In the summer of 2013, I was on a train. My friends and I took a weekend trip to Busan in the tail end of our international exchange term, and after a wild three days, we were all exhausted. Hungover and sleep-deprived, my friends slumped back and drifted off to sleep. I didn’t. I was hunched over my seat, cursing the god-awful free wi-fi and attempting to load a video on Vimeo.
Ben Affleck hosted Saturday Night Live the night prior with musical guest, Kanye West. Kanye was scheduled to perform two new songs from his yet-to-be-titled sixth studio album, and my excitement reached a fever pitch. Unlike previous albums, Kanye didn’t do much in terms of press or teaser tracks, and nobody knew what his album was going to sound like. But when the first few notes of the song which would eventually be titled “Black Skinhead” blared out of my laptop speakers, I knew it was special.
To say that Kanye moved in a different direction with Yeezus would be a tremendous understatement. Musically speaking, it’s a complete 360 from his previous album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and his collaboration with JAY-Z, Watch the Throne. Long gone were the intricately-layered, opulent production that defined his work in the early 2010s. Instead, he displayed a very elementary, even crude, way of splicing together samples, without much in the way of decoration or fanfare. Yeezus took inspiration from 1990s industrial rock and acid house, looked to artists like Arca and Death Grips, and placed next to no emphasis on lyrical dexterity. Yeezus was loud, messy, vulgar, offensive, but it was provocative.
It’s easy to forget this, but this was a side of Kanye West that we’ve never seen before. The man, once purported to be the rap industry’s biggest perfectionist, seemed completely unhinged and released a 40-minute-long torrent of aggressive, id-driven stream-of-consciousness. He scrapped entire portions of the album overnight and completely side-stepped industry best practices. Kid Cudi, a featured artist on “Guilt Trip”, reportedly never knew that he was going to be a part of the album until he played it for himself and heard his voice. Rick Rubin, the executive producer of Yeezus, reportedly inspired Kanye to remove multiple songs from the track listing and re-write entire verses, just days before the album’s scheduled release.
I can’t write a piece about Yeezus without mentioning the Yeezus Tour — the stadium tour that followed the album’s release. Not only is it hands-down the best live performance I’ve ever seen, but it still ranks as one of the best nights of my life. To this day, I have yet to witness anything on stage that comes close to matching the production value and sheer ambition of the performance that I witnessed in February of 2014. I spent two hundred dollars that I didn’t have, took a bus from Toronto to Hamilton, and waited two and a half hours in line in the blistering cold, and it was all worth it. I’m sure anybody who went to one of the shows would agree wholeheartedly. Kanye was once quoted saying that his greatest pain in life is that he’ll never be able to see himself perform live, and even though that’s hilarious and completely over-the-top, I totally get it.
It’s easy to downplay Yeezus as a relatively minor album in Kanye’s now-immortal discography. It sold relatively poorly, it didn’t really have a hit single like the his previous albums, and it only became noteworthy to the general public when the music video for “Bound 2” went viral.
However, it showed the world that Kanye was more than capable of constantly re-inventing himself and subverting cultural expectations of what a rap song should sound like in 2013. When listening to today’s popular hip-hop artists like Playboi Carti, Lil Uzi Vert, and XXXTENTACION, it becomes obvious how influential Yeezus ended up becoming. These artists laugh at the face of their detractors who criticize the complexity of their lyrics (or lack thereof). Instead, they place the emphasis on the emotions they are able to evoke from their listeners.
And I think that’s what Kanye was hoping to accomplish with Yeezus — to make you feel something, whether it was disgust, anger, or in my case, absolute elation.