Reincarnation is meant to end somewhere. In Hinduism, it’s called moshka, the shedding of ego. Every action we take in one life banks or loses karma in the spiritual change purse, paying for the next form we assume when the cycle repeats. To be painless and truly divine, you have to nurture three responsibilities to your morality, pleasure and environmental freedom. Only then can you leave the world behind. That’s transcendence – never even thinking you’re above anything at all. But if you told Kanye West, he’d only call his new sneaks Moshkas, the better to stamp all over that idea.
As far as karma goes, Kanye may have run out at last – siding with abusers, pissing on Grammy awards, bashing Billie Eilish, fudging a record that hinted at a return to his creative peak but ended up somewhere near the bottom. A slice of his fans turns away, disgusted or bored. Others cling on. Leading alleged female torture artist Marylin Manson to the porch of your deceased mother’s house isn’t smart, and toughens your sell. So does baiting your ex’s new boyfriend, calling him “garbage” for little reason other than God isn’t taking your calls for a reconciliation meal.
Or instead, Ye’s more vital than he’s been in at least half a decade, banking brownie points with an album that’s broken a tepid streak while remaining one of the rawest voices on celebrity primetime. A man who does what he feels, says how he sees it, and channels every mistake into a confrontation with himself. Beyond music. Beyond fame. A creator who is drawn to demolition, not as a fad but a deep and abiding itch for stuff the rest of us may not be ready for.
Collectively, we may at the very least wish for Kanye West to find the support he appears to lack in his personal life. Illness, hilarity and head-smacking blind sides on this scale just cannot continue for much longer. But then again, haven’t people been writing Ye off forever?
You’ve seen the doc, right? The clear-eyed youngster of Jeen-Yuhs is, in some ways, very different from the titan we are used to – scrappy, gawky, wholesome, rapping in the faces of Rockerfella secretaries who look at him like a sweet pup who just wants to chase a ball down the lane. He hustles his demos from room to room, studio to studio, desperate for someone to take as many chances as him. He knew he was changing the game. We had to catch up, and fuck us if we couldn’t.
Yet the strength of Kanye’s dreams metastasized, became a curse and a superpower. Just watch him with his mother. When Donda West laughs, coos and clinks a glass in an anaemic kitchen, you can’t help wondering whether the extremities of the most influential musician alive would’ve been blunted with wiser counsel. A sentence, of course, that Kanye would probably piss on.
For he has undoubtedly led several lives already, more than we can ever scrub up and line up, the success of the last morphing and informing the tragedies of its predecessor, on and on, each album changing with the vaulting scream of the psyche at its centre.
That is why I’d like to look at every LP, the solo stuff at least, in Kanye’s catalogue. We can view them as a musical impression of where he was at that time: what they reveal to us about the figure we’ve come to analyse, hate and cherish so often and inconsistently.
What songs, in particular, might say the most about the man?
The College Dropout, 2004
For almost half a decade, Kanye collected beats for his debut, which still slaps despite sounding more like a blueprint than a home run. TIME’s Hot 100 List mentioned that TCG “comes on stronger than a broadway musical,” a good enough summary of the sun and soul that burns through these anthems to ambition. From the off, he was blunt, scathing and hyper-melodic, keen to batter his detractors into a thumbs up on the floor.
Key track: ‘Through The Wire’
His first single, literally spat through a jaw device after his 2002 car crash, introduced many of Ye’s strengths: startling immediacy, impromptu pop culture, asking to be locked up and recognised as a champion in two breaths. The urge to be heard breaks all limits, medical or otherwise. It’s impossible to hear this and fail to believe you’re going to make it (and wear your seatbelt).
Late Registration, 2005
Jon Brion’s contributions to Kanye’s second project are legendary, the result of hard days’ tinkering with dozens of instruments and, in the case of ‘Bring Me Down’, 160 or so recordings at the mixing desk. But the rapper’s mind barked right back, flipping arrangements on their head in 10 minutes, and bringing in left-field guests such as Jamie Foxx and Adam Levine. Late Registration is a tremendous expansion of vision. Whether it’s the soft whimper of a horn or ‘Addiction’s bongos and snappy hi hat, there’s more love for everything behind the bars. Mr. West was gracious enough to let a master guide him as he, in turn, reshaped ideas from that hand.
Key track: ‘Diamonds From Sierra Leone (Remix)’
After A Tribe Called Quest’s Q-Tip told Ye about conflict diamonds, the stones mined to fund foreign wars, he couldn’t let the original ‘Diamonds . . .’ sit. With a delicious air of contradiction, the remix forces black culture – or anyone with more bling than questions – to stare at the cost of material stature, often implanted by survival instincts in your own country. Over the years, we’d get more political introspection, usually fuelled by Kanye as the protagonist.
Oh, the shades, the jackets, the size of this era . . . As a victory lap, Graduation makes total sense, lighting glow sticks while twisting the dial on electronic skullduggery. At the time, people pointed to a now-forgotten genre, bloghouse, as Kanye’s main inspo, but now it sounds like a bid for the biggest audience on this planet or the next. Clean, digital drums take precedence, as does the careful slaving of what a computer can do to make you shit yourself. The record marked the beginning of an if-it-ain’t-broke-then-break-it mentality; ‘Stronger’ received over 50 mixes, some after it went to radio.
Key track: ‘Everything I Am’
Honourable mentions for ‘The Good Life’ and ‘Big Brother.’ However, no Graduation cut beats the affecting message of ‘Everything . . .’, in which whatever we’re missing is also what we’ve gained, and tight jeans may mean you have an open heart. “Pink slip on my door, ‘cause I can’t afford to stay / My fifteen seconds up, but I got more to say,” points to a fear of rejection and being left behind.
808s & Heartbreak, 2008
“It was probably the easiest Kanye record that ever got made,” producer Jeff Bhasker reflected a decade later. “It flowed the most effortlessly because we basically did it in three weeks.” Accounts of 808s suggest a fractured Ye burying himself in work for its own sake. Donda’s death and a dissolved engagement to fashion designer Alexis Phifer rocked him viciously just months apart. Through it, he kept writing: a pillaged soul man, a cold balladeer singing properly, unheard of in rap. The pitchy vocals pulled heartbreak into a fresh aesthetic for hip hop – music more generally would feel the effects soon enough. And across the LP, Kanye is overwhelmed. Light and machines stalk red eyes that want to remain in the shadows.
Key track: ‘Pinocchio Story’
The last song abandons the drum machine, ice and sense of distance for a freestyle at Singapore’s Indoor Stadium. As he laments the urge to be real, we are treated to a human being on his emotional island – neatly echoed with a sole piano – as fans circle below. Here, Ye tears off his Gucci and Louis Vutton. Why, he pleads, does Pinocchio suffer from lies, while he suffers for telling the truth? Beyonce liked the recording so much, she convinced him to make it the closer.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010
Four records in as many years would grind anyone down. What about another breakup? Exile to Japan? Embarrassing Ms Middle America in her moment of glory? On the red carpet to the VMAs, Kanye clutched a bottle of Hennessy, and later claimed if God hadn’t wanted him to interrupt her, He wouldn’t have sat him on the front row. Regardless, this dent in the artist’s image – the night on which, arguably, he made his definitive heel turn – forced Kanye to lie low. And when he was through, he rebounded into a supervillain’s lair of guest spots, power naps and untrammelled songwriting, gifting one of the most heralded pieces of rap (or pop, for that matter) ever made.
Key track: ‘Runaway’
I mean, how could it not be? It’s the West thrill ride you want everyone to take at least once. The patience is legendary, and unique, in his oeuvre. Those drums never get old, urging Pusha T to acknowledge the sins of cold cash, asking his girl to just deal with it unless she wants to lose whatever else she loves. Unlike cuts from his previous album, ‘Runaway’ unpeels a broken, wobbly Kanye released from digital manipulation – until, of course, the absurd crescendo, where his obsession with the human voice turns into a sick cyborg, a thing fighting for purchase, almost as sad as the cello at its flank.
Rest easy, Ye-heads. Part two is on the way . . .