2013: The Year That Everything Changed, Part 6

2013: The Year That Everything Changed, Part 6

This is the sixth installment of a series of essays about how 2013 marked the point in which popular music and the culture around it changed forever. You can read the first four installments here, here, here, here, and here. The next and final installment will be about Beyoncé’s self-titled album.

We may as well get this out of the way now, since there’s little the internet loves more than arguing about Kanye West and where his albums rank: Yeezus is, in my opinion, Kanye’s best album. Now, that’s not why I chose to write about it for this essay series; if you’ve been following along so far, you know that there’s been at least two installments focused on albums that I simply don’t think are very good. Yeezus’ impact (which we’ll get to in a few) is wholly separated from my own critical valuation of the music itself.

That said, some brief thoughts on the music itself: it’s electrifying, thrilling, the most confoundingly exciting music Kanye has ever made. There were a few false critical assertions around the time of Yeezus that Kanye and his collaborators were influenced by the digital-drain swarm that is Death Grips’ outré noise-rap—assertions that were quickly dispelled by the collaborators themselves. But it’s easy to see why anyone would hear Yeezus and think of, say, Death Grips’ brilliant career-peak-to-date The Money Store: both albums sound like being pulled into a metallic whirlwind, all gnarled screeching and blasted beats with carnival-barker non sequiturs laid over its car-crash foundation.

I suppose it would be stating the obvious that Yeezus is no easy text to interpret when it comes to what Kanye’s actually expressing over it. For anyone seeking MAGA breadcrumb trails, they certainly don’t start here, and more generally (and to close the door on this potential train of thought before it can be opened too widely) talking about present-day Kanye is impossible without steering explicitly into voyeuristic territory when it comes to someone’s mental health issues. What I wrote for Pitchfork’s half-decade list still stands as my overall opinion on what Yeezus has to say, so here’s some of my thoughts replicated:

“Clocking in at a svelte 40 minutes, Yeezus is unbelievably dense for what is easily Kanye West's shortest album; he packs so many ideas, statements, and unreliable narratives into it that language itself becomes clipped and brutish; “Racism” becomes “racim”, Deepak Chopra becomes “Deepak Chopa”. The thoughts come quick and fast, taking shapes that are energizing, audacious, brave, and repulsive—sometimes all at once. Contradictions arrive in clusters; on “Blood on the Leaves”, tales of courtside seating-as-apartheid and wasted-cocaine regrets are laid out as Nina Simone wages an intergalactic war with TNGHT's flattening synthetic horns. Throughout Yeezus, Kanye claims to be a lot of things—a wolf, a king, a priest, a reincarnation of a still-alive Shabba Ranks—but he remains, tantalizingly, at arms’ length.”

Kanye’s career is still very much playing out in front of our eyes, but there’s been enough distance from Yeezus to define it as a turning point regardless. His previous album, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, was an overstuffed epic in a discography that was mostly comprised of such efforts at the time; it was self-mythologizing and self-incriminating, a thoroughly rockist work beyond the King Crimson samples and Elton John guest spots. Suitably, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy won scores of critical hosannas—but it was largely snubbed by the Grammys, the type of industry approval that Kanye has frequently sought out and seethed over.

Kanye would never make an album truly like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy again for the rest of the decade, but some of its DNA floats around in Yeezus’ sonic detritus. For all its largesse, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is a remarkably manicured work—even the doodling that closes out tracks like “Runaway” and “Blame Game” feel purposeful—and for all its eight-car-alarms-at-once chaos, Yeezus is remarkably self-contained. There’s hints of the moving-target messiness that would mark his last truly great album to date, The Life of Pablo from 2016, but underneath Yeezus’ stormy sound is a level of restraint that hasn’t since been present in his solo work.

Who’s really responsible for Yeezus’ genius? The album is undoubtedly Kanye’s in voice alone, but similar to Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories, Yeezus is inextricably defined by its wide range of collaborators—a group undertaking that went far beyond the typical features list you see on rap albums. (As a brief aside, typing out “rap albums” in reference to Yeezus is funny to me—is it a rap album? What is this thing?)

The credits are mind-boggling in terms of how many people pitched in, from Rick Rubin’s perpetual Svengali-like advisement and production from of-the-moment electronic artists like Hudson Mohawke and Arca to songwriting from Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon and, most curiously, Jack Donoghue of witch-house originators Salem. (Yeezus’ collaborator list is so expansive and easy to get lost in that there’s been several times over the last few years where I’ve reminded friends and colleagues about Donoghue’s contributions and they’ve been shocked, despite being reminded before.)

As the jam-packed contributors list on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy proves, collaborative efforts in pop did not start with Yeezus, not even close. But the way in which collaboration was utilized on Yeezus—highlighting up-and-coming talent like Chief Keef and King L, as well as aforementioned underground sensations like Arca and HudMo—marked a sea change in how pop music pulled from the talent pool lying just under its overground.

Scores of pop music since has resembled the cut-and-paste A&R approach that Yeezus possibly pioneered, from the quilt-like collaborative weaving that makes up Frank Ocean’s blonde, Tyler, the Creator’s IGOR, and Solange’s When I Get Home to artists like the Haxan Cloak, Tame Impala’s Kevin Parker (who, to be fair, is on his way to becoming a true megastar in his own right) and Father John Misty throwing in on music by Lady Gaga and Khalid. (As I mentioned earlier this year, even indie is getting into the by-committee game, slowly but surely.)

Recall that Pitchfork feature I linked to earlier that featured testimonials from Yeezus’ contributors—a mark of another undeniable sea change, this time in the music writing sphere. Every time you see the credits for a new pop album published as news? That’s Yeezus’ legacy, both an acknowledgment of how pop has increasingly become a by-committee Easter egg hunt for the hippest and most effective collaborators around to music writing’s acknowledgment that stats (witness the increased focus in tech and chart-position angles that took place post-Yeezus, too) were becoming increasingly important to readers.

Yeezus also arrived as online discourse (and, by extension, digital media) was mutating into something more explicitly reactive. The term “hot take” became prevalent in the years surrounding Yeezus’ release, and if you were working in music writing around that time you know that having a hot take on Yeezus was all the rage. There was good reason for so much chatter around this album; as I’ve mentioned, there are a lot of threads to pull from regarding critical approaches even as none of them provide much in terms of straight answers. It’s an album that provokes discourse on many levels, and is seemingly designed to.

In hindsight, though, the realm of possibilities that Yeezus opened up in terms of how much coverage you could give to a single album had serious and not entirely positive ripple effects throughout music and culture writing at large. A year after the album’s release, I was working at a culture publication on the eve of Drake’s If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late; as a senior editor, I was given marching orders to spend the day of its release producing as much content as possible out of the album itself. (The word used was “swarm.”)

When the swarm was said and done, we’d published twelve articles on If You’re Reading This It’s Too Late, and that was just in the course of 24 hours. These days, it’s far from shocking to envision a publication so heavily covering a single major pop album and not much else, to the point where coverage of lesser-known artists and releases have been reduced drastically or, in some cases, have completely disappeared. I do believe that Yeezus lit this fire by showing publishers and editors that it was possible to wring the rag of coverage dry on blockbuster albums like it, even if so many blockbuster albums that have followed since have questionably deserved such coverage.

For all its sexual aggression and misogyny, Yeezus had the unintentional effect of pointing out the homogeneousness of critical opinion across gender lines. There was a remarkable lack of people who didn’t identify as men assigned to write about an album that was drenched in sexual imagery verging on violence—and this was so apparent that SPIN took it upon themselves to run “Sheezus Talks,” a roundtable of critics who identify as women discussing the album’s many facets.

“Sheezus Talks”—a great read as well as a discussion that featured some of the smartest critics still working today—was the result of public protestations and private industry-centric whispers that Yeezus had supposedly exposed what already seemed like a truism in music criticism and so much digital media writing in general: it was (and, let’s be clear, still is) dominated by white male-identifying perspectives, with anyone who didn’t fit into that demographic mostly assigned to cover music explicitly tied to their identity. (Granted, there are a few self-acknowledged loopholes in logic there, including the overwhelming amount of white male-identifying critics who have dominated hip-hop coverage over the last several decades. It’s a huge topic to discuss at large, the intricacies of which are definitely better handled in more isolated form and probably by someone who is not me, a white male-identifying music critic.)

As someone with no assigning or hiring power who was deep in the worlds of music writing and digital media at that point, I felt a serious embarrassment for the industry at large that it took something like Yeezus for music writing to acknowledge in any meaningful way that white male-identifying perspectives were so heavily prioritized. There’s been some work done since in diversifying music writing and digital media at large—one of “Sheezus Talks”’ contributors, Puja Patel, is now the Editor-in-Chief of Pitchfork, for example—but we also shouldn’t pretend like anyone should be rushing their “Mission Accomplished” banners to the dry cleaners.

Regardless, for an album pocked by retrograde statements from someone who makes nothing but them these days, it feels truly ironic to recognize that Yeezus might have nudged things forward in this way—a strange byproduct of its arrival at a time in which digital media was headlong into its empire phase, still possessing a sliver of malleability before the calcifications and subsequent collapses really began.

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Jamie Larson