It was a cold midday last Thursday, February 11th, and Kanye West stood on stage at Madison Square Garden basking in the cacophony of cheers, yelling, and adulation. He had just completed launching his hotly anticipated third fashion collection, Yeezy Season 3, in a raucous and massive production complete with live cuts from his still yet-to-be-released seventh studio album, The Life of Pablo. At that moment we witnessed the complete evolution of one of the most influential, creative, and polarizing forces in creative arts. Always one for stories, the story of how Kanye West arrived at this moment is one for the ages. Between the awards show stage crashing, rambling Twitter tirades, a manic and divisive personality, and marriage into a family with an extreme abhorrence for privacy, it’s hard to imagine Kanye Omari West as anything other than what he is.
Chapter I - Beginnings
His two decades’ long work as a producer highlights why he seemed destined solely for a career behind the boards, right from the beginning. Even in the mid-90s, when fresh out of high school Yeezy was making beats for local acts in Chicago - where he grew up and was mentored by veteran producer No I.D.— and he had a knack for refreshing the throwback songs he sampled, and mixing infectious melodies with aggressive drums. The rap career he sought wasn’t taking off, but his first official production credit came in 1996 on rapper Grav’s Down To Earth, an album he produced entirely on his own. West’s talent soon moved beyond the borders of his home state when he decided to leave college, and began working with nationally known artists like Foxy Brown and Goodie Mob. He was also ghost-producing under the tutelage of Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie of The Hitmen production team, the legend who shaped the sound of Sean Combs’s Bad Boy dynasty during the late 90s and early 2000s. Years later on the track “Last Call”, West would air out his grievances about being overlooked, but ultimately he reflected on his time with D-Dot as a necessary stepping-stone in his journey.
His breakout moment came with a chance to produce tracks for artists on Roc-A-Fella Records in 2000. West helped Jay-Z make magic on The Blueprint, most notably, by turning the Jackson 5’s up-tempo classic “I Want You Back” into the rapper’s slowed-down celebration of overcoming his literal and figurative trials on “Izzo (H.O.V.A.)". He also used Bobby “Blue” Bland’s “Ain’t No Love in the Heart of the City,” a bluesy ode to lost love, for Hov’s similarly named track that was a boastful reminder to his foes that he had cemented his place in hip-hop. Ye was forever linked to an album that continues to be heralded as one of the greatest rap albums of all time, but succeeding at his craft became both his gift and his curse.
Chapter II - Breakthrough
On the early morning of October 23, 2002, Ye left an L.A. recording studio in a foul mood. The talented, but still just-on-the-edges-of-stardom producer was having an off night; the tracks he’d worked on for the Black Eyed Peas, Beanie Sigel, and Peedi Crakk weren’t where he wanted them to be, and worst of all, he’d failed to impress Ludacris, a rapper he admired, with his verses. It was another blow to West (and his ego), who had an enviable resume of work as a producer, but had struggled for years to get signed as a rapper. Though lyrically sound, the college dropout didn’t have any of the drug and gun tales that defined hip-hop in the early 2000s, and felt he wasn’t getting his due. The only record label door that hadn’t been slammed in his face was Roc-A-Fella Records, which had offered him a deal just the month before, though the motivation seemed to be a fear of losing a genius producer, rather than a genuine belief that he had a standalone career in rhyming ahead of him.
The worn-out West fell asleep at the wheel on his way to his hotel, and the ensuing head-on accident left him with a shattered face: a jaw broken in three places and a fractured nose. It was the kind of life-threatening accident that can alter a life, and for Kanye it was no different. For a guy as hungry for his breakthrough as Ye, facing his own mortality shaped his vision for himself as a rapper. Yeah, he wasn’t like the former dopeboys, bangers, and hustlers who were dominating rap, and he didn’t have to be. His stories were different but still worthy of being heard. Without waiting to fully heal, he went into the studio and laid down verses for “Through the Wire,” a cleverly constructed and honest narrative about his accident and about being an underdog, all told while his jaw was still wired shut from the accident. It became his debut single, peaking at 15 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, and in a blink, the young go-getter had transcended the lane he was expected to stay in as a producer and the state of rap at the time. But to many, in an era when 50 Cent had lived to tell the story of being shot nine times, what the hell was a guy from the suburbs going to rap about?
Chapter III - Ascension
The answer turned out to be: “Whatever he wanted.” The College Dropout, Yeezy’s debut album from 2004, was the first sign that he would resist being placed in any particular category as a rapper. Beneath his signature soulful productions, he boasted with wit about his love of flashy jewelry, sex, money beautiful women, deftly contrasting them with candid musings on the black experience in America, police brutality, racial oppression, self-doubt, and his faith. His unabashed cockiness was endearing, and it resonated with anyone who believed that their fate lay in greatness. But there was also unexpected vulnerability when he admitted he was just a regular guy trying to make it, that there were no trap houses and street cred. The themes of conflicting ideals - of self, creativity, the world around him, fame, money - would become reoccurring hallmarks of West’s heart-on-sleeve style. The critically acclaimed album sold more than 400,000 copies in the first week, and has gone on to sell more than 4 million. Not one to rest on his laurels, he followed up just a year later with the even more musically and lyrically dynamic Late Registration, coming harder with his unrestrained ego and social commentary, and meshing classical instruments and booming beats.
Still possessing the drive from his pre-fame days and continually seeing his art as limitless — even in a musical genre with so many confines — West experimented in imaginative ways as he built a discography that gave real credence to every opinion he held about himself as a musical genius. On 2007’s Graduation, he dabbled with synthesizers and electro before genre crossovers were a music mainstay. He pushed back against the snubbing of autotune with the self-indulgent and cathartic 808s & Heartbreak the next year, following his breakup with his longtime girlfriend, Amber Rose. Rather than take a step back and re-calibrate after mixed critical and commercial responses to 808’s, Kanye doubled down and thundered forth with 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Both a massive critical and commercial success, Fantasy was a lengthy but fantastic trip into the shadowy mind of someone who wasn’t as unself-aware as he’d led everyone to believe. The album elevated West into the stratosphere and with the heights of such success many questioned where he would go from here. In true Kanye fashion, even higher, and this time, with company. In 2011, he teamed up with Jay Z, the man he had referred to as “Big Brother” on Graduation, but whose lyrical equal he had become, for the album collaboration that dreams were made of. Watch the Throne matched braggadocio with lyrical and production excellence as Kanye (and Jay Z’s) presence in the mainstream of music, celebrity, and consciousness was entrenched. Need more evidence? Four words: Aziz Ansari video cameo. It was, as described, “luxury rap”, and we loved every fucking minute of it.
Finding himself in both the enviable and confusing position of having reached mainstream critical mass, West exercised his will in the only way he knew how, with total creative freedom. 2013’s gritty, artsy Yeezus was a shock to the system. Devoid of any mainstream and radio-friendly dance tracks, it showcased his willingness to not only take himself out of whatever comfort zone he still had left, but do it to his fans, too. Brash, egomaniacal, and sonically diverse, Yeezus was hated by many, and praised as a work of artistic genius by an equal amount. Most importantly though, Yeezus was pivotal in that it heralded the next evolution in West’s journey….his transformation from “musical artist” to just “artist”. In between the constant grind of creating a quality catalogue, he also launched his own record label and production company, G.O.O.D. Music, which is home to artists like Pusha T, John Legend, Common, and Big Sean, who have all become successes in their own right. Once again the evolution had continued as he added something new to his resume: music mogul.
Chapter IV - Creator
With the massive commercial and critical success of his collaborations with Nike and Adidas and the release of Yeezy Season 3, West continues to buck the doubters. Much like the period of his jump from producing to rapping, he finds himself the underdog once again as a clothing designer, with peers defining him one way—rapper/producer/Kardashian husband—and him determined to be indefinable. There are valid reasons for the skepticism, though. Although, Kanye’s style has evolved enough over the years to grant him style icon status, his earlier attempts at developing fashion haven’t always worked out. Despite multiple high-profile limited collaboration with European fashion houses, his Pastelle line never really got off the ground in 2009, and his womenswear line was widely panned in 2011. In more recent times, he has found success, both with continued footwear collaborations and his capsule collection with French mainstay A.P.C.
The dystopian-inspired, utilitarian Yeezy collections have been met with mixed reviews since they debuted last year but, exactly like the designer, the pieces keep people talking and anticipating, because there’s something fascinating about seeing Ye be an artist, regardless of the medium. Also, if the past is any indication, there will never be enough naysayers in any industry to stop Kanye West from doing exactly what he sets out to do when he’s ready. Furthermore, it’s precisely the space he occupies at present - massively successful, wealthy, and influential - that allows him to do whatever the fuck he wants artistically. Oh, and also the things he touches still have a tendency of turning to gold: The Yeezy Boost shoes have proved to be a hit, which is no surprise, given that his footwear collaborations with Louis Vuitton, BAPE and Nike were well-received. So, as much as the fashion industry and the people who follow it don’t want to admit it, they are drawn in by the essence of Yeezus, too.
Chapter V - The Life and Times of Pablo
If there’s one thing Kanye isn’t it’s predictable, especially when in pursuit of his creative goals. Most recently it was his acrimonious departure from his Nike collaboration, and subsequent signing with rival Adidas that set the stage for his current fashion platform. With his deal with Adidas, West got what he claims he never got at Nike, unparalleled creative freedom, design and production infrastructure, financial backing, and probably most importantly, respect. If the internet-breaking shoe drops and the scale and scope of Yeezy Season 3 are any indications of the future of West as a fashion designer and influencer, we’re looking at exciting times.
Oh, and lest we forget, there’s still that new album too. Did we mention Kanye West is unpredictable? Despite long delays, release stop/starts, a post-SNL performance sort-of release announcement, limited and unreliable availability on it’s only outlet, Tidal, and The Life of Pablo, his first album in three years and the longest he’s gone between albums, still has everyone standing up paying attention. It hasn’t all been for good reasons lately (@kanyewest is always an entertaining and often shocking read) but the fervor around him and what he’s doing never seems to die down, especially since T.LO.P sounds like a unique amalgamation of all of the different Kanye sounds, together in one. Whether you believe the rumors that it was named after Pablo Picasso (known as the greatest artist of the 20th century), you see the parallel he’s going for, or at least attempting to convince us of. Both soulful and artistic, self-obsessed and introspective, T.L.O.P is a distillation of where Kanye is at this very moment. It’s no coincidence that the evolution has brought his sound to that, and to where we are now.
With more than 32 million albums sold, 100 million digital downloads, 21 Grammys won, and the potential to grow from his ingénue status in the fashion world, the days when no one knew who he was are far behind him. Now he’s known as many things, and everyone has even stopped wondering what Kanye will do next; instead, it is now a question of how long the public will have to anxiously wait. One thing is always certain with Kanye though, it’s always going to be, in his own words, “a hell of a ride”.