Top 100 Artists of the Decade: #40 Kanye West
The Top 100 Artists of the Decade list will be posted over the course of 100 days. On September 23rd, we will post one artist and continue every day until December 31st, when we will unveil our #1 artist of the decade!
Please read our introduction to learn about our nominating and ordering process.
#40 Kanye West
I always find it interesting, the transition from childhood to adulthood, and the choices we make as to what career paths that we are going to forge. Somewhere between our senior year of high school and our second year of college (assuming that’s the path one has forged), we are expected to make a large, very abstract decision: what the fuck are we going to do with our lives. That very strange transition period truly reveals the person that we’ve become. Am I a risk taker? Am I conservative? Am I a leader? That decision doesn’t necessarily define you as a person, but the initial instinct reveals a ton about the person’s character. It’s in this light, that I find Kanye West so refreshing and in the end have so much respect for the man he’s become today.
As society would have it, the right thing to do upon high school graduation is to immediately enroll in college and have a general idea brewing somewhere in the subconscious of what you’d ultimately like to pursue, career-wise, and Kanye was no different. He enrolled at Chicago State University and was well on his way to making his mama, Donda West—a single mother—proud. But he was just going through the motions. What mama didn’t know was exactly just how wrapped up in music production little Kanye really was. What started out as making mix tapes for his friends, led into mixing samples and eventually working those samples with his own drum tracks and keyboard sections. Working with local artists in the Chicago area and building a small name for himself, eventually gaining the ear of Chicago production legend and longtime Common beat-miner, NO ID.
His big break came when Jay-Z got a hold of some of his tracks and invited him to add to The Blue Print album. The result? Production on 2001 chart and radio burner, "Izzo (H.O.V.A)", which later became a summer anthem and the obvious lead single on the album and eventually hit # 8 on the Billboard singles chart. Can you imagine? That’s like a rookie doing well enough in the minor leagues to get called up to the bigs, and smacks a home run his first time at the plate and never looks back. The rest is history.
As a result, Kanye was given the green light from Roc-A-Fella Records to move forward with his own conception, The College Dropout. But every good story needs a setback, right? On the night of October 23, 2002, in Los Angeles, on his way back from the studio producing a track for label mate--and periodic rival--Beanie Siegal, Kanye nearly lost his life when he was cut off and veered into oncoming traffic. But leave it to a man like Kanye—fearless and full of fire—to turn tragedy into triumph. With his jaw surgically reconstructed and wired shut, he had the vision for a song using the Chaka Khan sample “Through the Fire” to spit a few verses "Through the Wire" which tells the story of the event. Genius.
The result of The College Dropout session is equal parts prodigious and as it is forgettable. However, scorching tracks like “School Spirit” and “Slow Jamz” (featuring Jamie Fox), and “Jesus Walks” were enough to quell the naysayers, even those within the Roc-A-Fella camp that doubted his lyrical and stylistic approach. But for me, all I needed was the second verse on “School Spirit”. Give it a listen; his vocal delivery and last syllable annunciation on each bar make it apparent that he had his own style, and it was fire. Honestly though, lyrically, it’s nothing special, but hey, it’s his first album, give the man a minute.
An artist’s sophomore release is often thought of as their “make or break” point, either they move forward with the same confidence that propelled them to pitch a project in the first place, or fall victim to the detrimental musings and harsh criticisms of their peers and media. But just like anything else, with both time and dedication and turning a deaf ear to the bullshit, a craft is perfected, and Kanye’s second album, Late Registration is a testament to that ethos. The production, the lyrics, the delivery, everything are well-seasoned and are indicative of an artist that feels comfortable “moving through a room full of no’s”. From start to finish, a solid album, particularly tracks “We Major” which features a blazing verse from Nas, “Celebration”, and “Gone” which features a looping vocal sample from Otis Redding’s “It’s Too Late”. If it was up to me, and I wrote for The Source magazine, I’d give it five-mics, hands down.
Kanye’s follow up Graduation was released among a media circus hyped by the strategic release that paralleled 50 Cent’s The Massacre. In a brilliant PR campaign, both MC’s agreed to “retire” if the other had more first week record sales. The result was a record week in sales that saw Graduation hit over 950,000. Needless-to-say, Kanye won that bet and of course, 50 didn’t call it a day. But genius marketing tactics aside, Graduation picks up right where Late Registration left off without missing a step. Lyrically, he’s more confident and stylistically, he’s found his groove. His wordplay and metaphors, something that he’d been criticized for in the past about being shallow and thin, are fearless, and it comes through.
Where Kanye’s career will go from here is anyone’s guess, but we can safely assume, that it will truly be his, and he will love it, even if you don’t. Kanye is Kanye’s biggest fan, and because of that, so am I. Love him or hate him, he makes you feel something, and that, friends, is what sells records.
Check back tomorrow for the next artist! To see the full list of the Top 100 Artists of the Decade, click here.