At approximately 2am, June 15th, Hong Kong time — that makes it 2pm, June 14th, New York time — word trickled through Twitter that Yeezus, Kanye West’s sixth studio album, had leaked onto the internet.
I found a working torrent by 2:05, by 2:15, when the album finished downloading, Yeezus talk had taken over Twitter and music/pop culture blogs completely.
As a big fan of West’s previous albums — I consider My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy as the best album of 2010 (also best pop album in maybe two, three years), and I think very highly of Graduation and Late Registration — and someone who considers him to be one of the best pop-makers of our generation, Yeezus is a slight disappointment, in that the record is less hip hop or pop than grunge and industrial rock. Gone are West’s grandiose pop beats, catchy choruses and soulful samples (Blood on the Leaves is perhaps the only exception) in favor or a dark, brutal, Nine Inch Nails/Marilyn Manson-esque screams and slicing synths.
Unlike some rappers and most pop stars, West clearly has a specific message — a controversial one, about lynchings, slavery, and racial injustices in today’s America; unfortunately, the usual West misogyny is ever present, with vapid lines about eating Asian pussy with sweet and sour sauce — to express with Yeezus, and because of that, this is an album I will ultimately respect, maybe even grow to like. But aside from New Slave’s stunning final minute, there isn’t one single track on Yeezus that will earn regular rotation on my playlist, or be a recurring go-to-classic for years and years like the dozens of hits off Late Registration (Heard Em Say, Touch the Sky, Gold Digger, Diamonds), Graduation (Stronger, Champion, Good Morning, The Good Life) and My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (basically, every song on this record. MBDTF is a masterpiece, a flawless blend of pop and hip hop sensibilities with raw emotions and genre-defying experimentalism). Even West’s debut, College Dropout, has the very underrated Through the Wire and All Falls Down.
I suspected last week, after hearing the first two singles (Slaves and Black Skinhead), that Yeezus was going to be one of those overly-artsy/abstract/moody, dark concept albums with few to zero “hits” that great artists whose oeuvre has been cemented in music lore tend to release mid-career, a la Radiohead’s Insomniac, Nirvana’s In Utero, and Weezer’s Maladroit. It’s a rite of passage for transcendent talents, after having their status at an all-time-high, to dig into their inner Terrence Malick. Like Thom Yorke refusing to play 90% of Radiohead’s hits, or Jordan abruptly retiring after a threepeat, or Dave Chapelle walking away from tens of millions to go into exile, West is in full I-don’t-give-a-fuck-about-audiences-I-make-music-to-please-myself mode.
But enough with the album impressions, let’s get to the point of this blog post: ahead of the release of Yeezus, West made two NBA references to the New York Times in what will surely be his only interview of this year.
First, West dubbed himself the “Michael Jordan of Music”. This is nothing new — West’s homie Jay is, after all the self-described “Mike Jordan of Recordin'”. Heck, most black celebrities, from President Obama to Samuel L Jackson, has referenced Jordan as the symbol of excellence. Jordan’s status as an icon that’s long transcended just basketball is part of the reason why this blog even exists.
It is West’s second NBA-related comment to the paper of record that proves to be more noteworthy: West considers NBA commissioner David Stern one of the most influential and trendsetting figures in American culture, even comparing him to the likes of Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.
Here’s the exact quote:
I’ve been connected to the most culturally important albums of the past four years, the most influential artists of the past ten years. You have like, Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Nicolas Ghesquière, Anna Wintour, David Stern.
I think that’s a responsibility that I have, to push possibilities, to show people: “This is the level that things could be at.”
Though West is known for hyperbole (Single Ladies’ music video is great, but it is not the greatest video of all time, come on now), I’m not sure his placement of Stern on the all time influential pedestal is that far off. After all, Stern helped push the NBA from the brink of folding to a global phenomenon (the only US sports league to have any market outside of North America, really), indirectly promoting black faces to the forefront of a billion dollar enterprise along the way. Jordan became the first black man to lead a marketing campaign, and while most of the credit goes to Jordan’s own greatness and Nike’s genius marketing, the league provides the platform on which everything was made possible. The league, today, is intrinsically tied to American pop culture. Just about every move Stern has made, no matter the initial outcry, has only helped the league grow and put more money in everyone’s pockets. It was Stern who pushed the league’s star culture; it was Stern who cracked down on rough play to encourage stars to thrive; it was Stern who loosened up handchecking rules to free up the modern day NBA offenses.
Furthermore, as I blogged about before, Stern’s dress code effectively ended the baggy jeans/do-rag hip hop look of the late 90s and early 2000s, helping set off the current trend of sharply dressed hipster style that started in the league but has since spread across black culture in general.
NBA superstars like Dwyane Wade and Amare Stoudemire are spending serious time and dough on designer fashion, hanging out at the New York Fashion Week, while guys like Russell Westbrook are pushing the Supreme/Stussy level younger, skater, Tyler-the-Creator-ish, black-hipster (blipsters) look.
For all the cries of racism that was thrown his way when the dress code was first announced, the rule ultimately made every young NBA athlete a bigger, more marketable brand. Put it this way, ain’t no one in the league is going back to dressing like this, even if Stern lifts the dress code now.
Stern steps away from the game in 8 months. He’ll leave behind a league that is in much better shape — financially and monetarily; internationally — than when he took over the league in 1984. Stern’s legacy as the greatest commissioner in all of sports is set.
If Kanye West really is the Michael Jordan of music, then Yeezus is not unlike Jordan’s final two years in DC: it is not his best work, but considering the unconditional circumstances and the effort involved, it’s ultimately an admirable piece of work.