Photo by Tara Conley

“You may be talented, but you’re not Kanye West.”

Everything about this quote epitomizes the person Kanye West is and has become since the 2004 release of his debut album, College Dropout to his most recent 2013 album release, Yeezus. There is certainly no doubt that he has musical talent as demonstrated by his record producing roots, 21 Grammy Awards, and best-selling album successes. However, it is his outspoken personality that has made him quite the controversialist in the face of Hollywood and the music industry. In West’s case, where do you think the line should be drawn between genius and jerk?

This playlist is meant to feature the musical edge that West gives with every album he releases, as highlighted in its societal themes and with the changing genre of the music itself. In 2004′s College Dropout, themes are drawn from his own life experiences; ‘Spaceship’ is critical of working in the retail environment (Let’s go back, back to the Gap/ Look at my check, wasn’t no scratch). Similarly, his 2005 album features further drastic issues – this time, with the mining of conflict diamonds in ‘Diamonds from Sierra Leone’. In musical sound, West deviated from the traditional hip hop of College Dropout by incorporating a string orchestra to add to the depth of hard and pounding sounds his rapping needed (read more on the creation of Late Registration here).

With each album, West’s hip-hop sound deviates further into a multi-genre album, where he plays with samples of other genres in order to produce a more unique sound than the last album. We see this in the electronic and house-influenced ‘Flashing Lights’ in Graduation and in the predominantly synthpop Paranoid’ in 808s & Heartbreak. This fourth album was especially iconic in its use of the Auto-Tune, Roland TR-808 drum machine, and in the fact that it was primarily sung rather than rapped. On this album, West calls it “therapeutic  and “lonely at the top.”

After a hiatus from the music scene West released his fifth studio album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, in 2010. The featured

Photo by Ole Haug

song in the playlist, Gorgeous,’ presents itself to introductory verses by Kid Cudi and Raekwon of Wu-Tang Clan with rock and bluesy-esque influences. In keeping with the typical Kanye West, the song collects on themes of social and racial injustice: Face it, Jerome get more time than Brandon / And at the airport they check all through my bag and tell me it’s random.

Watch The Throne, a collaborative sixth album with Jay-Z, plays on the same themes of social injustice as in the song ‘Gorgeous.’ Described as a diptych by Matthew Perpetua of Rolling Stone, ‘Murder to Excellence’ presents not only a change in theme from black-on-black violence to black excellence, but also a rhythmic change from a dramatic working-in-the-factory-type undertone to sounds of rejoicing.

The final track, ‘Black Skinhead,’ on West’s latest album Yeezus is a compilation of the hip hop genre with industrial sounds in its “pounding, relentless, jackhammer beats.” In again playing with the Auto-Tune, West redefines Yeezus further from any of his albums as a whole with sounds from 1990s industrial rock and electronic beats characterized by “droning synthesizers” and “distorted drum machines.”

Kanye West has time and time again redefined himself as not just solely a hip-hop/rap artist. In playing heavily with other genres and featuring themes that are significant to our understanding of how the world works from his eyes, there is countless evidence that proves West as  a prodigy essential in the history of the hip-hop genre. After listening to this playlist, ask yourself this once more: Kanye West – genius or jerk? You decide.

This playlist and accompanying piece was created by Alicia Hai, Music Blogger at Rhetoric Magazine. Come back for more every week!