The Evolution of Kanye West: From Backpacker To Rap Pioneer
By Kiani Belgrave
We are witnessing a new era of one of rap's most iconic figures, Kanye Omari West.
On Thursday (July 22), Kanye West held an awe-inspiring event in support of his long-awaited 10th studio album, Donda. The project acts as a full-circle moment for West. Dedicated to his mother, Donda West. The rapper's late mother's voice is heard on the intro of the moving track "Southern California."
"What made the project extra special to me is, I got a chance to share not only what [Kanye] meant to me, but what he has meant to a generation."
The prolific rapper has been an undeniable influence on an entire generation, becoming one of the most influential figures in hip-hop history. West is a gatekeeper and curator of youth culture. Credited as a significant influence for some of today's younger acts, West is the epitome of student becoming teacher. Recruiting some of the industry's most talented newcomers, including Baby Keem, Playboi Carti, Travis Scott, Lil Baby, Lil Durk, Roddy Rich, and Pop Smoke. Ending the album with his "big brother," Jay-Z, Donda is Kanye West's redemption project.
Kanye West has constantly reinvented himself throughout his career. Starting as an in-house producer for Roc-A-Fella Records, crafting 5 tracks off of Jay-Z's 2001 album, The Blueprint, Jay-Z's first top 10 single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A)." From that moment, there was no looking back.
Kanye knew that he wanted to be more than Jay-Z's producer. Kanye says that he always producing with the intention of becoming a rapper. West started recording his 2004 debut album, College Dropout, in 1999, crafting countless beats and beginning the writing process between sessions at Roc-a-Fella.
A student of the game, recruiting some of his biggest influences for his first album, from Common, Talib Kweli, Mos Def, and Jay-Z. Kanye West put a spin on what was considered "backpack rap," stating himself as the "first nigga with a Benz and a backpack" West has always addressed his issues with materialism and hedonism while trying to stay on the straight and narrow.
Just a year later, Kanye would put out his second studio album, Late Registration. By this time, it was apparent that West was here to stay. Not only did Kanye drop his biggest single to date with "Gold Digger." But West upped the ante on production, features, and bars making the album an audio masterpiece.
Kanye credits Q-Tip and A Tribe Called Quest as a major influence on his rapping and production style. His interpolation of soul music and R&B has been an aspect of every one of his musical projects. Starting with his chipmunk-soul style sampling to eventually start to sing more and more on each project.
West can be credited as the sole influence for the new generation to completely ditch the conventional rapping style, leaning more on melodic inflections and 808s. Beginning with his polarizing album, 808s and Heartbreak, where the rapper croons throughout the project over speaker rumbling 808s beats all while using autotune as an instrument, perfectly harmonizing with synths and piano chords.
This was the first time we saw Kanye go so far left, critics, questioning if the album could even be considered rap.
Well, maybe it isn't rap music. But it for damn sure is still hip-hop.
Kanye West is unapologetically transparent on the record. Battling topics of unrequited love, heartbreak, and the insecurities and depression that come with it. This may be the earliest example of emo-rap that is at the forefront of popular music to this day. 808s and Heartbreak are credited as a major influence on new school rappers like Juice Wrld and Lil Uzi Vert.
"I love [the album] 808's changed my life; it made me want to feel," Lil Uzi said in an interview with Hot 97. In the same interview, Peter Rosenberg acknowledges the disconnect that the album had with the older, more traditional hip-hop fans. "Most adults said, 'this shit sucks, I don't ever want to hear this from Kanye West again' the kids were all like, 'this is finally the Kanye West I've been waiting for."
Throughout the years, Kanye became an undeniable influence on youth culture.
Via his fashion choices and introduction of his Adidas sneaker collaboration, Yeezy, and constant reinvention of himself, Kanye became a significant influence on artists that came after him.
Noticing the power he had as a pioneer, Kanye would break some of today's biggest acts, starting with his protege, Cleveland rapper, Kid Cudi, who took Kanye's emo-rap style to new heights, with his melodic rap style and infectious humming that forces the listener to feel every emotion he is laying down on any song.
The two released their critically acclaimed collaboration project, Kids See Ghost, which transcended the genre even more, as it tackled subjects like depression and mental health. Kids See Ghost is an emotional rollercoaster, as it goes from melancholy to truly triumphant towards the tail end of the album.
Kanye has an undeniable influence on rap's current golden child, Travis Scott. Scott sounds can be narrowed down to a futuristc 808s and Heartbreak. With his use of spacy synths and mesmerizing his autotuned vocals, Scott is the poster child of post-Kanye West hip-hop. His name literally derives from Kid Cudi's government name, Scott Mescudi. Travis Scott is a direct product of Kanye's influence.
With the release of Donda, we see Kanye move into another era. This time revisiting all of the aspects that make him the prolific artist he has become over the years. This album is gospel, emotional, and per-usual, authentically Kanye West.
Kanye is one of the most celebrated musical artists of the 21st century because of his constant ability to reinvent himself. And we are excited to see what he has in store next.