There was a time when I thought just about every song was from the 1960s. There was a time when all I’d listen to was hip-pop, K-Pop or the Billboard Top 100 list. There was a time when I didn’t care enough about music to actively seek it out, so the extent of my knowledge was the extent of my exposure. I listened to what happened to be spinning when I turned on the radio or when I turned on the CD player in my parents’ car, and that was it.
Kanye West changed all of that for me. Kanye, like OutKast or Jay-Z, is the rare artist that’s equally adept at appealing to diehard hip-hop fans and to the general public – he’s remarkably accessible and listenable. So even before the moment, he was the one hip-hop artist I was actually kinda familiar with. “Stronger” was the jam back in middle school, and even if “Love Lockdown” was a little too boring for me, who wasn’t singing along with “Heartless”? But even that appreciation wasn’t enough to draw me into hip-hop. I’d stick to my Jason Derulo and Jay Sean, thank you very much.
I still remember the moment. A couple months into freshman year of high school, I started hearing people talk about Kanye West’s new album – and especially its name. It was long (at least five words) and I could never remember it, but God it was cool and it sounded like the name of some painting that should be hanging up in the Museum of Fine Arts. It was everything hip-hop wasn’t in my mind. To me, an Asian kid growing up in a middle class household with an educated, but sheltered family, hip-hop was the opposite of what I was. When I thought of hip-hop, I thought of oversized clothes and drugs. Basically, I thought hip-hop was the antithesis of my very existence. I didn’t have anything against it – I just thought it wasn’t me. I could relate to K-Pop. I couldn’t relate to Jay-Z’s gritty inner-city depictions of flipping kilos at age fifteen. But this album? No gun-toting gangsters on the cover, no immediate indication of bitches-and-hoes-and-drugs inside. So I decided to give My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy a try.
And I was shocked by what I heard of what would eventually become my favorite album ever. Kanye’s music is eminently relatable to even me, a kid who’s lived relatively well his entire life right next to the premier university in the entire world, Harvard. Listening to 50 Cent or Jay-Z was hard, because I could never shake the feeling that I was in unwelcome territory, overstepping my bounds. Kanye’s music didn’t have that same barrier for me. Sure, he wasn’t exactly rapping my life story, but it wasn’t offputting in the same way that the minimal amount of hip-hop I’d previously been exposed to was. I could listen to the music without the nagging thought in the back of my head, “Why are you listening to this?”
Kanye was the bridge – he showed me hip-hop didn’t have to be about snorting cocaine and robbing people and fucking hoes. He’s unmistakably hip-hop, as anyone who’s given The College Dropout even a cursory listen would attest, but he’s also appealing to the public in a way that very few hip-hop artists have mastered. Kanye is the rare artist who can put out an album artistically creative and qualitatively excellent all the way through while still sending major hits to Top 100 Radio.
Over the next few weeks, I played the shit out of Kanye’s newest album, the first full hip-hop album I’d ever listened to. I listened to the menacing beat drop on “Dark Fantasy.” I absorbed Nicki Minaj’s maniacal but masterful verse on “Monster.” I heard Jay-Z declare that his only weakness is love on “So Appalled,” admired Kanye’s self-deprecation on “Runaway,” and was riveted on Gil Scott-Heron’s chilling speech to conclude the album. A lot more interesting than the generic autotuned heartbreak stories I’d previously been addicted to, for sure. And even better, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was nothing like the misogynistic, crime-glorifying, shallow music I’d previously been told was hip-hop. It showed me hip-hop wasn’t just the mortal enemy of white upper-middle-class businessmen; it was just as capable of emotion and provocation and thoughtfulness and creativity as any other musical genre.
From that moment in my freshman year, I’ve absorbed myself in hip-hop culture. I memorized Kanye’s discography, committing entire sections of his albums to memory (I can still recite virtually all of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy). I’ve educated myself on hip hop in its entirety, digging through the old and staying current on the new. I began with B.o.B, then moved onto Drake, T.I., and Lil Wayne. I worked myself through the ’00s and the ’90s, immersing myself within Illmatic and Ready to Die before introducing myself to Food & Liquor and The Blueprint. I even ran a hip-hop blog for over a year before joining Cypher League, making hip-hop literally my job. And all because of Kanye West.
So understandably, the approach of Kanye’s sixth solo album was monumental. Sure, I had stayed up until four in the morning the night his collaboration album with Jay-Z released to listen to it twice before I slept, and I religiously followed his label group album’s rollout, Cruel Summer. But Yeezus was different. It was my hip-hop obsession coming full circle with the artist that introduced me to one of the most important facets of my life. I played the first live videos of “On Site” and “New Slaves” from a Hudson Mohawke concert on repeat when they surfaced. I was watching the SNL performances of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” and I was shocked with the rest of the world when Kanye announced the artwork, or lack thereof, for his album. I’ve been following hip-hop for the releases of some incredible, iconic albums. But Yeezus wasn’t just an album for me, it was an event.
It’s clear to anyone who’s had even minimal exposure to Kanye previous to their first listen of Yeezus that this is not the Kanye we’re used to. He’s abandoned all pretenses of high art in the vein of his previous maximalism, instead opting for blaring synths and engaging in the most menacing, accusing, furious music of his career. Gone are the playful quips from The College Dropout and his lively skits from Late Registration- this latest iteration of Kanye is one unafraid to turn his (lyrical) wrath onto any target he sees fit, whether it’s the DEA, the CCA, or white America. Kanye has always been pushing the boundaries of hip-hop, but Yeezus might be his most defiant move yet. Yeezus is cold, mechanical, and industrial.
And, offputtingly, it’s exactly what My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was not. Yeezus’s electronic sound wasn’t a shock to me – I’d been playing live snippets ripped from YouTube for weeks now, and I’d basically memorized the first verses of “New Slaves” and “On Sight” before the first album leak even surfaced. But to say I was disappointed would have been a pretty big understatement – nothing about Yeezus seemed transcendentally excellent in the same way his previous solo album to me. My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was unmistakably hip-hop, filled with boom-bap and classic verses, but at the same time it was pushing the boundaries – what other hip-hop artist would throw a song like “Runaway” on a hip-hop album? But Yeezus took My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s experimentation and took it a step further into absurdity – Ye wasn’t just slyly twisting stereotypes, now he was throwing them out the window. And I couldn’t help but think the music was suffering.
But because Kanye was my favorite artist and I owe an entire section of my life to him, I gave Yeezus a few more spins. And a few more. And it started growing on me. The military drums of “Black Skinhead.” Kanye’s furious, rapid-fire verse in the closing moments of “I’m In It.” The booming horns and plaintive sample of “Blood on the Leaves.” And I started developing a different type of appreciation – once I started discarding whatever expectations I’d had for the album and stopped comparing it to his previous works, I started to appreciate it. There aren’t as many moments I can point to in Yeezus as conceptually transcendent, even though I could rattle them off for hours with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But as a cohesive project,Yeezus is thought-provoking in a way that no other Kanye project has been.
But even beyond Yeezus’s considerable musical merits, it’s an indication that Kanye is far from finished. It’s an indication that my favorite artist and the one that introduced me to hip-hop isn’t done innovating and pushing the envelope, even though he’s at the top of the industry. It’s a re-affirmation of the qualities of hip-hop that had dragged me in. Hip-hop is defiant. It’s derivative, but it doesn’t stop there – it creates and evolves. It’s a genre that’s endured criticism after criticism for decades now, but has never faltered. And Kanye West’s Yeezus is a reassurance that hip-hop hasn’t lost that, no matter what bitter YouTube commenters would have you believe. Biggie and 2Pac may be dead, and the radio may be playing 2 Chainz and Nicki Minaj, and Jay-Z may be making music with Coldplay and Nas with Keri Hilson. But as long as artists like Kanye are saying “fuck you” to the expectations and standards we’re holding for them, hip-hop isn’t dead – because its original attitude of innovation and disregard for the norm is still well alive. Yeezus maintains Kanye’s creativity without sacrificing quality, and it’s the most unconventional major hip-hop album in recent memory. If that kind of boldness isn’t hip-hop, what is?