There's no denying that Kanye West has become synonymous with arrogance.
Compared with his current, astronomical self-image, though, the Chicago-raised rap/fashion icon's musical beginnings were humble. People actually liked him because of that underdog status. Once upon a time (2004), "College Dropout" came out of nowhere. Progressively, Yeezy's bellowing ego has scorched the world, and with his sixth solo album, "Yeezus," set to drop Tuesday, West again has been hoarding Earth’s oxygen with over-the-top interviews containing almost exclusively boastful soundbites.
How did the 36-year-old rapper get to this place?"
Nine years ago, "Dropout" was endearing on a cosmetic level, with its pre-pubescent soul samples and light-hearted jokes from a non-controversial, conscious MC. West had a sensitive heart that he wore on pink polo sleeves. In fact, he was such a fun, harmless backpack performer that he actually rapped about wearing a backpack (“Breathe In, Breathe Out”).
"First n***a with a Benz and a backpack," went the entire couplet, which draped his gaudy tendencies over small attempts to be modest--a disconnect that has only become more obvious over time.
'Ye already was doing what he considered Very Important Things as early as "Dropout." (Read the lyrics to "Jesus Walks" sometime.) When SPIN’s Jon Caramanica asked him in 2005 why he had told "60 Minutes" he wasn't a prophet, he said, "I was probably trying to conform to America. The answer, actually, is yes. Undoubtedly."
So maybe the humility didn’t last that long. See, West never really talked lightly about anything, especially his art and passions. When "Dropout" moved 3 million copies, he was very ready to spread the Gospel of Yeezy (not yet Yeezus) and started "talking on TV like it's just you and me," as he would later rap. Leading up to his sophomore effort, "Late Registration," he stormed the national stage to slam Britney Spears, the MTV Video Music Awards and the Grammys. He then beefed with President George W. Bush during a Hurricane Katrina relief telecast about the president’s treatment of New Orleans’ black population, an episode Bush would later call the “lowest moment of [his] presidency.”
West rarely had kept his mouth closed before (even when it was wired shut), but now people listened more closely as his good intentions started clashing with his grand actions.
The kid from "Dropout" had changed, penning grimmer lyrical material (blood diamonds, addiction, etc.) for prettier beats. They were never without a little flair; West can never get out of his own way. Musically, he's often identified as a trendsetter, but he’s really more of a trend-perfecter. In the case of "Registration," that meant swapping out the soul revival he had furthered for ornate instrumentation and effects.
That was a movement toward the Kanye that West wanted to become: the artiste and auteur who designed high fashion while making dick jokes. This was especially true on a pop music level, resulting in the prodigious hooks of "Graduation," where West flexed his talents with regional riffs from all over the country.
Tucked in the middle of the album was "Can’t Tell Me Nothing," the rattling southern banger that’s among his best. Its opening bars identify him as a walking foot-in-the-mouth: "I had a dream I could buy my way to heaven/ When I woke I spent that on a necklace/I told God I'd be back in a second/ Man, it’s so hard not to act reckless."
Following "Graduation," he got very cold, understandably, after losing his mother, Donda West, and splitting with his then-fiancee, Alexis Phifer. He fled to the public spotlight once again, dropping the divisive "808s and Heartbreak," his crooning, Auto-Tuned lament that's arguably the most viscerally personal hip-hop album of the last decade. Its heavy personal drama opened doors for softies like Drake and saved Auto-Tune in the process. Ironically, his most personal album might be his most "influential."
Yet people mostly hated this album, despite West giving them more of himself than ever. It’s that idea that makes West the ultimate celebrity: He’s real enough to crave approval and make mistakes but woodenheaded and ambitious enough to come back for more after people tear him down.
This was especially true with his 2009 on-stage interruption of Taylor Swift, the event that has long defined him in the public eye. At different times since, he's been remorseful, spiteful, and cleansed. He simultaneously called it selfless and apologized for it in 2010, yet recently told Caramanica that it "only led me to awesomeness at all times."
In the same New York Times interview West said his art-rock hip-hop opus, 2010's "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy," was, at least in part, a product of the Swift incident, a challenge for people to “keep [him] off their shelves.” In other words, a way for him to showcase his allegedly undeniable gifts and high-art aspirations. The acclaimed album was, as usual, brashly unapologetic, as was "Watch the Throne," his epic joint album with Jay-Z that was more of a black-power showcase than the nouveau-riche braggadocio it was hailed.
That brings us to now, when West's 20-foot-tall head appears on buildings as he attempts to rap about modern slavery on the Alamo. Even had he not titled the new record "Yeezus," West, for better or worse, has succeeded again at maximizing his own expectations. He considers himself a crusader, but he’s just remaining fiercely loyal to himself.
His message hasn't changed since "All Falls Down" ("Man I promise, I'm so self conscious/That's why you always see me with at least one of my watches"). Now, he just plans to yell it so that everyone might see him as brilliant, arrogant and contradictory. Regardless, the product always will be unabashedly Kanye.
Adam Lukach is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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