'Blueprint' at 20: Rediscovering Kanye West
By Alec Banks
By its very nature, Hip-Hop is a polarizing subject.
So-called "purists" bemoan anything new, while those nurtured in the 21st century hate being lectured about what came before them. As a result, any Hip-Hop examination has the potential to completely erupt into a full-fledged argument.
And then there's the subject of Kanye West: arguably one of the most important — and enigmatic — personalities in the culture since making a splash as a producer on JAY-Z's The Blueprint at the start of the new millennium.
Once viewed as the person who could bridge the gap between boom bap and the mainstream, West now personally embodies the generational divide because of his transformation from behind the boards, to borderline ego maniac.
"That's just Kanye being Kanye" registers in pop culture like an infectious chorus you simply can't get out of your head. It's infectious...in both a good and bad way.
It's hard to recall a time when Kanye West was the David in the David and Goliath analogy. However, he was a proverbial nobody when JAY-Z was readying his sixth album, The Blueprint. So It begs the question: if Jay's album didn't perform, would Kanye West have become who he is today?
"At the time I think he was just so up-and-coming," recalls Andrew Barber, who created Chicago-centric blog, Fake Shore Drive, and currently hosts The Drive on SiriusXM. "That was a time when people thought his name was 'Kane' still. He even rapped about that in some of his freestyles around that time."
"Up until The Blueprint, Kanye was still selling beats for $200-250 bucks a piece."
JAY-Z must have heard something in Kanye West's sound — having turned to him for "This Can't Be Life" on his previous efforts The Dynasty: Roc La Familia. However, the three singles that hit radio were produced by The Neptunes, Rick Rock, and Rockwilder, respectively, who all had decidedly more caché than the unknown Kanye West.
West's production on The Dynasty is more introspective and less reliant on the sped up soul samples that he would become world renowned for (he did still use a Henry Melvin sample). Hip-Hop heads might even notice that West's drums sound very similar to those used by Dr. Dre on "Xplosive" which he reportedly used to get that chunky sound every producer aspires for coming from jury-rigged speakers inside a late model sedan.
"I was stayin’ in Chicago, I had my own apartment. I be doin’ like, just beats for local acts just to try to keep the lights on, and then to go out and buy, get a Pelle Pelle off lay-away, get some Jordans or something or get a TechnoMarine, that’s what we wore back then..." - Kanye West on "Last Call"
While the "sped up soul sample" trend seems like a million years ago, one can't overstate how much West's signature sound — some jokingly referring to it as the "Chipmunk sound" — impacted Hip-Hop. Producers like the Heatmakerz, Just Blaze, Alchemist, and 9th Wonder, all joined in on the craze and added their own spin on it.
“'Chipmunk Soul' was a common name for it," Just Blaze said. "I think a lot of European magazines, especially British writers and American journalists who were kind of music nerds, took it on.
While DJ Premier and the RZA had certainly dabbled in this style previously, West seemed to create melodies that seemed to embrace the power of the MPC, rather than try and make it feel like it was directly from the record. In that regard, his style sounded almost unachievable by most.
"I feel like that Kanye was probably heavily influenced by RZA and Q-tip," says Barber. "Those dudes were chopping samples differently."
JAY-Z called West "a soulful dude." While today that manifests itself as a blend of religious and secular music, it's impossible to deny that the Chicago native is piloted by self-belief. Anything is possible in Kanye's universe.
West contributed "Heart of the City (Ain't No Love), Never Change," "Girls, Girls Girls (Part 2), and the lead single, "Izzo (H.O.V.A.)," to The Blueprint.
"That's when his name started really bubbling after that," Barber says. "And then his career took off right after that. He had the accident a year later, or a few months later. The Blueprint's towards the end of 2001. By 2002, that's when he starts getting a lot bigger placements."
The Blueprint became the first album from the 21st century to be added National Recording Registry — joining previous selections from Tupac Shakur and Public Enemy. Of course, JAY-Z played his part, but Kanye West really was the sonic archietect
In Rolling Stone's original review, they wrote, "JAY-Z deepens his sound on The Blueprint. Here, JAY-Z and his producers (especially Kanye West) turn to vintage soul, fueling almost every song with a stirring vocal sample."
Real artistry involves evolution. It would be unfair to ask Kanye West to stick to a sound that gave him his big break — which others in the industry parroted — and remain in a ridged framework reliant on other people's source material.