Why Kanye West is a unique musical genius

First published in June 2022.

The name Kanye West has wide-ranging associations, depending on who you ask. But what’s for certain is Kanye West is a name, a noun — not a description, or an adjective. Because Kanye West is singular, perhaps the most singular artist in existence, or the history of existence. Let me explain.

From Kanye West’s ‘Runaway’.

Kanye began by breathing new life into Jay-Z’s career with his signature ‘chipmunk’ production style, so-called because it involves doubling or tripling the frequency of the wave form of old soul records (thereby raising the pitch and speed of samples over which Jay-Z and Kanye would rap). And he didn’t stop there. The ‘producer-rapper’ became a rapper in his own right — the greatest of all time, according to his estranged ex-wife.

It wasn’t long before clubs were crying out the chorus to 2000s hits, ‘Jesus Walks’, ‘Gold Digger’, and ‘Stronger’ — encapsulating the paradoxical fusion of Christianity, capitalism, and the Protestant work ethic at the beating heart of the modern world, and its signal producer-prophet: the runaway of runaways, Mr. West.

But Kanye West’s musical reputation is not really made by the early bops of Dropout, nor by the late ballads of Donda, but by the middle trinity of masterpieces, of unparalleled proportions, right in the middle of his ten-album run.

808s and Heartbreak follows the death of his wonderful mother and a break-up with the fioncée of his dreams (whose name is lost in the sands of time, and internet biographies I don’t have the time to re-read). The result is an album that reveals the deathly experience of lost love, and thereby awakens us all to the reality of loss in all its forms. Unfortunately, it gave rise to a slew of amateurish albums in the 2010s by lesser artists. But on its own, 808s is a towering masterpiece that brought Kanye to new audiences before his embarrassing MTV altercation in 2008 — the fruits of Hennessy, shades, and heartbreak.

Yeezus previewed Kanye’s descent into madness since 2016 with a brilliant insight into the madness of the world we live in. ‘New Slaves’ is a stand-out track, throwing light on the universal exploitation that ‘everybody [is] playing’. As the radio edit goes: ‘It’s leaders, and it’s followers; but I’d rather be a prick than a swallower’. The implication is clear: coercion has captured consent in its claws in the grotesque intricacies of contemporary capitalism. ‘Capitalists playing compassionate be offending me,’ to paraphrase Kendrick Lamar’s latest stand-out line from his latest stand-out album, is surely the corollary of this conceptual coin.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is the greatest album of all time, so far. It features in the top 20 of many critical rankings of the ‘greatest albums of all time’. It is almost universally lauded as the technically best album of the 2010s, opening the decade with a bang. ‘MJ gone,’ as Kanye says on the stand-out smash hit ‘All Of The Lights’, followed by ‘Power,’ where Kanye narrates his own death: ‘Jumping out the window / Letting everything go’ – ‘This is gonna be a beautiful death’. And indeed, it was, followed by such incendiary pieces of spontaneous musical energy, woven together into a tapestry of anvil-coated artistry, as ‘So Appalled’, ‘Blame Game’, ‘Runaway’, and ‘Lost In the World’.

Based on ‘Woods’ by Bon Iver (aka Justin Vernon), Lost In the World takes the idea to new interstellar highs and lows, culminating in the polemically astute ‘Who Will Survive In America’, and concluding with the sampled sermon: ‘All I want is a good home and a wife, and some children, and some food to feed them every night. When all is said and done, make a new road to China if they’ll have you. Who will survive in America? Who will survive in America? Who will survive in America?’

Who, indeed, but the survivor-saviour himself, who ends the album, appropriately, with gentle applause, going gently into that good night …

Disclaimer: Any similarity between names mentioned and actual individuals is purely accidental and largely theoretical. These are fun ideas to entertain but, as always, I may be mistaken. After all, what do I know?

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