NEW YORK (Billboard) - Urban music lately has dabbled in electronic sounds, but Kanye West takes it a step further with the synth-heavy first single from his upcoming CD.
“Stronger” samples Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger” and slows down the beat. At No. 47, the track is the top debut of the week on the Billboard Hot 100.
“That melody just hit me so hard,” West says when asked about the song’s inspiration. “I mean, it’s the music. It wasn’t a gimmick thing.”
“That’s not atypical of Kanye,” Def Jam president and West mentor Jay-Z says. “It’s been his pattern since day one. He always has to push the envelope. That’s his cross to bear.”
The argument could be made that West’s artistry, knack for hit-making and penchant for unpredictability make him one of hip-hop’s last rock stars. So it’s precisely West’s singular place in hip-hop that will make or break “Graduation,” his third Def Jam album, due September 11.
“Kanye has an edge, and when he steps up and says something meaty (like his anti-George Bush remarks on live television during NBC’s concert fundraiser for victims of Hurricane Katrina in September 2005), he’s doing it out of passion,” Def Jam senior VP of marketing Tracey Waples says. “That’s what’s made him the people’s champ. It’s the common man’s perspective.”
But what is the cost of being a headstrong artist who’s usually ahead of the curve? So far, West has not fallen out of favor on Madison Avenue, as evidenced by past branding partnerships with Pepsi and Boost Mobile. Robert Passikoff, founder/president of consulting firm Brand Keys, calls the artist’s outspoken personality “refreshing. While there’s risk involved (in working with such an artist), it’s also the kind of thing advertisers who are desperate for some sort of engagement are willing to risk.”
And West is aware of times he’s stepped over the line. By way of example, he recalls Island Def Jam chairman Antonio “L.A.” Reid “talking me out of doing the ‘Gold Digger’ video and making it all slaves ... Sometimes as a creative person, you go off the deep end a little. The downside is, you don’t always know when to stop.”
West endured a well-documented rocky path from Chicago obscurity to Roc-a-Fella Records hitmaker. Born in Atlanta, he moved to the Windy City with his English professor mother, Donda. After high school at the American Academy of Art, he enrolled at Chicago State University. He eventually dropped out to produce music full time, but he always viewed his time behind the boards as a means to an end.
“I was inspired by the Doors movie,” West says. “I saw Jim Morrison and said, ‘I want to be just like that.’”
“He’ll play his songs for any and everybody that’s willing to listen,” longtime friend and producer 88-Keys says. “But his true friends are who he really listens to just because they’re most likely to tell the truth, like ‘Aw, man. Take out that high-hat.’ He’s very open to criticism.”
Following the success of such West-crafted hits as “H to the Izzo” and “Bonnie & Clyde,” Roc-a-Fella partners Jay-Z and Damon Dash saw past initial fears that he was not street enough to market as a rapper. They gave him the green light to make his debut album, 2004’s “The College Dropout.”
“He stretches boundaries,” Jay-Z says.
At a time when the street-hustling lyrics of 50 Cent, T.I. and Jadakiss were pervasive, West was touting himself with a teddy bear as a mascot. “Dropout” has sold 3 million copies in the United States, according to Nielsen SoundScan, and spawned the singles “Through the Wire,” “All Falls Down” and “Jesus Walks.”
Other artists recognized West as a unique talent capable of transcending genre boundaries. “I was sitting in Sting’s dressing room at Live 8,” Def Jam’s Waples recalls. “And Sting, Bono, John Mayer and Kanye were making up a song. In that moment I understood why he was able to be there. 50 or T.I. would never be able to be in that room.”
In 2006, West defied the sophomore slump with “Late Registration,” which shifted 860,000 units in its debut week. First single “Diamonds From Sierra Leone” highlighted the diamond industry’s violent practices and even inspired Russell Simmons to go on a fact-finding trip to South Africa. The mood was much more party-friendly on the follow-up, “Gold Digger,” which sampled Jamie Foxx covering Ray Charles and spent 10 weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100. West calls the latter cut “my most perfectly written song to date.”
On “Graduation,” only Coldplay’s Chris Martin, T-Pain, Mos Def and DJ Toomp made the cut as guest contributors, because, as West says, “When I hear the records of my favorite bands — the Killers or Coldplay — you only hear one voice from start to finish,” a departure from the recording trend of duets and guest vocalists.
West proudly cops to being influenced by such left-field albums as Radiohead frontman Thom Yorke’s 2006 solo effort, “The Eraser,” while crafting the music for “Graduation.” And though he may feel liberated from hip-hop’s sonic constraints, one has to wonder if his new sound is going to translate with the Brooklyn bodega regulars.
“You can’t control if people are going to buy your music. At the end of the day you have to keep challenging yourself,” Jay-Z says. “He has zero problem with that. He is never complacent. We mixed ‘Stronger,’ I’m not even joking with you, 17 times. He could not get the bass drum exactly the way he wanted it.”
“The beauty of Kanye is his unpredictability,” Reid adds. “You don’t get to the cover of Time magazine by being fluffy. Real stars are on their path and they don’t apologize. Jimi Hendrix threw his guitar down and set it on fire. He didn’t think about ‘Should I?’ He just set his guitar on fire. The ones thinking about it too hard aren’t real stars. That’s manufactured.”
West’s creativity will have another chance to shine on the fall Glow in the Dark tour, on which he is collaborating with Madonna choreographer Jamie King. Dates have yet to be announced. In contrast to the poor touring track record for major hip-hop stars, West has been a consistent box-office draw: His 2005 tour with Fantasia and Keyshia Cole grossed $8.4 million and drew more than 210,000 people to 46 shows reported to Billboard Boxscore.
If West is feeling pressure, it is his own. His bosses, according to Jay-Z, “pretty much stay out of his way.”
“I want everything associated with me to be the best and push the boundary of what you think is possible,” West says. “Whether it’s my music, my videos or my tour, I’m trying to be the best.”