From producer to pop icon, we look at Kanye West's rise to fame ahead of his Abu Dhabi performance.
Kanye West heads East
Production is power. West entered the hip-hop game as a gifted young beat-maker, lending his talent to rappers from his local Chicago hip-hop scene. From his first production work, for Grav’s 1996 debut album Down to Earth, West has been fine-tuning his sound, which saw him use speeded-up soul samples over sturdy drum beats. His production work turned heads in 2001 when enlisted to produce the lion’s share of Jay-Z’s acclaimed The Blue Print, including the big single Izzo (H.O.V.A.). Over the years, West opened up his sound to include electro, trip-hop, classical music and rock.
West always fancied spitting some of his own rhymes, but it took a lot to convince his Roca-A-Fella label boss Jay-Z that he had more to offer than dope beats. Jay-Z had a point; the middle-class-raised West was simply not street enough. After being eventually signed, West made his official rapping debut in the self-produced track The Bounce off Jay-Z’s 2003 album The Blueprint: The Gift and The Curse. West’s influence in the hip-hop game was apparent to him even then: “I did take over the game, brought back the soul,” he rapped. “Got tracks to go, got plaques that’s gold.”
Over the course of six albums, including Watch the Throne – his 2011 collaboration with Jay-Z – West has arguably built one of the most interesting and varied bodies of work of any hip-hop artist. Where most mainstream rappers focus on producing a fistful of hot singles, West was always an album man. Each record possesses a distinctive lyrical and musical style. West’s debut The College Dropout was a masterclass on how to marry soul samples with gritty beats. Late Registration had epic production values with classical music and baroque pop added to the mix. Graduation saw West explore electro music territory, even teaming up with the French dance duo Daft Punk in the process. 808s & Heartbreak saw him veering off towards almost dub-ish type minimalism before exploring cinematic territory in his latest solo album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Lyrically, each album finds West looking inward as he comes to term with his increasing fame.
West doesn’t like to lose. His mouth has been responsible for as many high-profile misses as hits. His biggest gaffes seem to happen at awards shows, with West visibly upset when his name is not mentioned as a winner. West stormed out of the 2004 American Music Awards when he lost the Best New Artist Award to the country singer Gretchen Wilson. In 2006, he stormed off the stage of the MTV Europe Music Awards when the dance groups Justice and Simian pipped him in the Best Video Award. His biggest faux pas, however, was at the 2009 MTV Music Video Awards, where West took the microphone from the Best Video award winner Taylor Swift to berate the judges for not awarding the gong to Beyoncé instead. That last action proved too much for even the US president Barack Obama who, when asked, called West “a jackass”.
The live shows
West doesn’t do the normal DJ and rapper stage set-up. In previous tours, West came along with a mini-orchestra in order to tease out the dense sound of his productions – that’s if you get to see them. In his previous Yas Island show in 2010, the ensemble was mostly hidden behind giant screens, much to the bemusement of the crowd. Whether or not West returns with a similar set-up, his personality and bag full of hits should keep the crowd entertained.
West wields fashion power
When you are rolling with Kanye West, he is in charge. Kim Kardashian – and millions of television viewers – have been finding this out gradually over the past year. Any chance the “Kimye” romance would be a low-key affair was tossed aside when West appeared in his partner’s reality TV show Keeping Up with the Kardashians last July. One episode found West quiet and almost humble as he met Kardashian in a New York hotel room, limiting his responses to platitudes including “you look great”, when Kardashian paraded her choice of apparel for their evening date. Ironically that comment signalled the beginning of West’s enthusiastic – or some would call controlling – involvement in Kardashian’s fashion choices. In August West expressed his distaste for Kardashian’s fashion taste, offering her a brand-new wardrobe if she threw her rags away. Ever since, the couple has been seen wearing carefully coordinated outfits or Kardashian has been donning KW earrings and, recently, Kanye West Giuseppe Zanotti pearl heels.
Kanye West performs on Thursday night at du Arena, Yas Island. Tickets begin from Dh295 from www.thinkflash.ae