Kanye West, Yeezy, Ye -- whatever you'd like to call him, Kanye is an iconic and controversial figure in today's society. His name is recognizable, and whether it's love or hate, most people have an opinion about him. Mr. West is frequently making news by causing some sort of kerfuffle (most recently the Beck incident...), and the media loves to scrutinize his less-than-happy demeanor. Yet if you cast aside the media's portrayal of Kanye, you'll see that he is actually a creative genius. He is a true fine artist -- a culmination of music, fashion, visual artistry with the heart of a poet and the soul of a revolutionary.
"And you say Chi City, Chi City, Chi City..." Let's begin with a little bit of background. Though he was born in Atlanta, Ye moved to our very own Chicago at the age of 3 and is very proud to call himself a Chicagoan. His song "Homecoming" off the Graduation album is a beautiful ode to our great city. At the bottom of this post is the music video-- it's well worth a watch as it contains some very recognizable images (whuddup, Frank Gehry?).
Kanye has always been passionate about the arts. He began writing poetry at the age of 5, and by third grade this affinity for poetry found its outlet through rap. Music was his life - everything else came second. This was apparent when Kanye dropped out of Chicago State University after the classwork became detrimental to his music. Dropping out of college? Sounds like the making of a successful future... But that's exactly what it was, and also what inspired the release of his first album in 2004: College Dropout.
All in all, Kanye has released six albums - each charged with emotion and rooted in a personal story. The sound change that occurs throughout his entire discography directly parallels his own maturation as an artist. It's worthwhile to explore each album and follow his creative journey, but to guard against this post getting too lengthy (and also to stop me from gushing), I'm going to focus on the two albums that I deem most important: the bookends, College Dropout and Yeezus.
A young Kanye West turned the rap game on its head with College Dropout. It was so different from the "gun-toting" 50 Cent sound that dominated the hip-hop genre at the time. The rap paradigm shifted with Kanye's socially-conscious rhymes. Songs like "All Falls Down" speak about the infatuation with material items that our society has, while "Jesus Walks" was groundbreaking at the time with its open embracement of religion in a secular rap world. In 2002, while working on the album, Kanye was in a near-fatal car accident, breaking his jaw which had to be wired shut to heal. Rather than letting this deter him, the creative genius saw it as an opportunity for a new song, "Through the Wire" which he wrote and recorded while his jaw was wired shut.
"Without that period, there would have been so many phone calls and so many people putting pressure on me from every direction—so many people I somehow owed something to—and I would have never had the time to do what I wanted to."
Fast forward to his latest release, the magnificent Yeezus. In my opinion, it's one of the best albums out there -- a blend of new wave, punk, and dance music. The influence of Chicago drill-music is evident throughout the album, yet it is minimalistic at the same time. It's a very dark album - nihilistic in nature - and it takes some getting used to. Initially, I wasn't sure what to make of it. It was very loud and angry, but upon further listening, I fell in love. It's everything I love about Kanye - his lyrics speak unnerving commentary on the world we live in. He isn't afraid to point out the ills of society - everything from social injustices, racism, materialism, tensions with corporate America, to conformity. His creative use of simple language is used to speak profoundly deep truths. In his song "New Slaves" he raps "you see there are leaders, and there are followers, but I'd rather be a d*** than a swallower." Inappropriate and vulgar? Analyze this line closely. Kanye is actually commenting on how society is plagued by an endless cycle of following what everyone else is doing. He doesn't care what people think of him, he is going to push boundaries and break free of the cycle. Ye is gonna' do what Ye wants to do.
"Yeezus, though, was the beginning of me as a new kind of artist. Stepping forward with what I know about architecture, about classicism, about society, about texture, about synesthesia—the ability to see sound—and the way everything is everything and all these things combine, and then starting from scratch with Yeezus."
What makes Ye so...Ye? I believe he was born a creative. In Nancy C. Andreasen's article, she advocates that creativity and genetics are linked. She also writes that many creative people are autodidacts, preferring to teach themselves. This is true in Kanye's case -- he taught himself to rap and he was the one who took the initiative to record his first song at the age of 13. Creativity is also in his blood. His mother was a Professor of English at Chicago State University - arguably, she is where his poetic side comes from. His father was a former Black Panther and a photojournalist - I believe this is where Kanye's revolutionary spirit comes from. When asked about what his creative process entails, Kanye said this, "I just close my eyes and act like I’m a 3-year-old. [laughs] I try to get as close to a childlike level as possible because we were all artists back then. So you just close your eyes and think back to when you were as young as you can remember and had the least barriers to your creativity."
So why do I believe that he's a creative genius? Kanye has changed the genre of hip-hop forever. He has ushered in a tide of socially-conscious, artistic musicians and he has widened the genre's gates, melding middle-class values with high-fashion elements. He is ahead of his time in terms of doing what others don't dare to do -- don't even dream of doing. Kanye is the avant-gardist of our era. Most importantly, he is developing the culture that we conform to.
Homecoming video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LQ488QrqGE4
Andreasen, Nancy C. "Secrets of the Creative Brain." 2014.