Released: June18, 2013
Reinvention is a necessary but perilous process for any artist. Stay in familiar territory and you risk stagnation; stray too far and you risk alienating your fan base. Its a delicate balance that can be navigated only by the most savvy of creators. Kanye West has spent the last decade charging forward with little regard for anything but his own legacy and his progress has been almost universally successful. In 2003 The College Dropout brought a heavy dose of soul into mainstream rap. Two years later Late Registration took the same concept and incorporated complex orchestration with help from producer Jon Brion. He changed course again in 2007 on Graduation by blurring the line between hip-hop and electronic music. In 2008 we got 808s & Heartbreak, an underrated new wave R&B album that paved the way for artists like The Weeknd and Frank Ocean. Then in 2010 he spent all summer releasing tracks as a ramp up to the release of his sprawling masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Fast forward to 2013 and with almost no warning and no single, Kanye West has returned with his most abrasive and visceral release yet: Yeezus.
Press play on Yeezus and you are immediately assaulted by a distorted electronic squealing sound that morphs into an Daft Punk produced bleeping-blooping banger that sends a clear message: there is no beautiful fantasy here. This album is all dark & twisted. Yeezus shows us what happens when society tries corner an artist. He gets angry, confrontational, self-righteous and breaks hard from any expectations we might have had. The track “Black Skinhead” is all heavy riffs and drums and its an acutely self-aware declaration of independence and even the name is sure to make many feel uncomfortable. “New Slaves” is a critique of an allegedly post-racial society where West is determined to shape and manipulate a system that seeks to control him. Yeezus constantly challenges the listener and reminders us that art and culture shouldn’t always be comfortable and accessible.
Even though Yeezus is the work of an comedically megalomaniacal artist (e.g.”I Am A God”), he still manages to be astonishingly human on tracks like “Blood On The Leaves” and “Bound 2” where Kanye is forced to confront his own decisions in the past and paired with a stripped down but still distinctly Western/Westonian(?) production style the end product is mesmerizing. There is a depth and complexity to his self-awareness that gives Yeezus a heavy sense of purpose and meaning and while its not always fun, its entirely captivating.
The darkness of Yeezus isn’t just in the lyrics. The production style relies heavily on distorted synthesizers and while the sound is still pretty massive its his most stark sounding release. After a decade of opulence, Kanye has cut out the excess and the minimalist sound that results is an effective backdrop to his lyrical content. While I have a generally favorable opinion of the new style, it still has its flawed. Some misfires like “Guilt Trip” and “Send It Up” lack the voracious focus of the rest of the album but even they have fleeting instances of glory. For example, the orchestral breakdown under Kid Cudi’s vocals on “Guilt Trip” is a beautiful moment in an otherwise forgettable song. Another byproduct of this new inclination towards minimalism is the albums length. Containing only 10 songs with a run time of 40 minutes, Yeezus is by far his shortest release and it gives the album a taut and muscular feel.
Yeezus is certain to be a divisive chapter in the story of Kanye West. Theres no “Stronger”, no “Gold Digger” and frankly it wouldn’t feel right if there was. Yeezus is the sound of a ego maniac on a mission. With every release he has attempted to change the course of music and popular culture and I expect Yeezus will ripple through the sounds of hip hop and alternative music for the next few years. Its bold in all the right ways and while flawed it does what art is fundamentally supposed to do: entertain, critique and confront the audience as well as the artist. In his recent interview with the New York Times he compared himself to Steve Jobs frequently and though many scoffed at the comparison I can’t help but think of Apple’s “Think Different” campaign. Call him a menace, call him a mad genius, call him whatever you want but never forget that “the people who are crazy enough to think they can change the world, are the ones who do”.
Top Tracks: “Black Skinhead”, “Blood On The Leaves”, “Bound 2”