Will ‘Waves’ Be Kanye West’s First Disappointing Album?
Kanye West doesn’t believe in yesterday. Living through his records may be the closest thing our generation gets to experiencing the constant future-shock of the Beatles between Rubber Soul and Let It Be. Each of the six left-field knockout studio albums that band released from 1965 through 1970 seemed to tweak the world toward its psychedelic or surreal or shaggy image. Of course, after that, the Beatles called it quits. After Kanye’s sixth critically acclaimed game-changer, he only started getting a little help from Paul McCartney.
Kanye West’s six-album run between 2004’s The College Dropout and 2013’s Yeezus is hands down the greatest, most unstoppable streak of records in hip-hop history. And while great rapper streaks are not exactly unheard of (Bay Area ambassador E-40 is set to drop his 23rd excellent album any day now), there’s been absolutely nothing comparable to West’s level of daring, visibility and impact. That, sadly, looks like it’s coming to an end.
Part of what made the Kanye West solo albums great was how they cut a clear path through expectations — not only poppin’ wheelies on the zeitgeist but sailing clear over it dressed like Evel Knievel. Kanye West albums deliver the impossible: a cinematic banger about conflict diamonds, hipster concerns like French house or krautrockers Can turned into populist monsters, Young Jeezy getting a safe place to ponder his sodium intake, a nine-minute minimalist masterwork with a three-minute vocoder solo, avant-garde digital noiseniks like Arca and Gesaffelstein running rampant.
Every Kanye West album has felt like a bold stroke against everything, since he zigs when the world zags. His 2004 debut, The College Dropout, treated his insecurities like 50 Cent treated the size of his guns. In the middle of G-Unit’s chest-puffing machismo and T.I.’s tales of street hustles, West rapped about hating his job at the Gap, dropping out of college and feeling guilty about consumerism. With 2005’s Late Registration, he and Jon Brion opted for sweeping string arrangements in the age of minimalist crunk. 2007’s Graduation presaged our EDM technofuture years before DJ Snake and Lil Jon had everyone turned up. 2008’s 808s and Heartbreak took the then–increasingly unfashionable Auto-Tune technology and used it to change what a rapper does — beyond T-Pain’s pop triumph, West used the simplistic and melodic gurgle to mine emotional depths. 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a Pink Floyd–sized, King Crimson–sampling 68-minute prog-rap behemoth in the age of shrinking budgets. 2013’s Yeezus was basically a noise record scrawled in political punk freehand.
What is even left for Kanye West to do? Twisted Fantasy is already rap’s baroque St. Pepper’s, 808s its stripped-down Let It Be. It seemed for a minute like West had discovered a new path with a pair of Paul McCartney collaborations, “Only One” and the Rihanna single “FourFiveSeconds.” Both were completely beatless — has there ever been a hit rap song with no beat? Mixing plainspoken hip-hop lyrics with electronic textures and classic singer-songwriter balladry, they were basically Dylanesque folk confessionals performed by some of the most famous people on Earth. In hip-hop’s 43rd year, the very idea of “rap” could have been disassembled completely by an album of robo-Mumford tunes, a Rubin-esque reducing of “rap” to mean nothing but stark honesty and the occasional rhyme. Ultimately this phase of Kanye West turned out to be more detour than blueprint.