Rap is still catching up with Kanye West's most experimental album.
It’s been one year since Kanye West released Yeezus and people still don’t know what to make of that album. Sure, it was praised by most major music publications (including this one), but it’s no secret that the public consensus on Yeezus was far more polarized. The biggest rapper on the planet dropped this subversive record that nearly abandons all of the conventions of hip-hop. When it leaked on June 14, 2013, you saw that you were witnessing history, for better or for worse. But, personally, I don’t understand or fuck with anyone who didn’t like the album.
There’s nothing more exciting than an artist who takes a risk to push music forward. That’s how we arrived at hip-hop in the first place. Innovation. People who oppose progress are the reason why the genre is filled with clichés and retreads of past efforts. Yeezus was—is—more than that.
It wasn't just different for the sake of being different, either. These records mean something. They’re the audible realization of Kanye’s aggravation with society. For some of us, that discontent is exceedingly relatable. I’ve noticed this in clubs across the country, but in between Migos and Drake and “Fancy” or whatever people are listening to right now, DJs are still throwing “New Slaves” into the mix. It results in a bunch of drunk people screaming lyrics about social injustice and the ills of consumerism. That’s beautiful.
“Blood on the Leaves” and “Bound 2” get their proper credit as good songs, but they’re also the songs on the album most in line with conventional hip-hop, so that’s to be expected. Kanye’s even said that he knows that he could’ve made Yeezus more likeable if the album had opened with “Blood on the Leaves.” It's better that it doesn't. The true brilliance of Yeezus is in that sound warp at the beginning of “On Sight” and the glitch mob chaos that carries it. It’s in the part of “I Am a God” where Kanye screams for minutes.
Naturally, those nuances weren’t embraced by everyone. A quick search of “Yeezus sucks” on Twitter will tell you that. Veering so sharply from the norm can result in that kind of a knee-jerk response, and generally speaking, the people calling Yeezus trash are the type of people who enjoy Slaughterhouse. That’s the critical divide that causes increasing levels of conflict between fans of hip-hop. But the more an artist messes with the listener's head, with the listener's expectations, the better. Traditional notions of lyricism are boring. They’re restrictive and adhere to one tired line of thought about what’s considered to be quality. Not everything should sound like Illmatic. “Send It Up” matters because it sounds like a fire alarm going off on the Death Star.
Yeezus won't be fully appreciated until we see its influence manifested in the next wave of rap music. 808s & Heartbreak faced similar resistance upon its release, but, within months, Drake and 40 co-opting the 808s sound for So Far Gone lent the album new credibility. Now, it's widely regarded as an important classic. Yeezus is headed for the same recognition, but because it's so grating, that change in opinion won't come as quickly. Yeezus is visionary Kanye at his peak. Right now, there's so much focus on nostalgic events like OutKast touring again or the 20-year anniversaries of several landmark albums; it makes sense that a piece of work as aggressively forward-thinking as Yeezus would be met with antagonism. But it won't be this way forever. When the impact of Yeezus materializes in the music of the next great new artist, its importance will be cemented. People will open up to the idea that Yeezus is lightyears ahead of a record like The College Dropout. Kanye already knows this. He lives in the future and he's waiting for everyone else to catch up.
Yeezus is, in some ways, Kanye’s greatest achievement. It offers the most interesting perspective on his life—the point when massive success is met with massive disillusionment. It’s brewed in frustration. It’s rough around the edges. I can barely listen to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy anymore because it’s so perfect and polished. Yeezus holds a mirror up to the harsh bitterness of reality. That’s what holds my interest. It’s uncomfortable. It’s an exorcism in album form. Maybe people should hate it. Clearly, it wasn’t made to appease anyone, and that’s way more compelling. That’s where the real art lies.
Ernest Baker is a writer living in New York City. Follow him on Twitter here.