Love him or hate him, Kanye West is a mad genius.
People will write him off because they don’t like his arrogance or they are offended by one of his political stunts.
Personally, I don’t care about any of his antics. I’m fascinated by people who are extremely effective at what they do — regardless if they are “good” or “bad.”
Critiquing a person through the morality filter offers little value. It’s a feel-good metric — but what do you actually learn from it?
You learn how to feel about that person.
And what do you gain from that?
Instead, I prefer the Effectiveness Filter.
What do you stand to gain from studying the greats through the Effectiveness Filter?
The skills, tactics, habits, mindsets, tools, strategies, ideas, and lucky breaks they used to succeed — the things you can use in your own pursuit of greatness.
Full disclosure: This article was requested by Nick Kelly of Bold and Determined because he wants to know how Kanye “did it” and it just so happens that I’ve been stuying Kanye since before the launch of his first album. Below are my findings.
Entire books will be written on Kanye’s rise to fame, power, and artistic mastery. My analysis focuses on three key areas that define the Code of Kanye:
- He has the intangibles — the drive, the work ethic, the mindset, the passion
- He had a master plan — the content and release schedule of Kanye’s first five albums reflect a well-thought, well-executed strategy
- He is a master of media — the “crazy” Kanye persona you see is a tool for media manipulation, an amplified character based on the real Kanye
Let’s dive in.
Do the Inappreciable
Behind every overnight success is usually a decade or two of hard work and struggle that the world will never see or fully appreciate.
It’s the period of struggle that creates the person who ultimately becomes successful and achieves great feats.
Dedication to the Craft
This period of dedication to mastering their craft is what deserves all the praise, but it’s not where the praise goes.
The praise goes to the work created after this period of struggle — coincidentally, the praise comes when the work is much easier.
Creating your best work is always easier than your worst work because you are better at that point.
Every artist, entrepreneur, and athlete is desperate for people to appreciate their struggle, but we can never fully appreciate someone else’s struggle.
Personal sacrifice never sounds as difficult as it actually is.
The only way to appreciate it is to do it yourself.
Here’s a quote from the song Spaceship on Kanye’s first album, The College Dropout, where he reflects on this period:
“Ya’ll don’t know my struggle
Ya’ll can’t match my hustle
You can’t catch my hustle
You can’t fathom my love dude
Lock yourself in a room doin’ five beats a day for three summers
That’s a Different World like Cree Summer’s
I deserve to do these numbers
The kid that made that deserves that Maybach
So many records in my basement
I’m just waitin’ on my spaceship”
Kanye had the skills. All he needed was an opportunity.
Get in Where You Fit in
In hip-hop, there’s a saying — “get in where you fit in.”
In other words, seize any opportunity to break out in the industry you choose, even if it requires doing a job you don’t like at first.
Kanye always wanted to rap over his own beats.
The problem was that he was way better at making beats than he was at rapping early in his career.
When he would show rappers his music in an attempt to get signed, they were more interested in buying his beats off him than they were in signing him as a rapper.
You would think the “arrogant” Kanye West would say “no deal — if you don’t recognize my genius than you don’t deserve my beats!”
On the contrary, Kanye had the mindset to get in where he fit in. He did what others won’t do, and what people will never fully appreciate — he delayed his rap career to become a full-time producer.
His beats became the sound every rapper wanted and every producer tried to copy.
He was signed to Jay-Z’s record label as their in-house producer — the same label that later launched Kanye’s career as a rapper.
The Mad Genius Master Plan
Doing the inappreciable is mandatory for everyone who seeks greatness.
It’s the minimum requirement, and it’s not what makes Kanye special.
The great tragedy is that countless people will work their asses off and never make it.
Kanye’s rise to the top of the rap game was much more than hard work — he had a plan and he had vision.
Not “a vision” — vision. A vision is a fixed outcome. Vision is the ability to adapt reality to your desired outcome.
Please the Gods First
Prior to the launch of Kanye’s first album, he was on the most respected label in rap at the time, surrounded by the best in the game.
He had paid his dues and earned his shot. He could take any direction he wanted.
He knew what the market wanted, but he didn’t try to please the market.
Instead, he pleased the gods.
Kanye didn’t try to be a gangsta rapper like everyone else was doing.
He took the style of the underground — “backpack rappers” who focused on lyricism and the art of hip-hop in its purest form.
The College Dropout featured rappers’s rappers — the guys that old-school rappers respected for their skill, but never had much commercial success.
However, Kanye’s album did have commercial success because he brought a new level of honesty, sharing his insecurities and shortcomings that gangsta rappers couldn’t get away with. People connected with him.
His approach pleased the gods.
Most people thought Kanye was a backpack rapper himself. They thought he wanted to make “real rap” mainstream.
The truth is Kanye took the approach he did for two reasons:
- To earn the respect of veteran rappers and purists of the game
- To prove that you can make good music by artistic and commercial standards
And most importantly, when he eventually became a superstar and would be labeled a sellout, he took away the ability for his haters to say he couldn’t make “real rap.”
Since Kanye was placed in the category of backpack rappers, his competition wrote him off. Exactly what Kanye wanted.
Meanwhile, all of those old-school rappers that Kanye impressed, out of sight from mainstream culture, were still heavily involved behind the scenes in the rap industry.
They were gatekeepers.
So while Kanye made his competition and the market look in one direction, he was building relationships behind the scenes that would advance his career faster than anyone else.
Follow the Popular Formula (Sell Out)
Kanye always planned to transcend the rap genre — and all of music for that matter.
After defining his style and creating his own lane in hip-hop with his first two albums, Kanye was ready for the big leagues.
While it may be the cool thing, if you’re a hipster, to bash pop music — the greatest artists of all time make pop music because their music becomes so popular it is labeled pop music.
The biggest international icons — The Beatles, Michael Jackson, Prince, etc. — make pop music.
The reason why pop music gets annoying and why most pop artists will never get (or deserve) the respect of the greats is that pop music is formulaic.
It’s math. It’s A/B testing.
There are formulas you can follow to make pop music, and if you want the support of the powers that be in the entertainment industry, you have to play the game on their terms at some point.
You have to create music for the radio and for the clubs if you want to become an international icon.
And that’s exactly what Kanye did.
He played the game. He dumbed down his music, applied more formula, created a fake beef with 50 Cent to hype the album, and sold more copies than he ever had before.
Kanye West, the superstar, had arrived.
Create a New Genre
Here’s where Kanye separates himself from being a successful artist to being a mad genius.
A lot of artists please the gods first. These are the true artists who love the artform.
A lot of artists follow the popular formula. After all, creating “real art” gets old after a while when you realize you could be making real money.
However, most artists will never create a new genre.
After mastering the popular formula, Kanye saw something others didn’t.
Lots of artists at the time were using an exaggerated form of autotune in their music to create a melodic, robotic sound that turns the worst singer into a bearable singer.
It was a small piece of the formula.
Kanye saw potential for a new formula — singing with autotune over minimalist 808 drums tracks.
Kanye’s album 808s and Heartbreaks created an entire genre that led to artists like Drake andThe Weeknd.
Create a Masterpiece
Kanye had the world’s attention following 808s, and instead of another experimental project, Kanye went back to hip-hop and created a masterpiece.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is one of the best albums of all genres, ever.
This is the album that silenced most of his critics — especially those who felt he had “gone pop” after 808s.
MBDTF borrows qualities of all of his previous work and set a new standard for hip-hop.
No matter what happens, Kanye’s legacy as an artist is set in stone because of his masterpiece.
Master of Media
Although Kanye clearly had the talent and dedication, plus he executed artistically better than most of his competitors, the Code of Kanye wouldn’t be complete without his mastery of media.
Kanye knows how to generate interest in himself and his work through publicity stunts.
Attention Increases Value
There’s a psychological phenomenon where we automatically assign a higher value to things we pay the most attention to.
It’s no coincidence that most celebrities are natural attention-seekers.
And it’s definitely no coincidence that Kanye married Kim Kardashian — who is one of the most powerful masters of media.
Kim has built a $350 million brand, essentially from a sex tape and putting herself in the right places with the right people to attract attention.
Early in Kanye’s career, he was able to attract attention to his work because he had the hottest beats in the game, he was signed to the hottest label at the time, and he was doing something different.
However, the public eventually gets familiar with your schtick and it gets harder to break through even higher. That was never the case for Kanye.
Between the “George Bush hates black people” stunt, the fake beef with 50 Cent, the Taylor Swift moment, and countless others — Kanye knows how to get all eyes on Kanye.
The Asshole’s Dirty Secret
Everyone says that Kanye west is an asshole. Yet, he continues to sell records, sell expensive clothes, and headline sellout concerts.
He knows the asshole’s dirty secret.
You can get away with being an asshole if you provide value to the world in some way.
If people didn’t like his music or his shoes, they would no longer put up with him being an asshole.
But since he delivers work that people enjoy — he can act however he wants.
And you know what acting like an asshole does, right?
It draws attention to yourself.
“Go listen to all my music. It’s the code to self-esteem. If you’re a Kanye West fan, you’re not a fan of me. You’re a fan of yourself. You will believe in yourself. I’m just the espresso. I’m just the shot in the morning to get you going to make you believe you can overcome that situation that you’re dealing with all the time.”
The Code to Kanye is relentless dedication to your craft, vision and execution of your work, and the self-confidence to bring as much attention to your work in any way possible.
If you think Kanye didn’t believe things would work out as well as they have, watch Kanye first interview with MTV unedited.
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What do you think? Do you agree, disagree or have any thoughts to add? Let me know in the comments below.
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