How Electronic Music Turned Kanye West into a Superhuman
Yeezy's voice is never clearer than when bolstered by technology and the support of avant-garde producers.
When Kanye West was on the promotional trail for Yeezus, his interviews turned into an impromptu rally for his own worth as a fashion designer. He needed a co-sign, he needed the "infrastructure" to get out his dreams. One of the points he kept hammering home to bewildered radio DJs and journalists was the struggle he faced when he wanted to make the move from producing to rapping. He was signed to Roc-A-Fella in 2000 as a producer, breaking out by handling the bulk of beat-making on Jay Z's instant classic The Blueprint in 2001. He wasn't finished though. Not satisfied with penning hits for the likes of Janet Jackson and Alicia Keys, Kanye wanted to be on the other side of the mixing desk. A reluctant Dame Dash (Roc-A-Fella co-founder) eventually signed Kanye as a rapper in the early 2000's, a move supposedly made largely to keep Yeezy's talents as a producer in-house.
The rest is history—a manic timeline full of failed sitcom pilots, torn up Maybachs and perplexing Cosby apologia—but there's something telling about those first steps. The story of a record producer so good that executives were willing to turn him into a rapper just to keep hold of his beats.
Sampling is always used to anchor conversations about Kanye West the producer and his relationship with the world of electronic music. Mostly, Kanye helped relight the fire of a production that backpacker hip-hop heads loved. Chopped up Chaka Khan motifs, triumphant Lauryn Hill hooks and the soothing tones of Marvin Gaye all defined his early records—they gave Kanye's sound a warmth and familiarity that suited his cocky but then-charming lyrics.
As his musical ambitions expanded in 2007, so did his palette, with "Stronger," the lead single from Graduation, landing in a rich, phosphorescent blaze. Lifting a sample from Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and layering it with vocoder, it was the first Kanye production situated firmly in the realm of electronica. The synthesisers rattled against a tight 4/4 beat pattern and the cut up sample became a kind of mantra based on a Nietzsche mandate: "What does not kill him, makes him stronger."
The song is incredibly emblematic of what digital production tools and influences have given Kanye—the chance to sound superhuman. Just as the artwork for Graduation suggests, the record was Kanye taking flight and leaving earth. While it might have taken 75 different mixes, 8 audio engineers and 11 mix engineers this song successfully sounds like a cinematic rebirth. The outro—an epic, operatic synth breakdown courtesy of Mike Dean—is the sound of a rap artist opening up a brand new treasure chest of weaponry, and with it a host of new possibilities. In many ways, the maximalism and cheesiness of Stronger in comparison to Ye's other dance-music-informed offerings, is testament to how excited he was. Arriving before his days spent trawling through timelines to get producers in; "Stronger" could be seen as the sound of Kanye getting to grips with the equipment himself.
In terms of hardware, no tool has played quite as important role in Kanye's artistic development as the Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. Besides playing a titular role in 2008's 808s & Heartbreak, the drum machine helped him brand a new, stark, electro-pop minimalism that rerouted the course of his entire career, and hip hop at large. Inspired by the gothic drama of 80s pop luminaries like Gary Numan, as well as composer and multi-instrumentalist Jon Brion, Kanye adopted a stripped-back, near-essentialist approach to recording the LP. Aside from the triumphant juxtapositions of flattened, distorted soundscapes with stirring tribal rhythms and epic melodies, Kanye's commitment to Auto-Tune on this LP gave him ultimate control over the instrument that defines his most synthetic efforts—his voice.
When asked about Auto-Tune by notoriously unforgiving NYC radio host Charlamagne Tha God, Kanye said he uses it because it allows his voice to do things it otherwise couldn't. It's a simple response, but it captures the power he draws from his relationship with electronic music. Take "Hold On" for example, a single from G.O.O.D Music president Pusha T's 2013 full-length My Name Is My Name. Kanye's contribution here is uncredited because he isn't really providing anything more than instrumentation. His voice—distorted and warped by Auto-Tune—plays the role of a synthesiser, wailing and warbling beneath the beat to give it a touch of extra drama.
In the run-up to 808s, Kanye declared to a panel that Auto-Tune was "The funnest thing to use!". This stylistic shift signalled the start of a relationship with the new technology that remains central to his sound. The heart-wrenching crescendo of "Runaway" (2010), the hushed contentment of "Only One" (2014) and the icy warning calls of "Wolves" (2014); it's a computerised cry that has come to define the West sound, and marks perhaps one of the most seamless and long-lasting marriages between hip-hop and experimental instrumentation. Kanye's reframing of his own voice as an "instrument" has allowed the lines between the two worlds to blur beyond recognition. Cuts like "Guilt Trip" (2013) and "Fade" (2015)—the latter of which lifts a sample from 1985 Mr Fingers cut "Mystery Of Love"—tread the line between rap and instrumental music. Lyrics take a backseat and the sonic landscape becomes the central focus.
Despite always committing to new frontiers through his own productions, Kanye has forged strong relationships with other figures in electronic music which have transformed both their respective careers. Not least Hudson Mohawke who officially signed to G.O.O.D Music as a producer following his work on the label's Cruel Summer compilation in 2011. The personnel list for this record is a lot to take in but it's the product of a curator with his finger on the pulse. HudMo's work on "Mercy" still knocks just as hard half four years later, and when TNGHT were at the height of their powers, their ferocious rework of "Cold" (2012) was so galvanising Kanye made a cameo at their intimate Brooklyn show. The untamed TNGHT horns later reappeared on Yeezus, to give "Blood On The Leaves" (2013) its tormented climax.
The direct maximalism that HudMo provided was precisely what Kanye needed. As an artist and a public figure, Ye can be guilty of overstating: trying to get 5 different philosophical points across in one sentence whilst also, somehow, linking things back to the price of silk. That isn't to say his points are worthless, but the emotion needed streamlining, which is precisely the focus HudMo, among others, was able to provide. The cumulative achievement on Yeezus is the channeling of overwhelming frustration and conflicting personal desires into a single sound. Since then, HudMo's name has appeared on credit-lists for other heavyweights like Drake and—despite being choosey with his clients—he's become one of the most distinctive and sought after figures at the top table of rap production. His brand of off-kilter velocity paved the way for collaborations like Rustie and Danny Brown's "Attak"(2014), further widening the margins of "rap music" and bridging the all-too-distant gap between Glaswegian happy hardcore and Chi-town club music.
With Hudson Mohawke in tow, the now-fabled Yeezus sessions in Paris saw Kanye operate a far further-reaching recruitment policy than his previous efforts, turning the record into a launchpad for a cast of new, subversive talents. Evian Christ was plucked from his life as a trainee teacher and flown to Paris to provide the jagged stabs and contorted vocal snippets for "I'm In It," which introduced the world to his equally ear-piercing but just as captivating offerings for Tri Angle. French techno DJ Gesaffelstein was roped in to collaborate with Daft Punk on "Black Skinhead" and "Send It Up"—a move which elevated him suddenly to Banglater and Homem-Christo's professional standard. Perhaps Yeezus's most dynamic alumni was Arca, whose experimental deconstructions of trap and electronica had only thus far appeared on the shelves on UNO NYC. Suddenly, his distinctive breed of cerebral rattles and acute stabs were present on almost half of the tracks of the year's most talked-about hip hop album.
The contributions of these young, unique voices were the engine for Yeezus. While their work on the record raised their profile, they aren't defined solely by what they gave to Kanye West. What they were doing was so much more than just turning in beats for his approval. Just as Auto-Tune had shaped 808s & Heartbreak and offered a sonic articulation of the record's themes of grief and loss, the limitless ambitions of these avant garde producers proved to be exactly what Kanye needed on Yeezus—bizarre, alien and angry production for an album that set out to challenge the status quo. It's the defining record in terms of his alternative-dance endeavours because it's the fullest realisation of just how much digital textures empower his voice. You could watch all the interviews, read all the lyrics, and study every pixel of the carefully calculated artwork, but until you hear the opening throbbing synth of "On Sight"—you won't quite grasp the synergy. Yeezus, is rage with the machine.
Producers that work with Kanye rarely talk about the process. Naysayers might say this is because he's hiding a lack of involvement and covering it up through mystique and enigma—that he's got a team of tastemakers giving him all the figures he needs to stay rooted in the zeitgeist. But if you trace his relationship with electronic music against the personal themes within each record, then his commitment to experimentation adds up. From the overexcited, intergalactic flossing of "Stronger" right through to the measured, ambient textures of "Wolves," he is a collaborator in the truest sense of the word. Electronic music offers Kanye exactly what he's always been fighting for—freedom. When he can edit and modify with no limitations he is—sonically at least—omnipotent. He's looking down on mere mortals, zooming in on his vision and tweaking it until the message is clearer than it ever could be through just words. Playing out his soul, through the wire.