Saturday, June 27, 2015. 130,000 people are standing in the middle of a field in England, gazing in wonder at a giant glowing pyramid. It’s the annual Glastonbury festival and the object of their amazement, Kanye West, is stalking the stage like a caged lion. A massive lighting rig hangs over his head, flashing varying arrangements of a yellowed hew. Just before ripping into “Gold Digger” a thought enters his brain, a claim, a boast he wishes to share with his army of worshippers.
“I’m going to say this tonight, ‘cause 20 years from now, 30 years from now, 40 years from now I might not be able to say it,” he begins. “Play it, I’m gonna say it right before the beat drop,” he commands his musical director Mike Dean.” The sound of Jamie Foxx’s voice fills the fields, and then Kanye drowns him out. “You are now! Watching! The greatest living rock star on the planet!” All hell breaks loose below.
Who knows what the landscape of pop music, rock music, or rap will look like, who will rise, who will fall in two, three or four decades’ time, but in that moment, Kanye was right. He was the greatest living rock star on the planet. Actually, he had been for eight years leading up to that moment. From the day the “Louis Vuitton Don” closed out Ye’s College trilogy with the release of his third album Graduation, Kanye transcended petty things like genre and became the true rock star he always proclaimed himself to be.
Perhaps more than any other artist in music, Kanye creates his best work with a chip on his shoulder. You might call him the Aaron Rodgers of rap. Someone who was passed over at the beginning of his career for shinier prospects only to prove the doubters wrong time and time again in glorious, logic-defying fashion.
On his debut album The College Dropout he proved that he could rap. On the follow-up Late Registration, he showed that not only could he rap, he could re-mold the field in his image, giving space to a new generation who didn’t necessarily fit in the predominate “gangsta” mold. On Graduation, he sought to break free from rap entirely, widening his palate with a shocking finesse, and infusing his beats with elements of classic rock and contemporary dance to create this towering monolith of technicolor brilliance.
As crazy as it sounds, he completely and totally pulled it off. This man, this mad genius, took a sample of the Steely Dan hit, “Kid Charlamagne,” an ultimate in Yacht rock, and used it as the sonic backbone of the second song on his record the breezy, synth-slathered “Champion.” And you know what? It knocked! Yes it did. He also pulled stuff from “P.Y.T.” by Michael Jackson, and “Someone Saved My Life Tonight” by Elton John. Then on the third track, he went to the exact opposite end of the spectrum, pulling a sample from a track cooked up by pair of French speaking robots to create one of the biggest singles of his career. Who, but Kanye West?