Friday, 27 December 2013

Best of 2013: Yeezus

Album of the Year: Kanye West - Yeezus

Those who compared West's left-turn with Yeezus this year to Radiohead's uncompromising career reinvention post-OK Computer are only half right. The Brit icons' change in direction, whilst undoubtedly alienating some early acolytes, won them both a greater degree of admiration amongst critics and new fan-bases within avant-garde circles. It helped transform them from a musically-accomplished and respected rock band to a genuine unit-shifting phenomenon, penetrating everything from video games to the BBC philharmonic.
Whilst it is demonstrably true that West shares the same high-art ambitions, he is unlikely to ever gain the same level of acceptance from the arbiters of culture. What's more, by eschewing his trademark, seductive ostentation for conceptual austerity and deliberate sonic ugliness, he's begun to haemorrhage listeners to other luminaries of the introspective hip-hop landscape he largely created (hello Drake). His relative lack of success might have something to do with genre: whereas alternative rock tends to be receptive to even the most egregious of highbrow pretension, rap music (or at least the mainstream) and its audience doesn't yet know how to process the performance-art eccentricities now being practised by its brightest star.
 But then, this isn't necessarily a bad thing. Kanye West has always been a musical outsider, albeit one who somehow managed to make pop crowds want to be a freak like him. Yeezus feels like a major statement from this newly-liberated artist, comfortable enough with his own proven talent to switch off the smoke and mirrors and force us to look at his wart-ridden flesh. Lyrically, he delineates and deepens the contradictory persona we've all come to find so oddly fascinating: a man aware of his heritage as an African-American, and accustomed to bumping his head against glass ceilings, but with all the petty arrogance and sexual double-standards one comes to expect from wealthy male patriarchs.
 Every track instantly sears itself onto the memory, West packing in an extraordinary number of highlights given its very brief duration. There's the glam-rock rhythm track swaggering through 'Black Skinhead', the itchy, agitated beat in 'New Slaves' blossoming into a full-blown, Frank Ocean-assisted soul coda, and West's disembodied duet with the ghost of Nina Simone on the utterly fantastic 'Blood on the Leaves'.
 West has crafted a Notes from the Underground for hip-hop heads. It isn't often pretty, but it's frequently beautiful. (Nick Pierce)