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The Ten Most Important Artists Of The Last Decade – 2. Kanye West

Kanye West begins his 2010 song Power with line: “I’m living in the 21st century, doing something mean to it, doing it better than anybody you ever seen do it,”   It’s the public personality of Kanye West put to music – a song full of boasts, and shots at his critics.  Yet, at the end of the song as the chanting and electro-rock beat that drives the song dies down, West pulls back from the egomaniac we know – and admits that death seems comforting –  “it would be a beautiful death, dropping out the window”.  It’s no surprise that West would use a choir chant as the background like he did with “Jesus Walks”.  It’s a sonic link between the struggles of earth, and ultimately salvation.

The struggle between his ego and his insecurities is at the heart of some of West’s best music – “Through the Wire”, “Jesus Walks”, “Stronger”, “Runaway” etc. Bragging has always been a favorite past-time of many rappers, and while Kanye does plenty of that – he’s not afraid to shed his skin.  There’s a reason why Kanye never took a stage name – he’s never had to create a persona.  From the outbursts to his music, Kanye is telling his audience and his critics exactly who he is.  Even the detour into his tortured psyche – 808s & Heartbreak was interesting and bold (even if it didn’t reach the heights of his previous albums.)  Even through the auto-tuned vocals, West revealed a side of himself that few rappers (and even other musicians) have dared. It’s the hip-hop equivalent of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band – the soundtrack to a man who’s witnessing himself spinning out of control.  Time has been kinder to this album – it’s become the blueprint for what can now considered to be “emo-rap” influencing other artists, particularly West’s protege Kid Cudi.

But what really sets West apart from other artists, is his ear for music and sound.  Sampling has always been a tool for hip-hop, but West is one of the few producers to actually master it.  Instead of just sticking a sample in the song – West uses samples from all over the music world, particularly soul that become the driving force behind his beats.  Who else would think of using “Diamonds Are Forever” as a hook?  “We Major” contains of West’s best lyrics, but it’s really constant horns that make the song truly memorable.  “All Of The Lights” is a collage of sounds (horns, weird beats, over 40 vocalists) that on paper shouldn’t work, but has already become something of a classic.   The piano of  “Runaway” (perhaps West’s best song) pulls you into his dark twisted fantasy where the douche-bags and assholes deserve toasts. This is even before the song take a left turn into 3-minutes into a mix auto-tuned vocals, distorted guitars, and violin turning the song into a perfect mix of traditional instruments, and post-modern synthetic sounds.

Throughout the past decade, West has constantly defined what records can sound like.  His latest offering My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy has been called “the Pet Sounds of hip-hop” for its scope, vision, and sound.  His personality, he can sometimes be insufferable.  But West not only pushes himself, but all of music.  He’s a true visionary, whose influence will continue for years to come.  As West himself says, “no one man should have all that power”.

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The Ten Most Important Artists of the Last Decade: 8. Lil Wayne

The first time I heard Lil Wayne’s voice was on the song, “Barry Bonds” off of Kanye West’s Graduation in 2007. I knew of him, but never actually listened to him. When he appeared on the second verse on the song, in his thick syrup induced drawl, my head turned. “What the fuck is this?”, I thought in astonishment. It was unlike anything I heard in hip-hop. His flow seemed to work around the beat, as opposed to be linked to it. And then there were the bizarre lyrics: “my drink’s still pinker than the easter rabbit”; “stove on my waist turn beef to patties”. It was clear even then, that the dude followed his own path. Instead of following the normal rules, he seemed to be re-writing them as he went along.

His voice is everywhere these days – besides his own songs, it seems that he is on almost every single hip-hop song on the radio. It seems so commonplace, so it’s easy to forget how weird, bizarre, and how good he can be. Many rappers stick to a constant flow in the song, making it easy to rap along. In any one of his songs, Wayne takes detours that others would be afraid to take. His voice is not normal, and he often enunciates particular words that would otherwise be un-rhymeable – “I’m rare like mr clean with hair, No brake lights on my car rear” from “Phone Home”. “A Milli” is one of the strangest hip-hop songs to be released in the past few decades. There’s no hook, except for the statement, “motherfucker I’m ill”. From anything other rapper, the strange beats and repeated “a milli” voice in the background would have been annoying, but Wayne sees it as a challenge, delivering a tour de force of a song.

Prior to Tha Carter III, he built up a following with the albums 500 Degreez, and Tha Carter. But it was really his mix-tapes Dedication 2 and Da Drought 3 and his appearances on singles from Fat Joe (“Make it Rain”), Chris Brown (“Gimme That”) and Wyclef Jean (“Sweetest Girl (Dollar Bill)”) among numerous others in 2006 and 2007 that gained him a wider audience. When Tha Carter III was released in June 2008, it was clear that hip-hop belonged to Lil Wayne.

But being his unpredictable self, Wayne followed-up the blockbuster Carter III with the critically panned Rebirth, which was his much touted rock album. To some, Rebirth might be seen as mistake (and while it certainly is forgettable) it proves that Lil Wayne does whatever he wants, critics and detractors be damned.

Is Weezy, the best rapper alive, as he has often claimed?  Perhaps.  If nothing else he is without a doubt one of the most innovative, prolific, entertaining and wildest rappers out there.

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