The Musical Journey of Kanye West
A Close Look into Mixes, Influence of Technology and Collaborations.
Over the past twelve years Chicago born rapper Kanye West has been at the top of the music industry, both as an artist and as a producer on songs for other mainstream and underground artists. Seven solo albums and two collaborative albums with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne (2011) and with other artists on his G.O.O.D Music Label, Cruel Summer (2012), have given the public many different sounds and stories from Kanye West, and, with twenty-one Grammys to his name, every project produced has been critically acclaimed.
In this article I want to look more deeply into the musical journey of Kanye West, from his first project the College Dropout (2004) to his most recent The Life of Pablo (2016). In particular I will discuss his mixes, including the influence that technology has had on his music making and on hip hop in general, together with his collaborative process with other artists who have helped to shape his work and sound. Due to the volume of work Kanye has undertaken since 2004, I have limited my mix analysis to three of his seven albums – the first, College Dropout, his fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and one of his most controversial recent works, Yeezus. I have chosen these albums because they show firstly, where he began, secondly, his transition into new ways of making music and thirdly, the position today with the most recent Kanye West material.
Firstly, whilst listening to the mixes of The College Dropout, MBDTF and Yeezus it is clear that there is a method behind the production of each individual track’s sound, showing a consistency over a 12-year span in West’s ability to create a performance. This ranges from his vocals on The College Dropout, which are central and clearly focused on his raps (in tracks like ‘All Falls Down’ or ‘Jesus Walks’), to MBDTF or Yeezus where his vocal can be at times more spread over the stereo image and heavily effected (see for instance ‘All Of The Lights’ and ‘Blood On The Leaves’). Mix engineer David Gibson notes that ‘the concept is a combination of the relationships of each of the other aspects, so it is one of the most important clues to the overall mix style’. The importance of the concept in the overall sound of a mix style is very apparent when listening to Kanye West’s albums.
The College Dropout released in 2004 features much sample use throughout, using acoustic sounds that have a ‘soulful’ feel to them. Each track is also very rap-heavy, incorporating clever lyricism, melodies and harmonies (see ‘All Falls Down’, for example). Kanye’s mindset here is to prove a point to listeners that he has the ability to rap as well as ‘make beats’. The track ‘Last Call’ specifically has Kanye telling his story of how people didn’t think he could rap and could only produce before being signed. In comparison, the mixes on his middle project My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, are a lot wider and more space is filled. The focus is on the layering of lead lines, harmonies and melodies, as opposed to the music being solely a support for Kanye’s raps. An example of this is ‘All Of The Lights’ at 2:30 and ‘Devil In a New Dress’ at 2:49 where Kanye does not feature again from those points. The word ‘fantasy’ here is an insight into what Kanye is trying to do with his mixes, with less emphasis on clean raps and words. Instead we have effected vocal melodies and harmonies, fused together with distorted guitars, strings and more synth sounds (see ‘Hell of a Life’): overall a more complex production for a more complex album concept. Although heavy effects and synths can be heard more frequently in MBDTF, which is an indicative of where Kanye’s music was heading, they are placed in the mix to complement other sounds. By his 2013 project Yeezus these are used a lot more abruptly and aggressively, and at times are extremely haunting. ‘Blood On The Leaves’, for example, starts with piano chords situated left, Kanye’s auto tuned vocal central, effected with reverb creating a soft and sombre atmosphere. However, at around 1:10 as his vocal seems to be getting more and more tense and dynamic horn sounding synths and hard hitting drums suddenly cut through. This technique of dropping out and changing the sound of the overall mix in certain areas is a recurrent feature of Yeezus: Gibson notes that ‘to change the entire mix in a single moment can be shocking. It can blow people’s minds. It can show people that their reality is just an illusion that can change at any moment’. This use of dramatic changes to the mix again mirrors Kanye’s persona ‘concept’ at the time – namely, the random outbursts accompanied by much media controversy during the making of the album.
Looking further into this theory of the ‘concept’ within Kanye West’s work it is also apparent that the ‘sound stage’ is used increasingly dramatically in MBDTF and Yeezus. Instruments and vocals were panned in The College Dropout but were essentially static compared to the moving sounds that are prominent in future albums. Dockwray and Moore’s ‘taxonomy of mixes’ presents certain models for understanding the mix here, such as the ‘Clustered Mix’, ‘Triangle Mix’ and so on. With these three albums there are general similarities regarding bass, vocal and drums/snare positioning – fairly central with other instrumentation panned left and right much in the manner of the standard ‘Diagonal Mix’. The latter ‘identifies the vocals, bass and snare as being on a slight diagonal line in a linear configuration (relative to the vertical axis), with other instruments placed to either side’. This is very much the case on the more straightforward and consistent sounding College Dropout, but while MBDTF and Yeezus share similarities with the latter these albums begin to display more of the ‘Dynamic Mix’. In Dockwray and Moore’s words this refers to ‘tracks where there is some level of movement within the sound-box. This can be created through the use of pan pot devices where a sound source moves laterally; it can correspondingly be created through movement in depth, where a sound becomes softer or changes its reverberation level or treatment’. This is the case on tracks from both albums such as ‘Hold My Liquor’ on Yeezus and ‘All Of The Lights’ on MBDTF. This new use of moving certain sounds to create certain emotions is again possibly linked to showing or portraying a concept to the listener through mixing, but it also links to my next topic regarding the influence of technology on Kanye West’s work.
In recent hip hop there has been a move away from sample-orientated beats and production and a move towards DAW (Digital Audio Workstation) generated synths and drum machines. The erosion of the heavy use of samples in hip hop production may be partly a result of what commentators believe to be the impact of litigation.
Kanye West’s work is a clear example of this departure: for example, compare The College Dropout to Yeezus, or even his works Graduation (2007) and 808s and Heartbreak (2008). Newton highlights the change when he observes that ‘808s & Heartbreak doesn’t rely on an element once pervasive in the genre: samples. The album doesn’t contain any prominent samples, while West’s previous release, Graduation, featured them on 10 of its 13 tracks’. Instead it is clear that synth-based production and a quest for new sounds have played an integral part in Kanye’s recent production approach. This has been catalyzed by artists such as Young Thug and Future, who are currently at the forefront of the genre with their auto tuned vocals and fast tempo beats, as well as producers such as Metro Boomin and Young Chop, who incorporate the new Chicago Drill and Trap styles into their hip hop productions. The latter is characterized by the use of fast paced hi hat rhythms, which we see Kanye use on ‘Blood On The Leaves’, ‘Yeezus’, as well as ‘Waves’ from his most recent album The Life of Pablo, where Young Chop and Metro Boomin are both featured on the production credits for his latest projects, as well as Future and Young Thug, who are both credited for songwriting.
It is also intriguing to point out that one main sample used on The Life of Pablo, found in ‘Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2’, taken from the hit song ‘Panda’ by 19-year-old, up and coming rapper Desiigner from Brooklyn. This sample has within it the new production style influencing hip hop (this was Desiigner’s second ever release as an artist) and shows Kanye embracing the new era of DAW production in hip hop. The death of sampling and rise of DAWs in Hip Hop has brought with it a shift in the sound and also more experimentation. This experimentation is evident in Kanye West’s latest projects where he has not abandoned sample use completely but instead merged it with new approaches. For example, in the track ‘Facts’ from The Life of Pablo he uses a soulful sample, ‘Dirt and Grime’ by Father’s Children as the introduction to the song, as well as the outro, but fills the middle of the song with the DAW synth heavy style and sound. Overall, Kanye’s work has adapted to new styles and new trends when looking at what is ‘in’ when producing a hip hop record but, with this adaptation of style and sound, he still manages to keep his personality intact with his clever ear for a particular sample that works.
Moving onto collaborative work, it is clear that Kanye’s choices of artists for an album have to fit with the particular sound and vision he has in mind. I have already stated in regard to the mixes College Dropout, and his sophomore project Late Registration, that the aim is to make the beat fit around heavy lyrical content and word play. His artist choices thus include artists such as Jay Z, Common, Talib Kweli, Ludarcis and Nas, all known within the genre for their lyrical styles. At the same time Kanye has allowed artists to put their own twist on a record giving an outline or plan then sitting back and letting go. Whilst working on All Falls Down, for example, Syleena Johnson commented ‘he was like “do what you would do” ‘. This approach to collaboration continued on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, for which Kanye had ‘holed up in Hawaii and was importing his favorite producers and artists to work on and inspire his recording’. The list of collaborations for this album is endless, ranging from Elton John and Seal, to Eminem and Rihanna, and is reminiscent of what Bennett calls the ‘Factory Model … defined in part by a regimented timeframe – songwriters “come to work” in the morning’. Thus, much like Kanye’s ability to merge or blur the lines between earlier sample based styles with the new experimental DAW based hip hop, it is the same with his collaborative process. He allows artists as diverse as Chris Martin from Coldplay (on ‘Homecoming’ on Graduation) or Mr Hudson (on ‘Paranoid’ from 808s and Heartbreak) to give their input and then shape it to create music that fits his own style and theirs together: Newton notes that ‘more and more hip-hop artists will likely go the Kanye route and continue to blur the lines of traditional hip-hop’.
Kanye West over the last twelve years has been very outspoken on his individual ideas and theories away from music and this has made the public, in certain quarters, view him as obnoxious. Musically speaking, however, it is quite the opposite in that he has wanted each solo work to be done and be the best it can be. With a constant open-mindedness to collaborating with artists, as well as embracing new technologies and approaches to making music, he has always managed to put his stamp on every track, whether it is an album to prove who he is lyrically as a rapper or to communicate certain feelings towards his audience. The way his mixes over time have become more erratic and spacious is certainly in part due to technological advancements, but it is also symptomatic of his need to express every detail of his artistic thought and persona, Izahki comments that mixing is ‘a sonic presentation of emotions, creative ideas and performance’. The musical journey of Kanye West has been a consistent one in terms of how he has approached his work, letting himself be inspired by others and embracing new ideas, ultimately funneling this into a clear message of what he wants the listener to get out of each album. There is always going to be a debate over preference for the ‘old classic Kanye’ to the ‘new Kanye’, but in essence Kanye has always been himself.