Before achieving a critically lauded pinnacle with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, the consensus pick for #1 album of 2010, there was a little game-changer called 808s And Heartbreak. When Kanye put it out, it was shockingly different from anything he’d done previous to that. He’d spent his first three albums gaining solid wall-to-wall success as a purveyor of soulful, masterfully produced hip hop that opened a new lyrical avenue for the game as it was presented on radio. As he stated on “All Falls Down”, he wasn’t the first to be insecure, he was just the first to admit it. 808s took this even further: it was a depressed, minimalist album full of pain masked by AutoTune, more post-punk than hip hop. People were unsure what to make of it at the time, but the resulting success of people like Kid Cudi, Drake, Bruno Mars, and emo poster-child Tyler, the Creator showed that it was an album that was definitely ahead of its time. For my money, it’s one of the 100 best albums recorded in the last 30 years, but it’s a starkly divisive album: those that hate it, hate it a lot.
Enter Yeezus. Hot on the heels of his career pinnacle, it harkens back primarily to 808s, in that it is sharply different from anything he’s done before (except, of course, for that album), it sharply divides listeners into lovers and haters, and it completely changes the game.
Or does it? Much of the derision in certain circles revolves around the fact that some believe it to be very reminiscent of the art-damaged noise-rap group Death Grips, who blew up on the internet over the past two years and have become cult favourites to some. The term “Death Grips dickriders” is thrown around a lot, although the evidence that it is just “lukewarm milky DG” is scant, to say the least. Before Yeezus dropped, Kanye was throwing hints around in interviews that he was influenced by Chicago’s acid house scene during the writing process, and from the beginning this hint seems to bear fruit: the Daft Punk-produced opener, “On Sight”, is an unholy marriage of hot house synths and West’s usual mixture of blunt anger and tongue-in-cheek jokes. Elsewhere he picks up an affinity for trap music, especially on the TNGHT-sampling “Blood On The Leaves”, a hot track made all the hotter by a controversial sample from American lynching lament “Strange Fruit”. The most that could be said is that both Kanye and Death Grips crib from the same sheet: “Black Skinhead” features a beat straight out of Trent Reznor’s old playbook (Marilyn Manson’s “Beautiful People”, to be exact).
The album’s biggest surprise, however, is the closer, “Bound 2”, a soul-sampling track that harkens directly back to Kanye’s College Trilogy. After spending an album pummeling the listener with industrial beats, acid house samples, trap music, and general abrasiveness, for him to end it on such a nostalgic note is the sort of sudden about-face that the album as a whole represents.
Where the man will go from here is anyone’s guess (although my guess is Watch The Throne 2 after big bro Jay-Z gets around to dropping Magna Carta Holy Grail) but it’s a sure bet that it won’t be a retread of anything he’s already done. Kanye today is less an entertainment figure than he is a force of nature, and like the weather, you can only make predictions, you can never tell for sure. It’s enough that Yeezus is one of the best albums released in 2013, haters be damned.