Following last weekend’s shock news that Kanye West will henceforth be known as “Ye”…not great, but probably better than Prince’s “squiggle” phase…it seems entirely appropriate that I’ve been listening to “Stronger” a lot lately.
Kanye West isn’t everybody’s cup of tea…indeed there are long periods of time when he isn’t my cup of tea either…so if he’s not for you at the moment, I can fully understand that perspective.
Most people put Kanye West on a spectrum somewhere between “genius” and “complete pillock”, with wild swings between those two points depending on what he’s been up to lately. The jury’s still out on his transition to “Ye”…
But before Kanye West became better-known for his tabloid headlines than for his music he was, and still is for some, a critically-acclaimed artist and before that, a top-notch, in-demand record producer.
His production work on Jay-Z’s “The Blueprint” album catapulted Kanye West into the big leagues and served as the launch pad for his own career.
Kanye West is clearly a talented producer…some say he is a much better producer than he is a performer. I don’t know enough about the technicalities of record production to judge.
It’s certainly true that as his performances have become increasingly unpredictable, Kanye West has polarised opinion.
But I’ve got some sympathy for him — aren’t artists supposed to be pushing the boundaries, failing on a reasonably regular basis and picking themselves up to try again? Isn’t that almost the definition of being a creative artist, unafraid to push the boundaries others fear to transcend?
I’m not a huge fan of Kanye West’s more recent work, but his first solo album, 2004’s Grammy-winning “The College Dropout” is still ranked by many as one of the best albums of all time —beyond doubt one of the best hop-hop albums of all time, and by some measures one of the best across all genres.
“The College Dropout” serves as a fine example of Kanye West’s performance chops and his high-end production skills.
But today we’re rolling the clock forward a little from “The College Dropout” and taking a look at his 2007 release, “Stronger”.
There aren’t many pop songs explicitly based on a quote from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche. But Nietzsche’s famous saying — “that which does not kill us makes us stronger” — has been responsible for at least two hit records in recent years.
In addition to Kanye West’s “Stronger”, there’s another hit record on broadly the same theme, more strictly called “Stronger (What Doesn’t Kill You)”, which Kelly Clarkson took to the top of the charts in 2012. I liked that song from the opening line:
You know the bed feels warmer
Sleeping here alone
I’m sure we’ve all had relationships like that…
She goes on to sing…
What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger
Stand a little taller
Doesn’t mean I’m lonely when I’m alone
What doesn’t kill you makes a fighter
Footsteps even lighter
Doesn’t mean I’m over ’cause you’re gone
You can find Kelly Clarkson’s empowering anthem, complete with flash mob video…it was a thing back then…here… https://youtu.be/Xn676-fLq7I
Five years earlier, in 2007, Kanye West had taken a slightly different tack with that old Nietzsche quote to create his worldwide chart-topper, “Stronger”.
He based “Stronger” on a sample from Daft Punk’s 2001 track “Harder, Better, Faster”. And the Daft Punk song in turn sampled an Edwin Birdsong record, so Kanye West, Daft Punk and Edwin Birdsong all pick up writing credits for “Stronger”.
If you’d like to explore the timeline of Kanye West’s “Stronger”, the Daft Punk song is here… https://youtu.be/gAjR4_CbPpQ . And Edwin Birdsong’s “Cola Bottle Baby” is here… https://youtu.be/Z3AKrwna2C8 .
If you’ve got the time to listen to the precursor tracks, you’ll see that far from just being an unimaginative lift from a previous record, “Stronger” is significantly different from them both. It takes real talent to use something that’s gone before for inspiration, but make your song something other than a pale copy of a record we already know.
In the hands of master-producer Kanye West, “Stronger” is a phenomenal record that certainly pays tribute to the records he sampled on the way through, but he manages to create a song with a very different feel from either of its precursors.
I also like the undercurrent of anger and frustration, largely directed at himself, that Kanye West builds into both his lyrics and his performance. That, combined with the great beats and intricate production is what makes “Stronger” one of my all-time favourite songs.
If you’re finding life hard going at the moment, there’s a great JK Rowling quote which goes “Rock bottom became the solid foundation on which I rebuilt my life”.
Tears are important for a while. You’ve got to let them out. But there comes a point when you’ve got to start climbing back up the other side of the walls of sadness you’ve built around you or you’ll be condemning yourself to spend the rest of your life at rock bottom.
That sense of taking the battle back to the world on your own terms is what Kanye West is encouraging us to shoot for in “Stronger”.
As this is a family show around here, I can’t quote much of the lyrics, but Kanye West’s message can be summed up by the chorus…
Na-na-na that that don’t kill me
Can only make me stronger
I need you to hurry up now
’Cause I can’t wait much longer
I know I got to be right now
’Cause I can’t get much wronger
Man I’ve been waiting all night now
That’s how long I’ve been on you
Many people judge Kanye West solely from the tabloid headlines. And, to be fair to journalists and readers alike, he does give us plenty to work with, whether what he says outrages us or accords with our own views on controversial subjects.
But “Stronger” is a brilliant and imaginative song, both lyrically and musically. And a fine piece of work by someone who got his break as one of the best record producers around.
It probably shouldn’t be as much of a surprise as it is for most people to learn that Kanye West’s haul of 21 Grammy Awards is bettered by only a handful of others including musical icons like Quincy Jones and Stevie Wonder. Say what you like about the man and his opinions…he certainly knows how to make a good record.
So put aside your prejudices, if you have any, and enjoy this great song.
Best listened to at a reasonably loud volume through headphones if you want to pick up the full benefit of Kanye West’s great production skills. But even without going that far, you can still enjoy this 21st century classic…a UK and US Number One and a chart-topper around the world in 2007.
It’s Kanye West with “Stronger”… (both links take you to a radio edit)
The video is below or, if you prefer, you can enjoy the song on Spotify here… https://open.spotify.com/track/62dfjIOvQXX7XGj9Zc6UkO
PS — just before we get to the video, if you enjoyed this article, please give it a “clap”…or even more than one if you’re feeling kind. You can also follow me on Medium (here) or Twitter (here) to get new articles as soon as they’re published.