Kanye West has been in the music industry since 2003, as we come closer to his 13 year anniversary of debut single ‘Through The Wire’, the question is now being asked as to whether there has been a more influential artist in this generation than the rapper from South Chicago. With album number eight now under his belt (The Life Of Pablo) , I will break down his albums and highlight the true influence of each and every one of them.
The College Dropout (2004)
Kanye’s debut album, released on February 10th 2004, was a real statement to the rest of the industry, an announcement to everyone that he was single handedly going to change hip hop as we knew it. The most impressive part of this whole album was the fact that just a year earlier, Kanye West had been involved in a near fatal car accident, it resulted in him having his jaw wired shut for six weeks and requiring reconstructive surgery. His journey from the crash to the recording studio is an anecdote he often refers to throughout the album due to its almost fairytale like nature. As mentioned in ‘Through The Wire’ Kanye wanted to squash the stereotype of “coke and birds” being the focal point of lyrics in rap, and instead highlight the importance of “spoken word”. One form of praise for the album was his soulful and melodic approach to the production of hip hop music, something people hadn’t seen before. Songs such as ‘Slow Jamz’ and ‘All Falls Down’ provided fans with fresh content and a different message within the lyrics. By approaching issues such as family trouble and self-consciousness Kanye provided relatable music for anyone to listen to and involve themselves in. Another element to Ye’s music was his deep involvement with religion, which was highlighted by single ‘Jesus Walks’. His rapping ability helped portray the subliminal message of the song, in which he questions the state of hip hop due to the shock of releasing pro religion music compared to the almost normality of promoting drugs and sex. It showed the bravery he possessed to tackle rap music and make it a respectable genre that can create role models for children.
First week album sales: 441,000
Awards: Best Rap Album (Grammy)
Peak chart position: 2
Late Registration (2005)
After having his first album go 3x platinum, Kanye had the always difficult task of replicating his initial success with an equally groundbreaking follow up album. That was exactly what he did with ‘Late Registration’ which was another link to his failed school days and that perhaps his music career is reminiscent of the new school era. The major element of this album was the growing fame that Kanye was witnessing, and with that came more power for him to speak his mind on larger issues such as politics. What came from this fame was music that appeared very power hungry and money oriented. With tracks like ‘Gold Digger’ and ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone’ his sampling ability was recognised globally as he took timeless classics from music royalty such as Ray Charles and Shirley Bassey and added a new spin upon them to create an infectious rap beat. As well as this Kanye kept his original motives of rap in check with the huge smash hit ‘Hey Mama’ which, as expected, was written in honour of his mother, who raised him alone from a young age. As we discover later on with the passing of his mother, this song becomes all the more powerful and heartfelt for Kanye and his mother, whom he describes as his “best friend”. One song came under heavy scrutiny for it’s controversial lyrics questioning the presidency of George W. Bush, who West had made clear he disliked. In ‘Heard Em Say’ featuring Maroon 5 frontman Adam Levine, Kanye states that “the government administered AIDS” in order to shrink population. It was this ability to speak his mind without hesitation that made the world fall in love with Kanye and his brash arrogance, momentarily anyway.
First week album sales: 860,000
Awards: Best Rap Song (Diamonds From Sierra Leone) – Grammy
Best Rap Album – Grammy
Best Solo Rap Performance (Gold Digger) – Grammy
Album of the Year – Rolling Stone
Peak chart position: 1
After establishing himself as a global star, Kanye West had achieved heights he could only have dreamed of. With this fame of joining the elite at the pinnacle of the rap industry was always going to lead to feuds and clashes. The most notable of these came with illustrious New Yorker 50 Cent, who from 2003 to 2007 was the unbridled biggest name in rap. His style of rap completely contradicted that of Kanye’s in that he took all the struggles of gang violence and concrete warfare into the studio with aggressive, hard hitting lyricism. Both artists were signed to Universal Records and were scheduled to release their albums at the same time. So it would be ‘Curtis’ vs ‘Graduation’ in a winner takes all scenario to be the undisputed king of modern hip hop. When it came to it, Kanye absolutely crushed 50, it wasn’t even close and was seen as the day gangster rap died. Pop rap tracks such as Stronger and Champion allowed for Kanye to demonstrate his magnificent sampling skills buying compare, even more so than his previous albums. This project was more of a pop style record as Kanye adapted his style to become a ‘chart artist’ and break away from that underground style of College Dropout. It ended the trilogy of what appeared to be Kanye’s school days in music terms and left fans eager to see which direction their loveable rogue would go in next.
First Week Album Sales: 957,000
Grammy Awards: Best Rap Album
Best Rap Song (Good Life)
Best Solo Rap Performance (Stronger)
Peak Chart Position: 1
808’s & Heartbreak (2008)
He’s soared to the top and there doesn’t seem to be any stopping Kanye West. This supreme confidence that he showed throughout his rise gets the biggest hit its ever had when his mother, Donda West, tragically dies after collapsing in Hollywood in late 2007. After this event Kanye understandably goes into hiding from the media and then surprises us all with the release of his fourth album, the depressing but intriguingly titled ‘808s & Heartbreak’. If Kanye’s credentials of variety were ever in doubt before this album was released then they were all crushed into nothingness after this record as Kanye provided a distorted and electronic sound which created seemingly a new artist. The lead singles off this album were still chart hits despite sending a cold and depressing message within them. ‘Heartless’ and ‘Love Lockdown’ were an open invitation into the heart and soul of West as he sings about past relationships and how in fact he isn’t this arrogant personality people presumed he was. At the time of release the album did well but never reached the heights of previous projects due to its acquired symbolism. In fact, it has taken many avid music fans a number of years to discover the true genius of this work. Something which is even more mind blowing is that this album is one of the weakest works of Kanye’s discography according to many. Despite this the album has received huge praise over its time, with Rolling Stone describing it as the most groundbreaking album in the history of music. A bold claim indeed but one which can quite easily be agreed with given the rapid transition from pop joy to electro depression.
First Week Album Sales: 450,145
Grammy Awards: 0
Peak Chart Position: 1
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Where now for Kanye West? He’s just released one of the most bizarre yet innovative albums of the 21st Century and has opened up about losi his mother. He has also found a new girlfriend in model Amber Rose whom he separates with soon before the album release, prompting the meeting of now wife Kim Kardashian. Oh, and he’s unleashed his anger at the media and award ceremonies by storming on stage and spoiling Taylor Swift’s 2009 VMA awards acceptance speech. Well, what follows is what many regard to be the greatest album in the history of hip hop, not bad going. The lead single of this album, ‘Power’ was a sign of dominance and sheer genius as her relates himself to a god like figure, stating that “no one man should have all that power.” ‘All Of The Lights’ was a return to pop culture for West as the iconic production alongside the features of Rihanna and Kid Cudi created a masterful track which became a club banger and a heart wrenching story all at once. What made this album stand out more than anything was the features, name after name of huge talent and monumental ability. Jay Z, Nicki Minaj, Rihana, Pusha T, Bon Iver, Kid Cudi, Rick Ross, the list goes on as each artist supplies a new twist to each song. There was more variety in this one album than in most artist’s discography entirely, whether it be the soothing and melodic sounds of ‘Lost In The World’ or the aggressive, throwback rap sound of ‘Monster’ there was no telling what the next track would sound like. Surely there was no way of Ye topping this album, nobody could.
First Week Album Sales: 438,000
Grammy Awards: Best Rap Album
Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (All Of The Lights)
Best Rap Song (All Of The Lights)
Peak Chart Position: 1
Watch The Throne (2011)
The excitement for this when it was announced that Kanye West and Jay Z would be recording a collaboration album was something that rap had rarely seen before. There was such a huge buzz around this that it simply couldn’t fail and it really didn’t disappoint. The lead single, ‘N****s in Paris’ has to go down as one of the most legendary rap songs of this century for its absolutely genius production and witty lyrics. Heavy influences of iconic black artists such as Otis Redding, whom the song ‘Otis’ is sampled from and dedicated to, and Ray Charles are twisted into an awe inspiring rap record by two greats of the genre. A world tour soon followed for ‘The Throne’ and two consecutive years of accolades, so much so that the pair won the award for best rap performance in back to back years at the Grammy Awards. The giveaway of Kanye West’s domination was that he defeated himself in certain categories with his previous work ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.’ This confirmed West’s place alongside Jay Z himself as a truly infamous figure in rap.
First Week Album Sales: 437,000
Grammy Awards: Best Rap Performance (Otis)
Best Rap Performance (N****s in Paris)
Best Rap Song (N****s in Paris)
Best Rap/Sung Collaboration (No Church In The Wild)
Peak Chart Position: 1
Cruel Summers (2012)
Although not technically a Kanye West album, his influence was heavily felt as the entirety of his record label, G.O.O.D Music joined forces to create a whole project together. The works of Pusha T, Kid Cudi and Big Sean alongside Kanye created a modern hip hop mesh of club bangers including ‘Clique’, ‘Mercy’ and ‘Cold’ which were some of the biggest anthems of the year. Despite this it can’t really be classed as a master stroke of West’s and anyone with at least a minor knowledge of rap music would gladly admit that ists the worst project he has produced. It did still serve a purpose, however and became somewhat of a building block onto his next project which would perhaps be his most bizarre turn of all…
First Week Album Sales: 205,000
Grammy Awards: 0
Peak Chart Position: 2
Kanye’s attitude reached outrageous levels at this point and it caused many run ins with paparazzi, including a scuffle in which he was charged with assault in late 2012. West decided to release this anger in the form of music and it turned into the album we know as ‘Yeezus’. As it was so delicately named, you can tell exactly what Kanye is feeling when writing this album, nothing but arrogance and an ego-driven lifestyle which you could argue he has warranted over his career. The release of ‘Black Skinhead’ which is the lead single off the album blew everyone away with its pulsating, energetic beat and aggressive lyrics aimed at racial hatred and his own perception. This release of catharsis was a real signal of intent from West, and also a sign of things to come from the whole album. Songs such as ‘New Slaves’ or ‘Blood On The Leaves’ were singles released with similar motives of racism being targeted and Kanye wanting to change that. The whole album became an anti-confederate message and was a large influence in attempting to eradicate racism in America. It became his SEVENTH consecutive album to go Platinum on sales, a statistic which really is remarkable. Describing the album as a similar situation to that of 808s & Heartbreak, Kanye believes that this album will not be truly appreciated until long after its release due to its diversity and variation. Despite all of this commercial success musically, the main attraction of this era was his ‘Yeezus tour’ and the fashion line that followed it. It was at this time that Yeezy became a visionary in more than music as he created a masterpiece setting for every single one of his shows, showing it off as more of a visual act than just being a concert. His Yeezus line gained worldwide recognition and led to a huge number of people wearing the merchandise even if they didn’t enjoy the album. That’s just the power of Yeezus, a borderline biblical figure by now.
First Week Album Sales: 327,000
Grammy Awards: 0
Peak Chart Position: 1
The Life Of Pablo (2016)
Probably the most eagerly awaited album of the last 5 years, The Life Of Pablo was released a year later than expected after changing its title three times. A series of Twitter rants, a sold out Madison Square Garden Fashion Show and a streaming service meltdown later, we were graced with the latest project of Yeezy’s timeline and everyone was ready. Question marks were raised instantly over the album’s title and what it actually entailed but it appeared open to the listener’s interpretation. Features were the main selling point of this album, as there were more big names on this album than there would be on a compilation record such as Now That’s What I Call Music. Chance The Rapper, Future, Kendrick Lamar, Rihanna, Chris Brown and the Weeknd are just a few of the names on this huge track list and it raised the quality of the album tenfold. As a whole it became a fashion oriented record as Kanye bragged about his deal with Adidas and fired shots at Nike after their controversial split a few years before. It was an album that was also riddled with typical Kanye West antics, whether it be the shot firing at Taylor Swift, with West claiming he ‘made her famous’, or the old school reminiscing track of Real Friends, which I believe to be one of the best songs he’s ever produced. This album had all the credentials to be a chart hit and sell in its masses, except for one minor detail. Oh yeah, Kanye didn’t release a single hard copy of the album, and kept it exclusive to the streaming service ‘Tidal’. Smooth move…. For this reason he didn’t chart and, for the time being at least, wasn’t nominated for awards due to its late release.
First Week Sales: N/A
Grammy Awards: N/A
Peak Chart Position: N/A
So, is Kanye West the biggest and most influential artist of this generation? My answer, yes he is. There is no current artist with a larger and more impressive discography than Kanye and the mere mentioning of his name sparks discussion. He has produced what many call the best album of his genre ever and has the ability to spice up his sound and style with every coming album, he also revolutionised a whole genre and made people view the way rap was being produced differently. He sent a positive message on his introduction to music and wasn’t afraid to speak his mind, a trait which many people may not like about him but who would enjoy a music industry full of Taylor Swift’s and Chris Martin’s? People who will never ever disappoint anyone or say anything the media wouldn’t want them to, it would just be boring. Music needs Kanye West and I challenge anyone to name a bigger artist in this generation. Bar Beyoncé, nobody comes close to him.