Kanye West released ‘Yeezus’ in 2013, three years after his last solo record ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ catapulted him to super stardom. Not everyone liked Yeezus, but this review argues that, that’s probably a good thing.
According to Nielsen SoundScan…
‘Yeezus’ debuted at No. 1 on the Billboard 200 in June, selling 327,000 copies in its first week.
After 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 2011’s Jay-Z collaboration Watch the Throne, Kanye West was almost universally acknowledged as the king of hip hop, if not the king of all genres of popular music. In fact, Kanye’s genre-bending production helped secure his place in the rap pantheon, along with ostentatious lyrics, expertly-placed samples, and features from other artists that verged on perfection. Two albums of this stature in a row are difficult to follow, and Kanye’s 2013 release Yeezus was equally anticipated and dreaded for that reason.
The critical reception of Yeezus accorded exactly with the nervous atmosphere that preceded it. Some people seemed to be relieved, others appalled, and a few were greatly disappointed. Not many reviews praised it unreservedly, but this is exactly how it should have been. One of the central themes on Yeezus, which is quite short and conceptually compact compared to Kanye’s previous releases, is the artist’s refusal to conform to the expectations of society, and his embrace of his creativity and exceptional nature. Thus, if Yeezus had been as warmly accepted as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was in 2010, that warm reception would have proved that Kanye’s self-aggrandizing was just talk.
Yeezus is Inaccessible for a Reason
It’s interesting to note that many of the people who disliked or were disappointed by Yeezus, were people who liked My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, precisely because it was accessible. Even audiences who were previously uninterested in hip hop as a genre, were able to find something to like and sing along to on the 2010 record, which appealed to a wide range of pop sensibilities. Yeezus failed to cater to this audience, instead, continued to push the limits of his craft and explore creative possibilities. This exploration necessarily meant that the record couldn’t be as accessible as its predecessor. When My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was released, its accessibility was new territory for Kanye West, who understandably did not want to retread the same ground on a follow-up album.
All this means that people who disliked Yeezus because it was, in the words of several reviewers, abrasive, unlistenable, or challenging—those people, in fact, played a vital role in explaining the record and its goals. Still, it would be a mistake to dwell too much on the critical landscape, because the public reception of an album can only say so much. A good album should be able to stand up on its own merits, and Yeezus definitely does that. Although it’s only 10 tracks long, Kanye manages to span the distance between tracks that are ready for the dance floor, and others that are best listened to alone.
Samples as Background Layers
Musically speaking, the best thing about Yeezus is its samples. Kanye West has a history of successful sample use, but in the past, he has mostly used samples as background layers supporting his rapping or that of others. On Yeezus, the approach to samples is entirely different. Kanye almost features the samples instead of other artists, placing them prominently at the center of his songs. Occasionally, the juxtaposition between Kanye’s hard rapping and the down tempo samples he uses, creates a sensation that is completely original, and makes the track into a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. ‘Blood on the Leaves’ is the most obvious, and the best, example.
Of course, Yeezus is not perfect. As other reviewers have pointed out, Kanye’s lyrics on this record leave a little something to be desired. These reviewers seem to forget that Kanye’s lyrics have not been perfect on any record that he’s released, and the low points have routinely been very, very low.
In some sense, it’s a shame that Kanye’s poetry hasn’t kept pace with his production, but the production is enough to remember him by.