While the world internet is trying to figure out if Chance The Rapper should now be called a "Christian rapper" after Coloring Book, it was an assertion of the non-religious variety made by Pastor Chano that stirred my hip-hop soul. On “Blessings (Reprise)," Chance exalted a bar that made me quite skeptical.
“Kanye's best prodigy / He ain't signed me but he proud of me”
Don't worry, this isn't another Chance think piece. The internet has enough of those already. But the line did get me thinking, who is Kanye’s best protégé? [For the record, I think it's clear that Chance meant to say "protégé" here instead of "prodigy," as in, "Protégé: A person who is guided and supported by an older and more experienced or influential person.] So who are the artists that, without Kanye, wouldn’t exist? The longer the list of rappers who are indebted to Kanye grew in my head, the more I realized Chance simply isn’t one of them.
Kanye’s influence on Chance cannot be understated, but does that make him a Kanye protégé? Though they may have been spiritually connected for years, it was only when Chance proclaimed, “I met Kanye West I’m never going to fail” on "Ultralight Beam" that many of us felt the full weight of their bond. Everything Chance had done up until that point was now affirmed by the blessing of Yeezus Christ, but it was all that work without Kanye that made working with Kanye possible. The special bond between the two is palpable, but it's not a protégé-teacher relationship. As I’ve previously explained, Chance and Kanye, although spiritually and artistically similar, are drastically different in their approaches to music and business.
An important part of being someone’s protégé is having that person launch you to a level you simply couldn’t have reached without them. With that in mind, there’s another Chicago artist who might fit the bill—Lupe Fiasco. It was the first name I thought of, and though their paths have now diverged widely, they remain strongly connected in my mind. Perhaps it’s because without Kanye, Lupe wouldn't have been able to “Touch The Sky.”
Back in 2006, Lupe’s “Conflict Diamonds,” off his Revenge Of The Nerds tape, featured the always conscious Lupe tackling the diamond trade business over Kanye’s “Diamonds From Sierra Leone.” While I wonder if it inspired Kanye’s remix, it most definitely caught West’s attention, so much so that he recruited Lupe for “Touch The Sky,” even putting him in the video before Lupe released his debut. While a feature on a Kanye song sounds like a no-brainer, Lupe at first resisted, telling DJ Skee he was hesitant because he and Kanye were in two different circles. Still, the success of “Touch The Sky” had a direct impact on "Kick Push" taking off. The proximity to Kanye gave “Kick, Push” and Fiasco's Food & Liquor that extra kick and push, and though he charted a different course than Kanye, it was West putting him on his single that opened that door. It's a credit to Lupe's ability and strength that he was able to get out of Kanye’s shadow. Having a “Hurt Me Soul” in the can doesn't hurt either.
While Kid Cudi’s story reads a little different than Lupe’s—"Day N Nite" and A Kid Named Cudi were already buzzing by the time Plain Pat linked Cudi with Yeezy—being in Kanye’s gravitational pull inevitably helped the Moon Man go global. As a causal observer of Cudi's career who never fully embraced his music, I’ve always seen him as Kanye’s protégé and a Complex profile of Cudi from 2009 seems to share that sentiment. Just look at how they mention Kanye helping Cudi in the same breath as Wayne helping a Canadian up-and-comer by the name of Drake.
"Kanye first called on [Kid] Cudi to reference hooks for Jay-Z, and while in the studio, Cudi and ’Ye went from working on The Blueprint 3 to Good Ass Job (the working title for Kanye’s next album) to 808s & Heartbreak. There’s a theory, and it’s a good one, that Cudi’s melody-heavy singsong style inspired Kanye to do 808s in the first place. Cudi’s assistance on the album includes co-writing credits on “Heartless,” “Welcome to Heartbreak,” “Paranoid,” and “RoboCop.” West doesn’t hold back when giving Cudi credit. “Me and Cudi are the originators of the style, kinda like what Alexander McQueen is to fashion,” he says. “Everything else is just Zara and H&M.” And with Kanye in his corner, Cudi has a significant advantage over most of his fellow freshman MCs—the one exception being up-and-comer Drake." —Complex
In the same breath Complex discussed Cudi helping to shape one of West's most daring, experimental albums they label him Kanye's understudy, calling him a freshman and pitting him against a then-unsigned Drake. To the casual observer like myself, Cudi is seen as an offshoot of 808s, not the inspiration for it. It was exactly the perception Cudi seemed to fight against later in that same Complex interview:
What about people who look at you as Kanye’s little man?
Kid Cudi: [Laughs.] The album will shut a lot of people up. I actually have my own voice, and people will see that with the album. ’Ye just lets me be a man and shit. You don’t necessarily want a motherfucker to be holding your hand the whole time. There was a time when nobody listened to my shit and nobody would give me the time of day. Now I’ve got like four fan-made mixtapes—I’ve only got one mixtape out, the rest of them are from fans. Fans make these Kid Cudi wallpapers and draw pictures of me and all this and that. That shit is real; that means that kids connect with that shit. Not just because I’m Kanye’s artist. Those kids fuck with my music and that’s the realest shit ever. That lets me know that I’m important, and nothing is better than knowing you’re important.
When I think of Travis Scott, I first think of “Don’t you open up that window,” but then I think of Kanye. (Then I think of “Don’t you open up that window” for the next 24 hours; that shit sticks with you like stripper glitter.) Though "Antidote" is the song that jumps out at most non-hardcore Scott fans, it’s "Lights (Love Sick)" - which hosts a sample of Ye’s “Christian Dior Denim Flow” - that put Scott on Kanye's radar and eventually lead to him signing as a producer on Very G.O.O.D. Beats.
In fact, after meeting Kanye, Scott delayed the release of Owl Pharaoh to completely revamp the project under West’s tutelage. In an interview with MTV, Scott credits Kanye for helping to shape the project. Where Cudi and Lupe seemed to want to distance themselves, the link has never been something that’s bothered Scott. In a conversation with Grantland, Scott was asked, “People will still throw around the 'Kanye protégé' title for you. Are you cool with that?” His response?
"Man, it’s ill. ’Ye told me all the time, he wants me to carry the music through time. He trusts me with the sound and shit." —Grantland
Scott has embraced the title, and the burdens and privileges that come with it, but unlike Big Sean, it wasn't something he sought out. Similar to Chance and Scott, Sean too idolized West, but when he first met Kanye he was a 21-year old college junior working as a telemarketer. In a story detailed by MTV, Sean explained how he rushed to a local Michigan radio station to hopefully get a chance to impress West with his rapping hobby. It worked.
MTV also got Kanye's point of view:
“It was like out of the movies. I could hear his personality and character and style in it. I wasn’t signing acts at that time. But I was so inspired by what he did. His voice was very compelling. His lyrics were very clever and the melodies and the way he was putting it together and his story. So it’s not that easy, but it’s a lot of people who rap who aren’t as dope.” After losing contact then getting back in touch, ’Ye brought Sean out on the road while he recorded Graduation. Eventually the Louis Vuitton Don signed Sean to G.O.O.D. Music/ Def Jam at the end of 2007. —MTV
The relationship with Kanye is something Sean has never tried to evade, and after getting a break like that, why would he? On "See Me Now," Sean displays an adoration for his mentor when he raps:
"I know Kanye a jerk," how could you say that? He rode me and my mama 'round in his Maybach/What kind of jerk is that? What kind of jerks is y'all? Fuck it if he a jerk, I bet you jerk him off." —MTV
Sean is a protégé in every sense of the word. He was handpicked by Kanye and spent four years under his guidance before releasing an album. In some ways, I think Sean is still Kanye's protégé more than any other artist. Scott, Kanye's next closest pupil, is only a producer at GOOD Music. As an artist signed to EPIC and Grand Hustle he's really formed his own identity and started to form his own movement and his own signatures, but Sean has stayed at home and has continued to eat off the GOOD Music table. Where all of Kanye's previous mentees have successfully become artists in their own right (perhaps a testament to Kanye's artistic influence) it's Sean who remains right by his side.
Kanye is magnetic. His art grabs you, shakes you to the core and rebuilds you in his image. I understand being inspired by Kanye West, but inspiration does not necessarily mean tutelage. Although Kanye is woven into Chance's DNA, he's not a central figure in Chano's actual story. Go ahead and debate religion in his music all you want, but the claim that Chance is Kanye's protégé, let alone his best, is simply blasphemous.
Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Big Sean didn't land a Kanye feature until his third album, Dark Sky Paradise, but Kanye was a guest on "Marvin & Chardonnay" off Sean's debut, Finally Famous.