In this post, I would like to expand upon one of the artists I cited in my previous ’10 for 2010’ entry.
It’s fascinating how the perception of contemporary mainstream artists can change so quickly. Despite rave critical reviews and three Grammy awards for Best Rap Album, the general public is now declaring that Kanye West is terrible. He has made some outlandish comments – commandeering the stage at the Video Music Awards is perhaps his most egregious gaffe – but his oeuvre really speaks for itself. Except for Eminem, I cannot name another hip-hop artist emerging in the past decade who has been so consistently interesting in terms of both music and persona.
Persona, of course, is extremely important in popular music. It is sometimes difficult to determine if the artist himself has the primary input on their image or if the image has been manufactured by managers and handlers. In West’s case, I believe it is the former. He has not accomplished this by himself, but he has chosen some very astute collaborators (Takashi Murakami, Jon Brion, Hype Williams, Spike Jonze) to aid him in his creations. West is an auteur, controlling the vision for his persona, much like directors influence the final vision of a film.
While West is firmly rooted in the hip-hop tradition, his work refreshingly goes beyond hip-hop in its outlook. He samples heavily, but from varied sources – the obligatory soul samples to Steely Dan to Daft Punk. These older songs are reconstituted in ways that sound fresh as compositions but are fun for sample spotting as well. West’s videos never fall into hip-hop clichés like slow-motion dancing girls, flashing bling and gang signs, etc. Some, like All Falls Down and Flashing Lights, barely feature West at all.
West is not the most innovative or experimental musician working today, but he is quite progressive for a mainstream artist. He obviously wants to produce popular hit singles, but last year’s album 808s and Heartbreaks shows that he is willing to step out on a limb and create something that may be interesting only to himself. I am hoping that Kanye will keep looking forward; if he can keep his ego in check, he may create some amazing music in the future.