Editor’s Note: This is the first part of an ongoing series of at least 13 parts (I won’t know until I get to the end). If you’re just starting here–a solid decision!–you can navigate to the following parts using these links: 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 12 13. – Z.H.
If you haven’t noticed yet, I’m a big fan of recurring features on this blog. Mainly this is because I’m a
creature of habit lazy fuck, and it’s easier to come up with another installment of a series than it is to create a fresh, unique snowflake of an idea every time I need to update–which is way more often than I actually do. But the recurring feature I’m about to introduce is, for once, born out of something other than pragmatism and sloth: it’s actually something I’ve wanted to do for a long time.
I love projects where a single writer chronicles/analyzes a body of work in chronological order: stuff like Chris O’Leary’s Pushing Ahead of the Dame, a blog individually reviewing every song released by David Bowie; or Chrontendo, a video series in which the enigmatic “Dr. Sparkle” catalogues every game released for the Nintendo Famicom. But again, I’m lazy: there’s no way I’m ever going to commit to a project that in-depth, one that could potentially take up years of my life (caveat, in case any eccentric financiers are reading this: unless I’m getting paid for it). But a scaled-down, self-contained version that can be iterated upon to do whatever catches my fancy at a given time? Now that I could get into.
That’s the concept behind this recurring feature, which in the interest of maximum pretension I will be dubbing “Oeuvre.” Each Oeuvre will be a kind of miniseries of posts evaluating a body of work: a musical artist’s discography, a film or video game series, whatever. Some of these oeuvres will be particularly near and dear to my heart; others will just be things I’m curious about and feel like investigating. To that end, I can’t promise that they’ll all be equally exhaustive; what I define as an “oeuvre” will vary in scope based on time, availability, and personal interest. Like everything else on Dystopian Dance Party, this feature will be a haphazard blend of personal reflection, snarky jokes, and middlebrow academicizing. It will, of course, be tremendously self-indulgent.
And, speaking of self-indulgent, the first oeuvre we’ll be considering is none other than the recorded work of Kanye West. I’m starting with Kanye for a few reasons. First, he’s an ideal test case: his discography as it stands now is relatively slim (eight full-length albums, counting collaborations), and each individual work is unique enough that it will make for an interesting narrative to move from one to the next. Second, Kanye is a timely choice: with the recent announcement of his forthcoming seventh solo album, So Help Me God, I have a convenient endpoint to be working toward as I launch this first series. Third, I wanted to start with something that I legitimately care about, and I care about Kanye more than probably any other artist recording today. I think he’s an important and consistently thought-provoking figure, and his ability to get under people’s skin is just one of his many strengths.
Which brings me to my fourth and final reason for launching with Kanye’s oeuvre: in a weird way—weird because on the surface he and I could not be more different—I kind of identify with him. Something about his apparent lack of affect, his surfeit of passion, his at times detrimental inability to be anyone other than himself, connects with me on a personal level that is hard to put into words. But then, that’s Kanye’s schtick: beneath the legendary ego is a deliberately crafted figure of identification, an artist whose self-absorption is so complete and pure that it becomes, on some level, universal. “I done played the underdog my whole career,” Ye rapped on 2007’s “Barry Bonds.” And we all know everyone loves an underdog.
(Before we get into it, a brief aside: Kanye’s oeuvre, especially at this early stage of his career, is hard to boil down to what’s widely available on official streaming services. So, in addition to the usual Spotify playlist, which I’ll be adding to the end of every post, I’ve also taken it upon myself to put together a YouTube playlist of the music, videos, interviews, and other performances I refer to throughout the piece, which you should see above. Again, I have no idea if this is going to be common practice for Oeuvre after we get through with Kanye. But it seems fitting that such a multimedia-oriented artist, who is as likely to make an important statement with an SNL guest appearance or award show speech as with a conventional album or single, should have a kind of mini-documentary to accompany my analysis of the work.)
Kanye West’s “underdog” status stems in large part from his origins as a producer, rather than a more conventional M.C. The association continues to dog him to this day: his 2010 self-description as “just a Chi-town nigga with a Nas flow” notwithstanding, Kanye isn’t a lyrical powerhouse like his idol 2Pac or his “Big Brother” Jay-Z. This isn’t to say he’s a hack; as we will see, one of Kanye’s greatest strengths is his ability to use his limitations in his own favor, trading verbose showboating for clever turns of phrase that are deceptive in their apparent simplicity. But it does mean that he’s always had much to prove when it comes to his skills on the other side of the booth, especially to an audience of hardcore hip-hop heads who value the competitive, technically-oriented side of the art.
For this side of his artistry, a story Kanye tells in Ice-T’s 2012 documentary Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (see the first video on the playlist above) seems emblematic. He recalls losing his first-ever rap battle in grade school: he had prepared a long series of rhymes in advance, only to be torpedoed by his opponent with a single, swaggering couplet. Kanye explains that this is the reason he keeps his raps “simple” now, but it also suggests something else: he’s a rapper-as-artist, not a rapper-as-athlete, at his best when he’s in a controlled environment with himself placed firmly at the center. And, while he displayed obvious talent as a rapper even at a young age–see, for example, the second video above, which captures a 19-year-old Kanye freestyling at the now-defunct Fat Beats record store in New York’s West Village–it was in the ultimate controlled environment of the studio where he created his most important early work.
Kanye West’s production history technically began at just 15 years old, when Chicago hip-hop godfather Ernest Dion Wilson, a.k.a. No I.D., took him under his wing and taught him how to sample and program beats. His earliest paid work came not long after, with nine out of the fifteen tracks on Chicago M.C. Grav’s 1996 debut Down to Earth bearing a production credit by the 18-year-old, apparently-mononymous “Kanye.” What’s most striking about this official production debut, from today’s perspective, is how familiar it all sounds. A lot of the stylistic flair that would define Yeezy’s work in the 21st century was already there, albeit in muted form, in the mid-‘90s. “World Domination” and “Sick Thoughts” have his sense of menacing, megalomaniacal high drama (the former even slips in the distorted vocalizations Ye would use to the point of parody on 2013’s Yeezus). “City to City,” featuring Al’ Tariq of the Beatnuts, is a soulful groove built off a sample from Eddie Henderson’s 1978 fusion jam “Cyclops,” showcasing both Kanye’s love for pilfering obscure, proggy beats and his debt of influence to ‘90s East Coast heroes like the Native Tongues collective. And with its ethereal, string-laden sample from the Five Special’s 1979 disco groove “Do It Baby,” “Keep Movin” clearly prefigures the organic, soul- and gospel-influenced style that would become his trademark over the next decade.
Somewhat less auspicious is Kanye’s recorded debut as an M.C. on the same album, a guest verse on the track “Line for Line.” He certainly doesn’t embarrass himself; the trademark confidence is there, and his flow is strong. But the aforementioned Native Tongues debt is even more obvious here, with some unsubtle slams of gangsta-rap violence and materialism drawn directly from the Conscious Hip-Hop 101 playbook: “Yo, mad niggas got dreams of the Lexus and coupes / Got their signing bonus and bought TECs for the video shoot / Ayo, them shits backfired before the cameraman arrived, he died / for his image, now let’s start the scrimmage.” His contribution to the hook is even more on the nose: “Yo, let’s react with our mind / Kill the black-on-black crime / I’ll be taking it line for line.” It sounds exactly like what it is: a precocious teenager who hasn’t yet found his lyrical voice, taking a stab at some borrowed profundity without the life experience that would give him a genuine perspective. In the years to come, Kanye would craft a persona around the tensions between conscious and commercial rap: the “first nigga with a Benz and a backpack,” as he put it in 2004’s “Breathe In Breathe Out.” In 1996, though, he was squarely and derivatively on the “backpack” side of the equation, with lyrics that would sound more at-home on a Jurassic 5 outtake than on The College Dropout.
Meanwhile, Yeezy’s production acumen continued to mature. By this point, West was “ghost producing” for Bad Boy hitmaker Deric “D-Dot” Angelettie, who gave him the contacts required to sell his beats to bigger-name artists. And “Turn It Out,” a Nas feature produced for Jermaine Dupri’s 1998 solo debut Life in 1472, was his biggest beat to date: opening with an extended vocal sample from Willie Hutch’s Foxy Brown soundtrack, then giving way to a chopped-up, stripped-down beat from “One for the Treble (Fresh)” by Davy DMX. West was clearly aware of the parallels between himself and Dupri, another wunderkind producer who got his formal start when he was just 18 and later (albeit briefly) transitioned to rapping. But, true to form, he wasn’t about to build any bridges with false humility. In a November 2014 interview with Juan Epstein, No I.D. recalled an early Kanye Rant™ that cost his support as a manager: during some “record deal meetings,” Kanye pronounced himself “the next Michael Jackson” and “better than Jermaine Dupri.” No I.D. described it as the first time he’d ever seen his protégé “act crazy.” But at least in 1998 Kanye was still keeping his “crazy” behind closed doors. Some recently resurfaced footage from Dupri’s Atlanta birthday party that year (see Video 9 above) finds young Yeezy in exuberant, but well-behaved mode: shouting out to his “87th Street outfit,” plugging his upcoming productions for Ma$e’s Harlem World, and marveling at his burgeoning success. “Chi-town made it down here, boy,” he exclaims. “Somebody from the crib made it down here, boy!”
Back in “the crib” himself, Kanye continued to further his aspirations as a rapper. Because he was under contract with D-Dot, he couldn’t be signed as a solo artist; so, his management team, Hustle–comprised of Don Crawley, John “Monopoly” Johnson, and Happy Lewis–formed a group: the Go-Getters, featuring Kanye alongside fellow Chicago rappers GLC, Timmy G, Arrowstar, and Really Doe. The Go-Getters would appear on only one album: the 1999 compilation World Record Holders by Kanye’s own local music conglomerate Kon-Man Productions, which saw a limited release in the Chicagoland area and heavily featured West’s talents as both a rapper and a producer. And those talents, it must be said, were being more than a little overstated: the album’s title track opens with an introduction for “the platinum producer Kanye West,” a designation that wouldn’t be accurate for another two years.
Still, World Record Holders shows an interesting progression from Ye’s guest spot on “Line for Line.” The pendulum has effectively swung all the way in the other direction; instead of trying to sound “conscious,” he’s now spitting even less convincing rhymes about guns and cars. His verse for “On 10 in a Benz,” a Rhymefest track not featuring the other Go-Getters, opens with, “From the front to the back, where my thugs at?”–a line that rings awfully hollow coming from the guy who would soon introduce pink polo shirts to street fashion. But at least his genius for left-field quips that straddle the fine line between stupid and clever was starting to show through: “Uh Oh” contains the immortal couplet, “Y’all know, she wanna page me all day / Wanna ride the dick, like ‘Yippee Kan-ye.'”
As for West’s “platinum” production, this time around it’s mostly notable for its facelessness. Most of Ye’s beats for World Record Holders sound like generic turn-of-the-millennium street hip-hop. They’re certainly well-done–Complex retroactively dubbed the club track “Let Em In,” a.k.a. “Let My Niggas In,” “Midwest bounce at its finest”–but they show little evidence of Kanye’s personality. There are, however, a few notable exceptions. “Fight with the Best,” another Rhymefest cut, is driven by a sped-up vocal sample from Hall and Oates’ “Grounds for Separation”: an overt pop touch on an otherwise aggressively street-oriented compilation. And then there’s “Neva Gon’ Stop Me”: the comp’s one and only Kanye solo track, which sounds so much like vintage Yeezy that it would be resurrected for his 2006 mixtape Freshman Adjustment, Vol. 2. Lyrically, the track is mainly of a piece with the rest of the World Record Holders material, with a lot of hard talk that sounds laughable coming out of Kanye’s 21-year-old mouth: “I hate a gold-digging bitch that want to get in my whip / Fuck fucking, I make her kiss the tip of my dick”–as if this baby-faced beat hustler from the South Side was actually a target for “gold diggers.” Musically, though, “Neva Gon’ Stop Me” is the strongest statement of Kanye’s early aesthetic yet: from the regal sample of Marilyn McCoo and Billy Davis’ “Nothing Can Stop Me” to Ye’s self-reflexive vocal ad-libs, which start out nostalgic–“I used to be in gym class like, ‘Nigga, I’m finna be a rapper'”–and end up comically piqued: “I did about four or five beats for Nas…this nigga don’t know how to pronounce my name because they always spell it wrong.”
In the end, World Record Holders was unlikely to ensure that anyone–save perhaps for a few Chicago-area diehards–knew how to pronounce Kanye’s name. But at the turn of the century, he was steadily hustling his way toward bigger and better things. “Rebuilding,” a co-production with D-Dot, landed on Goodie Mob’s 1999 World Party album, lending some polished Midwestern soulfulness to the Atlanta crew’s gritty sound with its string sample from Grover Washington, Jr.’s “Love Song 1700.” The same year, West made his second widely-released appearance as a rapper on “What You Do to Me” by Infamous Syndicate, a Chicago duo featuring noted woman M.C.–and Buddy Guy’s daughter–Shawnna. It’s another solid but unremarkable showing, with Kanye playing the role of a player whose side piece is getting too attached; not exactly groundbreaking stuff, but at least it’s more credible than the ersatz thuggery of World Record Holders.
Then, in early 2000, he got another big break. Kyambo “Hip Hop” Joshua, a friend of No I.D.’s and A&R rep for Roc-A-Fella Records, picked up one of Kanye’s earliest beats for the title track to Beanie Sigel’s 2000 album The Truth. Frankly, “The Truth” wasn’t Kanye’s greatest work; it’s little more than a two-note organ sample from Graham Nash’s 1971 protest song “Chicago,” which may be why so many other M.C.’s passed on it before Beans: as West later remarked, “It was on beat tapes, and niggas would hear it and say, ‘Why you don’t send me no fire?'” But its insistent minimalism was a good fit for Sigel’s hardcore street rhymes–and, perhaps most importantly, “The Truth” opened the door to Kanye’s impending success in the coming years, when he would become Roc-A-Fella’s biggest up-and-coming producer.
It wouldn’t be an immediate transition, however; we still have a ways to go before we reach the real highlights of Kanye West’s ouevre. So I think it’s time to take a break. We’ll be back soon with Part 2 of Kanye’s pre-College Dropout era, covering the years 2000-2002. In the meantime, here’s the Spotify playlist with a whopping…three songs. Like I said, Kanye’s earliest stuff isn’t widely available for (official) streaming. Don’t worry, though, we’ll see that playlist grow soon enough.