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”.