One of the reasons Kanye West inspires such a devoted following is that, despite all of the changes in his life and in his music, we can still recognize him as the same character he was when his story began. He is his own muse. When West débuted as a solo artist, in 2004, he came across as an Everyman striver whose petty arrogance masked a deeper set of insecurities. Puffing his chest one moment, self-scrutinizing the next, he seemed to offer a novel archetype: the grounded hip-hop star. He was never a great rapper, but he made a style of his enthusiastic clumsiness, surrounding his verses with proud soul samples, on “The College Dropout” (2004); high-res orchestrations, on “Late Registration” (2005); and arena-size triumphalism, on “Graduation” (2007). As fame came to seem increasingly like a game that could be rigged, West remained a man of erratic shifts and intense, flitting curiosities. In 2008, following the death of his mother, he released “808s & Heartbreak,” a divisive, stripped-down masterpiece built around the strange, bluesy effect of singing against the grain of Auto-Tune. With each new project, West was curious and questing: sometimes he seemed like a grad student fresh from an art-history seminar; at other times, he spoke like an executive at a Silicon Valley management retreat. Whatever his world view in a given moment, he always wanted, desperately, to share it.
The main difference between then and now is that West has long since surpassed his early dreams.
Hua Hsu, “A God Dream”, The New Yorker (22 February 2016), 66.