From Polos To Pablo: The Many Kanye Wests We’ve Met

Ryan Carey-Mahoney | February 23, 2016 1:57 pm

Whether he’s going by Ye, Yeezy, Yeezus or he’s just as another “K” in the Kardashian clan, Kanye West has spent more than a decade shining in the limelight and getting burned by it. Now, some 12 years since officially making the switch from producer to rapper, he’s going by Pablo – his latest metamorphosis in a career littered with transformations.

It’s a journey that progressed more in spurts and rapid spirals than one steady rhythm, and this is glaringly apparent when you take a look back, each phase launched by bursts of energy and controversy that go on to define that specific period. So with the tweet-spewing, album-tinkering Pablo phase cooling down (maybe…), we’ve examined the key moments and turning points that have made West who he is, from chop up the soul Kanye to the always rude Kanye.

The College Dropout

The opening beats and bars of “Jesus Walks” were a siren call. Summoning fans and critics to the irresistible fire of his first big single, West created an effortlessly poised and articulate gospel cry that’s still a marvel for bringing such religiosity into a mainstream hit. His 2004 debut spoke to a nuanced, imperfect worldview that few rappers on the charts were capturing at the time. He was just as comfortable displaying insecurity on “All Falls Down” as he was goofing off on “The New Workout Plan,” proving that even as he was making his first impression there were already various Kanyes to unpack.

The Rallying Cry

At the end of summer in 2005, West should have been on top of the world. He was just about to drop his sophomore-slump-crushing Late Registration led by the hit single “Gold Digger,” and was quickly becoming one of rap’s most respected voices. Then, Hurricane Katrina devastated parts of the Gulf Coast. During a live telethon for hurricane relief on September 2, a clearly flustered West went off-script before blurting out, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” With one awkward ad-lib he called out the federal government’s Katrina response and highlighted the perceived institutional racism that he still speaks about to this day. It was the first time he made it clear that when he thinks he’s right, he won’t try to be polite.

The Rivalry

It was one of pop’s last grand-scale commercial battles. In one corner you had 50 Cent, the street rapper with a bullet lodged in his tongue, and in the other you had Kanye West, the studio geek with the wired jaw. On September 11, 2007, they’d drop Curtis and Graduation respectively, each rapper’s third album, and the charts would dub the winner. Kanye ultimately crushed 50 (957,000 to 691,000), effectively rewriting the future of hip-hop and ushering in the era of art-geek pop-rap that was as likely to sample French techno as ’70s soul.

The Coldest Winter

At this point, it was obvious it would take something drastic to slow Kanye’s rise. And that test came with his mother’s death in late 2007 and the dissolution of his engagement to Alexis Phifer. With his personal life suddenly in disarray, West retreated from the exuberant radio rap of Graduation and emerged with 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, comprising Auto-Tuned tales of devastation and loneliness that frequently eschewed hip-hop foundations. So when he took the SNL stage to perform sing-songy lead single “Love Lockdown,” he was a man changed. His performance was imperfect and shaky, and widely panned. It was emblematic of this era in his life, and demonstrated that he was willing to stick to his artistic vision even if it meant sacrificing sales and acclaim.

The Interruption

Pop-country darling Taylor Swift upset Beyoncé for Best Female Video at the 2009 MTV VMAs in a win that many, like Kanye, were incredulous about. So, echoing his Katrina moment, West approached the stage during Swift’s speech and with “Imma let you finish,” he drew a line in the sand. From that point on you were either pro-Kanye or anti-Kanye. The backlash to his interruption effectively crushed his public persona, momentarily anyway, costing him his dignity and a tour with Lady Gaga.

The Fantasy

After the VMAs, Kanye holed up in his Hawaii studio to make an album that would serve as his “long, backhanded apology.” But there was nothing apologetic about My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, one of the most ambitious hip-hop albums ever released, and one of the most critically acclaimed albums in history. It was everything the title suggested it would be, a prog-rap opus with baroque production and an army of collaborators. It even helped anoint Nicki Minaj as the queen of rap thanks to her album-stealing “Monster” verse. By retreating into himself, West had again reshaped hip-hop, this time with a stupendous album on celebrity, sex, suicidal thoughts and finding a reason to love — and love Kanye — again.

The Throne

On the heels of MBDTF, Kanye announced a superstar collaboration with longtime friend Jay Z. It was a risk, West coming off the greatest achievement of his career to team with a rapper many considered washed up. But the joint album hit a high-low nexus that reinvigorated Jay’s career and cemented West as a visionary. Its luxury rhymes and luxurious beats made the bling-rap era seem downright frugal, and nothing encapsulated this grandiosity like the duo performing the anthem “N****s In Paris” in its namesake city 11 times in a row. Even for hip-hop this was a new level of hubris.

The God

West is this generation’s most unpredictable pop star, so it’s only fitting that happy developments like marriage and fatherhood resulted in his most acidic collection. Yeezus was raw and aggressive and filled with boasts about West’s godliness. And like any messiah, he was determined to start a movement. So he started with “New Slaves,” a crash course in racial politics, taking it to the streets and projecting it onto the side of buildings in various cities across the world.

The Campaign

Kanye always saves his best-slash-worst moments for the VMAs. Just when you start to fall for him again, he rambles on about art, listening to the kids and…politics? After receiving MTV’s Video Vanguard Award last year, he concluded his speech by offhandedly announcing his bid for the White House in 2020. But his Twitter fingers were about to more or less ensure such a run never happens.

The Perplexing Life of Pablo

Confusing. Thrilling. Exhausting. All words to describe The Life Of Pablo and its rollout. West offered the first truly Twitter-optimized album experience, in an era where album experiences were thought to be dead. And like many things on Twitter, it was often offensive. During the interminable unofficial PR campaign, Ye gave us stream-of-consciousness dispatches, four album names, a celebrity-studded fashion unveiling and piles of problematic, thinkpiece-ready missives. When he slut-shamed ex Amber Rose and fired off a “BILL COSBY INNOCENT !!!” tweet, it became too much to ignore for many one-time West fans.

Of course, this all obscures the fact that T.L.O.P. is one of his best albums, and so for his latest performance of persona, he brought into focus the great debate about separating the artist from the art. But as you can see looking back through the many sides of Kanye, sometimes the artist is the art.