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The 10 Best Rappers of the 2000s

5. Kanye West

Albums Released Between 2000-2009: The College Dropout (2004), Late Registration (2005), Graduation (2007), 808s and Heartbreak (2008)
Classic Mixtape: Get Well Soon... (2003)
Group Albums: N/A
Biggest Billboard Hits Between 2000-2009: "Gold Digger f/ Jamie Foxx," "Stronger," "Heartless," "Love Lockdown," "Good Life"

More than a decade ago, Kanye West was the underdog.

Check out how he used to talk:

"My beats was wack at one point. I wasn't always having hot beats, I learned how to make hot beats. I'm focusing on rhyming now and I'm going to be the fucking best, and I'm gonna be charting with these niggas. I'm gonna come out No. 1, hopefully. If it's not the first album, it'll be the second album, if it's not the second album, it'll be the third album. I'm not just trying to say I'm gonna come out and sell 10 million but I'm gonna do everything I got in my power and I got a one up because I just hear my beats first."

Watch this clip of a young Kanye West. It will refresh your memory that at one point in time, he wasn't on top. People weren't lining up to hear his music. Yet this year, in the run-up to Yeezus, the world stopped for any snippet of a new material from the now 36-year-old rapper. But it was 13 years ago that Ye got his big break, where he went from producing for local Chicago artists to working with the big leagues at Roc-A-Fella Records—Freeway, Cam'ron, and of course, Jay Z.

 

It wasn't until his third try, Graduation that West found himself in the running to be one of the most influential artists—if not the most influential-of his generation—and popping up in discussions about the genre's finest lyricists.

 

It wasn't until Jay's The Blueprint, in 2001, that Kanye showcased his soul-based sampling on tracks like "Izzo" and "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love)." And we got to watch the effect that that had on 'Ye in his "Through The Wire" video—which included footage of his Roc-A-Fella Records "chaining day" in August 2002. But it wasn't all easy. Kanye initially struggled to find his place as a rapper among popular artists out at that time. Even Talib Kweli went on record earlier this year to talk about the awkwardness, back then, of wanting Kanye's beats but not his raps.

It was his beats that got him in the door at the Roc. And while his first solo album, The College Dropout, released in February 2004, would go on sell three million copies and win a Grammy award for Best Rap Album, it relied heavily on those masterful soul-samples. Not many people talked about Kanye as being of a great rapper. His following album, Late Registration, was a huge success, too, incorporating live instrumentation with the help of Jon Brion. But it wasn't until his third try, Graduation, that West found himself in the running to be one of the most influential artists—if not the most influential-of his generation—and popping up in discussions about the genre's finest lyricists.

It was early September, 2007. And the "Clash of the Titans"—the much-hyped first-week sales showdown between Kanye and 50 Cent was about to show everyone that there had been a sea-change in the game. Gangsta rap was losing its grip of the audience's throat. Graduation came in at just under a million (957,000 units sold). 50's Curtis, 691,000. But it wasn't just a stylistic, aesthetic victory—Kanye's future-soul experimentalism over 50's pop-friendly gangsta sonics. Kanye's lyrics had improved immensely. From "Can't Tell Me Nothin'":

"Treasure, what's your pleasure?
Life is a, ughh, depending how you dress her
So if the devil wear Prada Adam-n-Eve wear nada
I'm in between but way more fresher..."

Introspection, braggadocio, wordplay, matched now to better pacing, and slower, more confident delivery, the lyrics on Graduation proved to be a watershed moment for Kanye. The moment people finally, once-and-for-all, stopped doubting him as a serious, full-fledged, top-flight MC.

All that hard work, it pays off. — Lauren Nostro

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