The Voice of Kanye West

By LENNON MODORY

Kanye West; we all know who he is, we have all heard at least one of his songs, but have we all recognized the most distinctive aspect of his music? Kanye West was originally known for his production of hip-hop beats, but in 2002 he recorded his debut song, Through the Wire. He recorded the song weeks after his horrible car accident, in which he had his jaw wired shut. The vocals are not clear and are very muffled. Not many artists would record their debut song under these parameters, but Kanye did, and that’s the first signal of uniqueness to his songs. Kanye regards the human voice as the “best, ideal, and most greatest instrument ever.” Kanye mends the customary style of a rap beat, and often turns it into a whole new entity. A traditional hip-hop song features an instrumental track and a vocal track. What makes Kanye so special is that he never limited himself to just singing and rapping. His entire library of music pushes the boundaries of the human voice.

Kanye’s first album, The College Dropout, is jam packed with all sorts of sounds and music. The most standout track on this album is Jesus Walks. Jesus Walks is the song that won him his first Grammy award and several other nominations. His use of the gospel song, Walk With Me, fills the entire piece with vocal samples. It becomes the bassline, percussion, melody, and is all overlayed by many additional vocal sounds. Kanye layers vocals all the time, especially with choirs. This is even more evident on his second album, Late Registration, on songs like Crack Music, Celebration, and Hey Mama. On these tracks he doesn’t really manipulate the vocals, rather just includes these human voices to make music. Today, who would ever imagine a Kanye West song featuring Adam Levine? Well, this style worked, and in Heard ‘Em Say, the piano and vocal melody of Levine complete the track in an angelic style. The raw voice is what Kanye strives for. Some producers choose to transpose background vocals up and down an octave, however, Kanye seldom does this, until his next albums.

On his next synth, and electronic driven record, Kanye departs from his normal style. With his third album, Graduation, Kanye chose synthesizers that sound like vocals and orientates them to be centered around the human voice. This is heavily apparent on the track, Good Life. West, himself, admits he does not have a great singing voice, but sings on nearly every track of 808s and Heartbreak. Auto tune is very evident in the songs he sings. He does this to create a new style of album crafting.

Kanye’s fifth album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is the turning point of West’s music style. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is eight tracks shorter than The College Dropout, but runs nearly as long. Kanye turned the conventional structure of a rap song upside down. The prime example of this lies in the nine minute song, Runaway. Kanye switches things up with a counter melody in the second half of the song. In this counter melody we hear West’s voice processed through a vocoder to sound like a guitar. Rolling Stone said, “there’s no way it should, but it keeps going for three minutes without breaking a spell”. Runaway’s outro is longer than most rap songs. Kanye’s hit, Jesus Walks, can neary be played three times in the length of Runaway. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a maximalist, perfect album, that means that Yeezus is sparse and minimalistic.

Everything Kanye has done up to this album is lightly featured on this record. The pitched up vocals, choir samples, layered vocals, are still there, but have an indolent touch to them. Bound 2  features vocal samples from Brenda Lee and Charlie Wilson. These vocals are easy to identify but are not nearly mixed and produced the way West’s song used to be. Bound 2 is far from the old Kanye style but is the closest thing on Yeezus to what we would find on The College Dropout.

On his latest album, The Life of Pablo, Kanye created the masterpiece, Ultralight Beam. This song is a culmination of everything Kanye has produced since The College Dropout. It’s a gospel song like Jesus Walks, but instead of sampling a choir, he created his own. Recorded in a small studio room, this choir sounds as if it were recorded in a church. The choir sounds close, it sounds far, at one point in the song, they’re up in your ear, but just ten seconds later, in a seamless transition, they appear to be preaching in the distance. Like Runaway, it doesn’t have a traditional structure, and is slightly minimal like Yeezus. Right where you would expect West to rap, he passes the mic to Chance The Rapper, whose voice matches the emotion of the song so perfectly. What a piece of music West has created.

Kanye was first known pretty much just for producing and pitched up vocals. No one thought he’d be considered to be one of the greatest rappers alive. However, ever since he decided to rap with his jaw wired shut, he has used the human voice as a weapon to bring hip-hop into a completely new figure.To this day, West still looks for what he can do with something so simple as a voice.