'Yeezus' Over Everything: A few words on Kanye West’s best album (so far)
October 07, 2015 at 6:00 am
We all know it and are trembling in anticipation: Kanye West’s newest album, tentatively titled SWISH, will (hopefully) soon be upon us. Before we’re all consumed with listening to and debating the merits of his newest release, we should ask ourselves, “What is Kanye West’s best album?” The answer, my friends, is Yeezus.
For far too long we’ve misunderstood what qualifies as Kanye’s best work because we haven’t discussed his discography on proper terms. However misled it may be, the debate is incredibly interesting. We, both his fans and his haters, seem to be divided on a number of critical questions. How well did he perform lyrically throughout an album? What should he have omitted from the final track list? Was his production weak at any point? Our divided thoughts are reflected in numerous inaccurate rankings of Kanye’s albums.
We have to accept Yeezus as Kanye West’s best album, as the one the that stands above the rest. When I refer to Yeezus as his best album, I mean it in the sense that it’s the most artistically mature collection he’s made to date; it’s on an entirely different aesthetic plane than his other projects. And to be clear, Kanye has never released a bad album. I don’t even think he’s capable of giving us an average album. But it’s Yeezus that most succinctly captures the aesthetic he’s crafted for over a decade now.
Every song contains fragments of ideas Kanye had shored up over many years of producing beats and writing verses. Yeezus is the completion of older ideas, and yet, as a whole, it’s a complete departure from the earlier artistic perspectives its creator previously operated from. This kind of radicalism might recall 808s & Heartbreak, but the key difference between the two is that Yeezus isn’t at all experimental.
Take “Blood on the Leaves,” one of the bigger singles on the album. The choice to sample Nina Simone was in line with Kanye’s tendency to favor soul(ful) music in his samples; the political bent of the sampled song, “Strange Fruit,” speaks to a social consciousness Kanye has demonstrated since his first studio album, The College Dropout. The catch here is that “Blood on the Leaves” is not concerned with anything beyond Kanye’s own romantic past and makes no gesture toward the political protest embedded in the lyrics of “Strange Fruit.”
It’s unusual for Kanye to sample a song with no apparent connection to the content of his own, and yet, the tragic mood Nina Simone’s voice casts over “Blood on the Leaves” pairs well with the personal pain Kanye conveys in the song. He moved beyond selecting samples like “Diamonds Are Forever” by Shirley Bassey for his Late Registration track, “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” which lent its literal and verbal content to the hook, to instead incorporating samples that suggest more of a tone or energy he’s looking to produce within a song.
This is but one example of how every artistic choice that shaped the album was made with the intent of completing a vision, rounding out an era in what has thus far been one of the most compelling careers in hip-hop history. It should be said that this album was also the foundation for a new vision, one we’ll become more acquainted with through SWISH. Mr. West would agree with me saying that his most recent album was indeed an alpha and an omega for his creative spirit.
So let’s lay down some ground rules for ranking Kanye’s albums. These can be guiding principles for ranking the work of other hip-hop artists as well, but for now, let’s stick to Ye. First, no album’s greatness should be esteemed solely on its commercial success; popular taste routinely misses the truly good stuff. I don’t know a single Kanye fan who dislikes My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, but the fact that it’s so highly favored doesn’t make it his best work. Second, we need to understand the elements of an artist’s style — the things that make them unique — and have an appreciation for their development.
As I noted earlier, Yeezus draws on the entirety of Kanye’s creative arsenal, and the expansive range of his musical influences are on full display right from “On Sight.” But Kanye himself described the album as both “maximalist and minimalist,” which means he attained an ability to moderate some of his characteristic approaches (among them, his diverse sampling choices, aggressive lyrical delivery, and a surgeon’s precision when manipulating layers of sound) that critics have found absent from his earlier music. Yeezus doesn’t sprawl, it doesn’t try to cover too much ground.
Third, we should assess how well albums cohere as a whole; it makes little sense to weigh albums on a song-by-song basis. With the shortest track list of any of his albums, we can’t rely on a 1:1 ratio to demonstrate why Yeezus is better than, say, Late Registration, another incredibly sophisticated album. But even when compared to another compact album like Graduation, which has thirteen songs, it’s clear that Yeezus has a certain focus his other albums lack. The prudent curatorial decisions that gave us Yeezus made it conceptually tighter than anything else Kanye has done to this point.
This isn’t a comprehensive list, of course, but I think these criteria can be helpful in clarifying some of the general misconceptions circulating about Kanye’s work. In fairness, the criteria I’ve offered here tend to exclude more particular concerns over Kanye’s lyricism. The thing is, I can’t say with confidence that he is a masterful lyricist — he’s just really, really good on the mic. There’s much to be said about individual songs on the album, but I’ll briefly say that the four-song sequence Yeezus opens with — “On Sight,” “Black Skinhead,” “I Am a God” and “New Slaves” — is more magisterial and more devastating than any opening progression Kanye arranged on any of his other albums. Period.
You’re right to feel Yeezus is a rejection of a lot of things — mainstream hip-hop, his more youthful art — and I think you would be wrong to not feel that way. It’s a rejection of those things (and more) because it towers over them.
Kanye West is a living legend, and Yeezus is his greatest album — so far.