Eras of Influence: 2010-2016 – Kanye West

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This article is part of an ongoing series in which I examine the artists and music that defined specific eras of my life. You can read my previous installment on Underoath, covering the years 2004-2010.

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It’s been nearly a year since I wrote the last installment of my admittedly self-indulgent and meandering Eras of Influence series. They take a lot of time and mental energy to write, and I tend to be lacking in both lately. But if I’m being honest, the series hit an all stop when it came time to write about Kanye West. Even as I type this, I hand-to-God still don’t know what I have left to say at this point.

For a not insignificant portion of time, Kanye West was the most important artist in my life – and in the life of many others. He’s an artist and a figure with no real 1:1 comparison. That’s certainly rare, but it’s also rare for someone to be so convinced of that very fact about themselves that they’ll do anything to ensure that their voice is heard and admired. It’s that unique quality that is Kanye West’s greatest strength, and also his achilles heel.

For the sake of this project, Kanye’s greatest influence in my life falls between the years 2010 and 2016, but as I mentioned in a previous installment, his music entered my ears much sooner. First, as a producer in the late 2000s, then as a rapper in 2004 with the release of his debut solo album, The College Dropout. That album, perhaps more than any other, captures a time and feeling that I can feel viscerally when I put on the album and close my eyes. It’s hard to even call it just an album. It was an experience.

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You can buy or stream My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy on Apple Music

Even so, as my last installment documents, those mid-to-late 2000s years would ultimately be defined by very different sounds and a different artist (Underoath). Kanye’s 2005 follow-up Late Registration was fine, although it was surrounded with some of our early experiences of Kanye with a taste of fame. The resulting 2007 album Graduation, was a pop rap extravaganza, which seemed to lean into all of the trends that bothered me about hip hop at the time, for better or for worse. Like the rest of the world, I wasn’t ready for 808s & Heartbreak, an album that left me scratching my head upon its release in 2008, only to become my favorite Kanye album years later.

And so that brings us to 2010. That fall and winter, I was in the throes of divorce, and it wasn’t pretty. Not only was I living through the hell of that experience, I was also completely alone and nocturnal, working overnight shifts at my job and rarely having meaningful human interactions. In hindsight, it’s almost incredible that I got through it all. But it was amidst that figurative and literal darkness that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy arrived. 

Upon that album’s release, I was asked by my good friend Richard Clark to write a piece for his website at the time, Christ and Pop Culture. I still remember the November night I listened to the album for the first time, and every emotion I felt track-to-track through that hour of excess, extravagance, insanity, beauty, pain, and everything in between. I had never heard anything like it. Nobody had. What was this? To call it rap would be to sell it short, but no other genre fit, either. 

This was something else: The product of someone living in a self-imposed exile in the wake of a great public failure, fully dedicated to creating something so personal, powerful, and incredible that it would win everyone back over. It worked. It was one of the most visionary artists of his time creating his masterpiece. A dark, introspective album arriving at exactly the most dark and introspective period of my life. 

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy caused me to re-examine and re-evaluate those previous albums. Suddenly, Late Registration, Graduation, and 808s & Heartbreak each sounded revolutionary in their own right. During this stretch of time, I undoubtedly listened to more Kanye West than almost every other artist combined. It was a lock that Kanye would top my annual Spotify Wrapped charts as the most listened-to artist.

Kanye’s penchant for experimentation and genre-blending mirrored, or perhaps even influenced, my own musical tastes at the time. In the early 2010s, new and exciting artists began emerging from unexpected channels like SoundCloud and YouTube. I became obsessed with anything that felt like it was stretching my understanding of traditional pop music structures or trends. In particular, The Weeknd and Frank Ocean – artists undoubtedly influenced by Kanye’s work at the time – became personal favorites and artists I couldn’t wait to share with anyone who would listen.

That dark winter of 2010 gave way to the light and warmth of the summer of 2011. My divorce was finalized and in the rear-view mirror. I was no longer working overnight shifts. I was hanging out with friends again, writing about music, and about to meet someone new. Kanye and Jay-Z’s collaborative Watch the Throne took a decidedly different and more celebratory tone, serving as a great soundtrack for my climb back up the other side of the valley. 

The following year, Kanye’s Cruel Summer compilation provided the background music to my life in a new city, with new friends, and an exciting engagement. In 2013, I wrote about Yeezus and my initial struggles with yet another new version of Kanye, even if the album itself was once again unlike anything we’d heard before (or since). It was that article that sparked a lunch invite from a curious co-worker who would become one of my closest friends. A year later, we’d find ourselves nerding out on a podcast for the recently-launched It’s All Dead, ranking all of Kanye’s albums.

If you came to our site back in those days, you could almost call it a Kanye West fanzine. I don’t have to go back and count to tell you that more words have been written and words spoken about Kanye West on our site and podcast than any other artist over the years. But it would soon become not so fun.

To follow Kanye in recent years has been an exercise in exhaustion, frustration, disgust, and sadness. Sure, there have been some good moments, like seeing him in concert for the first time in 2016 or singing Kid Cudi’s opening chorus of “Father Stretch My Hands, Pt. 1” at the top of my lungs that entire summer. But the rest…well, you already know the rest. And that’s what has made this so hard to write. I’ve said my piece multiple times over at this point. The days of Kanye West residing at the epicenter of my interests are well in the past. And it’s hard to imagine that ever changing.

Earlier this year, Coodie Simmons released jeen-yus, a Netflix documentary largely filled with unseen footage from Kanye’s early days as he scrapped and clawed his way to relevance amidst a music industry that had no belief in him. A lot of the scenes were jaw-dropping, like seeing Kanye play beats for Mos Def and Talib Kweli in a car or drop by Pharrell’s studio to play him “Through the Wire”. There were genuine moments of joy in that documentary that reminded me of everything I loved.

But sadly, the documentary’s closing chapters zoomed in on all of the things that have pushed myself and so many others away. As a fellow human being fighting my own demons, I hope Kanye gets the help he needs and finds a real kind of redemption. For now, those high moments don’t hit quite the same as they used to. I still put on Kanye from time-to-time, and there are moments when I can transport myself back to when things weren’t so cloudy and broken. And those are good feelings to hold onto, I guess.

Second Tier: The Weeknd, Frank Ocean, The 1975, CHVRCHES, The Wonder Years

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple pop culture outlets and was previously an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife, daughter, and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.

Reflecting On: Kanye West – Graduation

Graduation could easily be considered the weakest of Kanye West’s seven solo albums. That should tell you something about the music of Kanye West. When I want to sit and solemnly reflect on what it means to be a creative human being while wrestling with inner demons, I listen to Kanye’s masterpiece: My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. When I have a house party and want to turn the vibe to 11, I throw on Graduation. That should also tell you something about the music of Kanye West.

Graduation is an album meant to be heard en masse, blasted through arena speakers. This is not Kanye’s strong suit. Nevertheless, Graduation is the best example we have of what an arena rap album would sound like, and the unlikely guiding light that provided inspiration for a new generation of hip hop artists.

The most common narrative attached to Graduation is that it hammered the final nail into the gangsta rap coffin. This is true. I, like you, purchased Graduation instead of 50 Cent’s Curtis on September 11, 2007, putting an end to the final gasps of a subgenre that had served a great purpose. In truth, gangsta rap had already received its notice by the time The College Dropout hit shelves in 2004, but because of the faux 50/Kanye beef, Graduation will always be remembered in this way.

But for true fans of Kanye West, this new album was more than just a cultural statement – it was a complete transition from the soul-inspired, backpack rap that permeated his first two records. Graduation is a frenzied party thrown by its creator in celebration of the fame and attention rightly garnered by those first two albums. Graduation is a true pop album, and as such, it includes the best and worst parts of the genre.

When Graduation is at its best, it allows us to roll down the windows, turn up the volume, and lose ourselves in indulgence and excitement (“Stronger”, “Good Life”). When Graduation is at its most thoughtful, it finds Ye digging at shortcomings that would spill into the heavy subject matter of 808s & Heartbreak and Fantasy (“Can’t Tell Me Nothing”). At its worst, Graduation devolves into reckless, nonsensical revelry and braggadocio (“Barry Bonds”, “Drunk and Hot Girls”).

With the hindsight of four more groundbreaking solo albums and a lifetime’s worth of controversy and public scrutiny, Graduation appears in a much different light than it did a decade ago. It’s a collection of songs by a man desperate for attention and adoration. It is also a collection of songs by a genius who began to show early signs of an unparalleled ability to tap into the in-the-moment cultural zeitgeist. Graduation was the perfect sound for 2007 – something that is somehow even more obvious when reflecting on it today.

As a pop album, Graduation excels in terms of electrifying production. As a Kanye West album, it finds ways to poke through the strobe lights and inflict us with conundrums. On the opening lines of the bass and synth-heavy “Flashing Lights”, Ye raps, “She don’t believe in shooting stars / But she believe in shoes and cars”. This is a clever nod to an old country song by Don Williams and a hilarious callback to West’s breakthrough smash “Gold Digger”. It is also an indictment on Kanye’s sometimes-fickle fan base.

Throughout Graduation, West creates these moments of sublime juxtaposition, forcing us to involuntarily dance as he wryly drops knowledge. When he turns trivial, well, who cares when the beats are hot? If an album like Fantasy is a lesson in picking up the pieces and evaluating one’s life journey, Graduation is the killer party full of dumb or embarrassing moments that still taught us a thing or two. Moreover, many of the album’s most frivolous themes take on a new light when dissected through the lens of Yeezus.

I guess what I’m saying is that I’m glad we have Graduation, with its Daft Punk production, goofy artwork, T-Pain autotune, silly rhymes, and fleeting moments of brilliance. I’m happy because it’s a time capsule that marks a shift in our understanding of hip hop in the mainstream conversation. I’m happy because it continued an unlikely sonic progression in Ye’s career that persists to this day. But I’m mostly happy because it’s a hell of a lot of fun to listen to, even 10 years later.

by Kiel Hauck

kiel_hauckKiel Hauck is the editor in chief at It’s All Dead. Over the past decade, he has been a contributor for multiple online and print publications and was most recently an editor at PopMatters. Kiel currently resides in Indianapolis, IN with his wife and their imaginary pet, Hand Dog. You can follow him on Twitter.