Projects Released This Decade: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Cruel Summer, Watch the Throne, Yeezus, The Life of Pablo, Ye, Kids See Ghosts, Jesus Is King
Biggest Billboard Hits This Decade: “N****s in Paris,” “FourFiveSeconds,” “E.T.,” “I Love It,” “Follow God”
Kanye West ended the 2000s in a sort of exile: He was holed up in Milan, and some believed he may have been ready to give up music for good so he could focus on fashion. This was after he had interrupted Taylor Swift at the VMAs, and at the tail end of the four-album run that saw him lurch from glossy stadium rap to eulogic electropop. He was a superstar, but few superstar runs in hip-hop had stretched on for more than five years; Tha Carter III was the blockbuster album of 2008, and West’s own record sales were in decline. Drake was coming.
By the beginning of 2010, he had holed up (again) in Hawaii with a team of rappers and producers—familiar collaborators like Kid Cudi, contemporaries like Pusha-T, icons like Pete Rock and the RZA—who worked single-mindedly on crafting the follow-up to 808s & Heartbreak. The music from those sessions began to trickle out in the spring of that year with a weekly series of standalone singles and tracks that were earmarked for the album, which would be reworked and expanded before the public. The payoff was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is sort of like a softer, more solipsistic Life After Death: a sprawling rap album about how it feels to be a rap star. It casts Kanye as the swaggering, paranoid center of gravity who pulls everything into his orbit: Raekwon and Elton John; diatribes by Gil Scott-Heron and drums from Mecca and the Soul Brother; America’s corrosive celebrity culture; and Rick Ross’ lavender shoes.
Kanye’s next album, 2013’s Yeezus, was smaller and all id, a midlife crisis that sounded as if it were abandoned when it was still incomplete. Yeezus was divisive on its release, but has become en vogue to pick as West’s masterpiece—not necessarily because it predicted where rap music would go this decade, but because of the audacity of bending the coldest gasps of industrial music (and the warmth of Charlie Wilson) into something that sounds, improbably, like it sprang directly from Kanye’s brain. This has always been his greatest talent: rearranging the familiar in a way nobody had thought to before, making sounds we all recognize seem like extensions of his own identity.
In the latter half of this decade, West’s ability to marshal all the chaos in and around him seemed to slip; 2016’s The Life of Pablo is intermittently very good, but thin and conspicuously sloppy for long stretches, and 2018’s Ye was mostly dead on arrival. He remains able to command headlines, but has drifted further from the center of music. While his self-impressed affinity for Donald Trump has been a point of tabloid fixation, Jesus Is King, despite raking in impressive raw numbers, feels tangential to what’s happening in rap or pop. But West is, without a doubt, the most over-explained, over-examined rapper of the century, and with good reason: His first decade as a solo artist was among the most consistently impressive 10-year runs in the genre’s history, and the following 10 years have been marked by more incredibly high highs. —Paul Thompson