by Jason Smythe
Every now and then we are blessed with an album that changes our perception on where the limits of a particular genre exist. But what is even rarer is an album that shows us that a genre has no limits. Artists such as Pink Floyd and David Bowie were the champions of art rock back in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and since then we have never questioned that rock music can also be avant-garde. But is the same true for hip-hop? Can hip-hop also be experimental in nature? The answer is yes, and Kanye West’s latest album, Yeezus, is the proof. The result is the beginning of a new sub-genre: art hip-hop.
Produced by Daft Punk, and with all lyrics written by Kanye West, Yeezus is the culmination of a process that began back in 2007. Music fans will recall that that was the year Graduation, his third studio album, was released. Music fans will also recall that this album brought us the hit “Stronger,” where he sampled one of the most famous house songs of all time: Daft Punk’s “Harder, Better, Faster, Stronger.” In his subsequent albums his approach to music has become increasingly more experimental; perhaps most famously in “808s and Heartbreak,” where he not only adopted a very minimalist approach to the album’s production but used auto-tune to an almost unprecedented degree. It resulted in a masterpiece, but not in art hip-hop. The reason: the framework of a traditional hip-hop album was still there, albeit in fragment form. The sound was new but the overall product was not truly experimental.
The same cannot be said about Yeezus. The song “Black Skinhead” can best be described as rock hip-hop and feels like it would be best enjoyed while in the middle of a massive mosh pit, elbowing and punching people to your rage-filled heart’s content. Or take “On Sight,” with its dystopic Daft-Punk-meets-laser-beam sound, with a brief Motown reprieve. “Send It Up” is another such eclectic masterpiece, with electronic beats and typical hip-hop lyrics morphing into chilled-out reggae lyrics over a surreal factory-floor beat. But the best example of how this album throws an atomic bomb on the idea that hip-hop has limits is “I Am a God.” The song begins with what can only be described as an Afro-reggae prayer, and this segues into a rather typical mix of hip-hop lyrics over an electronic beat. But then Kanye throws us a curveball, and the final minute or so consists of almost nothing but blood-curdling screams. The screams make listeners feel as if they have been transported into a slasher film and are being chased down Elm Street by a deranged killer who has blades for fingers and craves the sight and taste of blood. It is the most exciting musical experience this author has had in ages, and may be the best song anyone has released since Pink Floyd’s “Another Brick in the Wall.”
So, do any great revelations emerge from Yeezus regarding the future of hip-hop? Are we about to enter an era where gangsta rap gives way to the avant-garde? It is impossible to know, and one album is not enough to make any grand predictions for the future. But we do learn that art hip-hop is possible, is likely here to stay, and if Kanye keeps this up he has the potential to go down as hip-hop’s answer to David Bowie. If that does happen, then in the words of Kanye himself, “It’s a celebration, bitches!”