The aftermath of the Biggie and Tupac deaths in the 90s ushered an even more commercial era into the music, but in truth, both of those artists had already been part of how things were changing.
Puff Daddy and others littered rap tracks with 80s samples and r&b hooks, while artists such as Jay Z, Dre, and Eminem reached the turn of the century with bigger sales than ever. The lyrical content was also far from innocent, and the early days of rap in the 70s, 80s, and early 90s seemed already centuries away by the time we reached the materialistic new Millennium.
In the wider world, we soon lived in a post 9/11 fear, and America itself was not a great place to be.
This was the scene surveyed by a still relatively young Kanye West in around 2002, a producer who was already enjoying success beyond the dreams of many.
Any other beat-maker would have been content. But most didn’t share the vision of Kanye, one of the only people who could have imagined that he would be a successful rapper as well.
Thedocumentary, which saw Kanye being followed around for years by directors Coodie Simmons and Chike Ozah, is an incredible testament to this whole era, and the driving determination of Kanye West. These guys took a leap of faith, and were there every step of the way, as Kanye became one of the most important artists in music during the next two decades.
Watching episode 1, you’d be forgiven for thinking this was some musical nobody half the time, such is the constant frustration that emancipates from the screen. Kanye was very much a glass-half-full type of guy, who wanted everything and more from hip-hop.
Apart from Kanye and the documentary makers, it was his mother Donda West who provided the real belief in him being someone more than a producer. Here, she manages to do the impossible. She steals the show from Kanye in his own documentary. She was a remarkable woman whose death in 2007 hit Kanye very hard, which will be covered in future episodes.
I never like to speculate on his mental health, as I think it is unfair, but Kanye can divide opinion in a massive way these days. Even a cynic would be hard-pressed not to enjoy the scenes between Donda and her son from, and her wholehearted backing of every one of his dreams made her his greatest-ever fan. She raps his lyrics, she compliments his necklace, and she encourages him every step of the way.
Her infectious personality jumps off the screen, and makes Kanye himself a lot more likeable than the cartoon figure we often see these days. This vulnerability is often a part of his greatest music too, and makes for riveting watching here.
Having met him myself during one of his visits to Cork in 2009, I have to say that he is fairly down-to-earth in real life, and his online persona also seems at odds with what we see in the documentary.
Much has changed though in 20 years, and his personal life is being played out in real time these days too.
His new album is again eagerly awaited, and is supposedly dropping tomorrow, though with Kanye there’s always potential for last-minute changes. His recent public feuds have been messy, and even close friends like Kid Cudi have been caught in the crossfire.
His targeting of the streaming services such as Spotify are likely to gain him much more sympathy though, and Kanye has claimed that he will only be releasing his album directly on his own Stem players, which are quite expensive and out of reach of your average music fan. Kanye rightly claims that artists are getting a terrible return from each stream on the big services, and he maintains that he won’t release his music there. It will be interesting to see what happens.
Love him or hate him, he’s pretty box office and a major music visionary, who’s enjoyed immense success in other fields too.
This Netflix documentary goes deep into some of the formative years of his career, and it’s well worth checking out.