After all the hype and anti-hype dies down, after all the in-the-moment shocking moves and statements lose their relevance, what will we be left with is simply great music. This is a general rule – many artists that we now consider to be sacred cows used to split the opinions to extremes back in their day. Bob Dylan was booed by fans. New York Dolls were mocked in interviews. Hell, rock ‘n’ roll as a whole was dismissed as just a fad back in the 1950s, with its founders called talentless and unable to either sing or play their instruments. Now I’m not comparing Kanye West to either of those artists, as a positive or as a negative. I’m just saying that the albums themselves are what matters in the long run.
And Kanye has yet to put out a bad one. In the 2000s it seemed like with each new release he would change the course of popular music – be it The College Dropout popularizing the Chipmunk-soul style of production; Late Registration taking things one step further in terms of layered beats; Graduation fusing electronic music with hip-hop; or 808s & Heartbreak influencing a generation of auto-tuned crooners. The 2010s are not a step down either so far, with the maximalism of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy being felt on magnum opuses such as To Pimp a Butterfly, and the abrasiveness of Yeezus encouraging many otherwise accessible artists such as Beyonce and Rihanna to go down experimental routes (The Life of Pablo is still taking its time to properly set in).
What made these albums so successful though? One might argue that Kanye’s sampling choices played a big role in that. And one would be right. His continuous search of new sounds raging from the obscure to the classic and covering multiple genres guaranteed that no two albums sounded alike. But another aspect that is sometimes unjustly forgotten is Kanye’s choices of featured artists, often just as diverse and well-thought. Rarely has another artist sounded wrongly placed on a Kanye song, and he’s collaborated with a few. And I’m not just referring to big hip-hop names such as Jay-Z, Mos Def, Nas and Kendrick Lamar, which were a safe bet from the go.
Take Nick Minaj’s verse on Monster for example. Her wacky, all-over-the-place style of rapping is not something I would usually listen to, but in the context of Kanye’s exploration of his love-and-hate relationship with the audience, she sounds like the missing puzzle piece. West and Jay-Z merely discuss that theme (“Everybody knows I’m a motherfucking monster / I’ma need to see your fucking hands at the concert” makes an excellent contrast between us pointing the finger at our idols when they do something wrong, while at the same time paying them to be who they are by buying records and going to the concerts). But then Minaj comes on and she actually embodies the monster.
Desiigner’s Panda is used as a wake-up call to end Kanye’s stream-of-consciousness in Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 2. One moment we’re lost in distant memories of missing fathers and near-fatal car accidents, and the next we’re brought right back to the present with the soon-to-be biggest trap hit of 2016. Not only is Desiigner’s placement in the song perfect, but it’s also what basically started his career. And it’s not just hip-hop artists either. Adam Levine’s bitter-sweet chorus on Heard ‘Em Say makes for a more emotionally resonant moment than Maroon 5’s entire career. The Weeknd sounds broken and indeed fucked-up in FML, far removed from the safeness of his own hit singles.
Or I could’ve just as easily made a case for Sia, John Legend or Rick Ross. The point is that for an artist whose reputation is that of an egomaniac, Kanye has allowed many other artists to share the spotlight with him, sometimes even steal his show. Is this another case of his dualism? Maybe yes, maybe no, but it sure as hell is another proof of his undeniable talent as an artist.