10 years to the day since its release, ‘Stronger’ stands as a pivotal moment in both Kanye West’s career and popular music as a whole. It was also a turning point in how we now view his talents, propelling him from good to great and making it difficult for even the rapper’s most ardent detractors to see him as “just another rapper”.
Issued in the summer of 2007, the track – which heavily borrowed from Daft Punk’s turn-of-the-century single ‘Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger’ – stands as the star’s last Number One hit in the US (the song also reached the top of the charts in the UK, West’s only single to date to do so). On his first two records, ‘College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’, West had turned the tide on the gangster rap that generally ruled the hip-hop scene at the time, with the soul samples and social commentary of his ‘backpack rap’ more reminiscent of the genre’s early spirit.
Come 2007, West stood at his commercial peak – who else could make shutter shades cool? – but what came next was the first of several stylistic shifts and departures throughout his career that have positioned him as more of a pioneering visionary of culture than a musician, both honing in on underground movements of the time, bringing them into the mainstream, and influencing endless peers and a whole new generation of rappers in his own right.
‘Stronger’ stood as a bridge between what now even Kanye calls the “Old Kanye” and the more avant-garde, era-defining and zeitgeist-defining music that he would later produce. Concluding his education-themed album trilogy with ‘Graduation’, West turned to more diverse influences, drawing inspiration from the indie and electro scenes emerging on both sides of the Atlantic. ‘Stronger’ flipped an admittedly well-known Daft Punk track, quoting Nietzsche in the process and changing the sound of hip-hop altogether. It was the first instance of Kanye’s Midas-like touch, his ability to epitomise an era with a simple sleight of hand.
Not only did Kanye change the course of rap with ‘Stronger’, but the track also dictated the meandering road he has since taken. If the ‘Old Kanye’ was more true to the star’s personal roots and tastes, post-’Stronger’ has seen the rapper constantly shape-shifting. 2008’s ‘808s & Heartbreak’ made it acceptable for rappers to be open and vulnerable – without it, there would be no Drake. 2010’s ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’, widely considered as Kanye’s best, helped propel pop music into the realms of high art. Since, ‘Yeezus’ saw West purposely retreat from his own success, while ‘The Life Of Pablo’ has changed how we listen to albums in this modern age, with Kanye constantly drafting and tinkering with the release.
It could have all been so different though, as Kanye apparently hadn’t even heard of Daft Punk just 12 months prior to the release of ‘Stronger’. Producer A-Trak has explained how the sample came about: “It sort of happened because Swizz Beats sampled ‘Technologic’ for that Busta Rhymes record, ‘Touch It’. We were on tour in Europe in 2006, spending a lot of hours on the bus listening to the radio. Kanye heard ‘Touch It’ and thought that beat was cool. I said, ‘He just swooped up Daft Punk’. And Ye said, ‘Who?’. I just couldn’t believe that Kanye had never heard Daft Punk.”
A-Trak continued to say of Kanye: “When something falls in his lap, he knows if it’s dope, and knows when to make a beat out of it.” And good thing that he did, for Kanye’s output, and rap music overall, has been better (as well as faster and stronger) for it.