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“Yeezy season approaching / f*ck whatever y’all been hearin’ / f*ck wha- f*ck whatever y’all been wearin’ / A monster about to come alive again.” With these words, Kanye West introduces to us his sixth solo studio album, Yeezus, and while his brash attitude and arrogance (or self-love, depending on your stance) are intact, it becomes clear that this is not the same West we were used to. In fact, Ye’s own trajectory – from his work on G.O.O.D. Music Fridays, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, and even his latest production to this point, the G.O.O.D. Music compilation album Cruel Summer – didn’t lend much of a warning as to the path that the rap titan was about to take.
When the much-hyped Yeezus leaked some four days before its June 18 release, many a head cocked in confusion, wondering where the complex verses and soulful beats typical of the Chi-town rapper went. The mainstream public and rap connoisseurs alike were thrown off by the album’s seemingly simple lyric scheme and heavy electronic sounds, some going on to immediately condemn it as a disappointment, favoring the much more soul-oriented production and conventional rhymes offered by J. Cole on his successful sophomore album, Born Sinner, which shared its debut day but leaked several days in advance. Listeners are right to revere Born Sinner as an accomplishment in modern rap music, but to trash Yeezus is to fall in line with thousands throughout history who have stomped on innovation and truth, dismissing genius as “crazy” because it didn’t fall in line with their monotonous – and often wrong – social doctrine, without even trying to understand the circumstances or viewpoints that birthed them. To do so would make one as simple-minded as the fools who insisted the world was flat, those who told the Wrights that their wings would forever be wrong, and the racists who fought for oppression because integration was just not natural. As consumers of music, it is important to respect the evolution of artists we love and refrain from oppressing their creativity with our insecurities regarding change, which we oft consider expertise. Once we leave behind all preconceived notions, and consider Yeezus with the fresh slate that it deserves, it becomes increasingly obvious what a piece of work this album really is.
A break from the repetitive, Yeezus is a project that screams defiance in every aspect. The album itself has no cover – front or back – and no booklet, physical copies enclosed in clear cases with only a neon orange seal on the side. There were no official features from prominent artists (only uncredited vocals from the likes of Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, and Trinidad James, among others), nor any radio singles to promote the project, nor any heavily-circulated music videos. For West, it was a return to simplicity, a motion to remove the gimmicks and strategies used to garner sales, in favor of lending his art the ability to speak for itself. Instead, West chose to host public projections at 66 locations worldwide, his face lining the sides of buildings as he revealed a first glimpse into his album with “New Slaves.” The next day, West would perform the track on the SNL stage, also making the performance debut of “Black Skinhead,” which features primal screams and controversial remarks, particularly regarding the murders of young blacks in Chicago that continue to go unacknowledged (“If I don’t get ran out by Catholics / Here come the conservative Baptists / Claiming I’m overreacting / Like the black kids in Chiraq, b*tch”).
If there ever was a star on the album, however, that would definitely be “New Slaves,” a racially conscious wake-up call that surely catches the audience off-guard with its opening lines: “My momma was raised in an era when / Clean water was only served to the fairer-skinned / Doing clothes, you would’ve thought I had help / But they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself,” ‘Ye proclaims, referring to the criticism he received for his 2011 women’s fashion line. West goes on to denounce the oppressive nature of stereotyping blacks, society regarding them as criminals who are up to no good but welcoming them only when they can be entrapped in materialism. In the most powerful verse of the album, Kanye builds momentum, then closes by calling out institutionalized racism manifested in part by the Drug Enforcement Agency as well as the Corrections Corporation of America, which profits from a system of mass incarceration that preys disproportionately on people of color. West is tired of “The New Jim Crow,” as scholars have come to regard it, and goes on the offensive, his controversial verse building on expletives and ending in what one could only imagine to be a mic-drop.
For someone looking to step into minimalism, West emerges a champion, penning simply-styled lyrics that can somehow manage to carry complex ideas when he needs them to do so. As for production, West tells the New York Times that working with production legend and Def Jam co-founder Rick Rubin has inspired him to see that beats with extraneous sounds do not always make songs intellectual or masterful. From his samples of reggae/dancehall greats (Capleton’s “Forward Inna Dem Clothes” on “I Am A God,” Beenie Man’s “Memories” on “Send It Up”) and Nina Simone’s chilling rendition of the popular anti-racism Billie Holiday track, “Strange Fruit” (“Blood On The Leaves”), to performing on what he describes as “super low-bit… trap and drill and house,” West has completely turned the game on its head. One thing’s for certain- this is not your older brother’s hip hop. Consider it modern art. Yeezus may not be immediately appealing, the ideas and points expressed may not be as obvious or accessible, and it may take a while to get used to. But, upon further analysis, you just might get it. And – when you do – it’ll be the greatest thing ever.