn’t around in the 60’s to see a personality like Muhammad Ali in real time. I wasn’t around in the 80’s to see a talent like Michael Jackson hit his stride right there in the moment. I could only tell you secondhand accounts and he-say-she-say about certain larger than life figures and certain larger than life events. When it comes to Kanye West, however, I’ve been along for the ride from the very beginning. I am part of a generation that grew up along side him and I don’t doubt I’m not the only person to learn about myself through him. ‘Ye’s story feels like a Greek tragedy; or a comedy depending on what we’re talking about. His story differs little from the classic hero’s journey. And to talk about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Kanye West in 2010, one needs to understand what that journey entailed. That album and that moment in time was like the return of a king.
Just 8 years prior our hero’s jaw was shattered in a car crash. At that point the man had plaques on his wall. He made it. He was just one year removed from producing perhaps the most important album of his idol’s career. With the help of ‘Ye among others, they crafted a sound for Jay-Z’s The Blueprint that would go on to become a marker for that time period in Hip Hop. The man was a success in every sense of the word but was simultaneously getting laughed out of the building for his higher aspirations. He was a game-changing producer and had his eyes on becoming a game-changing rapper. In said building he was in the company of the likes of Rocafella and Dipset among others; gangster rappers and ex drug dealers straight out of the projects who rapped about such. That time period was saturated with throwback jerseys and luxury raps. Hip Hop was in the middle of peak commercialization and was especially adamant on sticking to the script. Then in came this preppy middle-class art student with his pink-ass polo and a fucking backpack. Nobody took him seriously and they definitely didn’t take his raps seriously. Nobody would sign him nor did they want him to be his own artist; let alone release his own album. In ’02, with his trademark defiant spirit, he was in the midst of taking matters into his own hands by recording his debut album when, driving home from the studio, he fell asleep at the wheel.
Part of the allure of ‘Ye’s story is his perseverance against all odds thrown his way. I was a child when I first heard the man rap through a mouth bound shut by metal wire. Having already been silenced by his peers and the record label suits, here he was silenced in the most literal way by nothing less than divine intervention itself. I say he’s a myth because that was the moment I feel he became less of a man and more of an idea. At his best and at his worst ‘Ye is all of us. He is that adversity every one of us experiences and that triumph not all of us get to revel in. And though he went on to fully recover, he spent the rest of his career with that mentality of rapping through a mouth that all odds had forced shut. Nobody wanted him to release an album but he went on to make it happen regardless. And he did so to widespread critical praise and great commercial success, to which a cultural shift began. Having narrowly escaped death, he gave us all a music career with absolutely no wasted space. Already a genius with the habit of traveling the unbeaten path, our hero now had a battery in his back charged by a higher purpose and spent the rest of his years sporting a nerve unmatched by anyone. What rapper made their lead single about Jesus? What rapper directed their own videos? What rapper shot three different videos for one song? In the era of super-thugs and artists pretending to be harder than they were, who was out here rapping about college, the gripes of having a regular job, and their deepest insecurities? In a climate where Hip Hop developed sub genres with stark divides between their sounds and ideals, who was able to seamlessly navigate between circles of “commercial” rappers like Jay-Z or “conscious” rappers like Mos Def, much less get them on the same track? Who was able to give out hits to newer artists like John Legend or Alicia Keys while reviving the careers of veteran artists such as Common or Twista? Who was able to blur the line between a street art/street fashion oriented genre like Hip Hop and so-called high art/high fashion? The nerve of this man to take his explosive success as a new artist and put it on the line by declaring “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” live on the air. The nerve of this man to take the successful formula of his first album and flip it on its head; co-producing his second album with movie composer Jon Brion.
The nerve of this man to go head to head with the genre’s most feared and unstoppable force.
Hip Hop is full of followers and every era we see an artist whose every move dictates what direction the game goes. By his third album, Kanye once again went way left when he could have remained comfortable. Outside of introducing the genre to Japanese anime-inspired art and brighter, poppier, electronic inspired sounds, that time period is best marked by his face-off with rap titan 50 Cent. This is a man who came into the game catching bodies. 50 was known for destroying careers, outselling everyone and never hesitating to absolutely humiliate, bully, and crush his opponents. One couldn’t find a better human embodiment of everything gangster rap from that era. He came with the narrative of surviving 9 gunshots, wore bulletproof vests like they were fashion, and topped the charts with stories of crime and violence. Having found a way to montetize rap beef, ‘Ye was his latest opponent as the two scheduled to drop their albums on the same day. This was the day gangster rap as we knew it died. In an unprecedented win, ‘Ye came out victorious and with that victory, the idea of what it means to be a rapper got turned on its head. He was never supposed to be a rapper in the first place and now the game was completely in his hands. He was free to completely mold it in his image. Then he experienced the most prominent tragedy of his career since the car crash.
808’s and Heartbreak was his follow up album. I liken Kanye less to a rapper and more to a painter due to the rules, or lack thereof, that he operates by. At this point his art completely dismantled and went abstract as his life did. This was the point in the hero’s journey called the belly of the whale; referring to a point in a story when the hero is completely lost in darkness, surrounded by nothing familiar with no clear escape or win in sight. In retrospect, his mother’s death and what he created in its aftermath completely changed the trajectory of pop music. Throughout his career up until that point, it was clear she was a prominent part of his life and maybe even served as an anchor to his often pulsating ego. On that album ‘Ye performed through grief not unlike how he performed through that wire. In an odd move that left many scratching their heads in the moment but was perhaps his most influential moment artistically, he released a completely autotuned album that featured him, a rapper, singing. Like how nobody wanted to hear this producer rapping, nobody wanted to hear this rapper singing. But one of my favorite things about the man is that he’s right no matter what and the success of that album is the most tangible source of why the genre sounds like how it does right this moment. Outside of so many other factors, this era is notable for one particular moment. Again, I feel like I’ve been right by Ye’s side from the very beginning. And I remember in the moment seeing footage of him on the MTV red carpet with a bottle of Hennessy in one hand and then newcomer Amber Rose’s ass in the other. As I mentioned, Kanye’s art moves alongside his life and it was clear that, as beautiful as the music was, our hero was going through it. “I’ma let you finish but…” is now a running gag and a phrase that is a part of pop culture but in the moment, strangely enough, out of all obstacles he faced up until that point that was what almost destroyed him. Hopping up on stage and snatching the mic out of a young Taylor Swift’s hands as she won one of her very first awards turned ‘Ye into one of the most hated and criticized figures in the media landscape.
I have a feeling ‘Ye thrives on adversity.
In order to understand the significance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one needs to understand all that lead up to it. He went completely silent. Rumors have it our hero retreated to his studio in Hawaii for several months, flying in a who’s-who list of artists with the goal of creating one singular body of work. In and out of the studio were established legends such as the RZA, Q-Tip, No ID, Swizz Beatz, Pete Rock, Pharrell, Pusha T, Raekwon, Charlie Wilson, and Elton John. There were an eclectic array of talents that ranged from The Dream, to Rick Ross, to Ryan Leslie, to Fergie, to Keri Hilson, to Bon Iver, to Musiq Soulchild, to Lupe Fiasco, to Talib Kweli, to CyHi the Prynce, and Lloyd Banks. There was an embrace of the newer, upcoming generation that would come to dominate the decade this album ushered in such as Drake, Rihanna, Justin Bieber, Kid Cudi, Big Sean, and Nicki Minaj. Clearly our hero was up to something. But what were the odds that it would all come together? I remember the stories and rumors circulating around these sessions. It sounded like some crazy mix of Illmatic and Thriller. But what were the odds that this one man could dodge so much adversity and keep coming out clean? I remember Q-Tip had an interview when this unnamed, mysterious Kanye album came into the conversation. He described it as the culmination of Ye’s entire journey up until that point. As if on every album he found and took something with him; and it was all always leading up to this moment. But what more could this man really do?
I remember waking up to the first GOOD Friday. We’re in a different era of music right now. The rules are completely different and the industry got turned on its head. There was a point in time when the concept free music sent fear and panic through the veins of anyone making money in music. To release original, great, well composed, well thought out music for free was absolutely unheard of. Kanye’s GOOD Friday series wasn’t just a collection of amazing music that he simply gifted to his fans, it was a window into what he was cooking up in real time. Who does that? Who even has the confidence to just throw music out like that? There are new rules today but back then it was hard for an artist to see the value in giving music away. When in actuality, listeners were never simply buying music. They were buying and buying into an idea. He recognized that and though he gave us so much leading up to the album, we still weren’t prepared for what was in store.
I wasn’t around when Michael dropped the video for Thriller on MTV. But I was around when Kanye dropped Runaway. And I, along with the world, shed all skepticism and recognized ‘Ye for the absolute rare and great talent that he is. It changed me a little by the end of it. Never had I witnessed a rapper drop something so ambitious with such disregard for how rap is supposed to be presented. The genre always had noses turned up at it and always had its legitimacy as an art form questioned by the people we’re supposed to recognize as gatekeepers. When I saw Runaway for the first time, it was the first time I viewed the genre as the kind of art that could be shown at the Louvre or the Smithsonian. While the video and the album was surely meant to be one giant fuck you to all of his critics and naysayers, who all in the moment recognized his brilliance for what it was, I also saw it as a fuck you to anyone that downplayed the legitimacy of not only Hip Hop, but Black music as a whole. After all, his defense of Beyonce and all of her phenomenally hard work over Taylor Swift is what fueled him to jump on that stage in the first place and turn himself into a target. And like Q-Tip said, it was as if our hero reached a point in his journey where every tool he acquired along the way came into play. It had the soul and honesty of his first album, the orchestration and grandiosity of his second album, the genre blending of his third album, and the autotune tinged ambition of his fourth album. I’d never seen or heard anything like it.
I will always root for ‘Ye through the good times and the bad times. I first heard him as a child and now I am deep into adulthood. He taught me about life, about perseverance, and that existence is all about growth. There are kids growing up today that weren’t around in 2010 to see that man do what he did in the moment.
But I was. And I’m forever grateful for it.
Happy Birthday to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy!