Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Charge-Aught!!!: If you loved a rapper this decade, it was probably Kanye West

For modern pop artists (which, in the aughts, have become essentially synonymous with modern hip-hop artists), a decade has practically tripled in value. It's a sort of "time inflation;" longevity for artists in the sixties, seventies, and eighties entailed at least a ten-year career. Artists weren't handicapped by the need to cater to a MySpace-equipped audience eager to cycle through trends as fast as the market could produce them. A band was allowed to stretch themselves within a genre without seeing their sales plummet following their debut. It's a well-worn cliche that artists like U2, Bruce Springsteen, and Pink Floyd wouldn't survive in today's market.

Consequently, it's remarkable when a pop artist can stay relevant for more than an album, let alone a full decade. It's especially noteworthy considering the ever-evolving nature of "pop music;" pop, after all, is whatever's popular.

So although Eminem has trounced him in terms of record sales, it's hard not to crown Kanye West the king of rap in the aughts. He, after all, has been owning the market since before we knew his name.

The story begins not with The College Dropout or even with his pre-Dropout guest verses (which, I confess, I've never heard), but with his production work on Jay-Z's 2001 behemoth The Blueprint. Kanye's mission statement was Jay-Z's answer to "Juicy." "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)" was a gleeful bombshell, a towering gauntlet set to a chipper Jackson 5 sample. Jay managed to walk the walk simply by talking the talk: he said he was the best rapper alive (maybe not as explicitly as some), and he became the best rapper alive.

And though Jay showed off some of the finest wordplay of his career ("Me under a lamp-post/Why I got my hand closed?/Crack's in my palm/Watchin' the long arm of the law"), it's hard to imagine the track hitting with anything close to the force it did without Kanye's help. Kanye cemented Jay's status as the "fun" mafioso; the don who threw the parties that you were sorta scared to go to. It's hard to argue, also, that Nas put up even a halfway decent fight against Jay-Z when you're being trampled by diss-track "Takeover's" loping-giant walk.

Kanye wasn't content, however, merely with his producing acumen. He didn't want the "Kanye sound" (actually a less-grim version of the "RZA sound") to be owned by anyone but himself. Kanye wanted to be his own brand, and, based on his success with Jay, he knew that was an achievable goal.

The Kanye that emerged on 2004's The College Dropout was a wholly original creation. The dichotomy of hearing Jay's bully-rap over Kanye's soul-channeling accessibility was sacrificed in favor of wholly consistent personal statements: this was Kanye, backed by Kanye.

His self-conscious backpackery stood in sharp contrast to Eminem's white-trash sadism and 50 Cent's gun-wielding stupidity. Kanye managed that feat of the best memoirists: he made his insecurities wholly relatable, mostly by never putting up anything resembling a front.

And that sound. Nobody was as catchy as Kanye was at his best, and everybody wanted to be. The success of the "Kanye family" (Lupe, Common, John Legend) attests to the effectiveness of Kanye's soul revival (and the ubiquitous "chipmunk voice" of sped-up vocal tracks).

He didn't stick with the sound for long, though. Every subsequent album evinced a careful evolution of Kanye's trademarks. He became fascinated with an element of his sound and dedicated himself to fleshing it out. His beats, always relatively lush, became outright orchestral on Late Registration. He brought Jon Brion on to assist him in moving past the almost strictly-sample template that had ruled rap for decades: Registration managed to effectively wield a symphonic sound onto nimble hip-hop production without dragging down the latter.

Graduation swapped out strings for mile-high synths without sacrificing anything in the way of grandiosity. But the focus this time was on crafting pop-rap that could rock arenas; U2 topped his list of influences, and Chris Martin added to his stadium-rock "cred." Paradoxically, Kanye's stadium phase coincided with the beginning of his fascination with French house music, a strain of his sound that would dominate his next album.

808s and Heartbreak was a departure, if not an wholesale transformation. House essentially engulfed his music, mutating the stadium-accessibility of his last record into icy-cold electro-rap. He actually sang (with some assistance) on this record, but more melody didn't translate into greater accessibility.

The auto-tune sound, always a point of contention among hip-hop fans, nonetheless came to dominate the genre for what seemed like an eternity. T-Pain brought his Slash hat to just about every video shoot for a year, and Lil' Wayne even managed to record a perennially-delayed rock record.

And with every record, he's managed to stay at the top of the charts.

Love him or hate him, Kanye has managed to remain a household name by staying two steps ahead of the game for the entirety of the decade. His continued success speaks to the fact that 50 Cent may have actually known what he was talking about ("Go 'head switch the style up/And if they hate, then let 'em hate/And watch the money pile up"), even if he didn't follow his own advice.

So while even the biggest artists (50 Cent, Eminem, Nelly) and producers (Timbaland, the Neptunes) of the decade have seen diminishing returns, Kanye's stayed huge. He's an empire unto himself and, inevitably, all empires must fall. Maybe Swiftgate is the beginning. But he'll probably just parlay it into an even bigger mini-comeback.

Wouldn't surprise me.