Let’s face it, when you think of Kanye West, ‘team-player’ probably isn’t the first word that springs to mind. But take a look at his career and you’ll see that from the start ‘Ye’s been all about the creative partnerships.
From his cocky breakthrough on The College Dropout, to the emergence of a more sonically experimental style on 808s and Heartbreak, Kanye’s been a man on a journey of artistic development. And the way he’s achieved it is by constantly seeking out creative partners, learning from them and absorbing their powers, before moving on to new feeding grounds.
His latest album, The Life of Pablo, is a perfect example. A brilliant, contradictory mess of a record, and itself the product of over 50 named collaborations, it lurches from one experimental soundscape to the next, constantly challenging expectations of a ‘Kanye’ album and exceeding them in the process.
We’ll have to wait and see whether or not it’s really the “best album of all time”, but the album and its spectacular release event, which also served as the Yeezy Season 3 premiere, is, and will probably continue to be, the most talked about creative event of the year. And in honour of this, we took a look at the creative collaborations that have gotten ‘Ye to where he is today.
Kanye and Jay Z’s ‘brotherhood’ go back right to the start of ‘Ye’s career. It was his performance as producer on Jay Z’s instant classic The Blueprint that got Kanye his first big break and convinced Roc-A-Fella Records to sign him as a rapper. From there, Jay Z kind of took Kanye under his wing.
The chemistry that they would later flaunt on their massive joint-album Watch the Throne was already palpable the first time they traded a mic, on “Never Let Me Down” (off The College Dropout): Jay Z’s assured flow keeps the listener bouncing, while Kanye goes in deep with a thought raising meditation on racism and poverty.
Their relationship is probably best defined by Kanye himself, on his heartfelt track “Big Brother” in which he opens up about his gratitude for, and sometime-jealousy of, his ‘big brother’:
If you admire somebody you should go 'head tell 'em
People never get the flowers while they can still smell 'em
An idol in my eyes, god of the game
Heart of the City, Roc-a-Fella chain
Never be the same, never be another
Number one, Young Hov, also my big brother
"N---as in Paris"
Watch the Throne (Kanye West & Jay Z) 2011
The stand-out moment on Watch the Throne: a stone-cold classic, a masterclass in lyrical skill, set to a beat that bangs harder than anything on an album full of bangers.
Not so much a single collaboration as an ongoing musical love-affair. ‘Ye has been dipping his toes into the warm waters of electronic experimentation since “Stronger”, the stand-out single from 2007’s Graduation.
Lifting a sample from Daft Punk's "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger" and layering it with vocoder, the song itself is a perfect symbol for what digital production tools, and the host of possibilities they come with, do for Kanye – they make him stronger.
2008’s 808 & Heartbreaks was where he really started to open up to computerised sounds, with heavily Auto-Tuned vocals and a sound defined by his Roland TR-808 Rhythm Composer. This was the record that signalled the start of a relationship with electronic music that has remained central to his sound through Yeezus – with its bizarre digital textures, alien soundscapes, and incorporation of glitch music hallmarks – all the way to The Life of Pablo.
Yeezus (Kanye West) 2013
“On Sight” is electronica, pure and simple. With a beat that wouldn’t sound out of place in a Berlin tech-rave, the track opens with a throbbing synth line that is forced through all kinds of sonic modulations right up until the song’s jittery close.
After his first attempt at a fashion label, Pastelle, quietly flopped, Kanye went out and did what he does best – he sought out partnerships with the best of the industry to learn from. Vanessa Beecroft was one of them.
A well-established visual and performance artist in her own right, Beecroft has been a mentor and the guiding hand behind almost all of Kanye’s visual art since 2008, when he hired her to curate a listening party for his forthcoming album, 808s and Heartbreak.
Her trademark usage of the human form, nude colour palettes, and dead-pan choreography is all over the three Yeezy collections and it’s largely thanks to her pared-down influence that Kanye has finally managed to find (at least partial) critical approval for his fashion designs.
The video for “Only One” was conceived by Beecroft and does away with the previous Kanye dictat that “bigger is better” when it comes to videos. A simple stroll through a hazy field strips away any bravado or posturing and presents Kanye in a way that comes straight from Vanessa’s intimate understanding of him as a father.