Kanye West is the quintessential polarising pop star regarding what he says outside of music; you either love him or hate him, there really is no in between. But no one can talk down about what he’s achieved as an artist. There’s a case for the enigmatic producer turned rapper being the most influential contemporary artist globally, and he once shared the secret to his greatness.
West’s career saw him begin as a producer, working his way up the hip hop ladder quickly after word soon spread about his futuristic approach to beat creation and the genre as a whole. It was an ethos that saw him become one of the most sought after producers in the world. Despite his rich successes as a producer, his aim from day one was to become a rapper, and even though people doubted whether he had the capabilities to make the step up, he proved them wrong with apparent ease.
Although his last couple of albums have been a little off the boil, Kanye is a figure that has proved time and time again that you can never write off a true innovator. Following College Dropout in 2004, West soon became one of the most talked-about artists around, and his presence was like a breath of fresh air on the charts and within music as a whole. The industry loved his unique style and the people loved that he wasn’t trying to pretend to be somebody he wasn’t — he was an authentic artist. Still making the jump from behind the mixing desk to the front of the stage was a terrifying leap.
West admitted in an interview from around that period that, at first, he struggled when it came to writing bars and how he was talking about guns even though he’d never shot a gun in his life. He realised that he was pretending to be someone he wasn’t. Still, hip hop is a broad church and speaking with artists such as Common, who defiantly tries to avoid the stereotypical rapper image, allowed him not to run away from being Kanye.
The rapper’s mother was a university professor in Chicago, and his parents talked to him profusely through his childhood about critical societal issues, which rubbed off on him. Ye realised his raps didn’t reflect who he was until one day when it clicked. Music was meant to be an expression of himself, primarily for himself. As soon as you make music for others and their perceptions, you’re on the losing side. He never looked back.
Speaking about the influence of figures like Common, Kanye noted: “They showed me how to rap about this stuff and still make it sound cool, and when they gave me that, it flew out of me. It started flowing, and I wrote ‘All Falls Down’ in one night.
“They showed me how to rap about things that came from my heart. They weren’t particularly the cool things. ‘I got a throwback on, I got a gun’, like I’ve never shot a gun before in my life, but I was saying it in raps because it seemed like what I was supposed to do. They showed me how to word what it was you wanted to say and how to still make it tangible to a rap listener.”
Ye then poignantly reveals the one key ingredient to making a rap song connect with a listener. Adding: “Rap has a certain edge to it, but you’ve got to speak whatever you’ve got to say with conviction.”
Conviction is the thing that matters most; according to West, he noted how rather than boasting about guns, he would say a line like ‘Can I help you?’ with all the same vigour and ferocity that another rapper would inject into a line about weapons.
It’s a subliminal mind trick that West pulled on the hip hop community to lure them into thinking they were listening to an archetypal rap track when West was anything but that. By making himself unique and authentic, West provided a new idol, the kind that could be both attainable and otherworldly.
It’s heartening to hear a young Kanye speak so engaged with music and nerding out over the microscopic details of a song, which is a reminder of his true self underneath all the façade.