Following the release of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, arguably the greatest hip-hop album of all time, Kanye West released his polarizing followup, Yeezus. Yeezus was a complete 180 degree turn from the previous soundscape West crafted with the Grammy nominated MBDTF, an album lauded for its lush production and poignant lyricism focused on failed relationships, the effects of overwhelming stardom, and West’s own self-doubt. While My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is seen by many as West’s creative peak, Kanye opted to completely shift his sound into a darker, more aggressive tone on Yeezus. Gone were the lush strings, beautiful melodies, and intricate lyricism. Instead, listeners were subjected to pulsating electronic synths, harsh percussion, and minimal lyrics. The album was met with an immediate divisiveness, with some calling the album “a mixture of muddling sounds and self-indulgent lyrics,” while others praised West for continuing the creativity that had defined his career thus far. While others may not see it, I see Yeezus as not only a great album, but one of the most influential sonic adventures in 2010’s hip-hop lineage.
Much of Yeezus’ production was handled by numerous collaborators, such as Daft Punk, Gesaffelstein, Arca, Mike Dean, and even Travis Scott. Most of these producers had made a name for themselves as electro-punk artists, a very niche subset of dance music that was prevalent in clubs and raves. While West may have not been the first rapper to implement this sound, he was certainly the first mainstream artist to do so. Instead of the orchestral arrangements and live drums of past Kanye came a much more industrial sound, full of harsh electronic synths, pulsating, psychedelic drums, and even some signature Mike Dean guitar solos. Instead of reflecting on his past, West focused on the present. Much of the album focused on West’s experiences as a black man in America and how no matter how influential or how popular he was, he was just that: a black man.
West’s music video for “BlacKKK Skinhead” displayed barking dogs with their teeth bare, reminding us of the use of dogs in police mistreatment of African Americans in the early 60’s and as a means of hunting escaped slaves. Along with that, West sampled a Nina Simone song named “Strange Fruit,” a song detailing the lynching of African Americans in the South. As the album goes on, West delves into his relationship with then-fiancee Kim Kardashian, evoking both sexual and romantic nuances in songs like “I’m in It” and “BOUND 2.” But what made West’s album so important was not his lyrical content, but everything else about the album.
Screenshot from Kanye West's 2013 "BlacKKK Skinhead" Music Video
Yeezus’ initial announcement began from a tweet from Kanye, where he tweeted “JUNE 18TH.” Three weeks later, West’s face was projected on numerous historic buildings throughout the country, rapping along to Black Skinhead. Whether or not we knew it at the time, West had established one of the first viral media marketing campaigns. I remember being on Twitter and seeing Kanye’s face on a New York City skyline building in awe. I can’t really remember a time before then where Twitter collectively lost their mind over marketing, but that was an instance where marketing changed forever. Gone were flyers, commercials, even billboards. Instead, he projected his face to the world, and shifted his image from being a rapper to being a rock star.
Aside from this, many artists today have used Yeezus’ sound as a means of popularizing themselves. Look at artists like JPEGMafia and even Travis Scott. Scott’s debut album Rodeo used many of the elements found in Yeezus, ranging from the same vocal presets, raging guitar riffs from Mike Dean, and an all-around dark and industrial vibe not seen in many other albums at the time.
Kanye West with Travis Scott. Travis contributed to production on Yeezus, which his solo work has been undeniably inspired by.
While West’s sonic influences are ever present, it is even more important to acknowledge his decision to break away from expectations. Nobody expected a sound remotely close to Yeezus following the success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and Kanye did it anyway. Having this level of experimentation at such a mainstream level has enabled artists today to feel comfortable in dabbling in various sonic palettes. Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly is a prime example. Kendrick created a commercially and critically successful album in Good Kid, Maad City and yet, instead of building further on that sound, Lamar delved into a completely different niche, analyzing the aspects of racial inequalities in America across a sonic backdrop rich in black history, with funk, soul, and jazz elements found throughout its production.
Additionally, frequent Kanye collaborator Tyler, The Creator found himself hoisting a Grammy for “Best Rap Album” following the release of IGOR, an album so abstract and so unique that DJ Khaled called it “mysterious.” ‘IGOR’ was a departure from Tyler’s previous works such as GOBLIN and Cherry Bomb in both subject matter and production, with floating synths, creative features from artists such as Playboi Carti, Solange, and Lil Uzi Vert, and a story of falling in love with another man.
While Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’ may not be an album you can throw on around the hoes, it’s important to recognize its importance in today’s music. Without it, we may have never seen some of the experimentation from mainstream artists that we see now. While experimentation has occurred before, it’s hard to pinpoint an artist completely changing their sound and still managing to create impactful music.
Written by Jaan Choudhri