Monday, September 21, 2009

Kanye West's career trajectory - from genius to utter douchebag in only 6 years

In case you've been living under a rock for the last week or so, rap superstar Kanye West has made a bit of a dick of himself at the MTV Awards:

It's fair to say that as of 2009, Kanye is officially a douchebag. But was it always this way? Well, possibly, but the difference is that once, if he was a douchebag he was at least a douchebag who made cracking music. These days, he doesn't have that anymore to balance out being a head case.

The first most of us heard of Kanye was in 2001, when he produced several songs on Jay-Z's classic "The Blueprint" album. He and Just Blaze helped give rise to a new style of hip-hop production utilising sped-up samples of old-soul records. Admittedly they were really just biting RZA of the Wu-Tang Clan who did it in the mid-90s, but still, they polished it up for the masses and did it well. He then produced a number of songs for other artists, the early highlights being Talib Kweli's "Get By" and Alicia Keys' "You Don't Know My Name".

His appearance on John Legend's "Live at the Knitting Factory" album, dueting with Legend on a piano-based version of "All Falls Down", showed some serious lyrical ability on top of the production skills. Then he released two brilliant singles - "Slow Jams" and "Through the Wire" - the latter recorded with a jaw wired to his face after a near-fatal car accident which the song details. At this stage, he was the rising star of urban music. And since his public profile was still minor, he had little opportunity to act like a wanker in front of worldwide audiences.

His debut album "The College Dropout" from 2004 confirmed his arrival as a major player in hip-hop. It's easily one of the 10 or 20 greatest hip-hop albums ever - great production, tunes and lyrics. That year he also produced most of John Legend's excellent "Get Lifted" album. And while his album skits and excessive cockiness were a little annoying, with output this good that could be easily forgiven.

Producing tracks for every man and his dog may have been taking its toll though. While "Late Registration" was another big hit in 2005, to these ears it was disappointing - his samples were getting too obvious, and he seemed to have run out of interesting lyrics. In fact he seemed to have saved his best production for Common's excellent "Be" album. In September came the infamous "Bush doesn't care about black people" rant following Hurricane Katrina. He may well have been right, but it didn't win him many fans.

That was the start of a period where Kanye, arrogant at the best of times, seemed to let stardom really go to his head. Soon after he appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone dressed as Jesus wearing a crown of thorns. I mean, seriously, Kanye, you're comparing yourself to Jesus now? In November 2006 at the MTV Europe awards, he was so unhappy about missing out on the Best Video award that he got up on stage while it was being presented to the winners, and argued he should have won it instead. Then in 2007 he didn't win any awards at the MTV Awards, and was angry that Britney Spears was chosen to open the event instead of him; he claimed it was because he was black. (Come on Kanye, there's only so many times you can get away with waving the race card around without serious proof.)

2007 was also the last year he was still making seriously good music. 3rd album "Graduation" wasn't that great, apart from the single "Flashing Lights", but he also appeared on the fab single "Classic" alongside Nas, KRS-One and Rakim, and did some seriously good production on Common's "Finding Forever" album.

Maybe his mother's passing in late 2007 messed with his judgement a bit, because it wasn't long before he started trying new things. Like singing rather than rapping (which is OK if you can sing, but Kanye can't). And feeding everything through auto-tune. The single "Love Lockdown" in late 2008 is the sound of Kanye jumping the shark. Of course some people still loved it, but then again some people love getting urinated on - i doesn't make it all right.

And then there was the Taylor Swift incident. Sigh. If Kanye was still making brilliant music, perhaps we could forgive him, but clearly he is so far up his own ass these days that he thinks he can do anything and people just will just lap it up. A shame, really.

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