'Yeezus' Turns 5: An Anthropological Look At Kanye West's Most Polarizing Album
He became a superstar—and then on 'Yeezus,' he tried to throw it all away.
Narcissistic Personality Disorder
Noun: a personality disorder characterized especially by an exaggerated sense of self-importance, persistent need for admiration, lack of empathy for others, excessive pride in achievements, and snobbish, disdainful, or patronizing attitudes.
In 2013, Kanye West—the global superstar rapper/producer—decided he wasn’t a rapper anymore. Because he was Kanye West, this genre-shift concept occurred mid-conversation during a feature interview with The New York Times.
“I didn’t realize I was new wave until this project. Thus my connection with [the graphic designer] Peter Saville, with Raf Simons, with high-end fashion, with minor chords. I hadn’t heard new wave! But I am a black new wave artist.”
Earlier that year, West was living in Paris during the beginning of the recording process for his sixth album, the yet-to-be-named Yeezus. West was coming off of a lot of goodwill. In this decade alone, he had 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, a record that might represent West’s creative pinnacle. That album—with it’s “We Are Making Thriller Part Two, Everyone!” grandiosity and caramel cake-density—was a smash, firmly placing West in the upper echelon of pop star. 2011’s Watch The Throne saw West and his label head/mentor/frenemy Jay-Z rail about The Rich, Gifted and Black over soaring Hit-Boy productions. West also began a public relationship with reality star Kim Kardashian. That relationship—which has produced three very cute children—cemented West as one half of the biggest power couple of the 21st century, so far.
Meanwhile, back in Kanye’s hometown of Chicago, a new sound started bubbling. Drill music, a hastily-assigned name for a subgenre of gangster rap—finally made its way to the purview of the music industry via a blitz of young talent that quickly made their way into the national conversation. Drill’s two biggest stars at the time—the nihilist poster boy Chief Keef and the vastly underrated King Louie—were getting label deals and using producer Young Chop’s nuclear bomb-by-way-of-drum-machines beats as a springboard to success.
Meanwhile, new-wave West was doing what rich people who live in Paris do: Going to museums, hanging with fashion designers and eating croissants. The decade, so far, had produced such... big moments for West. Maybe it was time to switch it up?
Inspired by minimalism, expensive chairs, expensive clothes, dark electronic music and the Chicago house and drill influences, West got to work. Before we continue, I believe that we don’t perceive what West does as a producer in the right context. WIthout hyperbole, West is the modern contemporary to Quincy Jones. We keep calling him a beatmaker when he’s actually a bandleader. He visualizes a theme and brings it to life sonically, utilizing the best possible tools at his disposal and keeps the ship running as best it can. In the case of Yeezus, those tools include the combined efforts of no less than 67 people, including Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, Rick Rubin, and many more. Two of those 67, by the way? Chief Keef and King Louie. The ethics of how he accomplishes these albums (there have been multiple issues with proper accrediation for collaborators on Kanye West albums and Yeezus is no exception) are messy, but the fact that he manages to get so many different minds all heading in one direction is still worth of praise and acknowledgment.
I was at the show where Dame Dash and Jay-Z gave West his Roc-A-Fella chain. Here’s an anecdote for the KTT faithful, in the video for "Through The Wire," they show the Chaining Day clip of that very incident with a mark of “Aug ‘02." The actual event took place on September 2, 2002 at the Sprite Liquid Mix tour at First Midwest Bank Amphitheatre out in suburban Tinley Park—and like most Chicagoans in my age demo and below, West is one of the only superstars that we can actually feel a sense of connection to.
Chicago is a city where the idea of celebrity can feel stretched. We’ve been raised to know that the city produces legends and we should carry pride in our city wherever we go but we weren’t around for those big names because they either left before they made it big or moved the second they did. Kanye was different. His connection to the middle-class black psyche resonated so strongly. That girl who couldn’t buy a car so she named her daughter Alexis could easily be my cousin. West is the Prodigal Son of Chicago. A middle-class only child raised in the glow of the Holy Trinity of Black America (activism, capitalism, and the church) who decided he wanted to be respected. Respected for his talent, his voice, his view of how music should be made. He became a superstar. And then on Yeezus, he tried to throw it all away.
Everything on Yeezus manages to produce some form of stimulation. The balance between machine and human, between the persecuted and the powerful, between black and white. That analogy applies cleanly to the reaction the album got. You either like Yeezus or you don’t. It’s not halfway. Some called it an instant classic and some called it he point where they got off the Kanye West train for good. Firmly in the former camp was the late Lou Reed—a man who knew a thing or two about shifting boundaries of conventional coolness — who lionized the album in an article for The Guardian (Reed foresaw the whole “Kanye is bipolar” thing, by the way). A quote: “West says 'I can hold my liquor' and then he says 'I can't hold my liquor.' This is classic—a classic manic-depressive, going back and forth. 'I'm great, I'm terrible, I'm great, I'm terrible.' That's all over this record.”
West’s lyrical content is where Yeezus loses his luster. It’s so apparent that he’s trying to provoke via metaphor or suggestive attempts at humor (On absolute low point “I’m In It,” we get both “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” and “Eatin' Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce” in under three minutes). We were presented what the future would bring and we still tried to pretend like we didn’t see it coming.
Nowadays, I can’t waste too much sleep on Kanye. I believe he’s finally succumbed to the undefeated killer of black musical excellence: fame. We’ve never seen a black celebrity beat the spectre of global pop greatness. We lose them to drugs, we lose them to infamy, we lose them to fucking diabetes. One of the sheer whims of the Rolling Stones and assorted leftover Beatles is the awe of the fact that they’re still here. If you live in a metropolitan area in the United States, you can theoretically expect to be able to catch Bruce, U2, a loose Beatle, some variation of a Dave Grohl project, whatever wild shit Jack White is doing now, and country stars of global Wal-mart domination. Now think about it on the black side. Who are our stadium stars? The numbers just don’t add up.
Yeezus could have easily been the end of him, but Kanye is still here and still making music for the masses. He’ll give us what we need. Even when It may not be what we want.
You can stream Kanye West's Yeezus here.