Why Kanye West Is A Genius Regardless Of His Views Outside Of Music
Kanye West’s cultural influence is undeniable. Few artists, especially in Hip-Hop have had a reign as long or as far-reaching as the artist who locked himself in a room doing five a beats a day for three summers. Remember when everyone wore those terrible shutter shade sunglasses after Graduation dropped? Or when 808s & Heartbreak dropped and inspired a massive league of teenagers to get their emotional crooning act together to make music? (Remember when Kanye was described by many as artistically birthing Drake?) There was also that time when Kanye performed live at Coachella in 2011 while wearing a women’s blouse, influencing waves of men to shatter their ideas of masculinity? (Jaden Smith and Young Thug have Kanye to thank for their skirt-wearing trends, too.) Most recently, Kanye West tweeted to 28.4 million followers, that he liked the way Candace Owens thought, and then a shift in Donald Trump’s approval rating with Black men shifted by 11%? For better or for worse, Kanye’s every move forecasts where things seem to go next.
But culture pivots and musicality aside, Kanye West’s impact on the business of music is undisputed as well. Take, for example, the album rollout for the rapper’s fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Ahead of 2010, 50 Cent dominated the physical mixtape era. Meanwhile, Lil Wayne dominated the Internet mixtape phase. It was Kanye who dominated an entire 15 weeks in a would-be post-mixtape period, at least as we knew it. The early 2000s saw Fif and G-Unit not only release their bars for free, but also reinvent and restructure popular songs with their concepts. “Instead of just spitting a 16, [50 Cent] started to re-do people’s hooks and make his own songs to the point where as DJs we wanted to play his versions in the club,” DJ Drama explained to Billboard, regarding the evolution of the mixtape medium. Both 50 Cent and Wayne were commercial juggernauts during a period of declining sales. Weezy F. achieved “a milli” in a week a decade ago, while Fif’ was at the top of the Forbes list. Mixtapes were promotional items, that appeased the streets without any label or A&R input. They were bites of the apple offered to DJs, who served as promoters. Moreover, they showed the value in the art to fans—while holding back a level of quality for the album at a time when sales and chart position reigned supreme.
The rising popularity of the Internet changed Hip-Hop forever when tapes shifted from a tangible, physical thing (commonly CDs) to an uploaded folder full of free music available on blogs and torrents. Weezy would dominate the latter half of this period, but that idea seemed to peak and fizzle out after his Dedication 3 and No Ceilings mixtapes released in 2008 and 2009, respectively. One could speculate the decline in free promotional mixtapes faded after Radiohead made the monumental move in releasing their 2007 pay-what-you-want album, In Rainbows. In 2008, Nine Inch Nails followed suit with their album, The Slip. Rap music, a land of plenty, was not to be outdone.
And in August of 2010, in support of his forthcoming album, M.B.D.T.F., Kanye West released 14 songs over the course of 14 weeks leading up to his record. These songs dropped ahead of the weekend, and were cleverly dubbed “G.O.O.D. Friday” releases. Moreover, they lived online—but were so good that many fans burned them to CDs and moved them to iPods to play on the go. Each track proved that West was a man who met strict deadlines, releasing a new album-quality song every consecutive Friday (and one a few weeks later for Christmas, making 15 weeks/songs) leading to his record. And he did it for free.
Kanye teamed up with numerous G.O.O.D. Music artists and rapper friends to release each track, dropping singles alongside the likes of Big Sean, Pusha-T, Consequence, CyHi The Prynce, Talib Kweli, Charlie Wilson, Teyana Taylor, and Yasiin Bey. Heads also got to experience “The Joy” in hearing Kanye, JAY-Z, and Pete Rock working together. He pushed the “G.O.O.D. Friday” hype on social media, at a post-Taylor Swift time when the general public seemed reluctant to accept him back into grace. He carefully crafted artwork to fit each single, with a dark, yet beautiful (like the album) sense of wonder for each track. Each single’s artwork bore massive red text, which became a trademark for these sonic events, as well as singles released for G.O.O.D. Music’s compilation, Cruel Summer. West gave people a reason to look forward to Fridays spent at the computer, before the time of streaming services and “Release Radar” Fridays.
Interestingly, a good number of the “G.O.O.D. Friday” singles ended up remastered and mixed for Fantasy. “Power” was West’s comeback anthem and first song of 2010, and the remix, featuring JAY-Z and Swizz Beatz, kicked off the series. The second week, ‘Ye released “Monster” featuring Jay, Rick Ross, Bon Iver and Nicki Minaj, and then pulled it, likely after allocating it to the November album. An early, shortened version of “Devil In A New Dress” released in the fourth Friday, sans-Rick Ross, and “So Appalled,” featuring Jay, RZA, Swizz, Pusha and CyHi was released on the seventh Friday.
In spite of all the free fanfare, Kanye’s album still topped the charts. It achieved platinum status. However, West innovated the mixtape into something entirely different. The ultimate trendsetter of the last dozen years created something that worked for him, and languished for lesser-heeled (and arguably less talented) imitators.
Later, the consistent covers and matching styles would become popularized in Hip-Hop, much like A$AP Rocky’s debut Live. Love. ASAP amplified Raider Klan’s (rvidxr klvn’s) typography, or Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All popularizing upside crosses and Punk Rock imagery. Like Rocky, a new crop of superstars emerged from giving fans free, original music. Kendrick Lamar, Big K.R.I.T., Chance The Rapper, and others stepped forth. The line of demarcation between album and mixtape went from a wall to a pencil line to downright nonexistent. The Internet saw an influx of free music releases online that shifted away from remixing existing songs, and toward releasing actual, 100% original free albums as their debuts, with entire aesthetics to match. The need and hunger for Dipset, T.I., Wayne, and Lloyd Banks mixtapes somehow became obsolete.
In 2013, Ye heads would claim “He has Risen!” over Yeezus, Kanye’s most polarizing and ambitious record to date – an album that bore no artwork, lacked any radio-friendly singles (though Hollywood and the gaming industry pulled from its tracklist plenty), and smashed all expectations of another grandiose Hip-Hop affair a-la My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, or even Watch The Throne. Three years later, in 2016, Kanye West would again challenge fan and critic presumption with a magnificent spectacle of an album rollout for The Life of Pablo, an album packaged with as live-streamed fashion show/album listening party via Madison Square Garden. The unfinished record surfaced as a Tidal-exclusive in February, and later was deemed by Kanye West and Def Jam as “a living breathing changing creative expression” – an excuse that gave Kanye leeway to live-perfect an album in front of an audience until June.
Fast forward to three months ago, Kanye West took to Twitter to announce that he would produce and release his new solo record in June. Additionally, he mentioned he had a project alongside Kid Cudi called KIDS SEE GHOSTS. Hours later on the same day, Kanye also announced Pusha-T’s newest solo record would drop on May 25, Teyana Taylor’s on June 22. A week later, he also announced Nas’ album would drop June 15.
Five albums produced by Kanye West on five consecutive Fridays in a row. If that’s not turning the idea of G.O.O.D. Fridays on its head for a digital-streaming world, what is?
West revealed that every single project would only be 7-tracks long. According to an interview with Vulture, Kanye told Pusha the reasoning for seven-track albums: “I think, in seven songs, you can get everything you want off, and we can have the most concise, strongest project ever.”
And, well, Kanye was right. Pusha-T’s Daytona released to critical acclaim (including on AFH), with both fans and critics calling it Pusha’s tightest solo effort yet, kicking off a successful and unofficial G.O.O.D. Friday return. More importantly, it proved that in the age of waning attention spans and digital music brevity, Daytona could be a commercially successful, too. In 2016, the RIAA made a decision to reevaluate certifications based on this logic: 1,500 streams = one album purchase = 10 track downloads. If Push’ could manage to gather 1,500 streams as fast as possible, he could tally up album numbers in no time. And at a 21-minute run-time, it’s difficult not to, at the very least, hear Daytona once or twice.
A week after Daytona released, the album was placed #1 on Billboard Top Rap and Top R&B/Hip-Hop Album charts, and also debuted at #3 on the Billboard 200. Two firsts for Pusha-T.
This is the exact opposite of the logic that record labels have been trying to milk concerning certifications and sales. Migos’ Culture II, released earlier this year and clocking in at a whopping 1 hour and 45 minutes run-time, was deemed by journalist Craig Jenkins as a “data dump.” He deemed the Quality Control/Capitol/Motown Records effort “the first deliberate artifact of Billboard chart gamesmanship.” Similarly, Rae Sremmurd’s latest effort can be viewed as an attempt to one-up OutKast’s Speakerboxx/The Love Below with their triple-LP, SR3MM, releasing one album as a duo and two solos from each member, and collectively spanning 101 minutes. Chris Brown’s latest effort is 3 hours and 18 minutes long, with 57 tracks to boot, longer than the original Lord Of The Rings film.
With 2018 West-helmed albums, especially Daytona and KIDS SEE GHOSTS, there is no room for fat or filler. It’s a tightly packed record that invites listeners to hit repeat and hear the album again and again. Nasir, Nas’ album, is unlike any previous release from the Rap legend. For an artist sometimes accused of filler in need of a statement release, he got one—and concentrated at that. ye, West’s solo album, exists as a time-stamp of the rapper’s stardom, public persona and 2018 mind state. Teyana Taylor’s K.T.S.E. is a tightly-wrapped package of contempo-Soul. Twitter fingers have swiped marathons on a daily basis. What’s subjecting 23 minutes of your morning commute going to do?
So what will Kanye peers and the industry learn after this revival series of G.O.O.D. Fridays? Will contemporaries begin making shorter albums that jockey the charts and command undivided attention like the old days? The same day as ye, Black Thought’s Streams Of Thought, Vol. 1, showed that the trend is working. JAY-Z & Beyonce followed this month with a 38-minute effort. J. Cole, Phonte and Saba also have LPs clocking in at under 45 clicks. Are surprise albums going to show up more often than they already do? Furthermore, as reports linger from the likes of Chance and CyHi, it looks like Kanye’s 2018 G.O.O.D. Friday campaign might just be the latest in a career-long series of music industry paradigm shifts.