World), West broke through in 2001 with his work on JAY-Z’s The Blueprint, producing and cowriting some of the album’s biggest songs (“Izzo [H.O.V.A.],” “Takeover”). His chopped-and-pitched, sample-heavy “chipmunk soul” sound would define rap for years after.
He launched his MC career with 2004’s The College Dropout and hasn’t looked back, releasing a string of groundbreaking — and often self-contradicting — albums, each of them a pacesetter for the culture around it. From the baroque grandeur of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to the punk fragments of Yeezus, from the social commentary of The College Dropout to the confessional summits of 808s & Heartbreak, West has always been at the leading edge, tirelessly expanding his scope and sound — and shifting everyone else’s playing field in the process.
Much of that comes from his gift for listening, for orchestrating: Over the course of his career, he has absorbed sounds and styles from the underground — whether Chicago drill, UK bass music, or Bon Iver’s postmodern folk — and reimagined them, changing the course of the mainstream along the way. An outspoken figure (to say the least), West has shattered countless stereotypes about who rappers are and what they do, taking stances against homophobia and gangster posturing, offering multidimensional portraits of women and some bracingly reductive ones, advancing social causes one minute and declaring himself a god the next, controversially getting the attention of not one but three sitting presidents, and playing both the face and the heel.