Yeezus: Innovative or Simply Another Example of the Mainstream Aping the Underground?
As you might have noticed, Kanye West's feverishly anticipated Yeezus arrives today. If you're reading this, chances are you were aware that Yeezus leaked last Friday, and maybe you've already been listening to it obsessively all weekend. Maybe you found a way to work "Hurry up with my damn croissants" into your Father's Day get-together on Sunday, and the joke already felt played out. For someone who has recently done next to no press (aside from that epic New York Times interview with Jon Caramanica), Kanye has more ink spilled about his art than pretty much anyone, and Yeezus feels like it's been ubiquitous a lot longer than the few days it's been around or the month (just a month) since he unveiled "Black Skinhead" on SNL. Most of the talk has been overwhelmingly positive, or at least diligently analytical. From Sasha Frere-Jones' New Yorker piece (in which he steals all the best insights) to the SPIN staff's gleefully hyperbolic set of kneejerk reactions, most critics seem to be in awe of Kanye's latest left turn, the only muted variation being something along the lines of "This is clearly crazy and accomplished, I'm just not sure I'm on board yet."
But for most of last Friday night after Yeezus leaked my Twitter feed told a different story.
For every fervent endorsement of Kanye's new grittiness, for every ecstatic tweet sent upon someone hearing one of the many bonkers lines on Yeezus for the first time, the stream of excitement was punctuated by some snarky comment like "Looks like Kanye's finally into the album I was into during college...in 1992!" Likewise, in reaction to all those who immediately celebrated Ye's new sound as groundbreaking came all those who cried "Death Grips!," asserting that the rap duo's aggro 2012 release No Love Deep Web was one (of many) obvious antecedent to Kanye's movement further from big hooks and towards grating synths and primal screams.
Then there were those who sort of condescendingly thanked Kanye for bringing abrasive music to the masses, implicitly suggesting that the challenging nature of Yeezus was of a watered-down, mainstream nature that didn't compare to the challenges held by the underground strands Kanye is pulling influence from. Well, OK, there's a point in all this: no, the sound of Yeezus didn't come fully formed out of nowhere (no sound does). No, even a single-less, radio-averse Kanye West album is not a wildly challenging listen compared to some of what's already out there. But all of that is missing the point. Latent in all of these approaches to talking about Yeezus is the belief that it is somehow wrong or cynical for a mainstream artist to take influence from the underground or alternative, and that the end product is somehow less authentic and worthwhile as a result. Such approaches not only miss the point of how mainstream music so often functions, they also perpetuate a pointless and potentially harmful element of music writing and discussion in the Internet era.
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One basic issue here is that hip-hop has always functioned by co-opting sounds and recontextualizing them. In a larger sense, this is how culture often works. No surprise here: someone spots something underground and edgy, figures out it can make money, and it becomes commodified. Remember that the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, though always pop bands, were once considered countercultural and radical. For a generation raised amongst Urban Outfitters, it seems odd that we're shocked Kanye West, of all people, would crib from the underground.
When the alternative does eventually become mainstream, it is usually ushered in by people who are not purely of that underground scene by which they're influenced. Consider some of the most pivotal albums of the last 25 years. Nirvana's watershed Nevermind took the '80s college rock scuzziness of Mudhoney, the Replacements, Dinosaur Jr., etc., and injected a whole lot of scraggly but still infectious pop melodies to dominate the early '90s. That same year, U2, a band that had just a few years earlier reached stratospheric success through a whole lot of earnestness and updating some classic rock-isms on The Joshua Tree, released Achtung Baby, an album heavily indebted to the Edge's newfound love of My Bloody Valentine and Sonic Youth as much as Bono's fascination with Berlin's rave culture. Later Radiohead--pop within the context of the '90s alternative wave, but pop nonetheless--eschewed the guitar heroics that had brought them fame and doubled down on a fascination with glitch electronica and krautrock, resulting in the fractured and brilliant Kid A.
Critically and commercially, these are some of the most major albums to have been released in the lifetimes of many of West's fans. Each came with their backlash--the Seattle scene's general discomfort with fame, eye-rolling at U2 subsequently embracing dance music more and more, or the chagrin of all those masochists who still attend Radiohead concerts waiting to hear "Creep." All that aside, these albums remain stunning accomplishments, taking inspiration from comparatively more fringe artists, and adding a whole new sonic complexity to what were, at their core, still songs that functioned within pop strictures. Yeezus is probably not on the same level, though with only a few days to absorb the record it's clear that it is really good, maybe great, and that West has gleaned elements of '90s industrial, of acid-house and Chicago house in general, of dancehall, and crammed them together in a harsh, minimalist vehicle for the deepest, darkest inner workings of his id.
In a way, isn't the more interesting moment not the difficult sounds that stay underground--which are great, sure--but how these sounds bubble up, are absorbed, and recontextualized by the mainstream artists they captivate? If the poptimism pendulum can swing out to where everyone loses it when a relatively (or formerly) alternative artist like Daft Punk revives a bunch of horrifically cheesy '70s mainstream yacht-rock tropes, it should swing back to where a mainstream artist like West can go alternative and not just have it be about people complaining that he's ripping off what's come before. (Sidenote: the tracks Daft Punk produced for Yeezus are miles ahead of anything on Random Access Memories.) West isn't creating a new genre with Yeezus, but he's still creating something new. An artist like Death Grips is never going to reach the mainstream in their current form. An artist like Kanye West has the exposure and artistic clout to take influence from the underground, put it out there, and have a lot of people pay attention.
Worst case scenario, he turns some people on to some lesser known artists; best case scenario, a record like Nevermind or Yeezus can open the door for a lot of weirder sounds to seep into the mainstream. Loyalty to an underground and an insular community is understandable, but complaining about when a mainstream artist takes interest too is akin to when people bemoan their favorite band finally attaining that long sought-after success. A lot of the best music has been made by the young, desperate and hungry; some of the other best music has been made by people who have accumulated the security and power to push the boundaries. We're all winning if classic albums are getting made.
To a certain extent, I'm nitpicking about the nitpickers. Like I said, most reactions to Yeezus have been of (maybe even excessive) adoration. The thing about hearing a "big event" album and going on about where it can all be traced back to is that it doesn't advance the conversation beyond the writer or critic assuming some position of hip authority. That sort of attitude is wildly outmoded in the digital era, rooted in a time when actual, physical scarcity of records made knowing a band an actual effort. Obviously there are still lost, old records that require the search, but all of the alternative strains people call out on Yeezus are readily accessible on YouTube. What's the point of tribalism in an era where EDM, hip-hop, and indie swap techniques and sounds freely? It's the Wild West out there. Maybe Kanye West is capitalizing on lesser known trends, but he's capitalizing in the best way if he's taking advantage of this new environment in order to make his music more challenging and interesting. That's something to be celebrated.
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