7 years later, Kanye West's "Yeezus" shines as a boundary pushing experiment.
Seven years ago today, Kanye West released Yeezus, the follow-up album to his 2010 magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Released on the same day as two other memorable albums, J Cole’s Born Sinnerand Mac Miller’s Watching Movies With the Sound Off, Yeezus is Kanye’s most polarizing record. While it was widely praised by critics upon its release, public reception on the album was divided, with many fans dubbing it the beginning of West’s fall off. However, Yeezus has undoubtedly stood the test of time, growing on many listeners since its initial release and proving to be one of the most influential albums of the past decade.
Yeezus marked a stark departure from Kanye’s previous sonic sensibilities. On this album, Kanye abandoned the maximalist, grandiose production style of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, with its lush instrumentation, melodies and sharp lyricism, in favor of a much more raw, industrial sound, with pulsating electronic synthesizers, abrasive percussion and straight-forward lyrics. Heavily inspired by electro-punk and Chicago acid-house, sounds more popular in rave and club scenes, Yeezus was instrumental in shaping the modern rap soundscape. While Kanye was not the first hip-hop artist to implement these styles, he was certainly central to their mainstream acceptance.
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Like most Kanye albums, Ye called upon several carefully selected collaborators to create Yeezus. Executive producer Rick Rubin, who West described as more of a “reducer” than a “producer,” was key in directing the album’s minimalist sound. Aside from Rubin, perhaps the most important group Kanye consulted was the French electronic music duo Daft Punk, who produced Yeezus’ first three tracks - “On Sight,” “I am a God” and “Black Skinhead,” which was co-produced with another French techno artist, Gesaffelstein, and incorporates drums recovered from Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories sessions.
Mike Dean was another central figure in Yeezus’ creation, as he was on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, co-producing the project, guiding its stripped-back sound on the mixing end and contributing a signature guitar solo on “Hold my Liquor.” Interestingly enough, Travis Scott, Kanye’s then protege, who’s solo work is one of the most prominent examples of Yeezus’ influence, also contributed to production on the standout track “New Slaves.”
Due to the abrasive nature of Yeezus’ sound, as well as the blunt lyrics and delivery Kanye used on the project, Yeezus has often been described as the “most Kanye album” that Kanye has ever made. The most stark example of this is the album’s seventh track, “Blood on the Leaves.” Here, Ye flipped Nina Simone’s civil rights anthem “Strange Fruit,” slicing and pitching up Simone’s vocals and layering them with an epic horn progression from electronic duo TNGHT. West delivers an expressive autotuned vocal performance on this track, with lyrics centered around fame, excessive consumption and a drug-fueled relationship.
“Blood on the Leaves,” with its stark contrast between Nina Simone’s message and Kanye’s approach, is emblematic of Ye’s biggest strength on Yeezus: his ability to captivatingly tow the line between social consciousness and self aggrandizement. For instance, on “I am a God,” Kanye, with the slightest touch of irony, repeatedly declares himself a deity. However, on the very next track “New Slaves,” he candidly discusses one of the most harmful manifestations of modern American racism: mass incarceration, driven by the war on drugs and private prison labor demand. He also interestingly compares slavery to his struggle for creative control of his art against his corporate masters. In this two song sequence, Ye realizes that no matter how influential or popular he becomes, he cannot escape the plight of being a black man in America. If nothing else, Yeezus is incredibly self aware.
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As it has grown in popularity, Yeezus has had an incredible sonic influence on many artists, including JPEGMafia and Travis Scott, especially apparent on Rodeo, which features similar vocal presets, raging Mike Dean guitar riffs and an all-around dark, industrial tone. Overall, Yeezus can be credited as one of the most influential projects on the modern trap sound, as we have seen countless young artists rise since its release by aggressively rapping over abrasive synth lines with bass-boosted percussion as heard on Yeezus.
Aside from its direct sonic influence, Yeezus should also be remembered for its audacity of experimentation. By making sounds that hardly anyone expected from him, Ye sent a message to other mainstream artists that it can be advantageous to depart from the style that initially earned you your fanbase. While certainly always a risk, this decision can have incredible rewards. By completely reinventing himself on every new album, Kanye has managed to stay relevant for nearly two decades, further solidifying his legacy with each release. Yeezus stands today as his most exceptional example of this philosophy.