This article cites lyrics and musical references that contain explicit material. The tag [Explicit] will be placed where explicit material will be found.
The designation of “artist” or “art” is a controversial one. The closest definition I have come across is from the Oxford English dictionary, “The expression or application of human creative skill and imagination, typically in a visual form such as painting or sculpture, producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” But even this is problematic; how would one reconcile the works of Minimalism in the 1960s?
Although Minimalism (particularly the geometric sculptures most often associated with the movement) is not my preferred artistic genre, I am hesitant to not consider it art. As a response to Abstract Expressionism, with the insights its creators held as they produced their works, it was certainly an application of human imagination, even if many sculptures were machine-manufactured and purposely lacked emotional power.
While I believe that any definition of “art” or “artist” is problematic, I find no justification in the argument that likability is a factor in artistry. It may not be argued explicitly, but if you say X person is an artist, you may find people rolling their eyes or smirking. It seems to me that likability is irrelevant in determining any profession whatsoever. International sports stars would never be criticized for not being an athlete even if they were inherently unlikable, but you will find some people using air quotes when calling someone an “artist.”
It’s more than fair to say “I don’t like this work of art because I don’t like the artist”, that’s your personal taste! It just doesn’t imply that that person is not an artist. Further, I believe it is important to participate in the art of someone whom you dislike. In my case, perhaps a controversial one, I strongly dislike John Lennon; he routinely punched women from an early age, abandoned his son from his first wife saying that he “came from a bottle of whiskey,” and whenever he did see his son there were fits of yelling and disparagement. Yet I would never say that Lennon was not an artist. Lennon’s work, individually and as a member of The Beatles, has had a significant effect on my life and my appreciation for music as an artistic medium.
A parallel can be drawn with Kanye West in this respect. His public persona is polarizing. There appears to be a divide between those who grew up with his music and those who did not; a member of the first group, when asked about him, may recall particular songs that they like, while members of the second remember the terrible things that he has said or done.
My contention is that Kanye West is a gifted artist whose influence in hip-hop will be remembered for years to come. In particular, West’s ability to refashion the original purpose of the sampled recordings in a unique way is not only the hallmark of a skillful producer, but reflects the essence of being an effective and influential artist.
This piece will be sectioned into two parts; the first will be an introduction and exploration of musical sampling within this genre, a history that began long before Kanye entered the industry. The second part will emphasize the brilliant subtlety in Kanye West’s musical production which, in my view, makes his output all the more impressive..
I invite you to participate in this article! If you do not care for hip-hop music, this could be a unique opportunity to explore the craft of a genre you may not often give much consideration. This article isn’t intended to make you fall in love with the genre, it’s meant to offer a perspective into an artist you may not hold in high esteem.
Part One: Musical Sampling
Sampling is the act of taking a piece from a musical recording and incorporating it into a new piece of music. Artists will ask permission from the original copyright owner before it is sampled in their work. Sampling has been present within the music world since the invention of the phonograph; artists like Simon & Garfunkel and The Beatles used samples in their creations. It took particular prominence in the experimental electronic music of the early 1960s, and its applications increased thereafter. Here is an example of sampling for a hip-hop recording.
Now, there are legal cases on behalf of artists whose work was sampled without permission. There are clear instances where someone stole the music of another artist for financial gain. These ought to be granted. It should be clarified, however, that the act of using a rhythm or bass line precedes the growth in popularity of sampling; after all, jazz musicians used to “quote” other artists by using some of their melodies in their own compositions. Some even argue that borrowing from the work of others is an inevitability; Kembrew McLeod, associate professor in the Department of Communication at the University of Iowa, contends that, “Well, I think it’s basically the central part of popular culture if you think about social networking and the way that people interact with each other across great distances.”
Considering music sampling as laziness or theft, before hearing the work in question, is a disservice to the work of music makers. Sampling is an innovative method of taking what came before and repurposing its interpretation by the audience. Let’s use one of the most well-known hip-hop songs as an example.
It began first with Apache by The Shadows (1960).
Incredible Bongo Band then covered Apache in 1973:
Which was sampled and covered by The Sugarhill Gang in 1981:
My favorite example of sampling is a case where the addition of a few elements alters the location that the instrumental is intended to represent. The sampled song was composed for the 1924 silent film The Thief of Baghdad:
And was intended to represent Baghdad during the Islamic Golden Age (made known by the fact that the film is adapted from One Thousand and One Nights), With a few changes, it became a famous hip-hop song on one of the most influential albums of the genre.
Anthony Fantano, music critic at TheNeedleDrop, characterizes the instrumental of this track in the following way, “It sounds like an icy New York morning, 7 AM, in the middle of January. The gang vocals on the hook.. not only can I hear them so clearly, but it’s almost as if I’m hearing the frosty breath coming off of those vocals too.”
I feel that the argument for music sampling can be condensed to a quote by W.H. Davenport while writing for The Gentleman’s Magazine in 1892:
Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.
Small musicians steal and claim others’ work as their own, while the greats refashion the work of their contemporaries and their predecessors.
Part Two: What Makes Kanye West a Brilliant Artist?
There are several approaches to this question from his fans. One group argues for his lyrical creativity, commonly referencing Through The Wire from his first album The College Dropout.
(This references the time when Kanye was in a car accident and had his mouth wired shut. So he “spits through the wire”, using lyrics that he recorded while in the hospital with the wire in his mouth).
Another group contends that West’s ability to create a unique sound signature through sampling of other artists is brilliant. For example, in Through The Wire, he samples Chaka Khan’s Through The Fire.
West speeds up Khan’s vocals, creating this “chipmunk soul” sound that listeners would later credit him for popularizing in the early 2000s.
Some might also argue that diversity of his sources for an instrumental makes him a brilliant artist. I’ll use a track from his most acclaimed record My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as an example.
Use a vocal sample from Continent Number 6’s Afromerica (1978):
Take the background from King Crimson’s heavy progressive rock track 21st Century Schizoid Man (1969):
Use a drum sample from Cold Grits’ cover of It’s Your Thing (1969):
Then produce them into a new song, with the vocal sample at the beginning, background bass from 21st Century Schizoid Man at 0:18, and add the drums at 0:25
As you might tell, there is some credence to each of these approaches. But these are not unique to West; as Nas’ Represent shows, music producers have eclectic source material. And, frankly, there are other MCs who match or surpass Kanye West’s lyrical creativity. So what makes him unique? What is it that makes him brilliant?
What West does better than anyone else, in my view, is include the intention of the original source material and echo the message of the material in a new way. That sounds highfalutin, let me explain.
Rewind Continent Number 6’s Afroamerica to the beginning (instead of the nine-second mark).
Afro, Afro meri meri, Afromerica will be home.
This is a sentiment which West had made clear in his earlier work, the importance of the African American struggle in the United States. Or take the sample from King Crimson’s 21st Century Schizoid Man. Take the lyrics from the 6:30 mark of the song, and compare it to Kanye’s lyrics at 0:37:
King Crimson: Poets’ starving children bleeding
Kanye West: The system broken, the school’s closed the prison open.
And, further, what does “21st Century Schizoid Man” mean? The lyrics are cryptic, but the context behind the release of this single (the unending war in Vietnam and mass consumerism in American society) suggests that it is a criticism of the United States’ contradictory morality. It’s interesting, then, that Kanye West titles the track Power. Particularly, his lyrics at the beginning of the third verse (2:41) hint at why Kanye included the line “21st Century Schizoid Man” in his song:
Colin Powells, Austin Powers, lost in translation with a whole fucking nation, they say I was the abomination of Obama’s nation.
The lead guitarist of King Crimson noted that the song was written and performed for, “an American political personality whom we all know and love dearly.” Kanye West stepped in and refers himself as the 21st Century Schizoid Man that King Crimson spoke of in the late ’60s.
“That sounds like a reach. You’re overanalyzing this and adding meaning that’s not there.”
There are better examples of West’s technique than this example. The strongest cases for this argument can be found on two different records, Graduation and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF)
Let’s stick with MBDTF for a moment. The sample for one song from this record come from Manfred Mann’s Earth Band’s rather obscure art rock album Angel Station. The song in question is You Are – I Am:
Which was then tweaked into So Appalled:
The important point to note, here, is the context of the original song. You Are – I Am, when played from the beginning, suggests a polarity. “You are this…” And you will find the majority of the lyrics begin with “You are.” But then the beat shifts completely; no lyrics are discernible, just horns, a distorted guitar riff, and drums.
It is interesting, then, that Kanye begins his verse with “I’m so appalled”, seeming to fill in the gap of missing lyrics in the original material.
“That’s still a push. You don’t know whether that was intentional or merely a coincidence.”
The most documented case of this technique is on Graduation. Consider the original sample, taken from My Song by Lafi Siffre (1972).
Which was readjusted by Kanye in a song called I Wonder (2007).
What Kanye does here is brilliant. If you listen to the beginning of My Song, you’ll hear the following lyrics:
This is my song,
And no one can take it away.
This is, perhaps, the strongest example of how sampling redefines the original source material in Kanye West’s discography. The original sentiment of that song, that no one can take this song away, was spoken in the teeth of the growing popularity of sampling in the 1960s.
By changing the lead instrument from a soulful piano to a swooning, bass-heavy synthesizer Kanye makes an artistic statement on the nature of music: no song belongs to anyone, not even his own work. The nature of music creation is the inspiration and reimagining of the work from the past. Musicians should feel welcome to touch upon the work of those in the past, to create music that has never existed before.
I imagine that an article like this will inspire commentary and criticism. I welcome it! If you have any thoughts on this, feel free to leave a comment below. Thanks for staying with this article, I know that it was a long one!