Once a month, I'll be taking an in-depth look at a landmark album in the music industry. This month, we'll be taking a look at Kanye West's 6th studio album - the terrifying, minimalist nightmare that is Yeezus. In 40 bone-jarring minutes, Chicago's disciple delivered what many consider to be without question his most outlandish project to date, an album whose contrast from the maximalist, perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy only two years before is polarizing in itself.
In May of 2013, Kanye West broke silence by tweeting a photo of what appeared to be nothing more than a clear, jewel CD case, enclosed by a red seal.
Above the picture the tweet read one simple phrase: "PLEASE ADD GRAFFITI".
Accordingly, many fans and visionaries took to social media to follow Kanye's instructions, creating their own renditions over what was essentially nothing more than a blank canvas.
In brilliant fashion, Yeezy had intentionally created a mental playground, allowing for each and every participant to decipher and form their own versions of Kanye's initial invention.
This, in it of itself, is one of the many reasons why I believe that Yeezus (as bold and controversial as it is) is unquestionably one of Kanye's greatest works to date. If you read my first 'Monthly Masterpiece' (or have any prior knowledge of the album), you already know how incredibly complex, layered and perfect My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was. Over the course of 13 tracks, Kanye West essentially acted as a conductor for one of the most well orchestrated albums period.
I'd argue, however, that Yeezus may very well be the most important piece of work in Ye's catalog.
Sure, The College Dropout is as influential to rap as any album under the rap umbrella.
808's & Heartbreak did inspire numerous artists, the biggest being chart-topping monster Drake.
And yes, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time - showing the mad genius of rap at his zenith,
But Yeezus is different. Let's pause, because I think using "different" as an adjective to describe this project is as light as it gets. Simply put, Yeezus was a resounding "FUCK YOU" to a music industry that, at the time, was all too accustomed to stylistic normalities from their favorite artists.
In no more than 10 tracks, Kanye West put together an album that has never, and will never be replicated - an album that, to this day and for decades to come will unequivocally stand as the greatest protest by one of the greatest artists in modern music.
So, without further ado, I give you Yeezus.
Let's start with some background:
For nearly a decade, Kanye West cemented his seemingly inevitable legacy as one of the greatest to ever step foot into a recording studio.
In 2003, Yeezy resurrected a genre that was largely on the cusp with his debut studio album, The College Dropout. By acting as the sole producer/creator on all 21 tracks, Kanye took the industry by the horns and slammed it to the ground, masterfully blending elements of gospel, boom-bap and traditional sampling with themes like education, racism and humorous social endeavors.
In 2005, Yeezy turned his takedown of the game into a chokehold with Late Registration - a project that drenched every sound and sonic from The College Dropout in Jazz, Blues and powerful, glossy melodics.
In 2007, Yeezy flipped the script with Graduations - an albums that saw Kanye fully-embodying the now infamously coined "Chipmunk Soul" method, interlocking it without fault into anthemic, stadium-shaking hits on 13 air-tight tracks.
In 2009, Yeezy completely pivoted in his approach, creating 808s & Heartbreak - a project that exists almost entirely as a vocally driven experimentation in electronic neo-funk and melodic snippets, outlining the literal concept of having one's heart ripped into two halves (see album cover).
In 2011, Yeezy reached what many consider to by his peak with two albums: the powerful testament to lavish excess and discrimination in collaboration with Jay-Z on Watch the Throne, as well as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a project in which I've regarded as one of the greatest to be conceived more than a few times (I'm not in the minority with this opinion).
After 2011, a series of blunders that included the Taylor Swift VMA incident, multiple run-ins with the paparazzi and public interview outbursts led many to believe Kanye had nowhere to go but down in the eye of the people.
What followed 2011 was, in many peoples eyes, scarier than any tantrum or media rant.
Much like the years leading up to 2003's The College Dropout, the industry that was rap music was, for lack of a better term, floundering - struggling to introduce new, fresh sounds that pleased the public the same way it did a decade ago. As many new artists tried breaking in to the scene, record labels tightened their grips on musicians, directly forming a strict business model of sorts - valuing financial gain over artistic expression.
In summary, the rap industry was looking for answers; its core devolving into a radio washed, generic asteroid of industry plants and uninteresting names that had no validity beyond FM radio or Billboard Hot 100 charts.
In 2013, that same asteroid veered its ugly head, barreling into the heart of the music world as we know it Just before the inevitable collision, however, a wall slammed down in front of the asteroid, halting the seemingly unstoppable force like Sir Isaac Newton's Laws of Physics in musical form, shattering the asteroid into a million pieces.
Simultaneously, radio stations and listeners across the world stopped, switching their attention to the horrifying structure that loomed before them.
With the attention of millions of eyes, the wall began to paint itself into a macabre mural of terror, like a dark composition by Fransico Goya. The unending mob of spectators watched in disbelief as the canvas smeared itself with acidic beats, industrial sounds and haunting samples.
Like the tweet I mentioned earlier, this wall wasn't a wall at all, but rather a 10-track rebuttal to the slow-fading world of music and the art that exists within it. In essence, it was a literal representation of "taking my microphone and going home", composed by an artist that felt he had nothing else to prove.
A blood red light painted the sky, illuminating a draped in a diamond encrusted headdress.
The masked man lifted his fist, and before the hypnotized viewers had a chance to yell in opposition, he slammed them down in unison, shaking the ground beneath his feet. The speakers hanging from the vast mural exploded into a deafening static - like acid oozing from the sound system into every listeners head.
All at once, millions of eyes rolled back into skulls.
A microphone descended from the red sky above, and the wall turned into a black video board. In an instant, two blinding words displayed themselves onto the screen.
Like a hoard of sheep following a Shepard, the spectators read the two words out loud in synchronization.
I AM A GOD
Behold, the introduction of what popular media labels the "new" Kanye. Up until "On Sight", Yeezy's musical catalog had largely been defined by Gospel drenched samples, chipmunk vocals and humorous social commentary - the exception being 808s & Heartbreak: Kanye's melodic, electronically infused testament to loneliness, following the death of his mother and split from Alexis Phifer.
In some ways, 808s and Yeezus share commonalities. Both are minimalistic in nature, both are electronic, and both address love and sexuality.
That's where the similarities come to a halt. Let me explain:
Both album are minimalistic, but Yeezus draws more heavily on samples - not in the way Kanye critics were accustomed to at that point, however. The soul, gospel and boom-bap sound is all there, but it's stripped back to its vulnerable core. Simply put, Kanye takes traditional samples and splices them into highly contrasting instrumentals.
Both albums are electronic, but Yeezus is for more industrial, experimental and shocking from a sonic perspective - the album is far more terrifying in nature - a stark contrast to the sentimental, sad vibe of 808s & Heartbreak
Both albums are sexually driven, but the divergence the albums take couldn't exist on farther ends of the spectrum of what "love" is. 808s & Heartbreak is a more lyrically sound project, whereas Yeezus is sexually graphic, raunchy and incredibly kinky (for lack of a better word).
Before I get off track, let's dive back into "On Sight", Kanye's metaphorical intro to the "new" Kanye.
The tracks opening seconds are haunting to say the least. In collaboration with Daft Punk, Kanye took a synth-board by the horns and drove it through the darkest depths of the underworld, creating a sound that, in my eyes, could only be compared to the sound of static on a TV set.
Kanye West's first line on the album is a perfect intro to what was to come. He says:
Yeezy season approachin', fuck whatever y'all been hearin'
Let's look at what Genius said about this relatively simple first line:
"Whenever ‘Ye drops an album, the world has their eyes on him, enough to dedicate months (equal to a season) just to listening, dissecting, and celebrating his albums. It doesn’t matter what you’ve got playing right now, as soon as Yeezus drops, Kanye is the only artist you’re gonna be listening to from now on."
In a way, Kanye sees Yeezus as one big "fuck you" to the music industry. It doesn't matter what you have in your playlists - now that Yeezus has dropped, there is one album out as far as he's concerned.
A little over a minute into "On Sight" Kanye gives the listener the first taste of the unorthodox sampling method he'll be employing on Yeezus. Seemingly out of the blue, Kanye drops "Sermon (Hell Give Us What We Really Need)" by the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family, a sample that, on paper, has no right to be on a song as acidic and vulgar as "On Sight".
It's there though, and it somehow works, adding to the confusion/beauty for most critics and listeners.
Following "On Sight" is "Black Skinhead", a track that saw a little more radio play than most of the songs on album that wasn't meant to draw any mainstream attention. Much like Kanye's previous works, his utilization of the human voice is so obviously prevalent on "Black Skinhead;" the tribal chants, heavy breathing and angering yells are all intertwined with a beat that shakes the soul with its unrelenting bass and snare lines.
As if Yeezus wasn't already in everyones face, Kanye's third track exists largely as one of the most thoroughly debated, controversial records in modern rap music - all the way down to its title: "I am a God (featuring God)".
The title alone was enough to get fans and haters to press play, but we're here to talk about music, and honestly, "I am a God" is undisputedly Kanye's most horrific, disturbing creation to date.
The lyrics themselves are fairly simple, but what makes "I am a God" so polarizing isn't the beat, wordplay or structure.
It's the screams.
The unrelenting, terrifying screams.
On more than one occasion, Kanye sends the song into silence and screams into the dark void that exists around him.
His final set of screams are segmented between heavy breathing - a sound that make it sound like Kanye is sprinting in fear from an unavoidable fate; his eventual demise
A demise that many people would love nothing better than to have a front row seat for.
A demise so visually disturbing that audio is enough to make the listener jump out of his/her seat.
A demise he'll forever conquer.
HOLD MY LIQUOR
I'M IN IT
On May 17th, 2013, sixty-six cities across the world were given a taste of what was to come.
Each city was given specific instructions to put a projector onto the walls of the cities largest buildings.
At 9pm Eastern time, all sixty-six projectors booted up, illuminating Kanye in black and white. Nothing more, nothing less, just a set of eyes and a face.
All at once, Kanye rapped one track from start to finish. Once the recording was finished, that was it. The people got one listen.
A month later following the rollout of Yeezus, the song was revealed to be "New Slaves", an acidic, simplistic beat that allows Kanye do glide effortlessly over the instrumental with themes covering self-hatred, modern day racism and the wealth paradox.
At 2 minutes and 51 seconds into the track, Ye hits one of his production peaks with one of the glossiest beat pivots I've ever heard. By switching from a bare-bones minimum sound to a grand, over-the-top sample of Hungarian rock band Omega's "Gyongyhaju Lany", Kanye further proved his legacy as one of the most talented producers in the history of rap. As it stands today, the outro on "New Slaves" is one of my favorite moments in Kanye's discography.
Ye's collaboration with Chief Keef and Justin Vernon on "Hold my Liquor" is an distorted anthem, combining two completely different sounds in perfect harmony with Chief Keef's edgy drill sound and Justin Vernons layered, complex vocal melodics.
*an interesting side note, the 3 members of the "Watch the Throne" Podcast all voted "Hold my Liquor" Kanye's best song two years in a row - as part of their annual "Kanye Madness Tournament" bracket.
The sixth track on Yeezus, "I'm In It", is fairly unique in my eyes. Let me explain:
"I'm In It" is by no means Yeezus's best track. I can say, however, that "I'm In It" is the most "Yeezus-like" Yeezus track on the album - BY FAR.
The album as a whole is supposed to be raunchy, sexually aggressive and insultingly simple - "I'm In It" is all three of these things. Take for example this line from Kanye:
Uh, she love different kinds of sex now
Uh, black girl sippin' white wine
And grabbed it with a slight grind
And held it 'til the right time
Then she came like AAAAAHHH!
Just read the lyrics, listen to the song... and take it how you want it.
BLOOD ON THE LEAVES
SEND IT UP
In October of 1965, legendary Jazz singer Nina Simone released her rendition of "Strange Fruit", a 1939 Billie Holiday track aimed at protesting the act of lynching in the south.
The question remains: why did Kanye choose a song about hanging executions as a sample for a record about a coke-fueled night in Paris? Honestly, I don't think there's a straight answer to this question - a social statement that adds to the Postmodern beauty of Yeezus.
Kanye's unmatched ability to layer menacing horns and drum loops with a protest song from the 1930's adds to the concept of "not giving a fuck" - a theme that stays steady on all 10 tracks.
"Guilt Trip", the albums eighth track, is a distorted synth-anthem - a record that Kanye enlists close friend Kid Cudi to structure a melodic masterpiece. Serving as one of the most overlooked records on Yeezus, "Guilt Trip" is a song in which Kanye finds himself in a dilemma with a Capricorn (10th zodiac sign), saying that her horoscope tendencies may lead him to suspect she's a gold digger. Take this bar for example:
'nother one, something gone
Dancing out on the lawn
Fancy like the things she likes
Capricorns are, for the most part, known to be success driven, obsessing over the fancier things in life - a point Kanye is sure to make on the song's intro.
*Side note, Travis Scott aided in the production on "Guilt Trip", and actually helped Kanye hone in the drums on all of Yeezus - a leading factor on his eventual signing to GOOD Music and later branch-off with Cactus Jack Records.
"Send It Up" is perhaps the most bizarre track on all of the album. Kanye combines an industrial, harsh instrumental with features from Chicago's own King Louie, as well as Beenie Man - a Jamaican Reggae artist dubbed the "King of Dancehall". The larger question that needs to be asked here is: why these two?
The answer is simple. By commanding help from small Chicago artists and performers from unconventional genres, Kanye helps further the uniqueness of Yeezus. As minimal as the album may seem, there's a method to Yeezy's madness.
Here we are, the last song. One may be asking, "why did he choose to put "Bound 2" by itself?" Well, much like my decision here, "Bound 2" sits in a league of its own. Up until this point, each and every track on Yeezus stuck to a theme of sexuality, horror and bloated self-confidence.
"Bound 2" is the finale, so fittingly, it follows a completely different message than the other 9 songs. Simply put, "Bound 2" is an ode to the love of Kanye's life; Kim Kardashian West.
Sure, the record still sees Kanye exhibiting a prideful stance (see "when a real nigga hold you down, you supposed to drown"), but the tone of "Bound 2" is more romantic and less vulgar.
Of course, we all know the unavoidably addictive sample ("Bound" by the Ponderosa Twins), but Kanye sticks to the script, splicing a "chorus" from the angelic Charlie Wilson into a chopped up sample of a vintage soul record.
Admittedly, "Bound 2" is by no means the best song on Yeezus. That being said, Yeezus could not exist without the lovely outro. It's importance to the album is indescribable, as Kanye wraps up a dark album with a track that sheds light on a macabre project.
Whether it's the samples, the lyrics, or the overall vibe - Yeezus exists as a standalone album in Kanye's extensive discography.
I might be biased, but I truly believe that, when it's all said and done, Yeezus will never be replicated.
There have been many albums before and after Kanye's 6th studio album, and none have come close to matching the minimal, terrifying message that, above everything else, will go down in history as one of the most resounding "mic drops" in rap history.
As controversial as it is, Yeezus is the full embodiment of who Kanye is as a person: unfiltered, goofy, and musically gifted.
Some of you love Yeezus, but most of you probably hate it.
AND THAT'S OK.
Just do me a favor - recognize greatness when you see it.