Yeezus Walks: The Evolution Of Kanye West In 15 Tracks
There is an addictive energy to being a hated man, and for the last five years of Kanye's career, he's been taking his highs anywhere that he can get them.
It’s oddly reductive to talk about Kanye West as a single entity.
After all, no other pop musician since David Bowie has burnt through personas at the speed of West. He’s been a producer, a God, the most dangerous man in America, a bipolar superhero, and a Trump supporter.
There are key obsessions running through his career, of course — power, in all its forms; grief; loneliness. But the way he ruminates on those themes isn’t just wildly disparate. Sometimes it’s actively paradoxical.
Of course, meaningful analysis of the man isn’t helped by, y’know, the man. West’s mouth won him attention early in his career, but it’s constantly thrown critics off his tracks, forcing writers to get tied up in dimestore gossip rather than the really exciting stuff. Which is, and has always been, the work itself.
In fact, that might be the most significant testament to West’s ability. No matter how irritating, self-aggrandising, and downright ugly his public persona might become, at the end of the day there’s the songs, lying there smouldering and untainted; some of the boldest music to ever emerge from contemporary America.
#1. ‘Through The Wire’ (2003)
Early on in his career, West’s sole gimmick was his work ethic. He was everywhere, all the time, producing the work of his peers and rapidly building up his own eclectic, technicolour back catalogue at a speed that would make the head of most other rappers spin.
But nowhere else was that religious dedication to music clearer than on ‘Through The Wire’. A series of bars spat through a significant jaw reconstruction, ‘Through The Wire’ sees West try to heal himself after a traumatic car accident through the strength of his own songs.
The message was clear from the outset: here was a man willing to sacrifice everything — including his health — for his sound.
#2. ‘Jesus Walks’ (2004)
West has flirted with the image of Christ throughout his career. Sometimes, he has tried to replace him; other times, he has dedicated his life to him. ‘Jesus Walks’, his breakthrough single, hits a strange midpoint between those two attitudes.
Both reverent and deeply envious of the power of the son of God, it’s an attempt by West to create his own Christology; to elevate himself to the status of a demi-god, while staring out, wide-eyed, at all the things bigger than himself.
It’s also one of West’s most straightforward tracks. He’d never write a chorus like this again, abandoning the simple pleasures of his early work for multi-layered, abrasive mosaics of sound.
#3. ‘Good Morning’ (2007)
If there’s anything that Graduation, Kanye’s 2007 masterpiece, taught the world of rap, it was a fearlessness when it comes to samples. West has a voracious appetite for all music, but he’s especially taken with anything that the mainstream derides as uncool: think his track ‘Power’, which spun King Crimson’s ’21st Century Schizoid Man’ into a thundering piece of pure sonic doom.
On ‘Good Morning’, it’s Elton John that West magpies, turning ‘Someone Saved My Life Tonight’ inside out, and revealing a darker, trickier edge not obvious on the original recording. In the process, he united the two sides of the dial, encouraging pop to strive for the modernity of rap, and rap to play with the frivolity of pop.
#4. ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ (2007)
It makes sense that West has called ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ his favourite song of his entire career. After all, the Kanye mind is a maximalist mind, obsessed with making things bigger, and louder, and heavier, and lighter all at once.
‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’ takes that extremity as far as it can possibly go, layering on a thousand different styles and samples until the song threatens to collapse under its own diamante-studded weight.
In that way, it’s the song that sent Kanye searching. This phase in his career was dead after ‘Can’t Tell Me Nothing’; there was nothing more he could do with the subversive, stridently linear work of his early career. And so he burnt everything to the ground, and he started again.
#5. ‘Welcome To Heartbreak’ (2008)
No major rapper has dropped a record like 808s & Heartbreak. Sure, they’ve all copied the surface-level charms of that album, buying into vocalisers and trading out braggadocio for vulnerable autobiography. But it remains rap’s singular left-turn, a total demolishing of ego in which Kanye strips away every dishonest element of his persona, leaving him with nothing.
Even Drake, who has spent his entire career aping West’s 808s & Heartbreak era, has failed to offer up anything as self-destructive as ‘Welcome To Heartbreak’. Which is the strangest thing, really, about this entire phase in Kanye’s career. He has the reputation for being the rapper with the biggest head in the game. But no single other performer has humiliated themselves — deliberately humiliated themselves — the way Kanye did here.
#6. ‘Power’ (2010)
Of course Kanye wants to be President. That ambition is streaked all over his career, but it’s particularly present in ‘Power’, a defiant song of the self that has all the fizzing energy of a Walt Whitman poem. It’s Kanye’s heel turn, his brash commandeering not only of the rap scene, but the international scene; the sound of a man decisively taking charge.
Which only makes its context that much more interesting. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the record that certified West into the annals of all-time greats; blessed with a perfect score from the notoriously hard-to-please Pitchfork, and commended by the rapper’s peers, fans and detractors alike.
And what’s that record about? It’s about West certifying himself into the annals of all-time greats. By speaking his desire, Kanye made it so, co-opting the world and shoehorning it into his vision for himself.
Of course Kanye wants to be President. And if history has proved anything, it’s that he might even succeed.
#7. ‘Monster’ (2010)
The best rappers are also great kingmakers, and creating an entire career out of a single feature spot on your record has become something of a mark of your power.
So, consider Nicki Minaj’s famous verse on ‘Monster’ as not only a testament to that rapper’s titanic powers, but also to Kanye’s; proof, if any more was needed, that he has always been the best at telling which way the wind is blowing.
#8. ‘Who Will Survive In America’ (2010)
For most of his career’s front half, Kanye’s relationship with politics was distinctly vague. He talked about powerful men, not about Presidents, and he fetishised kings and emperors rather than America’s policymakers.
Hurricane Katrina changed that. All of a sudden, Kanye was picking out particular things in the world — George W. Bush, racism, poverty. And just as surprisingly, the man who had spent his career idolising wealth and power was suspicious of the men who hoarded and wielded both.
‘Who Will Survive In America’ is the keenest distillation of that anti-authoritarianism. Based on a short poem by author, musician and activist Gil Scott-Heron, he of ‘The Revolution Will Not Be Televised’ fame, the song is only just over a minute, an addendum to the technicolour madness of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
But even at ninety-nine seconds, the track is a glimpse at one of the rarest of Kanyes — the clear-eyed, singularly focused, politically-minded Kanye who wouldn’t pop up again till ‘Blood on the Leaves’.
Of course, living in an age where Kanye praises the sheer energy of Donald Trump, ‘Who Will Survive In America’ feels both thudderingly his brand, and totally distinct from it; a bizarre, awkward anomaly in the career of a man who has only dropped bizarre, awkward anomalies.
#9. ‘Black Skinhead’ (2013)
On May 18, 2013, a shaky-voiced Ben Affleck introduced Kanye West on Saturday Night Live. Who knows what Affleck was so overcome by. It doesn’t really matter. Immortalised now in the introduction to the performance on YouTube, it seems absolutely like the actor couldn’t say Kanye’s name without falling apart.
In the context of what was to follow, that makes a lot of sense. The SNL version of ‘Black Skinhead’ is one of the perfect objects of Kanye’s career, a fusion of his sledgehammer anger, and his intelligence, and his distinct ear, and his obsession with artistry as performance and performance as artistry.
Flanked by imagery of barking dogs, he eviscerated targets both vague and distinct, spitting paradoxes and rocking back and forth in the shadows.
In time, it has proved to be his closest work of autobiography. Not because it says everything about who Kanye is, perfectly and legibly. But because it doesn’t even try to.
#10. ‘I Am A God’ (2013)
Every artist has their thesis statement; their boldest, most naked admission of intention. Of course, Kanye’s is ‘I Am A God’, the song that he’d been trying to write in lesser forms for at least ten years.
A heel turn following two records worth of heel turns, the track sees West thumb his nose at critics and his fans alike, talking himself up even as he prods barbed fun at himself for talking himself up.
It’s not that Kanye is the only man who could write the lyrics, “In a French-ass restaurant/Hurry up with my damn croissants.” It’s that Kanye is the only man who could sing those lyrics and have you believe them; who could assure you that his tongue was as far from his cheek as possible to imagine. Which has been the secret all along. You buy Kanye because Kanye buys Kanye.
#11. ‘Ultralight Beam’ (2016)
Kanye was always doomed to release a record like The Life Of Pablo. When you become addicted to the sound of shattering conventions, before long you’re only ever going to turn on your own, completely unmooring yourself from the earth in the process. Hence that bloated, indescribably unpleasant record, which makes trouble for the sake of making trouble.
That is, with the exception of ‘Ultralight Beam’, one of the most beautiful singles of Kanye’s career nestled on the ugliest record of Kanye’s career. Part prayer, part shining testament to love, it’s this glistening, perfect shard of light.
It also might be the last pretty thing Kanye ever releases.
#12. ‘Wolves’ (2016)
West has always liked to boast about how unusual his tastes are, repeatedly crowing about how odd it is that he’s a rapper who listens to Bon Iver. And sure, once upon a time that kind of omnivorous attitude towards music was surprising. But by the time West dropped ‘Wolves’, it had become the norm, with artists everywhere thoroughly embracing a mix of obscure and mainstream influences.
West hadn’t noticed. Hence ‘Wolves’, a song that thinks it’s a great deal more subversive than it actually is; a middling pop song dressed up like a game-changer.
#13. ‘Lift Yourself’ (2018)
This too, was inevitable. There is an addictive energy to being a hated man, and for the last five years of Kanye’s career, he’s been taking his highs anywhere that he can get them.
From The Life Of Pablo onwards, he has desperately chased attention with the subtlety and nuance of a schoolyard bully pushing over the little ones so that an adult might come over and say anything — literally anything — to him.
‘Lift Yourself’, a series of nonsense verses disguised as a diss track, might be the most egregious example of that attention-seeking. But it’s not the last.
#14. ‘I Thought About Killing You’ (2018)
For all his obsession with power and might, Kanye has always been something of a pacifist. His threats tend to be vague, more to do with shaming his enemies than actually killing them — which is unsurprising, given that the only thing the man himself has ever feared is being ignored, not murdered.
Of course, that’s not true in the case of ‘I Thought About Killing You’. It’s Ye‘s most vicious track, and the clearest indication that Kanye had reached a new, genuinely dangerous phase in his career. It’s not a song, it’s a message scrawled in blood on a bathroom wall. It’s not a rap single, it’s seized police evidence.
#15. ‘Yikes’ (2018)
The moment my doctor told me that I had bipolar, ten years ago now, the first feeling that rushed over me was one of deep relief. The ugly things that I had done; the alternatively self-hating and self-obsessed places that my mind so often went: these things were of me, but they weren’t the totality of me. By being bordered, enclosed with a diagnosis, I felt freer than I had in years.
‘Yikes’ is that feeling condensed into a pop song. Though the cover of Ye is emblazoned with one of the most pernicious myths about bipolar — that everyone hates having it, that it’s awesome — ‘Yikes’ is one of the most mature and clear-eyed investigations of the disorder in the world of music. Because of course. Because this is the Kanye way; to be better than everyone and much worse than them, at exactly the same time.
Joseph Earp is a staff writer for Junkee, based in Sydney. He tweets @Joe_O_Earp.