Say what you will about Kanye West as a person, but it’s hard to deny that as an artist, he's been an innovative force throughout his career that's spurred a number of trends in hip-hop. With respect to his creative approach in the studio, he's been experimenting with several vocal processing techniques even prior to his rapper days.
Even West was just known as a producer, he believed the human voice was the best instrument of all and developed a signature sound defined by chipmunk-styled high pitch vocal samples. The video below by Vox breaks down his exploration of the human voice over time, starting with his rapping debut which was recorded in 2002. Enjoy!
Kanye deconstructed: The human voice as the ultimate instrument
"Through The Wire" (2003)
In October 2002, he was involved in a head on collision that required reconstructive surgery and needed Kanye’s jaw to be wired shut. Just weeks later the surgery, Kanye recorded “Through The Wire” while his mouth was still wired shut, a bold move for his first release as a rapper. The is effectively the first time the world was introduced to Kanye’s rapping voice.
"Jesus Walks" – (2004)
Kanye’s production was known for being littered with soulful samples, with “Jesus Walks” being a prime example of this trend in his music. He uses samples from a gospel track “Walk With Me” by The ARC Choir throughout the track and even pitches John Legend’s voice with auto-tune to be re-created as a flute-like instrument. The track appeared on The College Dropout, which influenced many artists to use a similar style of soulful vocal samples in their following releases.
Kanye’s 2007 album Graduation was heavily focused on synths and electronic-based production. This video points out the project is concentrated around vocals like his other works, but he does something different here by selecting synthesizers that sound like vocals on their own.
808s & Heartbreaks – (2008)
This is where Kanye really experiments with auto-tune. He himself has even admitted he isn’t the best singer, but he sings on almost every song throughout the project. The album followed the untimely death of West’s mother in addition to an end of a long term relationship causing Kanye to express his emotions with his heavily processed singing.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010)
This is the project Kanye threw conventional structure of rap songs out the window to utilize his own way of song structure. The video calls this his “maximalist” album that contains much longer songs and finds him venturing new territory as his vocoder-processed voice to make it sound like a guitar.
This video points out that Kanye’s Yeezus album combines all his previous vocal techniques and processes, but in a deconstructed way. Vox illustrates his technique of combining layered vocals and samples in a way we haven’t heard from him previously.
"Ultralight Beam" (2016)
The video calls “Ultralight Beam” a “culmination of everything Kanye has produced since The College Dropout”. While the track is also a gospel-based song like “Jesus Walks”, he brings his own choir for an original recording instead of sampling a previously recorded song. The way he uses the gospel vocals in “Ultralight Beam” adds a certain amount of depth to the song and captures a vibe that Vox points out sounds almost like it was recorded in a church.