Welcome back to the latest edition of Flashback Friday Flop, a weekly feature in which I examine a hip-hop album from years ago that was considered a flop, either critically or commercially or both, when it was released and see if it has gotten better – or worse – over time.
This week: Kanye West’s Yeezus (2013)
Kanye West’s Yeezus was a success, both critically and financially.
It was one of the most acclaimed works of 2013. It was ranked as the top album of the year by TIME, Entertainment Weekly, The Guardian, The A.V. Club, Spin, The Daily Beast, and Consequence of Sound and was ranked number two by Pitchfork, NME, and Rolling Stone. In short, “Yeezus happens to be musically amazing, too, and in a completely different way from every other Kanye West record.”
It also sold 327,000 copies its first week, debuting atop the Billboard chart, and racking up the best first week sales of any hip-hop album in over two years, all without a traditional major single.
If it was such a critical and commercial success, why is it included here?
Because people fucking hate this album. It was a flop with the larger public, particularly in the world of hip-hop, where it was criticized and mocked for sounding too weird and out there.
In a piece for Complex titled “Yeezus Was Too Far Ahead of its Time,” Ernest Baker writes that the reason for this is because it doesn’t sound anything like what we normally associate with hip-hop music: “The biggest rapper on the planet dropped this subversive record that nearly abandons all of the conventions of hip-hop…Veering so sharply from the norm can result in that kind of a knee-jerk response, and generally speaking, the people calling Yeezus trash are the type of people who enjoy Slaughterhouse.”
For what seemed like the first time in his career, hip-hop didn’t immediately follow his lead and copy the sound of the album the way it did following his other releases, most notably The College Dropout and 808s and Heartbreak.
But now that we’re a few years removed from its release and have since watched an even stranger rollout for West’s latest album, The Life of Pablo, which raised questions regarding his sanity and stability, does Yeezus sound any different today?
Yes and no.
By definition, it’s not a hip-hop record, but it’s also not a rock or punk or electro or house record. It is, in fact, all of those things. No other hip-hop artist would make this album. No other hip-hop artist could make this album. As Rick Rubin said, “We hadn’t really heard anything like that in hip hop before. That may have been one of the inspirations for the minimal direction for the whole album. So we put it first, and it was really non-musical, super aggro, really noisy. I loved it, it made me crazy. A lot of people hate it — it divides people.”
It’s still a jarring listen. From the moment it kicks off with synths that make you feel like you’ve been transported into a dirty dance hall to the end with a smooth soul sample with which we associate early Kanye, he never lets us off the hook. He knows it’s powerful, that’s why he kept it at only 40 minutes, basically half the running time of The College Dropout.
It is executive produced by Kanye West and Rick Rubin and the credited producers vary from No I.D. to Daft Punk to Mike Dean to Lupe Fiasco to Gesaffelstein and everyone in between. But the final product is more than just a collection of different sounds and genres with multiple songwriters and producers. Kanye ignores the conventional norms of what constitutes a song while at the same time redefining them. Each song has different parts that meld together beautifully. He drops a church choir harmony in the middle of a pulsating synth track in “On Sight,” uses a dog bark to fill the space between beats on “I’m In It,” and mixes a Nina Simone sample with a backbreaking loop from a C-Murder track on “Blood on the Leaves.”
It’s like no other music being made now: “It adheres to no boundaries. West was not looking for a radio hit (hence the lack of singles leading up to the release), and the jarring, electro-influenced production is about as far away from anything that could be described as ‘easy listening’ as possible.
There’s no song structured like a radio hit—verse followed by hook, with a solid intro or outro. It’s entirely abstract, with tracks like ‘Bound’ absent of drums, ‘I’m In It’ heavy with samples and dark, otherworldly production. If anything, ‘Hold My Liquor’ with Chief Keef may be closest thing to radio fare. And even still…it sounds like nothing you might hear on the radio. Exactly like Kanye wanted.”
Just as each song has several different elements that come together to raise the quality, Yeezus is made up of different types of tracks that sound disparate but work in concert to create a finished album that is greater than the sum of its parts. Some of these songs are next to each one another – “On Sight” and “Black Skinhead” are in-your-face songs that make you sit up and pay attention, but aren’t friendly to multiple listens. Still, they’re great and they set a tone for the rest of the album. Other songs relate to each other from across the tracklist. “Hold My Liquor” and “Guilt Trip” focus on Kanye trying to keep his confidence while dealing with heartbreak and emotional trauma. “I am a God” and “Send It Up”are like hip-hop mixed with industrial electro, but they’re just as dissimilar as they are similar. I honestly don’t have the skills to describe it properly.
Then there are the super standout tracks.
“New Slaves” is simply brilliant as Kanye touches on serious subjects with energy over a stripped-down beat. The second verse is not the best rap verse in history, but it’s super dope and “Bound 2” is carried by a sample so strong that it doesn’t even need any drums.
But the best track, and the one that best encapsulates the album, is “Blood on the Leaves.” It begins with an auto-tuned Kanye crooning over a soft piano, but then the keys drop out and, aside from the soft Nina Simone sample, there is nothing when Kanye pronounces, “So let’s get on with it” and the horns from “Down 4 My N’s” kick in and you can just envision speakers getting blown out.
There’s a panic desperation throughout the album, but it manifests itself in so many different ways. Yeezus is so layered and complex that there is so much going on that it’s hard to really pull it apart. And you’re not supposed to. They’re all necessary ingredients.
A confession: every time I do a Flashback Friday Flop piece, I listen to the album as I’m writing it. Normally, I know what to expect and have a good idea of where my writing will go and, in some cases, could do it without even hearing the music.
Not this time. I hadn’t listened to Yeezus in over a year and I was honestly blown away by it all over again. Without the expectation of wanting to hear another College Dropout or Twisted Fantasy, it was much easier to just enjoy a great album for what it is. Four different times, I typed the words, “The best song on the album is,” and chose a different song each time.
In an era when hip-hop is divided between old heads pining for the ’90s and young kids listening to Drake and Future, Kanye is crafting a legacy by doing something completely different than anyone. It’s no big surprise that most heads didn’t dig Yeezus, but most hardcore hip-hop fans don’t listen to much else (myself included), so anything that ventures too far away from what we deem proper rap is considered weird and wack.
While I understand that, it’s a shame, because while it won’t be the album I revisit constantly, it deserves all of the accolades it receives. Kanye West is more than merely a rapper and Yeezus is not a traditional hip-hop album.
It’s simply dope.
Previously in Flashback Friday Flop:
Tha Doggfather | Blood in My Eye | The Best of Both Worlds | Can-I-Bus | Beats, Rhymes and Life | Encore | Immobilarity | 14 Shots to the Dome | Forever | Christmas on Death Row | Double Up | The New Danger | A Better Tomorrow | Back from Hell | For All Seasons | Welcome to: Our House | Blood Money | Til the Casket Drops
Christopher Pierznik is the author of eight books, all of which can be purchased in paperback and Kindle. His work has appeared on XXL, Cuepoint, Business Insider, The Cauldron, Medium, and many more. He has been quoted on Buzzfeed and Deadspin. Subscribe to his monthly reading review newsletter or follow him on Facebook or Twitter.