The following is the sixth in an eight-part series documenting the discography of Kanye West. Each week, Arts will feature a piece detailing the merits of one of West’s albums, in chronological order.
Many of Kanye West’s most devout followers may recall May of 2013 as a time of nail-biting suspense. Their impatience was certainly reasonable; promotion for the legend’s sixth studio album was far from revealing. Offering nothing but the ambiguous “June Eighteen” tweet and a couple track teases on SNL, Kanye cultivated an aura of mystery around his newest creative endeavor. Yet despite all the hype and speculation that ensued, no one was quite prepared for what “Yeezus” eventually delivered.
Certainly great records precede “Yeezus” in West’s discography. “The College Dropout” flaunted the icon’s brilliance as a home producer and witty lyricist and set the foundation for the humor and confidence associated with most of his music. “Graduation” and “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy” channeled his evolution into stardom and showcased Kanye’s ability to craft hits of mass appeal, all without sacrificing his roots. And who could forget “808s & Heartbreak,” the 2008 instant classic through which Kanye inspired the world with a stunning exposition of vulnerability and loss? Many avid listeners found themselves disappointed six years ago upon the release of “Yeezus.” As the record contrasts his earlier works so harshly, are fans really to blame for missing the old Kanye?
Indeed, West has thrived throughout his career by switching things up, and surely his sixth album takes dramatic turns that are emblematic of this pattern. Over ten tracks, the project is viscerally abrasive, brief and far from traditional hip-hop. The songs seem more fitting for a ’90s warehouse rager than a commercial music festival. The very first track, “On Sight,” opens with a volatile synth that jolts the listener in its menacing drive until gradually succumbing to structure and rhythm. Industrial textures, acid-house percussive patterns, guttural howls and screeches—all of these features were foreign to Kanye’s prior releases.
“Yeezus” may be best understood as a product of explicit intention, one that surpasses that of every other Kanye record in weight and cohesiveness. It is understandable, but ultimately a misconception, to regard the record as the end of an era. By simply discarding all the glitz and grandeur, West retains only his most essential elements, reducing his artistry to its pure essence. The dissonant energy that defines the album from its onset allows West to assert himself in his truest form: a passionate, arrogant creative who vehemently struggles with the many layers and intersections of his fame and humanity.
West could not have rendered “Yeezus” without exercising his genius as a curator. By utilizing specific creatives to aid him in his quest for authenticity, Kanye fulfills his intentions for the record without escaping the spotlight. Legendary and unorthodox hip-hop producer Rick Rubin boasts executive production credits for the album; he is responsible for shaping both its aesthetic and sonic rawness. Featured artists like drill rapper Chief Keef, modern folk star Justin Vernon and long-time collaborator Kid Cudi add flavor to the album’s many moods. Even Daft Punk returns to provide that “Stronger” energy again. Ultimately, however, West dominates each and every track, his guests situated unobtrusively between the verses.
A central theme in Kanye’s music is his ambition for control, and “Yeezus” doesn’t shy away from addressing it in the slightest. “New Slaves” concerns West’s battle with corporate America, refusing to be made into a product against his will while condemning carceral power and racialized oppression. West raps, “Y’all throwin’ contracts at me/You know that n**** can’t read,” playing on a racist stereotype to criticize the forces that attempt to manipulate him and his career. Using samples from Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” a song about the tragic lynchings of African-Americans in the Jim Crow era, Kanye relates the history of racism in the U.S. to his contemporary moment on “Blood on the Leaves.” The track is primarily about a romantic relationship, but Simone’s agony punctuates each verse, making it clear that Kanye’s meaning and intention are much deeper than an initial glance might reveal. If anything is made clear on “Yeezus,” it is that Kanye will not be made a puppet, and definitely will not be ignored.
“Yeezus” further explores Kanye’s trials with retaining power through the lens of his love life. West samples TNGHT’s “R U Ready” as he laments a relationship corrupted by publicity. Meanwhile, “Hold My Liquor” is a tragic account of West’s struggle to make sense of his inner demons as he loses yet another love. Lou Reed describes it best: “Drenched in ghostly pads, pulsing basses and wailing guitars, ‘Hold My Liquor’ is just heartbreaking” (Talkhouse, “Lou Reed Talks Kanye West’s Yeezus,” 09.03.2014)
Yes, “Yeezus” is minimalistic. Yes, it is ferociously charged, unashamedly provocative and not universally relatable. And yes, it marks a significant change in West’s career. Yet, what is beautiful about all of these characteristics is that they are all testaments to Kanye’s success in achieving exactly what he creatively intended. Despite having received immense critical acclaim, “Yeezus” does not exist to thrive in the realm of popular music. Every aspect of the album—the cover art, the celebrated global tour, the video of Kim Kardashian nude on a motorcycle in the sky—it’s all authentically Kanye. I can only hope that the release of “Yandhi,” if it ever shall come, will be a true sequel to this epic record in terms of fearless, driven expression.