Kanye West and the art of Genre-bending

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The concept of genre both inspires and irritates me.

Art shouldn’t need to operate with separation and boundaries; categorisation can be quite useful when you consider the massive heaving ocean of media and content washing around the world. That being said, I believe that rules applied to art mean as much as a creator or consumer want them to; in addition, breaking down the boundaries between genres and allowing them to mingle is where true magic and evolution occur. To me, genres exist to organise art across different mediums with respect to a work’s distinct characteristics, whether it be the tropes, narrative style, plot, composition or execution. In music, genre is particularly useful as some listeners will subscribe exclusively to certain genres and favour them over others to integrate this into their identity; for instance, an old school metalhead might worship Slayer and reject anything they consider ‘indie rock’ as waste-of-my-ear-space Doc Marten laden garbage.

doc-martens

Collins dictionary defines genre as “a particular type of literature, painting, music, film, or other art form which people consider as a class because it has special characteristics.” Hartley supports this notion of grouping, stating that genre refers to the categorisation of media texts according to any shared characteristics. As such genres can be seen as the product of categorisation, but, it’s important to note that the genre something is placed in does not need to correlate solely to whatever elements make up the product (for example, Roland TR-808 drum machine samples being a staple of hip hop beat production). In fact, Greenberg explains that categorisation into genre can also be constructed by a label or media outlet looking to target a specific demographic with a product. The way I see it, our lovely circular umbrella terms now interact more like a Venn diagram.

PopularMusicGenres.pngSeveral popular music genres arranged into a Venn diagram, where we see the structural elements of several established genres and the way they overlap and interact.

Over seven studio albums and countless production credits, Kanye West has had a knack for manipulating samples and amalgamating genres into a cohesive product. From tracks that inspect social injustice to our gluttonous obsession with social media, his work effortlessly explores new territory and pays homage to the old while orbiting a central foundation: hip hop. A common element of  hip hop is the rampant use of sampling by music producers, allowing them to pull hooks from various genres to be re-spliced into a ‘sonic Frankenstein’.

Hip hop is an ideal vessel for West’s musical madness and his style evolution is impressive in its own right. More than 50% of hip hop from the early 1990’s featured samples of soul music, with this saturated influence leading West to pack his early records with snippets of the genre. Most tracks he wanted to use were originally the wrong tempo for hip hop, and West’s method of addressing this problem was to raise the pitch on his Ensoniq ASR-10 sampler. This is a key element of West’s track ‘Through The Wire’ where the vocal hook of Chaka Khan’s similarly titled ‘Through The Fire’ becomes almost chipmunked by the change of pitch and provides a memorable accompaniment to West’s lyrics, illustrating his rise to fame in the wake of a near-death experience.

1.jpgThe Ensoniq ASR-10 Sampler

‘Blood On The Leaves’, a track from Kanye’s 2013 album ‘Yeezus’, contains three track samples from various genres:

  • Nina Simone – ‘Strange Fruit’ (Soul/Jazz)
  • TNGHT – ‘R U Ready’ (Trap)
  • C-Murder – ‘Down For My Niggaz’ (Gangsta Rap)

The track begins with a sample from ‘Strange Fruit’ which features West’s signature speed and pitch raising technique, allowing his natural tenor voice ample space to move underneath the track’s sample. This hauntingly beautiful introduction is built from Nina Simone’s version of a Billie Holiday track, and draws inspiration from lynchings and the oppression of African American people in The United States of America. Simone’s listless-yet-gorgeous vocals are starkly juxtaposed by the booming horns and synthesisers that West introduces as he crudely collides ‘Down For My Niggaz’ and ‘R U Ready’. Further homage is paid to C-Murder as West raps the track’s titular hook; as a result, the lyric morphs into a symbol of racial pride in the face of persecution. The resulting six-minute monster hits like a tonne of grimy self-indulgent bricks as West rants about the breakdown of a high-society relationship. The rampant drug addiction; the infidelity and excessive consumerism; these themes are the cornerstone of Yeezus’ sonic universe.

anigif_enhanced-buzz-20022-1371324247-2_preview.gif‘Yeezus’ album art

Exploring genre through Kanye West’s craft exposes the power that bending stylistic boundaries can give a piece of work. West demonstrates a keen understanding of how different elements can be combined to achieve a greater purpose and his social commentary cuts through like a sawtoothed synthesiser.

References

Author Not Specified (2018). Definition of genre. Retrieved March 1, 2018, from https://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/genre

Greenberg, D. M. (2015, August 05). Musical genres are out of date – but this new system explains why you might like both jazz and hip hop. Retrieved March 16, 2018, from https://theconversation.com/musical-genres-are-out-of-date-but-this-new-system-explains-why-you-might-like-both-jazz-and-hip-hop-63539

Author Not Specified (2008, December 09). Kanye West – This is how he does it. Retrieved March 11, 2018, from https://musicianstools.wordpress.com/2008/12/09/kanye-west-this-is-how-he-does-it/

Jones, L. (2016, September 20). Kanyes Yeezus – Why His Sampling Still Sets Him Apart. Retrieved March 6, 2018, from http://www.nme.com/blogs/nme-blogs/kanyes-yeezus-why-his-sampling-still-sets-him-apart-23200

Johnson, S. L. (2015, June 21). Most Popular Music Genres Explained in One Diagram. Retrieved February 25, 2018, from http://community.mis.temple.edu/stevenljohnson/2013/04/22/most-popular-music-genres-explained-in-one-diagram/

Kastrenakes, J. (2014, August 20). Kanye Wests sampling: a listenable history. Retrieved February 16, 2018, from https://www.theverge.com/2014/8/20/6048381/kanye-west-samples-listenable-history

Author Not Specified. 15 samplers that shaped modern music – and the musicians who use them. (2016, November 27). Retrieved February 23, 2018, from http://www.factmag.com/2016/09/15/15-samplers-that-shaped-modern-music/

Chennault, S. (2016, April 15). Gold Digger: Two Decades of Kanye West Samples. Retrieved March 6, 2018, from http://blog.thirdbridgecreative.com/2016/03/kanye-samples/

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