Kanye West’s Yeezus came at a very pivotal moment in my musical awakening. I had just begun to really appreciate the art of the ‘album’, as well as delve into genres other than the mainstream hip-hop and dad-rock I’d enjoyed up until that point. Even my experience with Kanye was fairly limited. I knew a handful of songs from each of his albums, but hadn’t ever listened to a full record.
Nevertheless, I welcomed the experimentation found on his 2013 opus. I still remember thinking that I’d never heard something so grandiose and ferocious, yet so stripped down. It sounded unrecognizable next to any cut I’d heard of his before, especially when compared to his two most recent projects at the time–My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and 808s & Heartbreak.
With such a drastic change in sound came pushback from fans expecting something more along the lines of Kanye’s earlier projects. This new abrasive, industrial feel, fused with some especially vulgar braggadocio, make Yeezus arguably West’s most controversial record. It’s also his most electronic, featuring production from esteemed producers Hudson Mohawke, Gesaffelstein, and Daft Punk among others. Kanye further enlists a lineup of masterfully-curated features, with vocals from Justin Vernon, Frank Ocean, and fellow Chicago-native Chief Keef.
On the ninth anniversary of its release, I returned to Yeezus and found that Kanye’s self-appointed “god” title might not be as blasphemous as some believed. Among the droning synths and disjointed snare kicks, one can reflect and easily see strokes of genius, especially in the influence it went on to exert in the future. Here are my three favorite tracks and how they’ve aged gracefully within Kanye’s discography over these past nine years.
It’s hard not to mention this track. In possibly his most jarring intro, Kanye begins with the fierce proclamation that “Yeezy season’s approaching” over a punchy acid house-inspired beat. He commands all attention, confidently rejecting any humility he may have shown on 808s with a barrage of combative bars that float over top of Daft Punk’s production.
His narcissistic fervor signals he knows he’s ahead of the game, looping in a rendition of an obscure Chicago church choir song to drive the point home: “he’ll give us what we need/it may not be what we want.” It was true. Some fans found the production on this track too “out-there,” citing the harsh noise elements as a departure from the more radio-friendly direction West was following prior. Even now, “On Sight” remains one of his most divisive tracks, though objectively among the most memorable.
This massive track features another frenzied Kanye, this time over a menacing organ riff that builds as he comments on the racism he endures despite his fame, specifically within the fashion industry: “doing clothes, you would’ve thought I had help/but they wasn’t satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.” Contextually, Yeezus dropped just before Kanye and his brand, Yeezy, left Nike for increased creative freedom at Adidas. Many high-fashion critics slammed his early collections as well, claiming he had outside assistance with his designs. Kanye goes on to further critique consumerism and the media, all while sporadic howls of a choir evoke a church sermon from hell.
Before long, a switch at the end offers us a glimpse into Kanye’s humanity–rare on this record–and his unwillingness to lose at this stage of his career. It’s pretty clear he hasn’t: nine years later, his luxury brand has made him into a household name and multi-billionaire.
The piano key progression here sends shivers up my spine every single listen. Each element comes together perfectly: the Galaga-esque spacey synths, laser-like chimes, chopped-up Popcaan chorus, and of course Kid Cudi’s crooned interlude. Such an underrated track. Originally meant for Watch the Throne, it finds a loving home in this record. “Guilt Trip” finds him in a vulnerable state, ruminating: “maybe it’s ‘cause she’s into Leos and I was into trios/plus all the trips to Rio couldn’t have helped.”
It’s interesting to reflect upon this track and note the similarities between 2013 Kanye and post-Donda Kanye. The relationship issues he explores in this track have only become more centered in the public eye since this track debuted and, to us, seem to pursue him. Despite his recent divorce with Kim Kardashian, Kanye continues to be heavily involved both within her businesses and their family’s lives.
In my eyes, Yeezus was the album that cemented Kanye West’s status as a public figure. His Yeezy brand exploded in the following months due to the release of the “Red October” colorway and the announcement of his Adidas deal. Many lesser-known producers featured on Yeezus also went on to make great strides in music; Gesaffelstein, for one, later produced for The Weeknd, bringing a similar industrial sound into mainstream pop music. Arca appears as an additional producer, and has evolved into one of the most forward-thinking producers of this generation. It seems that the worldwide regard held for Kanye’s artistry has even welcomed more experimentation in hip-hop itself, continuing to hold true today.
Ultimately, Yeezus is Kanye at his boldest. I can’t help but admire his decision to successfully take such a creative risk with the utmost confidence. What some critics considered “career suicide” has become my and many others’ favorite Kanye project.
What’s your opinion on Yeezus? Let me know in the comments below.