Kanye West is a difficult subject to broach with people, if only because you’re never sure whether you’re talking about his music, his personality, or both. And even if you have that cleared up, you’re still not sure entirely what the starting or ending point is for that particular conversation. And because Kanye has always been an artist I’ve respected so much — I am inspired and can relate to his ascension (or, career arc), arrogance, even though he jogs in Lanvin and eats breakfast with a Hermes plate — I become as defensive and outwardly insecure as the man himself when he is brought up.
Kanye may be polarizing and somewhat of a complicated topic to most, but to me, I just see a guy who was once in the bottom corner of a random page in The Source in a St. Louis Cardinals Mitchell & Ness throwback as a producer on the come up, who along with Just Blaze rejuvenated Jay-Z by giving him a musical platform he hadn’t been blessed with in forever, and promptly worked to turn himself from a producer with sped-up soul samples into one of the most innovative and progressive artists in music.
Along the way: the bright lights of fame and personal tragedy has made him more arrogant but at the same time magnified his insecurities. I read 8-10 Kanye interviews before deciding to start writing this, and after awhile, you realize he talks in circles often and contradictions abound — if only because what he thinks one moment really isn’t what he thinks in the next. And so much of that has been reflected in his discography; his albums becoming these time stamped personal portraits that reflect a particular time in his life, that breath a particular attitude that he believes in one minute, and moves on from the next.
When you look at the initial trilogy of albums — The College Dropout, Late Registration and Graduation — there’s huge commonality in the approach and sound of these projects. You could overlap songs, swap them back and forth, and inevitable still have a collection of music that reflects the Kanye West sound.
But 808’s and Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (“MBDTF”) and Yeezus are so different when compared against each other that it’s surprised to even think it even came from the same artist.
808’s was of course birthed from both the loss of his mom Donda from surgical complications and his break-up with Alexis Phifer. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (hereby referred to as “MBDTF” for my own sake) was born out of a self imposed exile that he took to Hawaii, to recharge his mental batteries and to get away from the celebrity spotlight that seemed to only reward his fame with negativity and controversy (some, well, most, self inflicted). And now, we have Yeezus, both following the path of Kanye’s desire to create something that’s unlike anything — anything he’s done, anything anyone’s done — pushing his own creative boundaries and also, as aptly described by Steven Hayden at Grantland: a last gasp before fatherhood4.
In music, as in anything, different does not necessarily mean better. It just means, well, different. I have a long list of things including Donnie Darko and Mad Men reviews interspersed with cat photos that can defend that point. In that way, Yeezus is a really difficult album to listen to, especially when “On Sight” hits and you realize that your pre-programmed expectations based off of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” need to be re-wired immediately.
The conscious yet over-the-top Kanye is there for the first part (see: ”that broke n*gga racism is “don’t touch anything in that store” and rich n*gga racism is “come in, please buy more”) of the album. But in the second half (the start of this is “Hold My Liquor” for me), the songs begin to steer into all different directions that it feels like the cohesive of the project is lost, replaced by these individual songs that exist as experiments on their own for Kanye to stampede through with anger, innuendo, frustration and more innunendo (this sentence doubles as my official review for “I’m In It”).
But after a week and a half of Yeezus, the entire thing has started to grow on me, if only because Kanye albums are as much about the process as it is the result. The more you know about the record, there exists a greater desire to revisit the project and appreciate the finer points.
This isn’t even a review of Yeezus, I just feel like using this album as an excuse to explore a bunch of different thoughts on Kanye that I’ve never fully fleshed out. And this isn’t even that. This is just the prelude. I’ll be writing about Yeezus, and really, Kanye’s career arc until I feel like I’ve sufficiently abused the word count.
Tomorrow, in part 2 of my Yeezus write-up: how "start a fight club, Brad reputation" is the distant cousin to "I’m the fly Malcolm X, buy any jeans necessary" and imagining how a “New Slaves” listening party in The Hamptons would’ve turned out.
photo via Yeezus Graffiti
Student protesters faced police officers in Tiananmen Square in April 1989 while grieving for Hu Yaobang, a former Communist Party leader and liberal whose death set off the protests.