Kanye West: How the Rapper Grew From 'Dropout' to 'Yeezus'

Kanye 2013

Marco Cibola

The college dropout is now an icon. Read up on Kanye's musical journey to "Yeezus."

"Graduation" (released Sept. 11, 2007 through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

With the hip-hop world in his palm, Kanye decided to reach for another groove. His quest led him to sampling French dance duo Daft Punk’s "Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger." West’s “Stronger” whips and thwacks in a way none of his sped up soul-sampling single ever did. And through the Venetian shades he wore in its video, West watched the single whiz to No. 1 on the Hot 100.

Though it had its fair share of defiant (Can’t Tell Me Nothing”), heartfelt (Jay-Z-dedicated “Big Brother”) and pensive (“Everything I’m Am”) moments, the mood of “Graduation” is generally a contented one. The joyous T-Pain-featuring “Good Life” is the effort’s other smash (peaking at No. 7 on the Hot 100). This album sold 2.7 million copies.

"808s & Heartbreak" (released Nov. 24, 2008 through Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam)

If “Graduation” marked West’s ascension to the pop star ranks of Justin Timberlake (who he referred to as the Prince to his Michael Jackson), “808s & Heartbreak” chronicled his abrupt decent back to Earth. Just two months after “Graduation" hit stores, West’s mother Dr. Donda West died of complications from cosmetic surgery. As if that loss wasn’t enough, Kanye’s relationship with then fiancé Alexis Phifer crumbled as well.

Rather than retreating from the music scene to recuperate and grieve, West hit the studio and whipped up “808s,” an album soaked in despair and clearly showing how lonely the top was for Kanye at the moment.

Mourning the losses of a parent and a breakup with a wife-to-be, Kanye opted to sing via voice-altering device Auto-Tune instead of rap. The emotionally raw effort spawned two Top 5 Hot 100 singles:  "Love Lockdown" (No. 3) and “Heartless” (No. 2).  In the artful videos for each, West was moody and muted, with hair grown past its usually close-trimmed length.

It’s also the first Kanye West album where the bulk of it is sample free. There’s no soulful joy here—just gut-wrenching honesty. West mostly leaned on the Roland TR-808 drum machine and producer Jeff Bhasker to create airy, tribal soundscapes.

The melodic rap style West popularized on “808s” to the tune of 1.7 million records sold also paved the road for artists like Drake and former protégé Kid Cudi to unabashedly be themselves artistically on arrival.

Page 3: "My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy" & "Yeezus"