Culture  Kanye West: the centre of his own universe

Alexander Ostroff traces the meteoric rise of a hip hop superstar

“The meteor shower wasn’t enough. If we want to restart the ship, we’re going to need the biggest star in the universe!”

This was the culminating moment of Kanye West’s Glow in the Dark Tour last May, and the moment it became clear that Kanye’s ambitions reached beyond Rapper, past the second pop star to the right, and straight on ‘til Icon. West’s set was an elaborate – and nonsensical – stage show, consisting of ‘Ye traveling through space with his computer Jane.

West crashes on a planet and the ship breaks. He sings. Aliens try to fix the ship, but don’t have enough power. The aliens realize that Kanye is, in fact, the biggest star in the universe and can power his own spaceship all the way back to earth. The end. Except not.

At the end of the concert, Kanye embarked on an extended tirade at a publication that gave him a poor review. “You think you can review something without emotion, when I made it with emotion?” he demanded. “This isn’t a term paper! I made this with emotion and you can’t tell me it’s not perfect!” Pleading with the audience to reaffirm his value as the most important artist to ever walk the earth, Kanye is both supremely arrogant and profoundly insecure. These two sides of his personality are the reason that his persona and music remain endlessly fascinating. This has never been more evident than on his latest piece of work, 808s and Heartbreak.

At the time, Glow in the Dark – and the album it sprang from, Graduation – seemed to indicate a shift in direction for Kanye, toward broader, more generic, transcending hip hop, in pursuit of pop stardom. Throughout the entire show, Kanye was the sole person on stage, the centre of attention, bathed in light and synths and sound, larger-than-life, exuberant, and eager to please.

Hip hop shows, more often than not, lean toward a block-party vibe, emphasizing a sense of community. Music critic Frank Kogan characterizes this as a standard aspect of African-American musical traditions from church through to funk: “The audience is part of the form of the music, the structure; no audience, and the call gets no response.”

Whether trading lines with hype men, bringing surprise guests on stage, or having DJs test the audience’s knowledge of the classics, hip hop brings people together. As Erykah Badu says, “Hip hop is bigger than religion; hip hop is bigger than my nigga; hip hop is bigger than the government.” Kanye stands on stage solitary and unreachable, the self-proclaimed biggest star in the universe, and thus unassailable and unable to connect with anyone else.

The College Dropout and Late Registration were warm, lived-in albums. Filled with guests both popular and underground, merging chipmunk soul samples with orchestral flourishes, Kanye embraced contradiction and introspection in a constant quest for popular acceptance and critical respect. While Late Registration engaged in more navel-gazing and self-aggrandizement, Kanye still found time to talk about his sick grandmother and blood diamonds.

By Graduation, Kanye abandoned guest raps on all but one track, eliminated all traces of skits (which can be tiresome, but can also be funny and are a staple of rap albums) and pared album length down to 13 tracks. Gone too were his lyrical specificities. Kanye’s self-obsession proved fascinating on his first two albums in part due to their detail. Intricate stories that previously sketched complete pictures of internal conflicts, tensions between religion, family, success, and politics, were replaced with Dr. Phil-isms about strength and perseverance.

Leaving the Bell Centre, audience members were given free copies of Thank You and You’re Welcome, Kanye’s self-help book. This self-caricaturization seemed grotesque to those of us who fell for the self-deprecating everyman Kanye of early days – but it was a necessary bit of alchemy that morphed Kanye into a pop star. At least, it was a necessary attempt.

He lost something in the process. The entire album is built for world conquering. Swathed in synths and designed for stadiums, songs off Graduation are as subtle as being hit in the head with a brick. The best example of the result is “Homecoming.” Earlier versions of the song, featuring John Legend, ride a bittersweet soul sample that’s ambivalent about Kanye leaving his community to pursue his dreams, begging, “Never leave me alone…I’ll be coming home.”

Two albums later, Chris Martin sings about Kanye’s triumphant return to a windy city that hasn’t always appreciated his greatness. Seeking the approval of rock critics, rap fans, soccer moms, frat boys, people who watch Ellen, and Pitchfork, Kanye’s only path into the future was to go bigger, broader, and possibly blander.

“You can’t judge me on this because it’s a reflection of my heart and soul. It’s like judging a grandmother’s love. Can you judge a grandmother’s love by giving it 2.5 mics, or saying that it only sold a million?” So said Kanye, directly after the unveiling of 808s & Heartbreak.

Kanye’s constant insecurity and need for critical approval propelled him toward further musical exploration past Graduation, further into trance, house music, and samples of Steely Dan and Elton John. 808s & Heartbreak almost gets there. Kanye abandons rapping, singing the entire album through an Autotuner – an audio processor used to correct pitch – transmuting a lowest-common denominator trend in 2008 pop music into a form of artistic expression. The album furthers his move toward a colder style, dispensing with soul samples, featured artists, and any sense of a world outside Kanye.

What appeared to be a conscious artistic choice toward isolation on Graduation has nonetheless revealed itself to be unintentional, unwanted, and the key to understanding the album. Early in the album, Kanye bemoans, “My friend showed me pictures of his kids, and all I could show him was pictures of my cribs / chased the Good Life my whole life long – now I look back on my life and my life’s gone.” 808s posits an either/or between material success and happiness, with Kanye ascribing the loss of his mother, his fiancé, and his friends to his pursuit of his dreams.

The use of Autotune, which on Graduation’s “Good Life” made his voice stately and triumphant, has been inverted, turning Kanye robotic, cynical, and misanthropic. He’s still as remote and inaccessible as he was when he Glowed in the Dark, but the synths and Autotune no longer drape him in celebration so much as drown him. From start to finish, Kanye is bitter and angry, with no one more than himself. One of the album’s highlights, “Amazing,” features Kanye calling himself a monster and “the only thing [he’s] afraid of,” while the album closes with the freestyle “Pinocchio Story” – Kanye just wants to be a real boy, y’all.

West’s newfound bitterness first showed itself on Wayne’s “Lollipop” remix earlier this year, where women surrounded him because they “get to shop” and “finna murder [him] like everybody else.” The ghost of old love is obsession, filling the album with women turned into paranoid, heartless, controlling RoboCops by Hollywood. Hoping that he’s “still got time to grow / things ain’t always set in stone,” but fearing that he’s stuck at a dead end, Kanye spends the better part of an hour mired in paranoia, loneliness, and self-loathing.

Prevailing wisdom was that 808s couldn’t possibly be listenable, let alone good. And yet, against the odds, it works. Kanye’s self-obsession and unwarranted sense of persecution are as unattractive as ever, but the vulnerability exuded by every song is a novelty, both for Kanye as a person, and as a multi-platinum rap artist. The key to its effectiveness is the minimalist, measured music and the surprising power of Autotune, which gives the impression of Kanye willfully suppressing his emotions. Claustrophobic and disturbed, 808s & Heartbreak is nonetheless a captivating, and frequently enjoyable listen. You can call him crazy, but as you’ll learn from his self-help book, “Crazy is a label that the average put on the exceptional.” Exactly.