Kanye West: 2007-2011
Solo Albums: Graduation (2007), 808s & Heartbreak (2008), My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Group Albums: Watch the Throne (2011)
Biggest Hits: "Can't Tell Me Nothing" (2007), "Amazing" f/ Young Jeezy (2008), "Power" (2010), "All of the Lights" f/ Rihanna (2010), "Monster" f/ Jay Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj & Bon Iver (2010)
The first four years of Kanye West's solo career were extraordinary: On the strength of his production chops and a Jay Z cosign alone, the buzz for his solo debut, The College Dropout, was an engine onto itself. And "Jesus Walks" silenced any doubters with a quickness. The follow-up, Late Registration, took the auteur's pop sensibilities and paired him with both brilliant collaborators (Jon Brion, Adam Levine) and career-highlight rap guest spots (Jay, Cam'ron, Lupe). In late 2007, having reached peak rap popularity, he was poised to transcended the crossover threshold, and with the September release of Graduation, and his defeat of 50 Cent in a much-hyped "first-week-sales-off," he was well on his way. The album was Kanye's self-proclaimed "stadium status" moment, a monument to the oversized, with songs that feature everything from unmistakable Daft Punk samples and Chris Martin guest spots to an outsized Gregorian-chorus style anthem ("Can't Tell Me Nothing") that's as much a an existential purpose statement as it is a radio banger. Graduation also marks Kanye's first high-profile foray into high art. Take the maximalist Takashi Murakami art that adorned the cover, for example, or the live-action cartoon Murakami made to go with the opening song, "Good Morning."
Coming off this commercial and creative victory, in late 2008, Kanye made a head-spinning move nobody could have remotely anticipated. An R&B album! One that took the predominant sonic dynamic of pop radio at that moment (an over-abundance of auto-tune) to its maximum, seemingly ridiculous limit. An entire twelve-track song cycle built around a single computer mechanism and the themes of love and loss. If the title, 808s and Heartbreak, didn't tell you everything you needed to know about the album at first, it took just one listen to realize exactly how revealing that title indeed was. The album is revered as one of the greatest sharp turns in the history of contemporary music, and yielded a few singles to demonstrate just how Kanye could manipulate the landscape of pop radio. And in 2008, where 808s detractors held steady with disdain for Kanye's new direction, they couldn't help but cop to the fact that he had successfully registered in equally significant but entirely separate ways: A ubiquitous Brit-pop R&B single "American Boy" with Estelle. A ubiquitous rap radio single with Young Jeezy ("Put On"). A ubiquitous everywhere single in "Swagga Like Us." And of course, prior to the release of 808s, a series of earth-shaking tour dates with the elaborate Glow In The Dark tour, that grossed nearly $31 million over the course of 49 tour dates.
2009 didn't see a proper album release of new material from Kanye West, but that doesn't mean he wasn't out there in the world, if not more than ever. Sure, he had two more singles from 808s to chart ("Amazing" and "Paranoid") which didn't do spectacularly. Yeah, there was the whole Taylor Swift thing. But there he was, on the Gaga-sampling "Make Her Say," on The-Dream's "Walking On the Moon," on the block-rocking Clipse track "Kinda Like a Big Deal," on Jay's Summer-owning "Run This Town," on the can't-walk-down-any-street-in-North-America-without-hearing-it "Forever." But as far as Kanye's solo output went, it wouldn't be until 2010 that we'd start hearing it again, and we'd hear it in a way we never had before: Starting with the war-march anthem "Power," Kanye's comeback kicked off with anger, the likes of which we had yet to hear from him before. "Runaway" got high-profile performances on Saturday Night Live and the 2010 MTV VMAs, both bold statements that also represented a first for West, a track that doubled as a concession to his egotism, typically played alone on a stage by Kanye, armed only with a sampling machine on a platform and a quickfire Pusha-T verse. Then there was the controversial clip for "Monster," an all-star roster song that pushed pop's tolerance for gothic rap further to the fringes that it ever had been pushed previously. As the singles for the full album Kanye was about to release were rolled out, so were the G.O.O.D. Friday tracks, songs that were relative toss-offs for Kanye that ranked about the best of the year (any and all argument, see: "Christian Dior Denim Flow"). And then there was the actual release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, less an album than a hip-hop opera, one that starred everybody from indie darling Justin Vernon to Elton John, and everyone in between. The album was hailed as a masterpiece, and given fawning reviews that assessed the album as essentially flawless.
2011 was no light load, either. Coming together with Jay Z to form what's now known as The Throne, Kanye consisted of one half of what essentially stands as the first rap superalbum, a case study in self-described "luxury rap" that started with an ornate, gilded cover designed by Givenchy creative director Riccardo Tisci, that relented for not a moment on the inside: Samples from Otis Redding and Curtis Mayfield, guest spots from Beyonce and Frank Ocean, songs that are equal measures reflective and philosophical as they are pathologically bombastic, taking on an almost religious commitment to braggadocio. The album yielded a tour with dates that ended by Kanye and Jay performing "Niggas in Paris" not once, or twice, but upwards of eight times. Sometimes more. 'Ye also found his way onto the remix for a blockbuster Katy Perry single ("E.T."), but that's an aside. So is everything Kanye West produced over these five years, the kind of musical output resume nobody on this list can even remotely lay claim to. The recency of Kanye's five-year run after Late Registration makes it difficult to tell where his first act ends and his second act begins, or for that matter, if his second act has even started yet. One thing is for certain, though: In five years, it is an indisputable fact that nobody did more to change the face of rap as a crossover genre-and not just crossover from rap to pop, or rap to rock, but rap as art-as Kanye West did beginning in 2007. — Foster Kamer