This year, instead of putting our favourite albums into a no-doubt 100% objective list, we're taking a deeper look at how 2013's most influential records have shaped the landscape of independent music. Today, the most contentious album of the year and how it urges our aspirations.
More THE ALBUMS THAT DEFINED INDIE IN 2013:
On the surface, Yeezus can seem like the most tone-deaf album of 2013. This year, drill producers vying for Young Chop's golden ticket out of war-torn Chicago continued spinning FruityLoops patches into Gucci. And as if in response, Kanye West enlisted a staggering list of collaborators, globetrotting recording sessions and one highly revered executive producer, so that the wealth and splendour of his sound could actually put a dent in Def Jam's budget. Even pop this year was decidedly post-recession, aimed at a generation with hobbled aspirations. We'll never be Royals, so we'll go Thrift Shopping. It reflected a new normal in almost every industry, including music, where hard work from the young produces meagre results as the 1% sink their claws tightly into the scraps.
Kanye West, a multi-millionaire and self-professed “nucleus of the culture,” understands this. He's living it as well. He wants his design to change the world, but the gatekeepers won't give him a platform. And he's frustrated. Yeezus is both a "fuck you" to the oligarchs and an application to be one. Kanye explodes himself into a titan with mythological levels of hip-hop's self-aggrandizement, sniffs at his lot, and charges the fortress of the whites with real power, armed with the freshest battering ram you've ever seen. Just as fiancée Kim Kardashian fights to be included on the Walk of Fame, West strives for a seat at the big table. Only he will be surrounded by Steve Jobs, Michelangelo, and Jesus.
A hunger like Kanye's is now gauche. Even if you forget that it's viewed through the lens of a country that only recently stopped publicly describing ambitious or socially conscious blacks as “uppity,” no one wants to hear about how the biggest star in the world still wants more. So he's jeered. His self-canonization has become a reliable source of click revenue and stale mockery for websites. For his defenders, it makes him more relatable to think that there's a part of Kanye wishing he could stop, be sated. But it doesn't seem likely. His drive is physiological, unimaginable to most of us and the kind that is the source of every great human accomplishment.
When his frustrations with his stymied ambitions manifest themselves, yes, sometimes it's ugly or ridiculous. When Kanye mingled with Occupy Wall Street last year, he could have left the chain at home. But it's likely that he saw a kindred frustration. Their fight for survival is tactile, his is spiritual. But for the man who wrote “Jesus Walks,” there is no difference.
Yeezus took everyone off-guard because that kind of total rejection of an established, popular sound and the power structures behind it is usually reserved for “serious artists.” For his haters, there was no political bedrock. He just made a shitty album. But despite being a major label release, it leveraged its position of considerable power to reinvigorate the sorts of battles independent music flourishes on: against state and corporate influences reducing the individual to anything less than a man, or in Kanye's case, a man who believes he's a god, despite everyone telling him otherwise. He's picked up where Cobain's suicide left off, and is now pop culture's preeminent coal mine canary, the arrogant, obnoxious, hypercapitalist that he is. Deal with it.
This isn't the first time Kanye's put his career on the line for his principles. The last time West went this prominently against the tide was on 808s & Heartbreak. Here was a heartbroken man, a mark in hip-hop's hypermasculine paradigms, singing about his feelings. The gangsta rap image had saturated the market, and its ubiquity undermined the once singular toughness that carried it. Thugs became polygons, without enough real world credentials to carry them. Kanye's vulnerability burst the bubble, and is arguably most responsible for hip-hop's Drakeian embrace of sensitivity.
So what, if anything, will Yeezus herald? If the scoffers prevail, probably nothing. It's an affirmation of self-worth from a man who seems to have everything. But Kanye knows we're all made in God's image, not just him, and he wants to share this feeling with us. He refuses to accept limits, either ones imposed by others or ourselves. Why shouldn't we follow? Why should we be “New Slaves?” Aren't we “Black Skinheads?” Shouldn't we fight and struggle and fail, and still be able to scream “I Am A God?”
Like its namesake, Yeezus and its creator aim to be models for mortals, Corbusier guideposts for righteous quests. Naturally, it involves behaviour that seems crass to any defenders of the established order. But even deities have their contradictions, so why not form deals with Adidas while decrying corporations? This can be upsetting when change feels so out of reach for so many in the independent music industry, as exhausting tours attempt to replace dried-up sales and another supposed stand-in continues to clash with the very source of their monopoly. But $13 million and a torrent of bad press later, Kanye's no closer to changing the status quo that's keeping him out. He may fail, but he won't stop. Why should we?
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