Kanye West is, according to Atlantic writer David Samuels, “America’s Mozart”. At first, this label seems deliberately provocative, but his high critical praise is far from the insane ranting of a single zealot. West’s work has received canonisation from critics in a manner previously almost unknown to rap music. West’s albums, from the chipmunk-soul of The College Dropout to the proggy excesses of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—to say nothing of Yeezus’ Dadaistic skronk—all sit in the back catalogue of one of the most critically acclaimed artists currently working. But why is there such love for the man, who United States President Barack Obama famously called “a jackass?”
Part of West’s unique appeal to both hipsters and hip-hop fans can be found in his synthesis of a wide variety of musical influences, including hip-hop, electronic music, soul, orchestral music, and, importantly, a heavy influence from art-rock. Whilst West’s lyrical themes of insecurity and introspection are often discussed as a major influence on a whole new generation of rappers (notably Drake), his use of the album as a cohesive work in the rock tradition has had a large influence on experimental, critically adored works like Danny Brown’s Old (which is divided into two contrasting “sides” like David Bowie’s Low) and Kendrick Lamar’s Good Kid, M.A.A.D City (a full-on concept album). This isn’t to say that before West there weren’t hip-hop albums considered to be great art (see Illmatic and Enter the Wu-Tang), but rather to say that West has created a world where Brown can cite Love’s Forever Changes and Radiohead‘s Kid A as influences, while featuring samples from This Heat and Gong on his records.
The Unique Grooves of the Album Format
West’ albums tie into how we perceive the long-playing (LP) record and its place in popular culture. As the musicologist Richard Osborne writes in his Vinyl: A History of the Analogue Record, “Our idea of what constitutes a classic long-form recording remains tied to the aesthetics of the 12” vinyl disc” (Vinyl: A History Of The Analogue Record, London: Ashgate, 2012). It is, then, important to look at the history of the long-playing album and how it relates to popular music being taken seriously; that is, as high art and not a disposable pop trinket.
Key to this is the understanding of rock as more than just the sound of distorted guitars, but also as a discourse surrounding what music is. As the musicologist Keir Keightley puts it:
The idea of rock involves a rejection of those aspects of mass-distributed music which may be dismissed as worthless ‘pop’—the very opposite of rock. Instead, the styles, genres and performers that are thought to merit the name ‘rock’ must be seen as serious, significant and legitimate in some way. (“Reconsidering Rock”, in The Cambridge Companion to Pop and Rock, New York: Cambridge University Press, 2001, 109)
In the history of the LP, one of the most important issues is that of audience. The long-playing record (33 1/3 rotations per minute, or RPMs) was originally intended to be used mainly for classical music, which was listened to by generally male and definitely white adults with expendable income who would listen closely to the music on a well-maintained, expensive home hi-fi system. The pop single (45 RPMs), by contrast, was mixed in mono for radio, inexpensive speaker systems, and large groups of people. Pop music sold and dated quickly; it was considered to be an ephemeral teenage thrill. Crucially, the quick turnover of the pop single compared to the supposedly “timeless” classical works, saw pop music regarded as a more commercial, and therefore less authentic form, as it was seen to be corrupted less by the ever-changing tides of commerce. Significantly, a large amount of the music that followed classical onto the LP was the increasingly bohemian and “adult” music of jazz and folk.
As pop musicians started making use of the format, it was to follow a successful single with something more substantial for fans to spend their money on, essentially so the record company and the artist could make more money. The record would consist of a few original songs bolstered with a few covers to fill it out. However, as art-schooled British Invaders (the Rolling Stones, the Who, and the Beatles) sought to distance themselves from the idea of teenage rock ‘n’ roll and its reliance on singles, they began to work on albums as unique, standalone works. These art-schooled rockers attached ideas they had learned from art and philosophy, applying them to the formerly teenaged rock ‘n’ roll form as they started to make the case that rock ‘n’ roll was more than just entertainment; it was a way of life, and a means of art. This accompanied a decreased use of R&B covers and an increase in original songs; albums like the Beatles’ Rubber Soul (1965) and the Rolling Stones’ Aftermath (1966) feature entirely self-written songs.
With this, albums ceased to simply collect together a mish-mash of unrelated songs. They were instead written to work together as a unified whole, with the tracks sequenced into a suitable order—clearly inherited from the pacing of the classical symphony—often featuring an overarching mood or feel. A key development was the decision to issue identical albums featuring the same tracklisting worldwide, notably the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. LPs ceased to be a collection of songs recorded for an album, essentially acting as an advert for the band or artist’s tour, and instead became a “work” unto themselves. This shift in focus can clearly be seen in the Beatles’ move away from live performances to focusing on studio compositions. It took a single day to record Please Please Me; by contrast, it took 700 hours to finalize Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.
This move from rock ‘n’ roll to rock is thoroughly entwined with the development of the counterculture and the New Left. Previously, the soundtrack to bohemia had been jazz (especially for the Beats) or the folk revival, with many of the bands of the psychedelic period having backgrounds in these genres. The Byrds typified this move: ex-folkies writing tracks like “Eight Miles High”, a psychedelic track heavily influenced by John Coltrane. Gradually, a shift occurred in how popular music saw itself, with “serious” rock music emerging along with the use of the album format and pop remaining with the single format. Rock fans and musicians considered their music to be superior, authentic, and implicitly unlike pop, which was tainted by its appeal to commerce and the mass market in its need to satisfy the ever-hungry hit machine. As Keightley writes: “‘authentic’ designates those music, musicians, and musical experiences seen to be direct and honest, uncorrupted by commerce, trendiness, derivativeness, a lack of inspiration and so on” (“Reconsidering Rock”, 131).
The rock/pop divide, then, is established through authenticity that aligns according to format, with rock musicians taking the album, and pop musicians the single. As “progressive” artists experimented with the album format, many began to work on longer songs that eschewed the three-minute runtime of the pop single, and tracks like the 12-minute “The End” by the Doors became common. Eventually, many artists felt restricted by the roughly 50 minute playing time of the LP, and expanded into releasing “double albums” that would often feature notable sprawl and experimentation/ The excesses of “album rock” are perhaps found in Yes’ notoriously bloated Tales From Topographic Oceans, featuring four songs over two vinyl records.
Signifiers of Seriousness: Kanye West, Sampling, and the Album
The birth of the canonical long-playing album has been hugely important to Kanye West. The strength of West’s albums has defined him as a critic’s darling, and the importance of “the great album” format allows West to join in on a kind of “rock” authenticity and seriousness. This shows that while post-countercultural music critics might be listening to dance music and hip-hop, the philosophy of rock-influenced seriousness remains.
West’s works, particularly My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the experimental Yeezus, show heavy influence from the established format of “the album”. In fact, the former shows how deeply he is influenced by the ideas of his rock forbears. With My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, he released a sprawling prog-sampling record, in part to atone for his public indiscretions (notably, “Taylorgate”) whilst holed away in Hawaii.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy features songs with long instrumental passages, often featuring expressive solos, unusual song structures, experiments with “shocking” technology, and large arrangements with choirs and orchestras. On top of this, West heavily references “progressive” artists, as he samples a Mike Oldfield song (famous for his Tubular Bells) that features Yes singer Jon Anderson, as well as King Crimson, Manfred Mann’s Earth Band and ‘60s psychedelic bands like the Turtles and the Mojo Men. Together, these become signifiers of seriousness.
West’s rock-indebted moves run deeper in his career as his musical compass has veered across his discography. The soul-sampling The College Dropout (2004) is followed by the neo-baroque Late Registration (2005), the house-influenced Graduation (2007), and the auto-tuned breakup album 808s and Heartbreak (2008). These are quite unusual moves for a hip-hop artist, closer to the art-rock alienation devices of Bowie or Radiohead.
But while Yeezus and The College Dropout are phenomenal albums, they are also as radically different as Radiohead’s early work is to their later work. West’s changing musical nature clearly reflects what Keir Keightley calls “modernist authenticity”:
Modernism believed that the true artist must break with the past… By rejecting the current state of things in favour of the new, the different and the radical, Modernism produced an implicit political critique of society as it was at that moment. (“Reconsidering Rock”, 136)
Musicians, then, use ideas of “experimentation and progress”, “recorded-ness”, “celebrating technology”, and “radical or sudden stylistic change” in a way of showing their difficult (read: non-pop) artistic nature. We can begin to see West’s musical career as heavily influenced by a litany of art-rock acts as well as hip-hop, as he continually challenges his audience with unexpected and experimental works. Yeezus was somewhat of a commercial flop, but it topped critics’ best-of lists worldwide, prominently featuring the “celebration” of technology such as auto-tune, samplers, and synths.
Artists who have shown Keightley’s “modernist authenticity” have often started out as guitar-bass-drums “rock” bands who have later decided to dedicate themselves to the studio whilst embracing Miles Davis, Krautrock, dub reggae, and Steve Reich, and declaring themselves to be communal production collectives. We see this in groups like Primal Scream, Radiohead, Wilco, and the Flaming Lips, among others. The albums produced by bands in this stage are often their most critically acclaimed works (e.g. Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Flaming Lips’ The Soft Bulletin) and show Keightley’s ideas of “recorded-ness”, “celebrating technology” and “radical or sudden stylistic change”.
West’s experimental tendencies have only got stronger over time, probably as he wrestles with his own guilt complex over his own success. Yeezus is an album unlike anything else in the hip-hop canon; it starts with harsh synthesiser noise bleeding into lo-fi acid hip-hop and, eventually, a surreal jump to a warped gospel choir. Yeezus takes influence from far outside hip-hop, embracing industrial, post-dubstep bass music, and dancehall reggae. West also collaborates with everyone from French house superstars to soul legends. The way that West follows his own musical course while refusing to simply give in to what his audience might want is a classic “serious musician” move which in itself was adapted from the artistic tradition and the romanticised idea of the author-genius. Yeezus clearly places itself as a successor to the great albums.
With West tapping into the vein of the European art tradition (from which modernism stems), he makes a provocative statement about black artists and the way their music is weighted culturally. Music criticism does not exist in a vacuum, and it is still heavily influenced by the writers who started the form. Our ideas of originality and artistry, then, tend to favour white male artists, with it being hard to be taken seriously as a black artist—until seemingly your music is retrospectively reappraised by a white audience. West’s music reads as both “black” and “art”; that is, his music is uncompromisingly “of the street” and “experimental” at the same time. Through our Eurocentric vision, where the forefathers and originators of rock ‘n’ roll (Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Bo Diddley) are often seen as “the people that inspired the Beatles and the Stones” and are generally the people who made a lot less money than the white artists they inspired, West ensures that his music is taken seriously as well as being seen as music that is uncompromisingly hip-hop. Yeezus’s “Hold My Liquor” is the perfect example of this, as it features Chicago drill rapper Chief Keef, indie-folk icon Bon Iver, and production from avant-electronic weirdo Arca. West manages to create a hybrid music that takes influence from contemporary hip-hop, indie rock, and artful weirdness.
Kanye West’s Predecessors in Challenging the Form
West’s music continues in a long line of African-American musicians who have used elements of art music and modernist experimentation to create music that was in some way “shocking” and “experimental”, but clearly far from the simple caricatures of minstrelsy. In Ted Gioia’s The History Of Jazz, he describes how ragtime composer Scott Joplin, frustrated with the limitations of ragtime as well as “the lowbrow reputation of the rag idiom”, wrote Treemonisha, an ambitious opera that combined ragtime with Western art music (History Of Jazz, New York: Oxford University Press, 2011, 12). The musicologist Richard Middleton relates in his Musical Belongings the story of Duke Ellington, who early in his career played in “Harlem’s Cotton Club, where black dancers and musicians performed for all-white audiences, against a “jungle” decor”. Ellington, like Joplin, “was intensely serious about his music, rejecting the ‘jazz’ label and claiming that African-American musical forms ‘are as much an art medium as are the most profound works of the famous classical composers’” (“Musical Belongings: Western Music and its Low Other”, in Western Music And Its Others First Edition, London: University Of California Press, 2000, 71).
The entire bebop movement thrived on its self-conscious difficulty. Leroi Jones (later Amiri Baraka) argues in his Blues People that bebop was a “willfully harsh, anti-assimilationist sound” that was in direct contrast to swing which he believed “sought to involve the black culture in a platonic social blandness that would erase it forever” (Blues People, New York: Morrow Quill Paperbacks, 1999, 181). According to Jones, bebop was music “that seemed antagonistically nonconformist… ‘if you don’t like it, don’t listen,’ was the attitude” (Blues People, 23). By using complex harmony, chromaticism, and technical virtuosity, beboppers like Charlie Parker were able to use signifiers of high art to show their music was something that couldn’t be dismissed as worthless.
As musical forms like ragtime (for Joplin) big band jazz (for Ellington) and swing (for the beboppers) become popular, black musicians state their importance as serious artists and use the language of modernism to escape “mere” mass culture. Through uses of “Western” musical codes of “experimentation” and “seriousness”, many African-American musicians have challenged accepted musical practice and used aspects of music that are canonically accepted as “complex” so as not to be dismissed in derogatory terms like “jungle music”. This firmly ties back to the ideas of art-inspired “rock” musicians looking to be taken seriously as something more than just “pop” musicians.
With West’s own art-school background as well as his love and understanding of art-rock, his music is self-consciously challenging. He demands to have his music seen as more than just “mere” hip-hop. As he stated in his interview with Zane Lowe, “We culture. Rap the new rock ‘n’ roll… We the rockstars. We the real rockstars and I’m the biggest of all of ‘em. I’m the biggest on the planet” (Web interview with Zane Lowe). West wants hip-hop to be taken seriously, as seriously as the rock musicians and artists he takes influence from.
However, West doesn’t want to abandon hip-hop, or water it down to fit a more bourgeois audience. Instead, he wants to create stunningly provocative hip-hop that is also difficult, serious, and artful. West wants to challenge his audience and change how they perceive hip-hop as an art form.
West’s music aims to build a world where Chief Keef, a rapper from Chicago’s troubled gangland, is as important as Aphex Twin and Radiohead. He wants to make music that is unapologetically hip-hop while being as “progressive” as a litany of well-regarded white musicians. West wishes to challenge African-American culture’s “otherness” that sees its position as a legitimate culture withheld, its complexities misunderstood and its fans demonised.
Lingering racist ideology still exists in cultural understanding as it interprets hip-hop. By combining codes from music that is already understood as “great” or “serious”, West challenges the extant understanding of African-American music as primitive. This comes at a time when conservatives use the existence of a black president in the United States to argue that “racism is over”, that we now live in post-racial society. In direct response to this, West shows the power of racial inequality still present in popular culture and in society overall.