1. Kanye West Yeezus
Label: Def Jam
1. A lot of rappers talk about changing the rap game. Kanye West talks about being Steve Jobs.
2. Kanye West isn't going to invent the next iPod. But when you consider what he's done with Yeezus, and then The Bigger Picture and Where He Fits In, you would never want to stop him from trying.
3. Ever since "All Falls Down," we've known Kanye West to be one of the most contradictory and complicated characters in music, with conflicting impulses—materialism, spiritualism, chauvinism, feminism, humanism, elitism—that he's always trying to negotiate. On Yeezus, this conflict manifests itself: All id everything. It's an album that stands against itself on every end, but seamlessly so. It's obviously his most political album, and we knew that after Saturday Night Live. It's Kanye West's most sexually charged album: From the various things he will do your spouse, to his cravings for sweet and sour sauce, made all the more real by the fact that his daughter was born the same week his album arrived: That is some very real, very dark male ego shit. It's also handily Kanye West's funniest album. If you don't think Yeezus Christ himself wouldn't find the humor in the couplet about talking to Jesus on "I Am a God," or that the line about the croissants isn't high camp, you haven't been paying attention. The line about scratching—no, smashing—your Corolla? Comparing a supremely lewd sex act to raising the civil rights sign? Or celebrating a woman taking off her shirt with Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" kicker? "Swaghili"? Hell, it's funny if only for how blatantly he's trying, and succeeding, to offend people. And if "late night organ donor" doesn't make you laugh, you probably lead a really miserable life, or you just don't get it.
4. The joy of Yeezus as West's most political, emotional, sexual, and funny album is how he set about making it. "Strange Fruit," one of the most politically charged songs of all time, isn't sampled on a song about contemporary black oppression, but on a theoretical of lost love that takes cues from a C-Murder track. A reference to apartheid on that same song is about sitting two women on different sides of a basketball court. A love song invokes threesomes, fucking on the sink, and Jerome from Martin. Nothing is where we'd expect it to be.
5. The truly stunning thing about Yeezus when thinking about it in the context of a year in music is how far ahead of everything else it is. It's not the difference between one and two, it's the difference between standard-definition and hi-defiinition. Which is to say nothing of the difference between Yeezus and the rest of the rap field this year so far, which is the difference between streaming a movie at home on a laptop, and watching it on IMAX 3D. But even that comparison isn't fair. This isn't the fault of other rappers, but let's just say they haven't exactly helped their own cause.
6. The Rap Establishment—not just critics, or label heads, but fans, too—doesn't like Yeezus. It's an album that moves Kanye West further away from the status quo of rap, and because of that, further away from rap. But that's not why they don't like it. It's an album the Rap Establishment stands in opposition to because Yeezus doesn't serve its needs-it doesn't play by the same rules for singles, or guest spots, samples, album length, sound, lyrics, anything. Yeezus doesn't just not give a fuck about Summer Jam, it occupies a universe where Summer Jam is a glorified high school talent show. Want to mix Yeezus for the club without making it worse? Good luck. And after Yeezus, to compare Kanye West to Drake, Kendrick, Wayne, J. Cole or (yes) Jay-Z isn't just unfair to all of those rappers, it's simply wrong. Kanye West took risks. Big risks. In doing so, he's legitimately talking to not just the Rap Establishment, but the society that tells rappers to stay rappers. And he's telling it to fuck off and die. And the power to make that album is only superseded by the regard we have to hold West in once he did it. There hasn't been a turning point in the ambition of someone the world once thought of as a "rap act" that bends this sharp since Aquemeni.
7. People don't like change. History's filled with people who have resisted the agents of changes to the course of modern civilization. And they usually get trampled by that change.
8. Everyone—and especially those people—would be wise to keep in mind that America's most consistent great export of the last hundred years is culture. This is especially important in 2013, as the American penchant for innovation has slowed to a crawl. We're being beaten all over the world in science and medicine. Our technological ambitions amount to a bunch of venture capitalists flinging money at progressively derivative, facile, stupidass ideas. The best thing America has to show the world these days is a new iOS update, or a new Facebook update, or some bullshit financial product meant to self-destruct and leave ten people with decent retirement plans while wildly fucking the rest of the economy. Say what you will about Kanye's blithe, absurd-sounding interview quotes, Steve Jobs is in fact dead, and that's not a good thing.
9. A few months ago, the editor-in-chief of Complex came back from Paris, watching Kanye West record a week's worth of Yeezus sessions. He was asked on the fly what the new shit sounded like. And someone who's never been short the ability to vividly describe the sound of music, he responded, a little flustered: "I..have no idea how to describe it. It sounds like it's from the future. Or of the future." He didn't mean it in a laudatory or critical way. Imagine trying to explain Yeezus to a world that hadn't heard a note of that album, whose last exposure to Kanye West in album-form was Cruel Summer, before it became the album that launched a thousand think-pieces, and set a bunch of angry interest groups off, and sent a bunch of other people Googling Corbusier chairs and the CCA, and sent a bunch of other music critics on tirades about Death Grips and The Prodigy. It remains the most apt and honest description of Yeezus I've heard, still. The future's coming, and it's a little more weird, uncomfortable, and messy than the present. And not every Kanye album to come will sound like Yeezus, nor will the steps be so giant. The Kanye West who makes club bangers will come back for you, Rap Establishment. Like someone who visits a dying relative in a nursing home, he'll come by, drop off a care package of club hits, and leave. But for those who want music to be greater, to aspire to more, to mean more, to change things up from the Same Old Shit and move culture—not black culture or rap culture or music culture, but the contemporary state of great American pop art and the ambition therein—forward? We're going to hope that impulse is short-lived. —Foster Kamer