Every time Kanye West pops up in a conversation there is a 92% chance that someone will say “I miss the old Kanye.” Favoring an artist’s earlier projects over the latter is not exclusive to Kanye West. Any artist will have their section of fans yelling at anyone willing to listen about how they were with them from the beginning and idolize the artist’s first few projects. I feel this way about some musicians myself, specifically with The Weeknd. I enjoy his current music, but it does not connect with me quite like his first 3 mixtapes did. Usually, it is just people’s opinion; they feel the artist lost their touch or went in a direction that they dislike, or they claim to like the work before the artist became popular so they can seem “cool” themselves. Either way, not only does this thinking vary from artist to artist, but it can even vary within one artist’s fan base. I met a fellow Kid Cudi fan and we had completely different opinions on what his best/worst work was. What is interesting to me about the “Old Kanye over New Kanye” argument is just how overwhelmingly one sided this argument seems to be. From Kanye West fans to rap/music bloggers and critics to casual listeners, it seems that the majority of people agree that they want the Old Kanye back, and I’m not sure if that would necessarily be for the best.
Right off the bat, I DO NOT prefer New Kanye’s public persona over Old Kanye. There was a time when I would try to make excuses Kanye West and his antics, but it is far and away a losing battle. It has been extremely tiring in recent years to see MTV and Kanye continue their whole “ UH OH, HE’S BACK ON STAGE WHAT IS HE GONNA DO HE’S SO ARTISTIC AND CRAAAAAZY” bullshit, his over the top love and anger about the fashion industry, his involvement with that reality show family, and most recently his “stop focusing on racism” claim. In that sense, Old Kanye is definitely the preferred Kanye. While his current public state of mind gets rightly criticized, I don’t believe people should allow his questionable public decisions to affect their opinion on his recent albums. His projects should be judged by their content, not the actions that the artist take in his personal life.
Still, even when ignoring his interviews and award show stage interruptions, people tend to agree that Old Kanye is better than New Kanye musically. Yeezus and The Life of Pablo were extremely divisive albums that split both fans and critics. Even as a fan of these albums, it’s a good bet that they are not going to be looked back on as fondly as The College Dropout, Late Registration, or Graduation. That trilogy is what Old Kanye gave us. A breath of fresh air at the time of their releases, these albums were soulful and innovative pieces of art. Kanye always showed that you did not have to rap about killing and gangbanging to be a successful rapper. People say that once Kanye dropped his next project, 808s & Heartbreak, he fell off. That album is seen as the beginning of New Kanye, lowering his focus on the soul samples that his first 3 albums all had in common. As influential as 808s & Heartbreak has become as the years passed, it is still my least favorite Kanye West album. It had some very catchy songs and great production, but the lyrics still left a lot to be desired. This project is the Godfather of baby-skin soft hip hop that paved the way for artists to overuse autotune and Drake to continue to drop bitch boy songs with corny lyrics that make you roll your eyes immediately. 808s went one step further than “you don’t have to rap about guns” and showed that rappers can show emotions and be successful as well. There is nothing wrong with emotional rap as that can lead to songs with deep meaning and lyrics; however, the ugly side of the emotional rap that 808s inspired is the corniness that follows. Despite these flaws, I respect the influence of this project and appreciated Kanye taking a risk and experimenting with something new. This type of experimentation has become a theme in the later stages of Kanye’s career. My favorite artists are the ones that keep you guessing. Frank Ocean, Kendrick Lamar, and Danny Brown are just a few that continue to push boundaries, explore new sounds, and evolve as artists. I enjoy having no idea what the next album will sound like; on the other hand, we all know what Future’s next album is going to sound like because they are all in the same lane. I enjoy him from time to time, but I’m not going to highly anticipate an album that sounds like the last one. New Kanye is constantly changing lanes and working with new musicians to expand his sound.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one of the most perfect albums I have ever listened to, was created by the New Kanye that people are quick to hate. Again, we can prefer the Old Kanye persona, but it is not a given that that version of Kanye would have given us this masterpiece. An album where not one song is out of place, the features are perfect, the production is superb, and the lyrics are just as spectacular. “Act like I ain’t had a belt in two classes/I ain’t got it I’m coming after whoever who has it/ I’m coming after whoever. Who has it?” “Have you ever had sex with a pharaoh?/I put the pussy in a sarcophagus.” “We headed to hell for heaven’s sakes/Well I’mma levitate, make the devil wait.” MBDTF is universally considered to be brilliant, and when people say “I miss the old Kanye”, it seems to me that they are overlooking this exceptional project. When people diss present-day Kanye musically, they refer to Yeezus and The Life of Pablo, two understandably divisive albums. I loved Yeezus. The aggressive production and high vocal energy from Kanye made it one of my favorite albums of that year for me. It was easy to be turned off from the first sounds of “On Sight” that start everything off, but I even grew to appreciate that track, especially the soul sample in the middle of the song. If you couldn’t tell from the name, Yeezus was brash and in-your-face with a fuck-the-world attitude. The lyrics on the album were lacking on some of the songs, but “New Slaves”, “Black Skinhead”, “Blood On The Leaves”, and “Bound 2” made up for it. Especially “New Slaves”, one of my favorite songs in Kanye’s whole discography. This was an album unlike anything West had ever done. Three years later, Kanye West dropped The Life Of Pablo in one of the most horrible ways possible (lying about release dates, continuing to adjust the tracklist, screaming on the SNL stage that the album is online, releasing it exclusively through Tidal….fucking TIDAL) yet still was a success commercially. He brought back some soul samples, but this definitely was not an album like The College Dropout or Late Registration. This album was definitely messy. Tracks like “Feedback”, “Real Friends”, “No More Parties In LA”, and “Saint Pablo” showed that Mr. West can still rap extremely well. Then there were songs like “Father Stretch My Hands Pt. 1” and “Freestyle 4” where the lyrics damn near ruined the great production. I don’t care who you are, don’t rap about bleached assholes. Regardless, I enjoyed this album as well. This was not quite the experiment that Yeezus was, but it still pushed boundaries, and I found it to be amazing sonically. This album did not garner the hate that Yeezus did, but still had a fair share of dislike.
Of course, just because I personally enjoyed some albums that other people didn’t like does not mean that everybody is wrong for thinking that artist fell off. It’s not that New Kanye is better than Old Kanye, but I think New Kanye is better for hip hop and its fans. I appreciate an artist not continuing to put out the same music over and over, especially one as big as Kanye West. He could put out the same material, stay in his comfort zone, and still get his money. He decides to take the risk of experimenting with new sounds and new direction. Perhaps this can influence other hip hop artists to do the same; keep people guessing and continue to evolve. Even with the flaws that Yeezus and TLOP have, I appreciate the effort he put to expand his sound. I have no idea what direction his next album will go, and more hip hop artists should have their fans thinking the same.