If there was any question of Kanye West’s artistry then it was surely answered on Friday with the leak of his sixth album. For weeks a global audience awaited any morsel of information regarding the project. When the information came, it was in fact that there was no information - no artwork, no single, no pre-order, no video, no album stream. Just an appetizer of hastily debuted projections on structures all over the world; a performance on SNL; a tracklist that revealed an unbelievable assortment of producers; an interview in the New York Times and of course, the grainy often distorted mobile device videos from a handful of performances in the weeks ahead of it’s June 18th official release date. The lead up was chaotic, almost esoteric in it’s clandestine nature and at the same time perfectly predictable for Kanye West. So when word hit the internet that the album leaked 4 days early, millions including myself began salivating over their keyboards as the hunt was officially on. A short time later as the album’s 10 tracks emerged from my speakers I sat excited and then almost immediately perplexed.
Kanye has always pushed the limits of hip-hop and artistry in general and consequently the hype around anything involving him has always been high. However the hype around and expectations of YEEZUS was otherworldly. In most cases high expectations lead to disappointment and everyone including myself was certainly expecting something amazing from this album - and amazing it is, but not in the way that people were well, expecting.
Having long involved others in the creation of his work Kanye’s production style has become far more collaborative in recent years as heard on MBDTF. Here Ye treated collaborators like individual instruments - conducting them towards a grand crescendo which only he truly knew. Musically, MBDTF was his best work to date - the album of our generation, and what should have been Album Of the Year if there was any justice at the Grammys - but I digress. With this project Kanye elevated the traditional elements of hip-hop’s sound to a sonic plateau on par with anything held as pivotal in the evolution of music. It is a grand, beautifully dark, magical journey from start to finish featuring some of the greatest talents in modern music’s time. But even understanding this doesn’t prepare one to wrap his/her head around his latest offering that includes credited contributions by Malik Yusef, Rhymefest, CyHi The Prynce, Lupe Fiasco, Hudson Mohawke, Justin Vernon, Alejandro Ghersi, Tony Williams, Kid Cudi, King L, Daft Punk, Gesaffelstein, Charlie Wilson, John Legend, Travis Scott, Frank Ocean, Mike Dean, No I.D., Rick Rubin, Young Chop, RZA, TNGHT, DJ Assassin, The Heatmakerz, and let us not forget God him/her/itself. What can one reasonably expect from this except excellence and the unexpected? At this point in his career what can we really expect from Kanye West other than to have our expectations shattered.
By Friday evening I was discussing the album with friends in NYC, LA, Amsterdam, Chicago and small seemingly isolated islands in the middle of the Atlantic where mail can take weeks but YEEZUS had arrived. It was impressive to see how quickly culture in demand can spread in this day and age and more-so how in demand this project was by people from all walks of life. Just like them, their opinions on the album varied widely - ranging from dislike, to confusion, to enthusiasm. By this hour I’d played the album dozens of times and it was growing on me.
I’m a bit of an audiophile - in a good week I listen to 5 new projects and maybe 20 singles. My iTunes library currently consists of 104 GB of music spanning almost every genre and these are just the albums that I’ve decided to keep as permanent pieces of my collection - only a fraction of what I’ve actually leant my ear to. There’s a separate sound system for each room of my condo, each with it’s own custom EQ - all linked over WiFi and placed to be as acoustically true and efficient as possible. As the son of a music teacher and myself a former music marketer, music has always been a focal point of my life and I listen to a lot of it - almost obsessively. A new quality project will at times be played on repeat for days on end with favorite tracks cycled 20, even 30 times in a row as I dissect each individual instrument, sample and element trying to understand and appreciate it’s place in the larger musical puzzle. This process is what I found myself doing with YEEZUS and the results were enlightening.
Anyone who has spent any real time in a recording studio will appreciate this album immediately for the technical expertise exhibited if nothing else. Kanye’s, Rick Rubin’s and Mike Dean’s prolific abilities behind the boards are apparent as each sample, note, vocal, effect and element have been meticulously refined. The mixing and mastering is simply superb. Any decent pair of ears or speakers alike will rejoice. It is a dark, jarring, deconstructed, minimalistic mess of an album filled with the same Kanye braggadocio and outspokenness we’ve come to love. Where MBDTF was melodic and orderly YEEZUS is sporadic, abrupt and rude. If MBDTF is the Yen then YEEZUS is the Yang - it’s polar opposite. Listening to the album presents it’s challenges as it quickly discards your expectations of what music, hip-hop and Kanye West is with the speed, intensity and ferocity that can only be compared to the sudden ejection from a fireball laden fighter jet traveling at Mach 2 - it is a brutal and total shock to your senses. That is not to say this is in anyway a bad project, but different? Yes. Left? Indeed. Avant-garde? Incredibly. Is he “tweaking” on some parts (specifically the screaming on “I Am God” now referred to as the “Tweak Scream”) as one comrade jokingly stated? Definitely. But he’s an artist - it’s an art project, and who the fuck are we to judge?
YEEZUS is true Kanye, and there is order and even beauty out of it’s chaos, but you’re unlikely to discover it upon your first, third or even fifth listen - it takes time to reveal itself and patience and attention must be given to properly savor what it has to offer, just like all the finer things in life.
For me the most perfect moment of the album arrives at 1:38 - 3:22 of “I’m In It”. In this small window of time the album’s genius makes itself apparent - the objective and contributions of such extensive and seasoned yet seemingly contradictory collaborators, clear - a wonderfully exciting and euphoric sonic intersection never before heard or foreseen. There are many of these moments scattered about and hidden throughout the dark crevices and recesses of songs where the novice listener dare not explore - too comfortable in the security and conformity of his or her perception and opinion on the so called rules and boundaries of hip-hop music. It is here where the album’s treasures lie.
A good friend stated it was Kanye’s Bitches Brew - a perfect synopsis of what this album is. An album that will fly over the heads of most consumers - that critics will vilify and supposed Kanye fans will hate only to be regarded as one of the most groundbreaking albums in the history of hip-hop decades later much like Miles’ classically heralded “experiment” is now in the world of Jazz.
If the goal of YEEZUS was the push limits and boundaries in this same manner then Mr. West has certainly accomplished that.
Each man’s destiny is personal only insofar as it may happen to resemble what is already in his memory.Eduardo Mallea