Throughout the course of the semester, our class has been fortunate to gain insights into the ways in which musicians can depict characteristics such as gender, disability, and sexuality throughout their pieces in musical matters, including tempo, instrumentation, and pitch. Through our analyses this semester throughout these different units, I have come to realize that in the modern world, while these matters continue to be critical parameters for depicting these subject matters, artists have built upon these matters in an attempt to offer new perspectives and advance their respective genres into being a more progressive and better representation of the issues within themselves and prevalent throughout society.
The rap genre is a fascinating case study to understand how quickly these changes can come about given the industry’s unparalleled growth throughout the past few decades. According to Rolling Stone, hip hop was the most listened to genre in the United States, accounting for 24.7% of song consumption1Elias Leight, “Hip Hop Continued to Dominate the Music Business in 2018,” in Rolling Stone, January 3, 2019, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/hip-hop-continued-to-dominate-the-music-business-in-2018-774422/. While this statistic depicts the popularity of the genre when put into context of its 18.18% increase from the year prior, it emphasizes the unparalleled growth of the genre, and the potential to continue to impact younger generations. In this period of growth, it has become easier for more rappers to become prominent and grow fan bases through capitalizing on trends within the genre. However, through this, it has become increasingly clear as to which artists are able to progress the genre by experimenting stylistically through utilizing different tempos, instrumentations, pitches, and subject matters not traditional to the genre, and those who simply follow the trends. I think it is this distinction that allows listeners to determine who the geniuses within the industry are, and helps make sense as to why certain artists have remained prominent throughout the industry for longer. When looking at the genre in this context, I think there is no better artist to recognize than Kanye West.
When using the term ‘genius’ in regards to music, it is critical to understand the history of the use of the word. Typically, when asked about geniuses within the music industry, people are fast to describe composers including Mozart, Beethoven, and Bach. In The Avid Listener Blog article The Problem With Geniuses, author Sara Haefeli describes how these prompt answers are problematic for a myriad of reasons. To start, they reaffirm racial and gendered connotations of the word, which can inhibit those who do not fit into that racial and gender group to feel unwelcome in making music and prohibits their pursuit2Sara Haefeli, “The Problem with Geniuses,” The Avid Listener, July 24, 2020, https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/.. These connotations perhaps can explain how both women and African Americans remain underrepresented in fields such as music, where there is a belief that innate talent is a requirement for success. Additionally, focusing on past composers to describe musical genius also reinforces a notion that there are no new grounds of discovery in the music industry, which is another deterrent for aspiring artists. Finally, this connotation of genius also deters listeners from wanting to study music more in-depth, as it suggests the only geniuses perceived by society are to be older white male composers of classical music, it undermines any discoveries they may have found in other artists and suggests to them that they lack skills of being a proficient or sophisticated listener. Since it is clearly problematic to focus on musicians of the past when describing musical genius, it is essential to change the narrative to evolve our understanding of genius into a modern perspective by exploring the advancements artists have made in their respective industries throughout their careers.
Throughout his career in the music industry, Kanye West has been at the forefront of progression in rap. Early on in his career, he earned a name for himself within the industry for his swift skills as a producer and his ability to convey meaning lyrically. West was an early adopter of sampling other works across a variety of genres and decades and was able to put his own spin on existing works to cultivate a new meaning to their modern listener. A great example of this is seen throughout the course of Kanye West’s album Graduation, and in particular, his song “Stronger.”
On this track, Kanye demonstrates his musical genius through his usage of sampling and instrumentation. Kanye is meticulous with the instrumentation on the track, to an extent at which he created the mix 75 times and still enlisted external influence from another acclaimed producer, Timberland, to ensure the drums were exactly the way he liked 3Jake Indiana, “The 40 Best Kanye West Songs of All Time,” in HighSnobiety, February 27, 2020, https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/best-kanye-west-songs/. The Graduation era of Kanye is full of upbeat and uplifting works, which Kanye depicts through his choices of a fast tempo of 110 beats per minute, his consistent and sharp flow of lyrics on the beat, and his sampling of Daft Punk synthesizers. Created at an earlier point in his career and at a time while rap music was still becoming mainstream, Kanye distinguished himself within the industry for his sharp attention to detail in both production and writing abilities. Additionally, the album art cover is worth drawing attention to, as the album cover is full of bright colors, and depicts an animated creature who represents Kanye blasting off into space, which is indicative of how the album would catapult Kanye’s career, in which he would graduate from becoming a well-known rapper, into a respected genius within the industry, and become a driver of change within rap music for the preceding years to come.
As Kanye established more credibility and grew his audience, he pivoted his following projects to be more personal, depicting the controversies he has had with other public figures and the issues he has dealt with internally. Kanye’s name has become synonymous with celebrity controversy over his career, some of which would linger on in public opinion for far longer than others, and jeopardize the continuation of Kanye’s career within the music industry. In his times of reflection, Kanye recognized that to regain trust with his listeners, his music had to reflect his feelings of regret and necessity for change4“Kanye West: The Making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” in The Most Unruly, February 13, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t0nipO6Rcw&t=333s. In depicting the slew of issues and emotions Kanye overcame during this moment in his career, there is no better song to describe this than in his piece, “Runaway.”
“Runaway” is unanimously chosen as Kanye’s best work across his career, yet the song could not stray further from the norms of what we perceive hip hop to be5Jake Indiana, “The 40 Best Kanye West Songs of All Time,” in HighSnobiety, February 27, 2020, https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/best-kanye-west-songs/. Having a running time of nine minutes, starting off with a single piano note for the first twenty seconds, and utilizing cellos, synthesizers and samples simultaneously, Kanye digressed from the distinctive upbeat sounds off his Graduation album that earned him such high praise and used instrumentation that was much more indicative of his mental state. When discussing how different instruments have rendered various meanings within society, we discussed how instruments such as the piano and the cello have feminine connotations due to their lack of mobility 6Ruth A. Solie, “Girling at the Parlor Piano,” in Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 85-117. Despite being a male, Kanye takes the connotation of lack of mobility in a new light. He starts off the piece with a single piano note to depict his lack of mobility from his actions in the past and how entrapped he feels with society, and builds the piece into a symphony of other instruments to depict how he hopes to be accepted into society once again and continue making music. In creating a work with such monstrous implications for his future, Kanye also recognized he had to stay true to his stylings of using synthesizers and samples, but use them in a more meaningful manner. While Kanye previously sampled Daft Punk in his song “Stronger,” Kanye sampled a part of Rick James’ 1981 song, “Mary Jane,” repeating the phrase “Look at ya” over and over to depict how becoming a celebrity put Kanye on constant display for society, especially in light of his controversies7“Kanye West: The Making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” in The Most Unruly, February 13, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t0nipO6Rcw&t=333s. Kanye continued to use autotune and synthesizers as they are distinctive to his voice, but Kanye’s pitch when he raps and sings in the song is much lower, further suggesting how he feels about his situation. The culmination of these factors makes the piece a perfect representation of Kanye’s musical genius, and listeners with different levels of music knowledge can appreciate his artistic abilities in different capacities without taking away from the meaning of the work, making it a fantastic work to analyze when considering modern geniuses.
After his widespread appraisal from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Kanye’s career took another pivotal shift in 2016 after being diagnosed with bipolar disorder. As Kanye regained his trust with society after being so honest and personal in “Runaway,” Kanye knew that he had to continue on this path and have his music reflect his mental state. Fifteen years after his first album release, in 2018, Kanye released his eighth studio album, I Hate Being Bipolar, Its Awesome.
In his song “Violent Crimes,” Kanye is able to continue to use his signature synthesizers and samples, but use different elements of tempo and instrumentation to convey his coping with his mental disability to his listeners. The use of slower tempo and use of pianos and organs has a hymnal connotation, suggesting a point of reflection to listeners. The visual aids of the album art also depict the shift in Kanye’s life. While his Graduation album artwork is full of vibrant colors and symbols of propelling his career, the I Hate Being BiPolar…Its Awesome album art has much less saturation and shows a mountain range in Wyoming, the least populated state in the United States, to depict how Kanye’s disorder makes him feel desolate. Additionally, the album title’s sharp shift in feelings towards his illness is suggestive of how quickly Kanye’s mood can swing, and how his disorder allows him to feel such vivid emotion can allow for him to feel the highest of highs and the lowest of lows, which the mountain range further symbolizes.
As new genres become increasingly popular, it is critical for our society to reconsider who we emphasize to be a musical genius to prompt music listenership and promote more music to be created. While composers such as Bach, Mozart, and Beethoven have created important groundwork in using different instrumentations and tempos to depict different issues or themes, our society must recognize how modern-day musicians are using these same tactics in their own works and building upon them to better demonstrate new themes within the modern world. Therefore, it is critical that we celebrate modern-day geniuses in the music industry such as Kanye West, for creating works that have masterfully used the foundations of music instrumentation and other musical elements such as tempo to depict to their audiences of varying musical knowledge the emotions they are feeling while utilizing modern tools such as synthesizers and samples to create a sound distinctively theirs. In a time of civic unrest as more racial inequities in our society are being discussed more frequently, it is imperative that we as a society reconsider our old gendered and racial definition of musical genius, and emphasize modern interpretations as the largest growing genre in music is overwhelmingly African American, and also growing in female representation 8Bianca Gracie, “How Women Reclaimed Hip-Hop in 2019 by Making Their Own Rules,” in Billboard, December 19, 2019, https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8546781/female-rappers-2019-dominance. By championing modern artists who have broken barriers in their genres and expanded the connotations of their genres, it can inspire younger generations who look up to these artists to become more avid listeners and performers and continue to close the gaps in careers where innate talent is considered pivotal to success.
|↑1||Elias Leight, “Hip Hop Continued to Dominate the Music Business in 2018,” in Rolling Stone, January 3, 2019, https://www.rollingstone.com/music/music-news/hip-hop-continued-to-dominate-the-music-business-in-2018-774422/|
|↑2||Sara Haefeli, “The Problem with Geniuses,” The Avid Listener, July 24, 2020, https://theavidlistenerblog.com/2020/07/24/the-problem-with-geniuses/.|
|↑3, ↑5||Jake Indiana, “The 40 Best Kanye West Songs of All Time,” in HighSnobiety, February 27, 2020, https://www.highsnobiety.com/p/best-kanye-west-songs/|
|↑4, ↑7||“Kanye West: The Making of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” in The Most Unruly, February 13, 2019, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6t0nipO6Rcw&t=333s|
|↑6||Ruth A. Solie, “Girling at the Parlor Piano,” in Music in Other Words: Victorian Conversations(Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2004), pp. 85-117.|
|↑8||Bianca Gracie, “How Women Reclaimed Hip-Hop in 2019 by Making Their Own Rules,” in Billboard, December 19, 2019, https://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8546781/female-rappers-2019-dominance|