Kanye West is his own biggest fan. In his own words, he is a genius, he is God. This arrogance and narcissism has made him controversial – and somewhat unlikable. But it is, in fact, this egotism, this drive to be the best, that has pushed him beyond the usual limits of his genre and made him a leader of the hip-hop revolution.
One of the most critically acclaimed artists of the 21st century, Kanye West has released seven platinum albums and, with 21 Grammys won, he is one of the most awarded artists of all time. Making Time Magazines’ list of 100 most influential people in the world twice, his apparent arrogance is not totally misplaced.
Kanye West entered the game as a producer at a time when rap was dominated by giants such as Notorious B.I.G and P. Diddy, rapping about drug dealing and gunplay. Although he dreamt of an artist deal, with his middle-class background Kanye struggled to be accepted as a rapper. He failed to conform to the ‘gangsta’ image. A Grade A student, the son of a college professor, he was much better suited to a career as a producer than a rapper or hip-hop artist. In 2001, fearful that Kanye would leave to work as a producer at another record label, Roc-A-Fella reluctantly signed him as an artist.
One year on, Kanye was involved in a near-fatal car crash that left him hospitalized, inspiring his breakthrough debut single ‘Through the Wire’, recorded whilst his jaw was still wired shut. With the release of this single, Kanye announced plans for his first album; College Dropout.
Going against the grain, without a history of violence or clashes with the law, Kanye’s first album struck a chord with the middle class hip-hop fan who, whilst a fan of the style, could not relate to the themes of gang hood rivalry prevalent throughout the genre. He still spoke of struggles – but these were struggles that anyone could relate too - struggles with materialism, homophobia, and the negative perception of religion. As well as opening the genre to a broader target audience, Kanye paved the way for the suburban rapper to enter the industry. Artists such as Drake have subsequently credited Kanye for the shift in the persona needed to become a successful rapper.
Kanye West has gone further than changing the lyrical substance of rap and hip-hop. Each new album has come with a new musical approach, with his career being defined by frequent stylistic shifts. Refusing to be pigeon-holed, Kanye has moved from soulful influences, to rock to electronica. As such, Kanye’s influence in music has not been restricted to hip-hop. From singer-songwriter Adele to experimental rock artist Lou Read, musicians across genres have spoken of the influence of Kanye West on their work. Paul McCartney and Prince have also praised Kanye West’s revolutionary work.
Whilst his music is mostly received positively, Kanye has never been far from controversy with his public outbursts and provocative statements. His brash, unfiltered personality faced a backlash, from even ardent Kanye fans, when he interrupted Taylor Swift’s acceptance speech at the 2009 MTV Video Music Awards. The controversy led to Kanye’s tour with Lady Gaga being cancelled and Kanye exiled himself to Hawaii where he worked on his fifth album. Knowing he had ground to make up following the controversies, led Kanye West to what renowned pop-culture magazine Rolling Stone has since called one of the most innovative album releases. Instead of using the vast quantity of material he had compiled to create a double-disc album, Kanye decided to release the surplus cuts featuring artists such as Beyoncé and Jay Z as free downloads every Friday leading up to, and following from, the release of the album.
A polarizing entertainer, Kanye West’s is outspoken and unfiltered. He has been labelled an egotist - comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr and Nelson Mandela – as well as God himself. But it is this insane ego and the innate belief he is a genius, coupled with his hard work and inborn talent, that has allowed him to push the boundaries of music, to do what no-one else had done, nor believed could be done, in hip-hop before – and thus lead the revolution of rap and hip-hop that has developed in the last decade.
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Photo by rodrigoferrari - Kanye West 05, CC BY-SA 2.0