Kanye West’s Yeezus Went from My Most Hated to My Favorite Album
Five days after my 21st birthday, Kanye West released his polarizing sixth studio album Yeezus. Following his magnum opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West’s sixth album diverted from all expectations. Two other major hip-hop albums dropped on that same day. It was summertime and I was back in my hometown of Dayton, Ohio. While on semester break, I woke up that day on a mission. J. Cole’s Born Sinner, Kanye’s Yeezus, and Mac Miller’s Watching Movies with the Sound Off were coming home with me. So I freshened up, hopped in my hooptie, and cruised over to Best Buy. Along the way, I listened to Twisted Fantasy to prep myself. Kanye is my all-time favorite artist, though that title has changed many times. As a kid, it was Lil Bow Wow. I’m not ashamed to admit it. Although he’s corny now, he was dope back in the day.
My mom let me listen to him and Will Smith only, though. Then, when I got older, I immersed myself in R&B. Growing up, my dad exposed me and my brother to Brian McKnight. Despite his status as an underrated artist, his talent is undeniable. While a defining R&B voice in the 90’s, his name slowly began to diminish in the mainstream as the 00’s progressed. His 1999 smash hit “Back at One” suggested McKnight would dominate the new millennium. However, this was not the case. Yet I am still a huge fan to this day. All throughout middle and high school, I put friends onto his music. Some digged it; others were annoyed by my persistence. Love ballads aren’t everyone’s thing. Nevertheless, R&B continued to shape my musical taste. Upon hearing “I Luv Your Girl” by The-Dream, he instantly shot up my favorites list.
Michael Jackson was always up there too. Can’t go wrong with the King. When he passed, I listened to nothing but MJ for a month straight. His discography is incredible. I am so grateful for artists like The Weeknd who insert his influence into their music regularly. Back to Kanye, though, he did not become my favorite artist until MBDTF. I always loved Kanye’s music, but he lost me with 808s & Heartbreak, his experimental Auto-tune album from 2008. After the passing of his mother at the hands of surgery complications in Hollywood, California, Ye went into a deep depression. He has since opened up about the dark thoughts he experienced in subsequent albums. At the time of its release, I was not ready to digest 808s. All of the heavy airplay bugged the crap out of me. Everywhere I went I heard “Love Lockdown” and “Heartless”.
I needed a break from Yeezy. It’s weird to watch myself write that considering how I feel about his music nowadays. He broke the mold of hip-hop monotony. Kanye had nothing left to lose. His mother’s death on top of breaking up with his then-fiancée destroyed him mentally. Yet I did not relate. All I heard was Auto-tune, which I considered a rip off of T-Pain, despite the two working together on Graduation. I was young and distracted. My passion for music at the time focused on staying relevant. My schoolmates often sought me for burned CD’s of the newest tracks, although I was a sucker for doing it for free. What can I say, I’m a nice guy. It wasn’t until Yeezus dropped that I truly appreciated 808s & Heartbreak. On his sixth album, West once again approached music-making in a left-field fashion. But initially, I rejected it.
I remember driving back up to Columbus to celebrate my 21st. The homies came through from far and wide to support. Words can’t describe how much I appreciate my true friends. My roommates and I started the shenanigans early alongside a couple other day-ones. Absolut vodka was my shit back then. I mixed it with cheap, heavily processed sugar water called Tampico. It’s like a smoother Sunny D. Jad, my KAMMY Awards assistant, introduced us to the new flavor of Grey Goose at the time: Cherry Noir. “You’ve never had Cherry Noir?” he said. We shook our heads. “Get ready, you’re in for a treat.” Needless to say, it slapped, becoming an instant favorite among my friend group. To kick the festivities off right, we decided it was time for some Kanye. None of us had heard Yeezus at this point. According to Twitter, it was his strangest album yet.
We assumed it would be good. I mean, it’s Kanye, right? Once our drinks were made, we gathered around our infamous big red couch (gifted to me by my aunt and uncle). My brother from another mother, Rolland, pressed play on the Macbook in front of him. The opening track of Yeezus, “On Sight,” buzzed through the speakers. What is now one of my most beloved Kanye songs, “On Sight” sounded like distasteful garbage to me at first. I recall my initial reaction, gripping my sugar liquor: “What is this bullshit?” Every single one of us had a scowl on our faces. There was something so on-edge about his tone of voice. Was this really Kanye? I thought. Track two was “Black Skinhead,” the stadium-friendly, tribal-drum banger. We liked it more than the one before, but it was still odd.
We skipped to the next track, possibly the album’s most controversial. “I Am a God,” as you might imagine, got the skip treatment as well. The nature of that song is mostly misunderstood. I’ll discuss it later however. Lead single “New Slaves” was played all the way through. It’s a head-bobbing banger Kanye uses to vent his frustrations about his exclusion from the world of high fashion. The cathartic diatribe acts as the album’s driving force. Preceding the release of Yeezus, Kanye premiered the song in various cities around the world by way of building-side projections. West’s face mouthed the lyrics through a stylized black-and-white lens. This is one of two appearances of “Old Kanye” as former fans call him. I don’t fully agree that he’s changed. He has undergone evolution as an artist. People don’t try to understand the difference, though.
For Kanye, arrogance is bliss. According to the Chicago rapper, his youth was riddled with self-doubt and rejection. He found the only way to keep his spirits up was to be overconfident. Therefore criticism dealt less damage to his psyche. If he believed in himself enough, he could accomplish anything. Early on in his fame, Kanye was seen as confident as opposed to cocky. His underdog image made him a fan favorite. The masses accepted his homegrown approach to emceeing, opening the door for artists like Drake, Kid Cudi, and Lupe Fiasco to thrive. To this day, culture commentators claim there to be two versions of Kanye: Old and New; and that Old is considerably better. However, New Kanye is plenty dope in his own right. It’s simply hard to look past his ego. The night of the 2009 VMA’s will be cemented in music history forever.
In case you weren’t alive at the time, Kanye West took the crown for Most Ignorant Moment (“of all-time!”). Before the Video Music Awards began, Yeezy drank with fellow artists. Unfortunately for ‘Ye, it was Hennessy. If you’ve never gotten slammed off of Henny before, let’s just say: you probably have — you just don’t remember it. Kanye being Kanye took offense to the board selecting Taylor Swift’s “You Belong with Me” video over Beyoncé’s “Single Ladies”. He then stole the microphone from Swift as she was accepting her award, claiming, “I’m happy for you, I’mma let you finish, but…” You know the rest. One action turned Kanye West from fun-loving hero to venomous villain in a matter of seconds. He clearly shouldn’t have done that. West fled the country, took some time off, and returned triumphantly with an illustrious backhanded apology album for the ages.
Kanye’s insatiable ego was not pardoned nonetheless. Yet he couldn’t care less. This is what makes him so polarizing. Coming back to Yeezus, it is this narrative that makes the album equally as controversial. After reaching the peak of critical acclaim for Twisted Fantasy, West had nothing left to prove in the music game. He gave us five classic albums in a row. How many more records could his records break? The only logical next step was to experiment. But Kanye didn’t just experiment musically. He wanted his brand to become an empire. Since he attained fame, Yeezy collaborated with high-end fashion designers on small projects. His Louis Vuitton sneaker was a hot commodity in hip-hop culture, though he wanted more. He wanted his own clothing line. At a very young age, West drew and designed sneakers. That has always been a part of his vision.
So signing a shoe deal with Nike in 2007 was a dream come true for the Chi-town native. The Nike Air Yeezy collection is among the most highly coveted sneakers ever created. They have been bought and re-sold for thousands of dollars. Honestly, it’s ridiculous. But people love their shoes, man. Kanye released two series of Air Yeezys before the joint agreement soured. Fans were shocked. West left Nike for multiple reasons. For starters, they wouldn’t allow him to expand his brand. Nike liked Kanye for one thing: making shoes. That’s where the money was, and they didn’t see the point of giving West an apparel budget. Kanye insisted that, because of his shoes’ success and mass appeal, his clothes would flourish too.
However, Nike saw him as just another celebrity, hoarding his bloated product royalties. Kanye also wanted to design other shoes than the Air Yeezy. They denied him again. Nike even refused to sign Kanye long-term to create the Air Yeezys in 2014, forcing ‘Ye to take matters into his own hands. He later went to Twitter to vent his frustrations with the sneaker corporation. Tweeting never solves anything, so we’ve learned. This is especially true for Kanye West. His profanity-laced tweets made him an outcast in the fashion world. Although Adidas eventually picked up the Yeezy brand, high-fashion brands hesitated to work with West despite his creative design talents. Why would they want to risk their reputation for a hot-headed rapper making fad products? It’s no secret, the world of high fashion is extremely elitist. The rejection and exclusion Kanye suffered fueled the angst heard throughout Yeezus.
There is a similar angst that brews within me. Typically, I keep to myself, never raise my voice, and play the background. That’s why I enjoy many styles of chill music and shy away from metal, punk, and horrorcore music. However, that does not mean I don’t get angry or want to punch people in the teeth sometimes. Due to its unapologetic approach, Yeezus was a huge turn-off for me at first. Yet with more listens it connected with me on a visceral level. The raw, unfiltered emotion Kanye pours into most of the ten tracks gave me comfort in my most unsettling times. Due to its concise runtime, Yeezus became a shot of energy for my ears any time I needed it. As time passed, my appreciation and acceptance of frustration matured to a point where I no longer had to bottle it inside.
All I had to do was throw on Yeezus and everything else worked itself out. It is the only album I feel comfortable screaming the lyrics to. Ask my homies. For a guy who loves music, I’m really bad with lyrics. I can’t remember them to save my life half the time. Listening to so much music week to week detaches me from creating biases. That’s why my review scores are usually lower than most. It takes a lot for an album or a song to resonate with me. I want to be as objective as humanly possible. For the longest time, I didn’t have the heart to bash Kanye’s sixth studio album. It was therapeutic for me. To combat the haters, I defended its artistic expression and minimalism till my face turned blue. I felt as though it was my duty as a true Kanye fan.
To me, there is no album more “Kanye” than Yeezus. Since his College Dropout days, Kanye has always spoke his mind. That has never changed. The only thing that has changed about Kanye is how he is perceived. I admit his music has changed drastically compared to his debut. However, Kanye the person is essentially identical. His sound has always evolved, and so has he. To be a true Kanye West fan, one must adapt on the fly. I understand if that’s not your cup of tea, though. Kanye can be a little much to say the least. His fame makes him difficult to ignore however, which must be annoying to unwilling listeners. Nevertheless, Yeezus is not a trash album. It is not a masterpiece either. The immediate critical acclaim it received seemed preventative.
Handfuls of critics ate their words about 808s, and they didn’t want to be left behind when reviewing Yeezus. It is obviously a giant middle finger to all things commercial. But, for the most part, critics don’t care about album sales and singles. It’s about the art. If you take an album as an artistic statement like I do, you’ll see how bold Yeezus is. West pulled a page from his current diary to paint a picture so abstract we were left thinking What is this bullshit? I don’t want to get too deep here, but we fear what we don’t understand. Yeezus is misunderstood as being tales of rich-nigga problems. Partially, that is true. If the delivery of his message is too brash for you to look past the surface, I don’t blame you.
Although, if you ever called yourself a Kanye West fan at some point in your life, I urge you to give this album another shot. Yeezus should have been a short film. Instead of a verbal panic attack, a film has the power to show the audience how Kanye felt inside. This would have made it easier for people to empathize with his frustration. Within the constructs of a song, Kanye has to drive home his point over and over, creating a fourth-wall separation. Listeners cannot relate to having enough power and money to drop a clothing line and a number-one album in the same week. People didn’t like Yeezus because it wasn’t for the people. And since people generally didn’t like Kanye’s personality, they don’t like his self-indulging album.
Yet Kanye needed to release it. He cleared his conscious in the process. But, hey, you don’t give a fuck about a rich asshole’s stress, right? Well, I do. I care because there is purpose behind his whining. As artists, people like Kanye use their platform and skill set to project their soul into their work. It’s a reflection of who they are. That’s what makes art compelling. He is not always right, but he is always passionate, which is more than most can say. In the opening track of Yeezus, Kanye samples a choir singing “He’ll give us what we need. It may not be what we want.” The blasphemy surrounding this album is apparent. However, I’m not one for religious glorification, so it doesn’t bother me. That line sticks with me.
Yeezy was fully aware what he was doing when he made “On Sight” the album’s intro. He wished to make a statement. Even though Yeezus was not the first album to integrate house and drill sounds into hip-hop, it still is a landmark in modern rap. Rap artists as popular as Kanye don’t take nearly the amount of risks he does. Yeezus may not have been what we wanted as fans, but artists can’t always cater to us. Kanye’s only job is to be himself. In the process, he prefers to shake up mainstream hip-hop. “Black Skinhead” is copied almost every year by less celebrated artists. West continues to prioritize self-expression despite the feathers it may ruffle. The aforementioned “I Am a God” is a flurry of controversy. We all know Kanye thinks highly of himself. But is calling yourself a god truly necessary?
The answer is obviously No, though this song is misunderstood. It should be titled “I Am a God (And So Are You)”. It is meant to act as a self-empowerment anthem. Kanye pushes the message of self-love to the extreme in a manner only he can. God is inside each and every one of us. I truly believe that. However, Yeezy’s message goes mostly unheard due to his lack of articulation. Across Yeezus, Kanye’s ideas fail to manifest in his hooks and verses. His sixth album marked his departure from technical rapping. One-liners took over completely. Bars like “I put my fist in her like the Civil Rights sign” and “Hurry up with my damn croissants” erase any trace of introspection.
On one hand, I love the minimal, in-your-face sound of Yeezus. On the other, the album feels so rushed that Kanye almost did himself a disservice by releasing it. It doesn’t seem to measure up to his typical meticulous standards in regard to concept and sonics. But the experimentation and anti-establishment tone is why I love it more than all his others. A lot of stuff bothers me about the world. Yeezus helps me cope with it. The album’s production shies away from the lush, glamorous palette we heard on Twisted Fantasy, which I consider his best. Instrumentally, Yeezus is abrasive, unorthodox, and borderline schizophrenic. For some inexplicable reason, that’s right up my alley. Nevertheless, since the album is missing much of its meat, it does not compare to his previous work. Allow me to show you my spread:
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy – 9.7
The College Dropout – 9.6
Late Registration – 9.4
808s & Heartbreak – 8.6
Graduation – 8.5
The Life of Pablo – 7.8
Yeezus – 7.3
In conclusion, Yeezus will always be special to me. There is much more to it than its furious exterior. Alas, after much internal debate, it is indeed his least polished, least likable album. That’s what happens when a beast breaks out of his cage — people run away. Yeezus is a purist Kanye album that leaves nothing to the imagination. It is not meant for the masses. It is designed for the artist and die-hard fans like myself. As much as I want to, I can no longer fight the truth. My favorite album is not an all-time classic. Maybe it could have been, but it is not. Nonetheless, Yeezus will forever be the spark that lights the flame inside my rebel heart.