COLUMN: West Of Nazareth
The Transfiguration Of A Producer-Turned-Rapper
Published: Wednesday, October 9, 2013
Updated: Thursday, October 10, 2013 15:10
John Legend, Big Sean, Lupe Fiasco, and now Pusha T—through Kanye all things were made.
“He’s a jackass,” President Barack Obama said.
“Kanye West is a child of social networking and hip-hop,” Lou Reed of the Velvet Underground said.
“He called me a racist,” former President George Bush said, “and I didn’t appreciate it then. I don’t appreciate it now.”
West is an interrupter—at award shows and elsewhere. To an ungodly degree, this man has tortured and sabotaged his own career, continually attempting to make himself unintelligible to the masses. He’s our self-declared “Socrates,” this mysterious, offending character, redefining inappropriate—saying that he himself is Christ the King—the new god of the Old Testament, laying waste to own his creation, so to renew it.
How did the college dropout—turned sound engineer, turned producer, turned rapper, turned media icon, turned controversy, turned anti-celebrity, turned father—move from “Jesus Walks” to “I Am A God?”
For Kanye so-loved rap music, he changed it entirely.
West is a self-proclaimed “architect” and “world–builder,” a son of Chicago and the civil rights movement, his father a former Black Panther and his mother an English professor. “At the tender age of six she was arrested for the sit in,” raps Kanye of his mother Donda West. “With that in my blood, I was born to be different.”
In the beginning was the man. Kanye started producing at age 18 for little-known Chicago rapper Grav on Down To Earth. At age 20, he dropped out of Chicago State University to further pursue this career in music, struggling to establish himself through these smaller, local projects—until 2000, when West made his first break, landing a job as producer with Rock-A-Fella Records.
Through Rock-A-Fella, West proved his hand steady as the genius behind the drafting of Jay-Z’s 2001 record The Blueprint. The 24-year-old Chicago native’s work with the Brooklyn hip-hop magnate stands as a first miracle in what would prove an extensive hip-hop ministry.
Conflating the cool of Jay-Z drug-dealer-turned-rap-mogul persona with a bubbly hook sampling The Jackson 5’s “I Want You Back,” The Blueprint’s “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” broke in at No. 8 on the Billboard charts. West was the author of this new sound, this radical departure from the canned beats of conventional rap saturating record shelfs at the time. West’s early innovation was in breaking the insularity of a genre, infusing the grandiosity of Motown into the mainstream, seeing to the expansions of hip-hop’s horizons.
Kanye’s emergence as a rapper was seemingly by act of God. Falling asleep at the wheel of his Lexus driving home from a marathon studio session, the producer almost literally worked himself to death in October of 2002. From his hospital bed, he wrote “Through the Wire,” three weeks later recording the single with his jaw still wired shut from injury—this miraculous story thrusted West into the national radar, and bubble wrapped his first record, The College Dropout, with studio approval.
“If I talk about God my record won’t get played,” raps West in “Jesus Walks,” the third single off Dropout ironically played around the country, peaking at No. 11 on the Hot 100.
It was a long road out of Eden for West, who seemingly had a divine hand directly in his superstardom. Days after the release of his second album, Late Registration, West stirred a nation in September of 2005, declaring in the wake of Hurricane Katrina that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” And in 2009, West made national headlines again after interrupting pop singer Taylor Swift as she received her first VMA. Controversy laid waste to West’s record sales. In 2010, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—which has received the most critical acclaim of his work—sold less than each of his four albums before it.
Of course, the irony of West’s “decline” was he was outselling near everyone as it was happening. During this period, the Chicago rapper was supernova, energized by implosion.
Why can’t West stay down? The more unlikable he comes across as a person, the more irresistible he grows as an icon.
The Kanye West DNA is that of a producer—he just happened to be one of the best rappers of a generation. In 2013, West is outshining his mentor Jay-Z, but not because of his work as a rapper. He’s produced three of the year’s most important hip-hop albums: his album Yeezus, John Legend’s Love in the Future, and now Pusha T’s My Name is My Name—the only one he wasn’t executive producer on was his own.
His place and position in history is that he will go down as the voice of this generation, of this decade. He will be the loudest voice—or so this is what he says about himself.
If you bother to believe him, maybe the god claim isn’t too far off either.