By: Ryan Lobert
The term legends in recent times has almost lost its meaning. People will throw the label onto anybody, they’ll bestow a prestigious title to so many it becomes worthless. It’s less often we get to see a real legend, somebody who’s truly changed everything for generations to come, and name everybody knows and puts respect on. It’s even rarer that people get to see a legend in the flesh, a legacy being made in real time for the public eye to see. The word legend is tossed around liberally in the hip hop world, used to describe this or that artist, and while that is all debatable at best, there are a few names nobody will really dispute. Kendrick Lamar, Tupac Shakur, the Notorious B.I.G, all of these artist are undisputed greats of the genre, but one name stands out among a list of greats, one man who has successfully bridged the gap between his musical art and cultural art, somebody who has had a career so long and fruitful, yet stained with controversy, a man who has undoubtedly changed the way people look at and understand music. The man behind such a cultural wave? Kanye West.
Born in Atlanta, Georgia in 1977, Kanye Omari West was instantly a different sort of child. The son of a College professor and a former Black Panther, West spent his childhood surrounded by both educational and cultural influences. West began writing poetry at age five, and by the time he was in the third grade, was writing his very first rap verses. It was also around this time that Kanye and his mother, Donda West, grew incredibly close to one another. She always supported him in whatever way she could, even using some of their tight savings to purchase him a microphone, one that he hung from the ceiling of his basement with a wire coat hanger in order to record his first ever songs. West Would continue his small-scale recording basement operations up until his mid-20s, when his longtime friend and mentor of sorts, No I.D, introduced him to high up management at Roc-A-Fella Records, where West would finally get the break that he needed and had worked to achieve for almost 15 years. It was here Kanye both started to produce music for massive names, the likes of Jay-Z, Nas, Raekwon, and Eminem, and started to ponder if producing was really what he wanted to do forever. Fate had made up its mind however, and on October 23rd, 2002, West was involved in a near-fatal head-on car accident while driving back to his hotel after a long night at the studio, and was hospitalized for almost 2 months for e jaw restructuration. During this time of rest, Kanye once again picked up his studio microphone. With a newfound appreciation for his life and his time he had, he recorded his entire debut studio album “The College Dropout”, within that span in the hospital. With his connections in the industry, and a marketing machine in Roc-A-Fella behind him, West took off massively from his debut, premiering at number two on the billboard top 100. Immediately afterwards, Kanye started working on his second studio album, improving on what he said were the flaws of the first. Kanye has since released a further 9 studio albums, 3 collaboration albums, and produced countless others. He’s the only artist in spotify history to have 1 billion streams on 9 separate albums. The music industry was now in the palm of Kanye West.
Kanye is undoubtedly one of, if not the most influential artist in hip hop history, and many attribute this to how much he truly affected youth culture. To preface this, West himself has said that he really doesn’t want people to think of his music as music, he makes music to push his art, to unapologetically show the contents of his mind, for the good or the bad. West is almost single handedly credited with popularizing hip hop sampling through his background in producing, opening the way for people such as Kendrick Lamar to come into the scene and become storytellers and lyricist over a more crisp production. “He uses others around him to build up his presence in the room,” says Luke Goldsmith, a Kanye fan and a musician inspired by his style, “Whether it be through a sample or another artist, he’ll find a way to blend it all together to make you understand his vision.” Not only has West really opened up the scene for a sharper concept of the link between music and art, he’s opened up the world to an open mental health discussion. With the death of his beloved mother in 2007, one he blames himself for, and the severing of his relationship with his long time girlfriend, Amber Rose, in early 2008, Kanye would begin a string of introspective albums that touched on what he was thinking, and really feeling. “808s and Heartbreaks”, an album released by Kanye in November of 2008, touched on his feelings of loneliness, isolation, and depression, feeling as if there is nothing left in the world for him as his only stability begins to falter or disappear completely. His next album, “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, dealt with the feelings of escapism, running away from the life he had built for himself, hiding behind alcohol, drugs, and women to try to deal with the pressure of the industry and the eyes constantly watching and judging his every move, which was especially crushing in the wake of his 2009 VMA outburst, that saw Kanye interrupt Taylor Swift’s award for best female video on national television. Every album beyond this, Kanye dealt with a completely different theme, in a completely different stylistic route, and the industry always followed. West encouraged discussion, talking about the problems actually plaguing artists the public often does not think about, the crushing pressure they face, and just how hard the public eye is fixed upon them, the whistleblower of the industry in some people’s minds. Just how much of an influence West has been over his almost 30 year career can not be understated. From the younger to the older generations, both Kanye’s sound and lyrical themes have prevailed and resonated with just about everyone who gives him a chance.
It’s no secret that Kanye’s relationship with the public is rocky, at best. West has dealt with bi-polor disorder for almost his entire life, but was only officially diagnosed with it back in 2016, after a breakdown live at one of his tour stops during the “Life of Pablo Tour.” Of course, the public best knows his 2009 VMA outburst, in which afterwards, West isolated from the world in a private studio in Hawaii to let the public forget a little bit, but many, many more incidents followed the most well known. Weather that be in 2004, when he famously stated, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” live on a Hurricane Katrina relief broadcast in the wake of the category 5 disaster, his Saturday Night Live and TMZ outburst in 2017 in which he proclaimed that his MAGA hat made him feel like he had superpowers, or his most recent Instagram episode in which he cut ties with long-time friend Kid Cudi, and took aim at ex-wife Kim Kardashian and boyfriend Pete Davidson, Kanye, at times, looks completely unhinged. The public has thoroughly looked into the psyche of Kanye West. Some claim insanity, others see a man marred by tragedy, and that is really the duality of West. The public is harsh, on even the smallest things when it comes to celebrities, and Kanye is a lightning rod for paparazzi and the public alike. Now, public controversy undoubtedly helped him make great art. 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy”, and 2018’s ”Ye”, are deep dives into the mental state of a broken man. The tracklist of “Ye”, is littered with thoughts of suicide, how Kanye deep down feels sorrowful for how hes treated people, how his bi-polar is affecting him and his family, it’s a cry for help. It’s the closest we get to seeing how the public and media really affects the mind of celebrities, how stories and headlines can break people. “I know Kanye is suffering, but it makes such great art,” said Goldsmith, “I feel guilty sometimes for just listening to him break down.”
Kanye West, a suffering artist, a trail blazer, the voice of a generation. Few can take credit for as much as Kanye can, and few have weathered the amount of controversy as well. From a 15 year old kid in his basement with a $50 dollar microphone, to one of the biggest stars in rap history in just 30 years, West has blazed through every last wall life built up for him. With a public reputation in the gutter, he still is one of the leading voices of not only the struggle of mental illness, but performance art. “Kanye speaks to me on a level no other artist can,” said Goldsmith, “he has relatability behind him, I feel what he’s going through. And even when he goes on his rants, haven’t you wanted to just scream your truth before?” What’s special about this once in a generation artist can’t be pinpointed, it’s not a singularity, but his presence can be heard all around, in his songs, in fashion, and in the music industry as a whole.