Determining whether anyone in hip-hop has had as influential of a presence, for as long.
Written by David Drake (@somanyshrimp)
Since its earliest days, hip-hop has relied on the theatrics of competition; it's a part of every aspect, from the music business to the battles, woven into everything from the language of the artists' boasts to their self-presentation. In every era, a few artists seem to come out on top and sustain their dominance on both creative and commercial levels. With the massive success of “Mercy,” unquestionably one of the year's biggest rap singles, Kanye West has continued a long reign of cultural relevancy arguably unparalleled in hip-hop history.
With the massive success of “Mercy,” unquestionably one of the year's biggest rap singles, Kanye West has continued a long reign of cultural relevancy arguably unparalleled in hip-hop history.
Apart from his "big brother" Jay-Z, West's most obvious competition would be Lil Wayne, who rose as a solo star in a similarly unexpected fashion and has sustained a long career through similar force of will. But despite Wayne's continued sales superiority—Tha Carter IV sold 964,000 copies its first week to Watch the Throne's 436,000—no one rapper has managed to combine such a knockout combination of critical relevancy and mainstream impact.
Kanye West's rise began in an era where street rappers ascended the pop charts, but his background and demeanor were decidedly different. Self-deprecating and conflicted about his ambitions, he was the marriage of the backpackers who remembered the Native Tongues with the pop aspirations of Puffy and Bad Boy. (Some will recall his top-rappers list for Rolling Stone, which included Ma$e at number one). Never a particularly deft lyricist, he traded on his sense of humor and—at least initially—witty social commentary.
His production, which predated his solo career by a few years, shifted the sound of hip-hop from the bottom up; along with Just Blaze and Bink!, West brought soul samples back into vogue. Rather than representing a retro vision, though, his tracks evoked the past within a contemporary pop framework. His production was more in the tradition of Dr. Dre sampling “I Wanna Do Something Freaky to You” on "G Thang"" than the filtered basslines and chopped break beats of Large Professor or Pete Rock.
Rather than representing a retro vision, though, his tracks evoked the past within a contemporary pop framework.
His sound also emerged at a time when popular music and hip-hop were one and the same. Through artists like Timbaland and The Neptunes, the producer-as-auteur was starting to come into his own within hip-hop. With his work on Jay-Z's 2001 masterpiece The Blueprint, Kanye came into his own as a rapping-producer, reaping the benefits of this new respectability. This was how he ascended so suddenly and broadly within hip-hop: by blending the touchstones of tasteful, bourgeois values with the mercenary, unapologetic hit-chasing of the pop charts.
But it was only with 2005's “Gold Digger” that West became a true crossover star; the single, from his second album, Late Registration, peaked at No. 1 on Billboard's pop charts and announced the commercial and critical reign of a new hero in hip-hop. The song's final line, about how a successful black man will "leave your ass for a white girl," hit like a sucker punch. West kept it real by tapping into the very real feelings and hypocrisies of the ambitious.
Graduation, marked a significant shift, both for 'Ye's career and for hip-hop overall—a pattern that would continue with future trendsetting West releases.
His follow-up, Graduation, marked a significant shift, both for 'Ye's career and for hip-hop overall—a pattern that would continue with future trendsetting West releases. 'Ye outsold 50 Cent in a highly-publicized competition between the rappers (although Curtis initially outsold Kanye's effort internationally). West made a step into EDM before it was called “EDM” with “Stronger,” an unquestionably smart, anticipatory maneuver that captured the sudden vogue for Daft Punk and, alongside Black Eyed Peas, predicted pop music's shift towards dance music and away from rap.
“Barry Bonds” was almost as prescient, on a smaller scale; not two years later, the punchline style arguably popularized on the record became a dominant gimmick—most notably on Young Money's massive smash “Bedrock.” Meanwhile “Can't Tell Me Nothing,”perhaps the most beloved fan-favorite from the record, has grown into one of the most respected songs in the rapper's catalog.
Graduation's shift away from Ye's origins also marked the beginning of his reign as a critical phenomenon. While he'd always been a favorite simply by going against the grain of contemporary popular rap—an easy trick for winning over rap-phobic critics—his expansion into playing with different influences marked the beginning of true auteur status. His standing was solidified by the bold experiment that was 808s & Heartbreak.
While he'd always been a favorite simply by going against the grain of contemporary popular rap, his expansion into playing with different influences marked the beginning of true auteur status.
Where he had been known primarily as a rapper valued for his honesty and humor, willing to pierce through rules previously presumed to be inviolate—think of his comments in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—808s marked the moment when the narrative around his celebrity became part of the music as well. In order to understand 808s, it was necessary to know about the passing of his mother and the intricacies of his love life. West embraced the role of Kanye the superstar, and his lyrics—much like those of lauded mainstream stars before him, like 2Pac and Eminem—began to reflect what it was like Being Kanye, the brand. Thus began the love affairs with similarly famous stars, the expanding critical ambitions of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the hubris of his Twitter account.
West is a rapper who gets covered in mainstream, non-music media as a celebrity as much as an artist. There are few hip-hop artists in this tier today.
808s marked the moment when the narrative around his celebrity became part of the music as well.
Jay-Z has attained that status, but it largely came in the wake of his most relevant work, where Kanye's fame arc coincides with his creative and commercial one. Although Lil Wayne remains a more popular recording artist, his drug-battered persona hasn't created such a credible public figure.
Artists who've attained similar levels of fame have often failed to sustain that credibility. Snoop Dogg was undoubtedly one of the most successful rappers of the early 1990s, but couldn't avoid hitting a sophomore slump and never achieved a similar level of artistic respect beyond that, even with multiple hit singles. LL Cool J and Run-DMC can make legitimate claims in an earlier era, but both were left behind by the genre's massive stylistic shift at the beginning of the 1990s. Adjusting from the rap world to the pop world is a transition very few artists have managed to navigate; Kanye's ability to keep abreast of and even define trends has allowed him to maintain his spot.
In hip-hop, creative and commercial dominance are treated—sometimes accurately, many times not—as intertwined, correlating factors. Rap music is as much about cultivating an aura of success, a narrative onto which the audience can hang your perceived losses and victories. West has managed to juggle a few different things that most artists are unable to handle at once: he's considered a public figure and a trend-setter, all while maintaining critical respect for his work and dominating in the commercial arena. That alone makes his run unprecedented.