The Life, Death, and Resurrection of Kanye West
It’s been fourteen years since the release of the mercurial Kanye West’s debut LP, The College Dropout. Ever since, he has produced prolific album sales, global cultural appeal, and undeniable influence on the apparel industry. Yet, the recording artist, who graced the cover of TIME Magazine’s “The 100 Most Influential People” of 2015, has been the lead actor on the public stage’s most visible theaters, both favorable and unfavorable. He has perhaps never been as hated as he is currently. If Kanye was deemed “Most Influential” in 2015, he may grace the cover for a magazine for “Most Hated” before the end of 2018. Of late, West has invited infinite public vitriol for, among other things, his ardent support of President Donald Trump, going on infamous tabloid TMZ to declare slavery was a choice, and of late even saying he would “smash” his own sister-in-laws. Indeed, it is rare if not unprecedented for an artist to be simultaneously so beloved yet so hated as he has been in just forty years on Earth. Now more than ever, there is a clear and present misunderstanding between the people and the man many considered, at one time or another, the people’s audacious champion. Despite some people’s best efforts to defend his reputation, whether by labeling him a genius or saying it is just “Ye being Ye,” there is still a seemingly impassable void between artist and public. However, a look back at his fourteen years of releasing LPs may help train some clarity on the art of The Louis Vuitton Don.
Kanye West has intentionally split his discography into two lifetimes. They are divided by the lauded aesthetic masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in which the artist commits suicide. His first “lifetime” spans through 808s & Heartbreak and tells the story of his radical departure from an America that seems not worth saving. The beginning of Kanye’s “second life” starts with Yeezus, in which he resurrects himself and sets out to correct his mistake of running away from the world in his first life. In his second life, Kanye West strives to re-imagine America in a way he thinks is a more viable future for us all by promoting a world in which contradiction is achievement and there is a constant sense of balance and counterbalance. He does this through various ways of driving together opposites in this bi-polar world that we live in. Understanding Kanye’s discography through the lens of lifetimes provides much needed perspective for the average listener on the artistic intention of the world’s most controversial recording artist.
II. First Lifetime
Kanye’s first two albums, The College Dropout and Late Registration, should be understood as a world-building exercise in which Kanye presents his view of America. He relates his critique of the American way of life to the listener by using the “academy” setting as a metaphor because it is the most universally understood structure for the average American. Through his discussion of the academy, he picks apart a world that disciplines people for spurning the traditional way things are done, instead opting to seek fulfillment through leveraging of creativity and individuality.
Throughout The College Dropout, he illustrates a world that disciplines students for creativity and individuality, places higher value on formal schooling than the development of productive real world knowledge. Kanye, though clearly seen as a talented pupil by his teacher on “Intro,” but clearly feels out of place in this setting and prefers to fight for the people who are typically left out or neglected by this traditional mainstream American system. He does not identify as someone who can flourish in this system, and on songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and “Spaceship” he actually fantasizes about escaping this system where being Black, poor, and/or generally disadvantaged disqualifies you from employing your own self-worth to pursue a successful, happy life. Most of the lyrics on this album are not school-specific at all; they are much more sprawling and focused on the general predicament of the underprivileged in America.
Kanye’s follow-up to The College Dropout is the ironically titled Late Registration. His sophomore effort is a story about how despite his realization of society’s ills on his first album, mere realization or awareness does not fix any of the problems he sees. “Wake Up Mr. West” is the intro track to the album and begins in a similar manner to Dropout, but with an intentionally more Uncle Ruckus-ish principal voice reprimanding Kanye for thinking he could escape the system, telling him “You ain’t doin’ nothing wit’ your life, notin’ wit’ your life! You think this is? You better look at me when I’m talkin’ to you! You think this shit easy, don’t you? You think this is promised! Well ain’t nothin’ promised to you! Look at my face, do I got a promised face? Does it look like I promised you anything?” This character represents the type of person who should identify with with Kanye, given their likely similar backgrounds, but instead chooses to be an oppressive person who chooses to lend his efforts to perpetuate the system that keeps people like him down. Kanye is forced to try to live his life in this system, and throughout the album it becomes clear that there is conflict between the way he lives his life and the way the majority of the world does. Kanye envisions a life in which people like him can “Touch the Sky” despite a system designed to “Bring Me Down.” For Kanye, who devotes his life to living it glamorously and only the way he wants to, the rest of the world refuses to believe it is a viable or desirable way of life. It is then no coincidence that Kanye is kicked out of Broke Phi Broke fraternity in “Skit #4.” People who have resigned themselves to accepting the grim realities of their lives resent him for trying to find fulfillment and independence despite living in the very same conditions. To this end, they excommunicate Kanye from their ranks. By the end of the album, Kanye realizes that a world that does not want to let him live his life by his own agency is an America in which he does not want to live. He thinks he can create a much better world than the one he lives in currently. Thus on one of the album’s last tracks, “Gone,” Kanye says people will be looking for “Inspiration for they life, they souls, and they songs” but will find that “Sorry, Mr. West is gone” out to create his own world. The very end of the album ends with two bonus tracks that reveal his exact feelings. He intends on building his own world, starting by going “Back to Basics” while a U.K. version bonus track states that he knows that “We Can Make It Better.” Kanye has resolved to abandon this world and create his own.
Graduation (2007). By now, Kanye has hit us over our heads with the fact the “academy” of the world survives by suppressing people with promises of relative comfort in exchange for subordination to the traditional way things are done. Graduation is not Kanye being clapped out of the school for being so talented, and it is not purely his ascension to superstardom. Of course, this is the platter on which Kanye presented himself to the whole world, but this album is not chiefly about a recording artist coming into his own as a global superstar. Graduation, above all else, is about Kanye West’s disincorporation from the academy. The language all over this album smacks of departure, and move closer to enlightenment/happiness. The introductory track “Good Morning” begins with Kanye now being the one who wakes himself up at the beginning of the album. In the previous two, an authority figure woke him up. Kanye has immediately seized agency in the first few lines of the album. Graduation is his world. In the same song he drives home his view that the academy breeds complacency and sameness, a life he is unable to resign himself to: “Look at the valedictorian / scared of the future while I hop in the DeLorean / scared to face the world, complacent career student / some people graduate but be still stupid.” However, the most important part of this song is the outro, which includes vocal support from Jay-Z’s song “The Ruler’s Back.” This is a call to arms for all the people Kanye identifies with, those who feel trapped by the academy and yearn to forge a path for themselves in pursuit of independence. As Jay-Z’s voice calls “Hustlers, that’s if ya still livin’” Kanye responds “Good morning!” as he heeds the call. He uses Jay-Z’s voice, as the example of the man who took on the industry and did it himself with Roc-A-Fella records, and calls for people who are hustlers to join Kanye on this journey of disincorporation and departure. The rest of the album describes the feelings Kanye has about what disincorporating makes him feel and realize, feeling like a “Champion,” living “The Good Life” and not being controlled by any of the constraints that used to stifle him, i.e. “Can’t Tell me Nothin.’” When considered through this lens, Kanye’s perhaps most often disregarded song “Barry Bonds” becomes a song that is not just laced into the lazy narrative of West achieving stardom and fame but also one of departure. The hook can easily be confused for lazy writing by two superstars that at first appear to be bragging about their ability to make hit records: “We outta here, baby!” However, it seems people commonly confuse “Barry Bonds” for a song that likens Kanye to the superstar ballplayer, arguably the best ever, and that Kanye is saying he is a star like him. He is in some ways, but more important to grasp is that the song focuses on the path of a home run ball leaving a stadium, which echoes the imagery of departure on the cover of the album. This is yet another song celebrating a happy departure from the world that most people live in and have accepted as their reality. Finally, Jay-Z is referenced multiple times on this album, with even an entire song titled “Big Brother” dedicated to him as a role model for Kanye. Kanye identifies with Jay-Z because he sees him as someone who also took on the establishment (founding Roc-a-Fella Records) and made his own way that served as a beacon of light for others. In Graduation, Kanye thinks he has found happiness is abandoning the America he knew to create one that is most suitable for himself. He has set out to create his own world.
808s & Heartbreak is an album that reflects Kanye’s regret for leaving the world behind and his sense of isolation and depression that comes from living in his own world. He constantly expresses regret and longing for the world he used to live in. In this album, he uses the idea of a soured relationship to describe how he feels after disincorporating from the rest of the world. On this album, Kanye has indeed found his own world to live in, but is has brought wallowing and pain rather than happiness and joy. On the intro track “Say You Will,” he reflects “I admit I still fantasize about you, about you.” This reality must be extremely difficult for someone who is as concerned with human interaction, external validation, and collaboration as Kanye West is, and he feels an immense sense of disconnection from the goings-on of the regular real world America. On “Welcome to Heartbreak” he laments “Dad cracked a joke, all the kids laughed / But I couldn’t hear him all the way in first class / Chased the good life my whole life long / Look back on my life and my life gone / Where did I go wrong?” Here he references the hit song “Good Life” from Graduation to say his choice to live in his own world was the wrong solution to the problems he faced in The College Dropout and Late Registration. On “Love Lockdown” Kanye reveals that he ran away from the world because he had not learned how to properly ‘love’ it: “I’m not loving you, way I wanted to / What I had to do, had to run from you / I’m in love with you, but the vibe is wrong.” He could not figure out how to exist in a world that seemed so hostile to him, so he ran away. However, by the time he gets to “Street Lights” Kanye explicitly questions his maturity in making that decision: “Let me know / Do I still got time to grow? / Things ain’t always set in stone.” By the end of the album, Kanye has realized that abandoning the rest of the world and living in his own does not make him immune to or allow him to avoid life’s harsh realities, especially when people who are important to him have to live in the real world. He touchingly mourns the passing of his mother in “Coldest Winter” and on the final track of the album “Pinocchio Story” Kanye uses the Pinocchio refrain “I just wanna be a real boy” to express his desire to return to the world to live with the rest of us.
Kanye goes to extreme measures to return to the world. Many praise 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy for being Kanye’s magnum opus. But, these reviews neglect the real meaning of this album in the trajectory of Kanye West’s career, especially following 808s: Kanye commits suicide on this album. At a time when Kanye was facing the most difficult point of his career following the passing of his mother and his fiasco with Taylor Swift at the VMAs, he exiled himself to Hawaii to figure out how to start over. Facing the highest amount of criticism and distaste from the public at this point in his career, he knew he had to reinvent himself and start all over. Kanye, who believes he has always been a champion for the people, was disconnected from the rest of the world. Most clearly representative of the suicidal purpose of this album is the most commercially successful song off the album, “POWER.” On this song Kanye repeats the universally known “No one man should have all that power,” but other parts on this song offer a more cutting view into this track as suicide. He also raps, “So goodnight, cruel world, I’ll see you in the morning,” and “Now this will be a beautiful death, I’m jumping out the window, I’m letting everything go.” Additionally, the artwork for this single was quite literally Kanye West with a sword through his head. Everything about this album has to do with rebirth and the cyclical nature of life. Kanye’s love for Stanley Kubrick is infused throughout this entire album, and is on full display in the track “Runaway.” In this song, Kanye references the singular piano stroke from Kubrick’s film Eyes Wide Shut and also films a music video in a uniquely-Kubrickian inspired way, particularly with its long tracking shots. Notably, a phoenix co-stars with West in the video, which anticipates his resurrection following this MBDTF’s suicide. Kubrick is famous for his cyclical take on the world, such that everything always turns itself back to where it all began after a lifetime or a full movie’s plot. In Kubrick’s Eyes Wide Shut the characters endure a fantastical tale of adultery and lust only to find themselves still in the same marriage with the same life they had before by the end of the film. Given Kanye’s appreciation for Kubrick, it is not unlikely that he uses the phoenix to suggest his intention of finding life again after death. Finally, Kanye ends the album with the simple question “Who Will Survive in America?” It seems Kanye will be returning to America and it will remain to be seen who makes it with him. People think Kanye is a “genius” for referencing Kubrick, pretty much because he is a Black rapper and a white film director like Kubrick is thought to be outside of the realm of possibilities for a Black man to appreciate. However, to ignore Kanye’s intentionality and thoughtfulness in referencing Kubrick in this album is highly disrespectful to West and muddles the message of the album.
III. Second Lifetime
2013’s Yeezus is Kanye West’s official resurrection, or re-incorporation, following his disincorporation on Graduation and suicide on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album title is not merely a product of Kanye’s high self-esteem such that he considers himself a deity. It is more accurately a nod to the fact that Kanye has just “raised” himself from the dead. Noted for its sharp and disruptive sound, this album is the beginning of Kanye’s quest to recreate America in an image that he believes more closely reflects the realities of life. It is in this album that Kanye begins to re-appropriate traditional calling cards of America’s past in an attempt to create a worldview in which equal and opposite forces exist in perpetual counterbalance. For example, the Yeezus tour merchandise reflects this understanding of the contradictory nature of this album. Kanye sold bomber jackets adorned with Confederate flags, Native American skulls, and grim reaper shirts in order to signal the “death” of the old America and the birth of an America he believes is more true to reality—one where completely contradictory iconography and ideology compete for attention and support. It makes sense considering America itself was founded on contradiction and a dual identity—land of the free that uses slave labor, a country founded by immigrants that is also notorious for its racism and for banning immigrants from particular countries, etc. Everything about the release of Yeezus is purposefully contradictory: Kanye rails against corporations for exploiting the consumer yet literally incorporates himself in the form of the Yeezy imprint with mega-corporation Adidas; the tracks “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” bravely smash together song titles about white supremacy with lyrics of Black Power and anti-capitalist attitudes. Even the cover of the album itself reflects perpetual competition and counterbalance between Black and white, light and dark. This album is not about Kanye telling the world he is uncontrollable; in fact, he is marking his return to society. And he has some changes he would like to make.
The Life of Pablo (2016) is interestingly fractured and truly bi-polar. If Yeezus was the beginning of Kanye smashing the opposite sides of American society together, this is his more direct way of saying that is exactly what he is doing. The seemingly disarrayed cover of the album suggests this right off the bat. It presents what may be considered an existential crisis for Kanye. That is, choosing between whether he should preserve/continue the Black American family unit or whether he should pursue an interracial future with a white woman. Kanye has purposefully crafted the cover of this album to reflect this bi-polar way in which he believes the world operates. To this end, the cover of the album should be understood as a yin yang sign, and its composition is similar to the way the whites and blacks on the Yeezus cover were arranged. This idea of contradiction and balance in opposition is espoused throughout the entire album. The album is called The Life of Pablo, but all of the Pablo’s that Kanye says it could be homage to happen to be dead (Picasso, Paul of Tarsus, Escobar). The album has several songs that are lumped in pairs. “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Pt. 2” have opposite energies, the former consistently bright and upbeat and the latter dark and lurching. Additionally, Kanye intentionally featured Desiigner’s smash hit “Panda” in “Pt. 2” because the song is about the way a BMW i8 looks like a Panda. A panda is, of course, an animal whose body is composed of two exact opposites: black and white. Kanye does something similar with the two-sided nature of the album’s tracks “Low Lights” and “Highlights.” On “Highlights” Kanye once again promotes the union of Black and white, stating “Advice for all my niggas / impregnate Bridget / so if she has a baby she gon’ make another nigga.” The popular track “Fade” may even be a nod to the fact that Kanye wants the boundary between Black and white/good and evil in this world to become increasingly blurred. Curiously, the featured artist on “Fade” is none other than Post Malone, the white man became famous after wearing cornrows and making a song titled “White Iverson” that re-imagines himself as the Black Hall of Fame NBA point-guard Allen Iverson. Finally, Kanye ends the album with “Saint Pablo” in which he states his two-sided nature and his intentions with his last two albums: “The ultimate Gemini has arrived.” He wants to try to erase boundaries for the future of America.
The latest Kanye album, Ye (2018), is an interesting case. It is inappropriate to evaluate any album in the same year that it was released, but it is completely inappropriate to evaluate a Knaye West album without seeing the album that follows it. This album was released in the midst of the most highly controversial “rollout” Kanye has ever had for one of his albums. Ultimately, the backlash was so strong that it made him change the album before its release date, which he revealed in an interview with media correspondents present at the album’s listening party in Wyoming. In fact, the cover for the album was only chosen on the day of the album release party that he hosted in Wyoming. What is worth noting, however, is that this album’s title shares a glimpse into the way Kanye says he is starting to create music that is therapeutic. He explained that the reason the album is called Ye is because he wanted it to mean “you,” as in, the audience. He explained that he chose to eliminate the Kan- from Kanye, which means “Only one” in Swahili, to make it clear that he is a reflection of us all, of everyone else in the world. Seeing as he kept his trademark contradictory nature on this album, declaring on the first track “I Thought About Killing You” that “The most beautiful thoughts are always beside the darkest,” perhaps Kanye is trying to de-center the narrative of his music from the contradictory nature of the way he sees life to the way he believes we should all see life. In the trajectory of his albums, Ye is probably the one where he most bent to what the world was saying leading up to the album. Kanye has always considered himself a man of the people, but his music has always chronicled his own life. In this album, he tries to establish kinship with his listeners and try to have them relate to his music as thought it were about themselves rather than forcing them to glean similarities between their own lives and his life, as he did in his previous albums.
It is important to examine Kanye West’s music through this lens for two reasons: his music has always been the most honest and personal form of art he creates, and it better helps us understand why Kanye West is so easy to love and so easy to hate at the same time. To him, living a life of contradiction yields achievement, and his delivery of this message through his albums is the profession of his truth. It is also important to understand Kanye’s music in this way because it helps weaken people’s claims that Kanye is merely trolling. Today it is easy to dismiss something unusual or difficult to understand by tossing out the term “trolling,” but in this case it actually does a great deal of harm to the world’s engagement with the music of a man who has consistently done his utmost to relate the meaning of his own life to the rest of us.