As the wait for Kanye West’s seventh solo album stretches on, a closer look reveals the rapper to be in an uncharacteristically erratic mindset. Plagued by song leaks, today’s rapidly changing trends and tastes, and the remarkably high bar set by his last album - 2013s Yeezus - the controversial artist seems poised to make one of his boldest and most divisive records yet.
In the absence of the legendary Yeezus Tour mountain - the focal point of the theatre-like extravaganza that West brought to American audiences in 2013 - Australian audiences attending the final dates of that prolonged tour last September bore witness to the rapper standing on an altogether different, and more figurative, precipice.
After all, the rapper’s last record Yeezus, which garnered such apt comparisons from Rolling Stone to several of the watershed classics of the past (Radiohead’s Kid A, Neil Young’s Trans, and Nirvana’s In Utero) must also fall prey to the pitfall of such comparisons: Once there’s been a game-changer, the new game better be good. Albums such as these are make-or-break material for artists.
Kid A ushered Radiohead into a new era, losing them many of the fans of their early work but gaining them twice that amount in new listeners, and cementing their lasting reputation as unique innovators in the musical landscape.
Trans was the defining moment of a mediocre decade for Neil Young; a statement about all the wrong things, and the qualifier for increasing whispers of irrelevancy in an era that he didn’t seem to belong to.
While by the time In Utero was released, Kurt Cobain was dead and Nirvana were over. The band’s statement-making stripped-back return to their roots became the last true masterpiece of the grunge era, with that movement standing as it did on the precipice of the mid-’90s, soon to be victim to the rapidly changing cultural mores of its time. In Utero stands now as a testament to what was - and, more poignantly - what might have been achieved by the band that defined a genre.
Of the three paths these acts took, it’s easy to see that West has rightly been aiming for the former. And in the wake of Yeezus, most would agree that he has more or less achieved the goal he set out with: he has redefined himself as an artist and as a presence in popular culture, shedding his long-standing sonic trademarks in a moment of creative rebirth that spawned what many hailed as the best album of the year.
Speaking in a GQ interview from the July 2014 issue, published just over a year after Yeezus was released, the artist had this to say about his thoughts on his sixth solo album:
“I think Yeezus is the beginning of a completely new era of music. It was all new rules. It just broke every rule possible.”
He also spoke briefly of the new album he has in the works, at first declared to be titled So Help Me God, now perhaps renamed as SWISH. He touched on the stylistic shifts he has been toying with, calling his new work everything from beautiful and meaningful to club-ready. Knowing how eclectic his best work often is, it’s not hard to anticipate his next album weaving these contrasting, seemingly disparate, threads into a new and alluring tapestry; West’s musical abilities have rarely been in doubt.
The real question that must be asked, as we await the next complete project from West, doesn’t pertain to the finer points of musical detail which he touched on in that GQ interview.
Rather, it has to do with something he has mentioned at various points in recent times. He spoke about it almost constantly throughout the original Yeezus Tour dates in North America during the pre-appointed “rant” section of his set; in the occasional high-profile interviews he has given, like the infinitely quotable piece that appeared in the New York Times just as Yeezus was released; and - most memorably - in his fantastically controversial 2013 BBC interview with Zane Lowe.
That something is his plan for the future: his obvious desire for omnipresence in the cultural landscape; his passion (which he has recently called himself a “slave” to); and - most noticeably - his astronomical ambitions for each of the varied projects he has been working on. The question is how well West will be able to channel these powerful forces into consistently cohesive, relevant and meaningful music.
If West did re-write the rules of rap music with Yeezus, then he must now face a decision to either operate within those new rules, or take the axe to them again.
If he chooses the former, he will continue in the pantheon of artists such as Radiohead, who - having arguably changed the world of music with Kid A - have consistently carved out a place for themselves in more or less the same style ever since. The albums that have followed have not been total reinventions as Kid A was, but rather graceful evolutions of the same fundamentals; refinements of an often-imitated style which only they seem to possess the key to.
But if West were to choose the latter option and again wield the axe, there are entirely new album comparisons that would be necessitated. Foremost in my mind is Scott Walker’s incredible 1984 album Climate of Hunter; a departure from the creative nadir the singer endured during the previous decade, and the beginning of an entirely new, increasingly bizarre career for him. In the three decades that have followed, Walker’s musical output has been limited to only four albums of singular, avant-garde art-rock. Viewed by the world as a former mainstream mainstay turned perpetual outsider, he remains completely unique and critically - if not commercially - revered.
Yet no matter how revolutionary his approach with Yeezus was, it is hard to imagine West seeking the latter path for himself. One suspects that the comparatively low concert attendance to many of the North American dates of the Yeezus Tour had an impact on the rapper. Rumours of West completely re-making his newest album after hearing the recent music from young co-worker Travi$ Scott, the delay from the announcement of the seventh solo album to the release of any new music, and even the dramatic name change from So Help Me God with its heavily symbolic religious artwork (later used instead as the All Day single artwork) to the entirely non-religious SWISH, seem to hint at a somewhat indecisive mindset.
He has even made his own comparisons with landmark albums. In his words on The Breakfast Club radio show in November 2013, West said that as Yeezus was his Nebraska, his seventh solo record may just be his Born in the U.S.A. Although these comments came almost two years ago, sporadic reports of the new work seem to some extent to support the claim; West appears to be displaying a desire for another mainstream hit record in the vein of the 2011 Jay Z collaboration Watch the Throne, or the string of successful club-hits that featured on his 2012 label compilation Cruel Summer.
The vague promises West gave in his GQ interview of a new single coming out sometime in mid–2014 resulted in nothing but a grainy, low-bitrate, unofficial recording of a demo version of All Day leaking in August. Given the parallels West made when announcing the new track between it and some of his biggest hits in recent years, the overwhelmingly lukewarm reception that this demo received must have stung. For an artist who has rarely been prone to leaks, the airing of such a rough recording (rumoured to have originated in 2011, during the WTT era) of a song he so evidently had high hopes for, would have been difficult to endure.
His February Brit Awards debut of the final version of All Day came as a surprise to fans, and the almost unrecognisable song hit stores immediately to a more positive reception. Though the studio version lacks the boiling-point intensity of the Brit Awards performance, it was a fairly successful single that undoubtedly achieved its intended purpose. Now with a fantastic guest appearance by up-and-comer Allan Kingdom, (bizarrely appearing alongside a seemingly out of place Paul McCartney and an altogether unnecessary Theophilus London), the song bears little resemblance to that 2014 leaked snippet - perhaps a sign that West is not as immune to public criticism and online chatter as he would have us believe.
The fact that West is returning to ideas first fleshed out in the WTT era and layering the songs with the types of production being used by popular relative newcomers to the genre - Chief Keef, Travi$ Scott, Young Thug - certainly indicate that he is preparing for a legitimate contest with the reigning new breed of rap heavyweights; a contest to regain the respect of a hardline hip-hop audience that has been alienated somewhat by West’s grander, more experimental projects. Indeed, after Only One debuted on New Year’s Day and caused considerable alarm amongst some fans as to the new direction West seemed to be taking (a reaction not helped by the later release of Rihanna collaboration FourFiveSeconds), All Day felt like a breath of fresh air and a reminder that West can still rap, and that his attitude hasn’t fallen by the wayside now that he is a loving father.
The only other track that has surfaced in connection with SWISH is the Sia & Vic Mensa-featuring Wolves which soundtracked the debut of his first collection for Adidas. Confusingly, the song falls into neither of the two styles that All Day and Only One / FourFiveSeconds show us. Rather, Wolves is reminiscent of 808s & Heartbreak-era Kanye: auto-tuned, slowly sung, minimalistic pop with a foreboding synthesiser instrumental. If the song appears on SWISH, for the time being it poses more questions than it answers, namely how West will go about presenting these such disparate songs together in the cohesive, project-driven manner he is known for.
For West, re-entering the mainstream, conventional hip-hop charts that he has spent the last two years shunning, and re-endearing himself to mainstream audiences who have grown tired of his polarising presence in their lives, may prove harder than he expects. Tracks like Only One may win him some new fans, but could pose a threat to maintaining the interest of the rap crowd.
Yet, for an artist so bent on innovation, West has had remarkably few missteps throughout his expansive catalogue of solo works, collaborations, and production credits. Through the - at times jarring - shifts he has made from album to album and year to year, he has remained at the top tier of the music industry, and still as relevant as ever. His album sales have grown lower, but not in a way hugely out of keeping with the sales of his contemporaries; that downward trend reads rather as a sign of the times for all concerned.
West has made only one other album that compares to Yeezus in the sense of being a complete shift from what he had done before. In that case, after 2008s 808s & Heartbreak and a subsequent year-long hiatus, West returned into our lives with what is now almost unanimously seen as his greatest work yet, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. 808s was after all an album which helped give Drake a sonic template to work with when he was still a relative unknown; an album which even now stands as influential and ahead of its time; a true watershed moment for hip-hop, and perhaps the definitive moment in which the lines between rap and pop truly became blurred beyond recognition.
To this day West seems inimitably comfortable when performing his former chart hits on stage. The difference in audience enthusiasm at recent shows between newer cuts like Black Skinhead and past hits like Gold Digger is palpably vast, and yet West appears completely at ease with this dissonance in popular opinion between the songs featured on his setlist. He has not shown any desire to shrug off the products of his past work; it is in this sense that he is most clearly separated in intent from an artist like Scott Walker. It is impossible to imagine West altogether abandoning his hits, no matter how much they go against any new direction he takes. Never, during any new era he has embarked on, has he disowned his past altogether.
In the end, perhaps, the Radiohead comparison is more apt than at first it seemed: I suspect that West will always appeal to his legions of core fans, purely because he will never reject the innumerable works of his past that have found such favour with them. Just as Radiohead still haul out Paranoid Android at their shows, as long as West is ready and willing to take to the stage and perform such hits as Can’t Tell Me Nothing, Touch the Sky, and Good Life, with the energy with which he continues to perform, he will be guaranteed an enviably avid fan base.
And yet he also seems bent on continually evolving his sound in more or less subtle ways, and doing his best to bring that fan base along for the ride, bumpy as that ride may at times be. It remains to be seen if West can have his cake and eat it too; endear himself to Middle America with sentimental ballads like Only One, and win back club rap fans with bangers like All Day, while delivering an album with the cohesiveness of his past efforts. It’s a considerable ask of any artist, and one which West is perhaps singularly qualified to attempt.
Perhaps Yeezus was too big a risk; perhaps it was too loud a statement, and too vast a change. Not in its own right - musically, it remains incredibly impressive - but in the challenge it poses for West’s next step.
Between the often-challenging nature of the music, West’s frequently outlandish and absurd statements of the past years, and the perception of his very polarising marriage to a very polarising celebrity, he has almost certainly gone out of favour with many listeners in the mainstream, not to mention a sizeable portion of his old-school hip-hop fans. For a man who has courted controversy ever since the now-infamous George W. Bush incident, the Yeezus era was perhaps the defining moment in how the public perceives him.
Yet West will most likely never shy away from the statement he made with Yeezus. Not only is he not one to ever distance himself from his own work, he is perhaps even less likely to repeat himself creatively. His career has been dynamic from the outset, and has continued to grow increasingly so over the years.
And so it seems almost inevitable that Kanye West’s next release will find him on a new path, as a reborn artist: creative, ambitious, passionate, and alive; standing fearlessly on the precipice, overlooking a world of his own creation.
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