Since 2003, Kanye West’s music has inspired & influenced culture far beyond the studio. We directly connect the top musical moments from Ye to how they influenced the culture in broad stroke.
SOULER CEO George Manley sat down with former VP of Yeezy Brand for adidas Jon Wexler at NYC's iconic Chelsea Music Hall to talk about the one man zeitgeist that is Kanye.
Former VP of Yeezy Jon Wexler with SOULER CEO George Manley.
Play the whole episode here - an insightful discussion with an insiders view on the business of being 'Ye, the traits insanity & genius share, & how the future belongs to those who have the fortitude to decide their vision is good enough to craft it.
There have been countless rankings of Kanye’s records. Rolling Stone, High Snob, The Fader, Complex, XXL & (insert your favorite blog from 2009 here) have all done it ad nauseum. That’s not what this is. That’s a matter of preference, not metric.
What we’re interested in accomplishing is slightly different. This is about drawing a direct line from a musical work to a cultural shift.
Here are the top 10 times West's sonic output tilted the scale.
You can click every image & title to play each record in another window.
The opening piece to Kanye’s most divergent work, “On Sight” is a full-on audio assault as an introduction to the world of Yeezus. Daft Punk’s metallic saw wave synths bring in the chaos like an air raid. Blown-out drums provide the backdrop for an all action Game 7 Yeezy. Although less than three minutes long, it’s emblematic of Kanye’s constant quest to innovate not only his own tracks, but contemporary music as a whole.
Almost immediately after, HipHop’s pallet changed. Rap became a bit more “undone” and low-fi, glitchy, aggressive & unabashed in its fearlessness to break free of the gloss of big studio production.
There’s no Soundcloud kids without “On Sight.”
In another life, Kanye was in a thrash punk band with NIN’s Trent Reznor, and “Black Skinhead” is one of the best pieces of art he’s ever made. Brutal like a fucking car crash and self-servingly cathartic, he casually throws in anti-racism and anti-establishment sentiments while solidifying his status on the Mt. Rushmore of subculture in one epic Bobby Seale ass fist to the face.
There’s no XXXTENTACION without Black Skinhead. The 2018 “punk trap” wave would have never been born from the ashes of this had Ye not shown the youth there’s a way to blend two worlds authentically several years prior. He made leather joggers, kilts, goth-trap fashion & dystopian future high tops single handedly a staple of fashion almost overnight in this era.
Before Adam Levine was what he is now (a household pop culture name) he was the singer of soul-rock outfit Maroon 5. West tapped Levine to croon the nonchalant Hall & Oates-ass hook for the first musical piece on “Late Registration” and widened his lane far outside of urban music by featuring the voice of a band that was a college rock radio darling at the time. This one feature handed Kanye the college circuit that no other rapper prior could infiltrate.
Frat rap doesn’t explode a few years after this in 2010 without this seminal collab.
It’s less of a “record” and more of a standout piece on an "Old Hollywood" film score. West threw out the “rap hit” playbook and opted for the cinematic, telling the story of a love gone sour, name dropping high street designers, and doing it all over stirring strings and beautiful orchestral scoundscaping.
Without “Flashing Lights” - Hiphop’s greatest & most innovative sonic era would never happen. Producers started thinking outside of the box & reimagining what one could spit bars over, elevating the genre as a whole.
RoboCop is THE standout masterpiece on Ye’s 808’s & Heartbreaks, an album of all standout masterpieces. His heartbroken delivery teeters between victim & villain over a bed of 80’s nu-wave synths and swirling strings - ushering in the era of storytelling, emotionally candid emo rap that gave us Drake,The Weeknd, JuiceWrld & emerging artists like the brilliant 070 Shake.
Kanye has become quite famous for finding the most obscure samples to craft beats out of, so for him to pluck the theme song as-is from a film in one of the most successful franchises in history makes this banger something of an rarity.
John Barry’s grand scale orchestral James Bond score proved to fit in with fellow film composer Jon Brion’s work on Late Registration like friendly pieces of a puzzle. It works so perfectly that even Kanye’s most explicitly activist lyrics of his career fit into the picture without fuss.
Ye’s bars were full on power to the people conscious rap fodder that had not been heard since the peak 90’s days of Black Star & The Roots, and without Diamonds, the new class of socially conscious spitters to come like Lupe Fiasco, Mickey Factz & more recently David Sebastian (as well as the endless sea of “blog & mixtape bar spitters” post 05) may have not gotten the looks they deserved.
This was an avalanche. Referencing classical art, Vatican imagery, luxury fashion & aggressively witty one liner after one liner, Ye & Hov tag teamed a masterclass in juxtaposition. Hiphop all of a sudden cared about Paris Fashion Week, The Louvre, MoMa, Yale, The Guggenheim & what Monaco was wearing. Best of all, they did it through a new lens.
The record singlehandedly bridged the gap between the old gatekeepers & the new class that was crashing the party that never allowed them in.
Hailing from the Windy City, West decided to nod to his hometown roots on “Fade.” In addition to drill music, deep dish pizza & Da Beirs- The Chi is also the birthplace of House music according to most familiar with the roots of the genre. Classic Chicago house samples and a dash of Autotune with an exultant drum breakdown are a direct doft of the cap on this piece.
Yeezy tapped lable mate femmecee Teyana Taylor for the now iconic video. One of the best Kanye West songs and videos of all time, hands down. It showed the culture you didn’t have to stay in one lane, and in fact, could converge influences that shared parity and narrative for a beautiful piece that was more than the sum of its parts.
Kanye called The Life of Pablo his ‘gospel album,’ - and it kinda was, well, prior to his Sunday Service launch. The opening to TLOP is one of the most experimental and haunting tracks he has ever put down on wax.
In between vast silences that seem to last for hours, an inverse synth feels akin to an underwater Baptist organ, groans & floats to surface on its own schedule.
Ye masters the art of being both barely present, and fully immersed & appears to sound like he's channeling, not spitting. Kirk Franklin’s gospel choir work and a standout feature from fellow Chicago MC Chance The Rapper complete this gem.
It’s all the contradiction that makes Ye brilliant in one track. An honoring of the Lord while still retaining he’s also a God, a heralding of his Christian roots while knowing the life of sin that fame brings is ever present, and crowning a new wave of next gen artists via Chance, while still claiming the throne.
Justin Bieber’s “Come to Jesus” moment maybe doesn’t happen without this. Chance featured on both Bieber’s “Holy” and Beam.
Obviously, neither does Sunday Service or the later work, Jesus Is King a few years later, and with that, a DIY, “mind of a child” aesthetic from designers like Cythia Lu from CPFM that would change streetwear & luxury simultaneously.
If one had to pick THE moment Kanye changed culture, it would have to be “Runaway.” He brought ballet, classical music, hiphop, arrogant bars, high fashion & street culture together in one score that also was part of a short film that blew minds out of heads.
Kanye single handedly changed the perception of what Hiphop was, and more importantly, could be.