Love him or hate him, there is no denying the impact that Kanye West had on the city of Chicago when he first started to make beats. There are many times that West has done something controversial but that is not the objective of this article. We shall discuss how West changed the course of rap music through his first three albums: "College Dropout," "Late Registration," and "Graduation."
Let's begin with how West entered the hip hop scene. Born in Atlanta, West and his mother, Dr. Donda, moved to Chicago in 1980. He attended Polaris High School in Oak Lawn and discovered his love for music around this time. While seeking a recording studio, he crossed path with producer No I.D which started the beginning of their long relationship. No I.D took West under his wing and at the age of 15, Kanye knew how to sample, create, and mix beats. After high school, West studied English at Chicago State University, the same college Dr. Donda was working at. However, after about a year, West believed that college was too damaging to his passion for music and he would soon drop out of college. Dr. Donda was displeased but always supportive of her son which made West desperate to prove himself and his music to the world.
West started out as only a producer. He would make beats for other rappers to rap on. Some of his earliest work can be traced back to 1996 where he produced eight tracks off the album "Down to Earth" by Grav. He slowly gained popularity and his skills were impressive, especially when he began to produce chipmunk soul beats. West was gifted when it came to sampling songs and chipmunk soul is the act of taking old, mostly R&B samples, and raising the pitch to match the beats per minutes of the new song. An excellent example of this style can be found in the song “Mr. Lonely” by Akon that samples from Bobby Vinton’s “Mr. Lonely.” This sound was one of the most desirable in the early 2000s and West was the best about making it. It even caught the attention of Jay-Z who would recruit West to help produce Jay-Z’s best album, "The Blueprint." The song “Izzo (H.O.V.A)” is a summation of the vibes one would receive while listening to the album. However, after signing to Jay-Z record label, West quickly realized that they didn’t want him as a rapper and only wanted him to make beats exclusively for them. This put West in a tight corner where he would work nine hour days at the studio producing other people’s beat and then work another nine hours in order to produce his own music. Nobody took West’s rapping career seriously which is why he had to take time out of his day in order to make his first album. It wasn’t until West got into a serve car accident that he would be taken seriously. During his month long stay at the hospital, West continue to make progress on his album. The first single to debut is “Through the Wire” were West raps through the wires that were keeping his jaw attached to his skull. The public went crazy when this track drop and they pressured the label company to help promote the rest of his album. Shortly after that, West drops his first studio album called "College Dropout" in 2004.
The "College Dropout" overarching theme is about freedom and doing what you really want to do with certain songs preaching more specific topics like materialism, religion, and higher education. Here are some of the best tracks off the album. “Last Call” is a 13 minute long song that describes West’s relationship with Rock-A-Feller Records and how he got to where he was if you want a more in depth analysis on that. “Slow Jamz” isn’t only an example of more chipmunk soul, but an excellent collaboration with another native Chicago rapper, Twista. “Spaceship” dives into Wests past about working at retail and comparing the experience to that of slavery. Lastly is “Jesus Walks.” This song heavily endorsed Christianity and asked why more people weren’t doing the same thing. One thing that Chicago rappers have in common is the fact that they are always striving to be different and challenging the status quo.
West’s next album is "Late Registration" which is my personal favorite. The soul chipmunk was slowly replaced with more jazz influenced sounds along with an entire string orchestra West had at his disposal. Songs focused on a wide range of things from the crack epidemic in the black communities in the '80s ("Crack Music") to his grandmother’s near-death experience ("Roses"). There are also four skits featured on this album which concludes with West getting kicked out of the fraternity Broke Phi Broke for not being broke anymore. For the songs themselves, most people are familiar with the song “Gold Digger” off this album. The title suggests the theme that is present in this song. “Touch the sky” is another important track for two reasons. First, West was boasting about his rise to fame and how he has reached the pinnacle of success. Secondly, Lupe Fiasco, a new Chicago rapper, had the chance to shine along side West himself. Lupe Fiasco is probably the third greatest rapper to learn about Chicago as a city through but that is a topic for another day. “Drive Slow” is a great song to listen to if you are ever driving up Lake Shore Drive during night. The entire song revolves around driving slowly up the lake front road in order to capture the beauty of the city. “Diamond from Sierra Leone” talks about the blood diamonds in Africa and how America’s materialistic culture contributes directly to the conflict diamonds. “Hey Mama” is one of the best songs because he describes his relationship with his mom and how much he loves her. It is surreal listening to this song in 2019 thinking that West used to be this passionate about something in life. My favorite song of the album is “We Major” because the production and lyrics makes the listener feel larger than life. Although I can't skip any of this songs while listening to this album, these are my top picks.
Finally, the last album we shall discuss is "Graduation." His third studio album released in 2007, Kanye took a slightly different approach that the two previous albums. West was inspired from arena rock sounds found in Chicago House. The thing that made this album so important is the famous face off against 50 Cent’s "Curtis" album. They had a friendly sales war to see who could sell more copies if they released their albums on the same days. 50 Cent was a very big gangster rapper at the time and West’s sound on "Graduation" was like nothing anybody has heard at the time. However, West beat 50 Cent’s sales which made many critics call it the day gangster rap died. It was an indication that people were not fond of the same old rap styles and topics and they were interested in innovation in the genre. There was a strong demand for something new and fresh and Kanye West had the highest supply.
Although the production is amazing on this album, many of the lyrics are not as deep or impactful like his previous works. Key songs to listen to for this album would be “Good Morning,” “Stronger,” and “Flashing Lights.” My favorite song is “Can't Tell Me Nothing,” but that is only because how boastful this track is.
West would go on to make six more studio albums but none of them would be as impactful to the Chicago sound as the first three. To recap, Kanye West practically paved the way for many artists to be able to do the things they do today. Although he doesn’t mention it anymore, West used to love this city and would make small references to it in various songs. Next week, we shall talk about one of my favorite rappers of all time, Lupe Fiasco, and dissects his discography and relate that back to Chicago as a city.