Reviewed on this page:
The College Dropout - Late Registration - Graduation - 808s And Heartbreak -
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy - Watch The Throne - Yeezus
Chicago's Kanye (rhymes with Gagné) West first attracted notice as a producer for
Jay-Z and others, and he did have a novel schtick, at least at first, mixing sped-up soul vocal samples with ultramodern beats. His debut album has lyrics to match, and it may be the best record of 2004. But West soon ran out of production tricks and fresh things to say, and as a result he's spending more time bragging about himself now that he has less and less to brag about. (DBW)
West productions reviewed on this site:
The College Dropout (2004)
This debut album sounds great, chock full of arresting incongruities like warbling multi-tracked violin by Miri Ben-Ari (the tongue-in-cheek dance track "New Work Out Plan") and sped-up vocal samples (Marvin Gaye's "Distant Lover" on the retail workers' lament "Spaceship"; Michael Bolton, of all people, on "Never Let Me Down"). There's also a welcome reliance on church-influenced backing vocals (the single "Jesus Walks"), and just enough guitar and keyboard tracks to keep the mix full but not overly busy.
But what's really remarkable is West's lyrical content, making devastating use of irony to make his points about education ("School Spirit"), materialism (the gorgeous single "All Falls Down," hook sung by Syleena Johnson) and urban poverty ("We Don't Care," with a sly children's
chorus). His low-key delivery isn't impressive, but fits the material: you find yourself thinking about the lyrics instead of being bowled over by the presentation.
And some of the interludes are as good as the full songs ("Graduation Day," the vicious "School Spirit Skits").
Halfway through the first spin, I thought I was listening to a five-star record.
It loses steam after that, with a pointless makeout tune ("Slow Jams"), a party track that tries to be self-satirizing but ends up lamebrained ("Breathe In Breathe Out" featuring Ludacris), and an endless closing monologue explaining how West wound up on Rockafella ("Last Call").
But it still blows away anything else I heard in 2004.
Late Registration (2005)
As you'd expect after the success and attendant hype of West's debut, his sophomore effort is cluttered with contrived superstar cameos (Maroon 5's Adam Levine croons the hook of "Heard 'Em Say"; the drab single "Gold Digger" features Jamie Foxx imitating Ray Charles; Common raps on "My Way Home").
Less explicably, his use of samples is sometimes blatant and obvious ("Touch The Sky" is an untransformed loop of Curtis Mayfield's "Move On Up"; "Gone" leans too heavily on Otis Redding's "It's Too Late"), and his lyrics aren't nearly as compelling, scattering references - the diamond and drug trades, for example - without exploring them.
But West still has a lot of tricks up his sleeve: "Crack Music" blends a hypnotic march beat and somber strings; "Roses" is a simple, moving celebration of family;
and as overwrought and tacky as the Shirley Bassey-goes-techno "Diamonds From Sierra Leone" is, I have to admit it's fun.
Jon Brion co-produced most of the record and arranged strings ("Bring Me Down" featuring Brandy); other co-producers include Just Blaze and Warryn Campbell (the painfully long "We Major").
So crashingly, consistently unimaginative and dull I almost wonder if West has been replaced by a pod person.
He doesn't have any new arranging gimmicks, so when he isn't retreading sped-up vocals or rapping over piano
ballads ("I Wonder"), he's just looping keyboards like every other hip hop producer ("Can't Tell Me Nothing").
Some of the samples are initially unexpected (Steely Dan's "Kid Charlemagne" on "Champion"; Mountain's "Long Red" on "Barry Bonds," which features Lil Wayne)
but they're all run into the ground.
The best hook on the whole disc is a descending vocoder sample from French jokesters Daft Punk ("Stronger"); "Good Life," a decent party track based on a
"P.Y.T." sample, is the only cut I'd be happy to hear again.
There aren't as many self-conscious "hey look I got a rock dude on my album" moments this time, just Coldplay's Chris Martin on "Homecoming,"
but the guests he does use are no better, a procession of here-today, gone-tomorrows: T-Pain, Young Jeezy, etc.
The core problem, though, is that West himself no longer has anything to say: in place of the lacerating social commentary and bracing vulnerability, there's just
one paean after another to his record sales, talent and general wonderfulness ("Everything I Am"; "The Glory").
808s And Heartbreak (2008)
West shifted gears, all right: this time every track features him singing - harshly processed with Auto-Tune - over simple synth chord progressions and drums programmed on the Roland TR-808 machine that was a staple of early hip hop. Matching the unvarying low-tech production, the songs are basically one mopey, dopey lament of lost love after another ("Coldest Winter"; "Love Lockdown," a single). Even when the main melody is somewhat decent, over-repetition soon sucks it dry ("Say You Will").
There's more than one way of expressing self-importance, and West's apparent belief that his navel-gazing pining ("Welcome To Heartbreak") holds interest for a listener is as arrogant as any of his previous boasting was.
Naïve, ugly, drab, dispirited, trite, tiresome, tacky, cold, uninvolving, vacuous... I could string these adjectives together all day long.
Jeezy and Wayne ("See You In My Nightmares," the high point of sorts) guest on one track each; otherwise there's no break in the monotony. (DBW)
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
Relatively speaking, a return to hip-hop norms for West - real sung choruses, rapped verses divided between sarcastic politics and tongue-in-cheek boasting, and gondola-loads of guest stars: Jay-Z contributes a strong verse and Nicki Minaj a weak one to "Monster"; Raekwon's on "Gorgeous"; there are so many people on "So Appalled" I couldn't keep track.
And at its best, the disc is excellent ("Blame Game," split between a wonderfully serious relationship assessment and a wonderfully comic Chris Rock routine; the sloshing, King Crimson-sampling "Power").
However, his love of excess frequently intrudes in the form of overextended running times ("Runaway" would be a landmark if you stripped away about four minutes from the beginning and end) and overblown arrangements ("Dark Fantasy"), and the big-name guest appearances are distracting (the hideously overexposed Rihanna on "All Of The Lights") as often as they're illuminating.
Someone should tell West that "too much is never enough" was a marketing slogan, not actual words to live by.
In keeping with the philosophy, there's an army of producers, writers and performers.
Watch The Throne (Jay-Z & Kanyé West: 2011)
This mega-hyped joint release features a number of producers, but West is clearly in control: Regardless of who's behind the knobs on a given track, you'll hear more of the prog-rock influence and dance-synth grind of Fantasy ("Who Gon Stop Me"). Less pleasantly, every track overflows with the carefully nursed anger and caustic self-absorption West has been venting since his mother died ("Gotta Have It"; "That's My Bitch"); brand-obsessed, bling-mad, ego-crazed Jay-Z seems socially responsible by comparison ("No Church In The Wild"). And as on West's previous album, most tracks are absurdly overproduced, buried under haphazard layers of keyboards, samples, undeveloped hooks and movie quotes ("Why I Love You"; "Niggas In Paris") - the relatively uncluttered "Welcome To The Jungle" (contributed by Swizz Beatz) and "Made In America" are standouts by default, as the only tracks that don't make my ears feel assaulted.
Thematically it's just Kanye's Angry Penis again ("On Sight"; "I'm In It"); Frank Ocean's passing reference to Corrections Corp. of America in "New Slaves" is not just the only sign of social conscience, it's practically the only acknowledgement of an outside world.
Sonically the disc is a stripped-down, more claustrophobic continuation of the synth-dance grooves of the previous couple of records ("Hold My Liquor"; "I Am A God"); "Blood On The Leaves" is the most expansive, incorporating a rubato Nina Simone sample - if no black folks are offended that he's comparing his girlfriend troubles to lynching I guess I shouldn't be either, but it sure sounds off to my ear.
Of course, the frustrating thing about West is that despite all the narcissism, laziness and contempt for his audience, he's talented enough to crank a home run at any moment: "Bound 2," an ambivalent love song featuring Charlie Wilson and an extremely irritating spoken sample, isn't in classic territory but it's in the right area code.
Wilson can't tell me nothing.