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.

Complicated Feelings on the 10th Anniversary of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

It literally slipped my mind that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was turning 10 years old until I saw people tweeting about it. And if you’ve followed this website since our early days, you’ll understand how strange that is. Up until around 2017, It’s All Dead’s side project was that of a Kanye West fanzine. And then, well…you know. You live long enough to see yourself become the villain or whatever.

I gritted my teeth as I listed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy at #1 on our 30 Best Albums of the Decade list last year. No matter how bad things have gotten, the fact remains. It’s one of those albums that I vividly remember where I was the first time I heard it. I literally remember my emotions hearing “All of the Lights”, “Monster”, and “Hell of a Life” for the first time. I remember how it was the only thing that mattered to me for a year, or at least until Watch the Throne dropped. It was the magnum opus from an artist that I revered more than anyone.

As a music critic, I’ve written and spoken more words about Kanye West than any other artist. I stopped a few years ago because it felt like there was nothing left to say. And it’s true. I have nothing new to add to the conversation on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy today. I listened to it again as recently as a few weeks ago. I’m torn between the memories of those feelings I felt and the feelings I feel now. It makes the music forever complicated and impossible to parse out.

This summer, I played The College Dropout for my daughter for the first time. She’s much too young to process anything about it, but I pondered aloud how I would talk about the album when she was old enough. Would I be able to articulate how important this artist was to me for a time – to my musical tastes, to my politics, to my life? Would I be able to explain why his seeming abandonment of all of the things that attracted me to him caused me such frustration and anger? Does it even matter?

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is 10 years old, and it’s a shame we can’t celebrate it more. But honestly, we’ve talked about it enough. And there’s enough brilliant art in the world to put our energy into, and I can’t wait to talk about the great music this hell of a year has given us in a few weeks when we release our end-of-the-year lists. Until then, happy anniversary, I guess. Here’s a toast to the douchebag.

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.

Review: Kanye West – The Life of Pablo

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Attempting to review a Kanye West album requires a certain level of detachment. We’re far past a place of simply appraising a body of art – reviewing a Kanye record in 2016 is an all-encompassing exercise in exhausting dialogue and debate about pop culture, social issues, ideological stances, and the purpose of art itself. One may find it wise to leave their baggage at the door before entering the conversation.

As hard as it is to believe, the events surrounding the release of The Life of Pablo, formerly known as Waves, formerly known as SWISH, formerly known as So Help Me God, have been the most explosive and divisive yet. A disturbingly tactless tweet. The leaking of a tasteless lyric that opens old wounds. A fog of confusion surrounding the release itself, leading to larger debates about the rights of an artist and the suspicious motives of the involved parties.

You can stream The Life of Pablo on Tidal.

You can stream The Life of Pablo on Tidal.

As tedious as the ensuing shit storm proved to be, there were several critical conversations in which appropriate voices were elevated, not the least of which included the ongoing debate surrounding misogyny in hip hop, with West standing at ground zero. In the weeks and months to come, those conversations will continue, and some may find it wise to listen far more than they contribute.

Aside from those necessary discourses, two very elemental questions seem appropriate to ask regarding The Life of Pablo. “How good is it?” and “Does it even matter at this point?”

Sonically speaking, The Life of Pablo is one of the most robust and inventive releases we’re likely to hear this year. It’s much too soon to place the album appropriately within Kanye’s discography, but rest assured, Pablo is another rousing chapter in an ongoing career of musical excellence. Although slightly unfocused at times, the record is dense, full of variety, and perhaps unsurprisingly, full of surprises.

In the weeks leading up to its release, West revealed that The Life of Pablo would be a gospel album. While you could certainly argue against the album’s classification as a whole, there’s no denying that this is the latest chapter in a continuing story of the Gospel According to Kanye. Pablo is rife with religious imagery and worship that stands right alongside egotistical rants, sexual exploits and general revelry. Much like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, though, West’s psyche seems to crack and crumble underneath the weight of it all. Those moments of vulnerability once again prove to be Kanye’s most impactful.

The Life of Pablo opens with “Ultra Light Beam” – a track that truly lives up to West’s aforementioned billing, featuring a full gospel choir and even a short sermon from pastor Kirk Franklin. The track is breathtaking from start to finish, as West chooses to let a convoy of voices carry the song. Chance the Rapper is gifted with the spotlight for a full 32 bars, highlighted by the line, “I made ‘Sunday Candy’, I’m never going to hell / I met Kanye West, I’m never going to fail”.

That five-minute primer leads into “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2”, two connected tracks with rich beats and a dazzling chorus from Kid Cudi. It’s here that West first addresses the audience, singing, “Everybody gon’ say something / I’d be worried if they said nothing”. “Pt. 2” finds West sadly connecting his own mistakes with those of his young father. It’s one last sobering dose of reality before a windfall of braggadocio and macho escapism.

“Famous” will certainly be one of the most talked about tracks on Pablo, if only for his cheap Taylor Swift line. Unfortunately, Kanye’s own crudeness overshadows one of the strongest tracks on the record. Swizz Beats lays down a track for the ages, accompanied by a killer chorus from Rihanna. “Feedback” plays out in similar fashion, with a thumping beat that Kanye rides to perfection, spitting, “I been outta my mind a long time / I’ve been saying how I feel at the wrong time / Might not come when you want but I’m on time”.

“Highlights” grooves deep with soaring vocal lines from West, Young Thug and The Dream. It’s another rousing anthem in a string of tracks that make the 18-song album fly by. Repeated listens to this section are required to discover new textures and hidden gems underneath the surface. Whereas Yeezus tested our patience with spacey industrial sounds and grating screeches, Pablo is pleasing to the ear and full of movement without becoming overcrowded or bogged down. Think the poppiest moments of 808s and Heartbreak crossing paths with the thick production of Twisted Fantasy.

As the album makes its final turn, shit gets real. The party comes to an abrupt halt with the startling transition from “Waves” to the minimalist “FML”. In an updated version of “Welcome to Heartbreak”, Kanye reflects on his lifestyle, ego and disruptive behavior yet again, singing, “I been thinking / About my vision / Pour out my feelings / Revealing layers to my soul” right before The Weeknd chimes in with, “I wish I would go ahead and fuck my life up / Can’t let them get to me / And even though I always fuck my life up / Only I can mention me”. It’s a duet of epically broken proportions.

On “Real Friends”, Ye laments the chasm that exists between himself and his friends and family, longing for relationships founded on honesty and trust. The album’s proper ending lies in “Wolves”, a previously performed track that loses a slight amount of its original luster with the loss of Vic Mensa and Sia. This new version still finds West tearing at his inner wolf, ashamed of the thought of his mother discovering how he “turned out.” Newly recruited Frank Ocean now carries the song to its conclusion, sharing in the descent before closing with the poignant line, “Life is precious, we found out”.

The odd addition of five more tracks that do little to add to the album’s overarching themes or sonic direction are somewhat clarified when West declares them to be “bonus tracks” during an ad-lib section near the end of “30 Hours”. Since most were a part of the Good Friday releases leading up to the album, their inclusion here remains odd. If nothing else, we’re treated to a properly mixed version of “No More Parties in L.A.” featuring Kendrick Lamar.

The Life of Pablo is a sprawling epic – one that is perhaps Kanye’s most manic and enigmatic creation and one that’s difficult to digest if you’re sitting in the front row. It’s possible that the record is the least cohesive of West’s career, but as the sum of its parts, it’s another shining example of Kanye’s genius as a producer and engineer of sound. Ye leans heavily on the album’s guests, each of whom are allowed to bring their own personality to the mix. That he once again has managed to orchestrate a project at the center of the hip hop zeitgeist in a way that elevates his own genius is a thing of legend.

Even so, we’re left once more to deal with the aftermath once the record stops spinning. Kanye’s desire for admiration is constantly usurped by a self-fulfilling prophecy in which we, his audience, are supposed to hate him. Upon the release of Yeezus, I discussed the frustration of Kanye apologists who wish nothing more than to validate West in his artistic brilliance, but feel alienated by his cantankerous nature.

Perhaps no artist in recent memory has more openly battled his demons and confessed his sins than Kanye West. His journey of self-deprecation and self-improvement is chronicled throughout all of his work and in countless interviews. Nevertheless, there are still more mountains to climb, none more daunting than that of his continued misogyny. In order for the wound to heal, he’ll have to stop digging deeper, an act that is unfortunately his fatal flaw. How much longer you’re willing to deal with it is a personal decision. Me? I’m still undecided, but The Life of Pablo has me wondering, even as I nod my head to the beat.

4/5

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.