The Sounds of Kanye West


By Liam Viney

If anybody can casually ignite a kind of mini-media-firestorm with the release of an album Waves The Life of Pablo (T.L.O.P), Kanye can. Like the late David Bowie through the 70s and 80s, Kanye functions as a mirror for the most visible and occasionally garish social and cultural values of his time.

Unlike the intensely private Bowie, though, Kanye’s performance extends beyond the stage, into his personal life, and every tic of his outsized personality is reflected back to us via his own twitter feed and an insatiable celebrity-obsessed media.

This ubiquity makes Kanye a tough act to swallow for some. Coupled with a history of more or less zany attention bidding, he is all too often written off as no more than a cocky, albeit talented, egomaniac.

I suspect detractors are doing a disservice both to Kanye and themselves – separating musician from music has long been a necessary part of enjoying the art form (think of the murderous Gesualdo, the actively anti-Semitic Wagner).

At the heart of any story like this is the creative impulse writ large. Really large. So large in Kanye’s case that it threatens to engulf the man it inhabits at every turn. The combination of explosive creativity with megalomaniacal personality quirks leads to a kind of publicly delivered life-as-performance-art.

Dylan Martinez/ Reuters

If Kanye West’s entire life is available for consumption as a single artistic package – where music is only the foundation of a lyrical, fashion-oriented, reality-TV inspired, visual and conceptual performance structure – it might seem futile to talk about his music separately.

Unfortunately, the noise pollution around Kanye somewhat obscures what is one of the 21st century’s most vibrant musical phenomena.

Many have long forgotten the simple fact that Kanye West is one of the greatest producers of hip-hop in its 40-plus year history. His success is undeniable. A decade-long six-album streak of critically-acclaimed albums rivals the greatest icons of pop. Over and over again, Kanye has an ability to push popular music’s boundaries, via hip-hop, while remaining commercially viable.

It’s curious that the sonic aspect of hip-hop is so often under-contemplated. The lyrics of rap and hip-hop receive the lion’s share of critical attention, for obvious reasons. The music videos are also the subject of reams of commentary.

But the foundation of any musical object, to state the obvious, is its sound. Underneath all the posturing and showmanship, Kanye is an utterly professional artist and the material he most loves to work with is sound.

Kevork Djansezian/ Reuters

His gift for sampling, in particular, is at the core of his artistic integrity. A thoroughly postmodern aesthetic practice, sampling is the heart of the art of hip-hop. The skill with which a DJ (or producer) selects, edits, processes, and combines any number of musical chunks from existing recordings is the measure of the DJ.

Transcending pastiche or collage, the finished product is usually intended to be a new creation, with its own sound and feel.

Chicago-based Soul and Funk from the 60s and 70s form the basis of Kanye’s sampling DNA. Chicago was also the birthplace of House, and exposure to that genre gave Kanye an openness and willingness to be experimental. With deep roots in a living, breathing and thriving musical tradition, it’s little wonder that Kanye’s musical foundation is strong.

By going back in time, and looking at some of the basic attributes of Kanye West’s music, we’re reminded that a deeply authentic artistic and creative impulse lies at the heart of all things Kanye. What emerges is a picture of a young person driven almost to distraction by a desire to be creative, to be expressive, and to communicate ever more impactful art, ever more grandly.


Kanye enjoyed an intellectually stimulating and middle-class upbringing as the only child of an English Literature professor mother, and an award-winning photojournalist/ erstwhile Black Panther member father.

In a VH1 special, West’s parents talk about Kanye’s youthful obsession with visual art giving way to music. The gift of an electronic keyboard at age 12 eventually robbed his father of summer visits and his friends of social time as Kanye spent every waking minute creating beats.

The next ten years were spent honing his craft as a crate digger. What West lacks in genuine street cred he easily gains back through those years of gathering, dissecting and constructing beats; an almost sacred rite of passage for hip-hop producers.

West soon developed a reputation as a producer, scoring a breakthrough when he joined Roc-A-Fella Records in 2000. West’s success on Jay Z’s career-rejuvenating The Blueprint (2001) would probably have guaranteed West a career as a producer. But Kanye’s ambition has always been of the vaulting variety; he wanted to rap.

Kanye’s bid for rapper stardom was thwarted for several years, the main obstacle being his clean-cut personality. He was too soft for the thug-mire that was commodified gangsta rap in the late 90s and early 2000s.

As it turns out, when West’s turn came, the innate contrast between West and the general environment of commercial rap came as a relief. Setting himself just beyond his contemporaries became the pattern that has defined his career.


From his roots in the music of Chicago, and Soul and Funk broadly, Kanye has always been eager to globalize his musical palette.

After the success of his first album, The College Dropout (2004), of which Through the Wire was the lead single, Kanye stretched his legs with Late Registration (2005), which included the cinematically-conceived and human rights-oriented Diamonds of Sierra Leone.

Casting his net widely, he drew on the lush string sounds of English group Portishead as one of the ways to re-imagine what hip-hop could sound like.

Even more groundbreaking, Graduation (2007), the third album in Kanye’s first-period trilogy, explored electronic dance music in a hip-hop context long before it seemed like a good idea to other artists.

Omnivorously appropriating ever more geographically distant influences into his hip-hop aesthetic, West seems especially interested in European styles such as the electronica of Daft Punk (or Good Morning’s beautiful sample of Elton John).

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to imagine what unexplored direction there is left for Kanye to take.

Recent years

Astonishingly, Kanye’s next four major albums continued to innovate in sound. In what he describes as a “back-handed apology” for alienating fans with 808s and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy(2010) is something of a return-to-earlier form. Considered by some to be Kanye’s most exhilarating album, at a densely packed 70 minutes, MBDTF is full of layers, textures, compelling collaborations and dazzling inventiveness.

POWER is probably the most acclaimed track (apart from Runaway) in a very competitive field, representing a blazing return to hip-hop fundamentals. Described by West as “superhero theme music”, POWER is exultant, super-charged, and urgent.

Kanye’s messianic self-prophesies begin to manifest, girded by samples from more European sources: 21st Century Schizoid Man by English progressive rock band King Crimson, and Afromerica by French disco act Continent Number 6.

Given that the already-released No More Parties in LA has Kanye teaming up with the hottest young talent currently on the scene, Kendrick Lamar, there’s every chance T.L.O.P will be something special.

Whatever the reason, it’s hard to imagine what unexplored direction there is left for Kanye to take.

Liam Viney is a Piano Performance Fellow at the The University of Queensland. This article was adapted from The Conversation. Read the original article here.