Let me begin by saying how amazing it is to live in a time when the “finest” minds of our generation have spent a week exhaustively parsing the merits of an album called Yeezus. God bless the internet.
I think this album is remarkable in many ways, few of which have much to do with its first week talking points. I’ve never in my life heard an album, (and yes this thing, these 10 tracks, whatever they may be, are very much a cohesive unit that invite multiple front to back listens) that provokes so many more questions than answers in its initial sit downs. I’ve had multiple experiences with people hearing Yeezus for the first time and every single person has the same unambiguous “WHAT THE FUCK” face on until “Bound 2”.
Hip Hop is not a subtle medium. While there have been many dense records with Easter Eggs and in-jokes locked in its nooks and crannies, you essentially understand the basic ideas being put forward, both in style and content, with an initial listen or three. Yeezus’ maintains its inscrutability for an incredible length of time. Days later, when people asked me what I thought about the album I’d furrow my brow and respond, “I…….don’t…….know.” I’ve lost count of the amount of time I’ve heard this thing. Which in my mind, before we even get into the merits of the album, is a major accomplishment.
Unfortunately when you get to the bottom of it, there isn’t a ton of groundbreaking shit going on, content wise. Most of the songs are diatribes about ex-girlfriends, the conflict, the misogyny, the lust and self-loathing and regret. Is this song about Alexis or Amber? Is it one last romp through the black book before Kim squeezes out a ridiculously named tabloid baby? Does it really matter?
There are two or three dalliances into racial politics, what black celebrity means to the celebrity, what it means to us. None of these diatribes approach the approachability, wit or general coherence as something as basic to the Kanye creation myth as “All Falls Down”. Go marrow deep and this album is the same cocktail of brash declarations, some inspired pocket spitting and LOL generating goofball punchlines we’ve come to expect from the most important pop artist we’ve seen since 2000. Basically it’s Kanye being Kanye.
And yet I like Yeezus and think it’s an important record. In 2008, Kanye changed his narrative with 808s & Heartbreaks, an album he ran off to Hawaii to record, mired in tragedy with Kid Cudi and auto-tune. For those pointing urgently at the turn around time on Yeezus and his already infamous marathon recording session with Rick Rubin, he delivered that album in three weeks. On it, Kanye spits some of the most trite, on the nose shit he’s ever shat. The whole sports car/daughter’s report card, I-have-everything-ever-wanted-why-isn’t-it-making-me-happy? concept might have been relatively fresh in mainstream Hip Hop but it’s nothing anyone with a Middle School English education hasn’t waded through in the American canon.
My point is that the clichéd ideas Kanye discussed were at the core of one of the three most influential albums made in the last 15 years (try playing this game at the bar sometime this week, in terms of real impact what albums have accomplished more than 808s, Supreme Clientele and any major Wayne mixtape between Carter II and III?). And it’s because of what he accomplished sonically. He took auto-tune filtered R&B, made a rap record with very little rap on it and changed everything. That album was so compulsively listenable, so effective as pop and accomplished because it broke all the rules. It spit in the Jay-Z-composed and controlled smirk that was the face of Hip Hop at the time. It showed us, his contemporaries and the kids coming up in its wake, a way out.
And in many ways that’s what he’s accomplished here. Yeezus is an idiosyncratic, aggressively minimalist Industrial rap record chock full of primal screaming and utter weirdness that is compulsively listenable and dangerously effective as it breaks all the rules. Do I think it has the same Pandora’s Box potential to remake rap and begat a Drake in its image? Probably not, because he’s having to go ever further into space to find new influence and blaze trails (than again, I wouldn’t have guessed 808s had that potential the week it came out). But once again, he has pushed the ball forward and made the conversation infinitely more interesting.
His follow up to 808s, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy made fascinating strides as far as content goes. Rather than wringing his hands about celebrity and shallowness and just how little you can actually get out of a Le Corbusier lamp in the most predictable ways, Kanye broke bad. He embraced id and the void and the result was a brilliantly hedonistic, black hearted cruise down the Congo of the soul, making important improvements on the form he created with 808s. After sitting through the album I still consider his career defining moment, I thought to myself “we have reached the end of Kanye.” I couldn’t see a way to improve on where he’d gone and what he’d done that wouldn’t come off as derivative. I just couldn’t see there was yet another way out of this room. But he found it.
Perhaps that is where we’re heading next. Maybe this will be the late-Kanye process. Finding a sound that inspires him, taking an album to digest and work his way through his new inspiration, then following with a fully formed, majestic mission statement. I can’t wait to see what’s next, and in inspiring that anticipation, he’s already won.