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Kanye deconstructed: the human voice as the ultimate instrument

A crisp and clear vocal performance is a vital component of all genres of popular music. So when Kanye West recorded his debut single, "Through the Wire," with his jaw completely wired shut after a car accident, he was taking a huge risk.

When you listen to "Through the Wire," you immediately hear that Kanye "chipmunk soul" in his pitched-up sample of Chaka Khan's "Through the Fire." But you also hear Kanye riff: Yo, Gee, they can’t stop me from rapping, can they? Can they, Hop?

His voice is muffled and lispy. It's not clear at all. But that vocal performance illustrates something unique about his work as a producer and artist: His greatest instrument has always been the human voice.

From the intricately arranged vocal sample of "Walk with Me" by the ARC Choir in "Jesus Walks" to the decision to recruit Pulitzer Prize–winning classical vocalist Caroline Shaw for his rerelease of "Say You Will," he has filled his music to the brim with vocals.

The examples above illustrate how Kanye has used the raw, unmanipulated sound of the human voice to make a song feel alive and immediate. But he's also processed vocals to the point where they're almost completely unrecognizable.

He does this in songs like "Runaway" from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. At around the 6-minute mark in the song (it's 9 minutes total), you can hear him take a breath and then speak through a vocoder that's programed to make his voice sound like a distorted electric guitar.

Throughout his career, Kanye West has harnessed the emotional power of choirs. For example, he enlisted the Boys Choir of Harlem in "Two Words" and created his own 13-person choir in the triumphant "All of the Lights" by layering vocal performances by everyone from Elton John to Rihanna.

All of these techniques have culminated in West's latest album, The Life of Pablo. He again used Caroline Shaw in a few tracks, including "Wolves," and created his own choir with the help of Kirk Franklin, The-Dream, Kelly Price, and Chance the Rapper in "Ultralight Beam."

The video above traces just how creative Kanye has gotten with vocals throughout his career.