Which Kanye West album is the best?
Critics and fans are pretty much in agreement: Kanye’s fifth, record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. It’s an opulent take on boom bap rap, featuring classical music, prog rock and dichotomous lyrics. In many ways, it’s the combination and culmination of the four albums that preceded it.
It’s a sprawling and dense work – songs often totally change tempo and direction, samples and guest appearances emerge out of nowhere and the record regularly dissolves into AutoTune-muffled wailing alongside complex melodies.
It’s greatness has been written about at length- it’s on Rolling Stone and NME’s lists of the greatest albums ever made, among others – to the point where it’s become a monolith of recent pop music.
Many critics cite it as a masterpiece, a watershed moment in hip hop: a hip hop album that was bigger than the genre containing it, one that cemented the genre’s place at the forefront of contemporary pop.
In short, Kanye’s most substantial achievement.
But recently I’ve been thinking maybe it isn’t the clear choice as Kanye’s best album. Lately, I’ve been fascinated with Kanye’s sixth album, his follow up to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy: Yeezus.
Released in 2013, Yeezus is everything My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy isn’t. Minimalist, with a short running time at barely 40 minutes, unapologetic lyrics, and abrasive sounds.
If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is hip hop’s Sergeant Pepper, then Yeezus is it’s White Album: a fragmented and experimental foray into new sounds.
The album is influenced by industrial noise, acid house and Chicago drill. It features Kanye rapping over harsh machine sounds – sirens, panted breaths, screams, audio hiss and distorted noise. It sounds alien and unsettling, and the lyrics are no lighter: Kanye raps (in short, meme-like bursts) about drugs and sex, consumer culture, modern day racism and of course his tons and tons of anger (at being shut out of the fashion world, among other things).
It’s Kanye without a social filter: an id speaking candidly, in the form of weaponized lyrics and near-terrifying punk rock beats.
The album is harsh, harsh, harsh. The sounds are barely music: dark howls and twisted synths. There are no catchy hooks, no sweet soul samples or melodic interludes.
But this isn’t just a a mess of noise. Each sound is calculated: no beat is unnecessary, no drum smash out of place.
But what’s most striking about the album is how different it is. Nothing sounds like Yeezus. It abandons typical song structures for insane experiments:
Hold My Liquor features Kanye rapping over nothing but silence and an occasional mechanical screech.
New Slaves contains one of the sparsest house beats ever – noises seemingly unlinked by melody, but in reality carefully crafted to fit together.
I’m In It, a dark and twisted song about Kanye’s sexual escapades, makes use of sirens and the chopped up sounds of porn stars moaning.
What’s amazing about Yeezus is that despite being so unorthodox, so abrasive, it’s so compelling. Typical pop music aims to draw you in through catchy hooks and enjoyable rhythms. Yeezus wants to beat you into submission.
Not every song works, and the album isn’t perfect. The reggae in the house track Send It Up feels out of place, Bound 2 takes a certain kind of mood to enjoy, and some lyrics (‘I be speaking Swaghili’) are less than Shakespearean.
But still, Yeezus seems determined to try new things at all times. It doesn’t care whether you or the Grammys like it. It’s experimental and bizarre, but that’s the sound of Kanye exploring uncharted soundscapes.
No other pop artist is making music this daring and weird. No other artist is pushing pop music to it’s limits to find where it can go next, like Kanye.
It’s too soon to tell, but Kanye may have written a new blueprint for what pop music can be with this record.
It achieves what great music sets out to do – engage the listener, effectively communicate it’s message – but it does it in a way that’s so new and miles above what any other musician is doing right now.
Yeezus is a harsh-sounding, distorted mess of machine noise and horror sound effects.
A future classic.