As soon as you saw the stage set—dark figures silluetted against a spotlight backdrop with political pop art slogans flashing—you knew this was something very different, very new. "Black Skinheads" was great, but it was the second song he played that leapt out as the instant classic. Those staccato stabs of sound, as much rhythm as melody, without any drums. Gothic, synth rock, but with Kanye’s rapping—all panting Panther anger and pain with a thick gold rope around his neck—translating it into something earthier and raw, something we recognize as hip-hop.
Remember the first time you heard Dre and Snoop’s “Deep Cover?” Those four bass notes? That’s what I thought of first. Paranoid defiance. But this was higher-minded, more ambitious, and aimed at a different audience. (I remembered Kanye's last SNL performance, the ballet.) Kanye is making something much less insular than Dre and Snoop were, trying to shock and impress everybody at the same time. I was impressed. (Needless to say.) And I felt like I got a glimpse of the future, and our place in it. Something about a naked body inside a machine, pushing at the walls.
Plenty of artists sold more records than Kanye West in 2013. No one did anything near to as artistically powerful. "New Slaves" is the best song of the year. And it's not even close. —Dave Bry