It's probably fair to guess just about everyone under the Sun has seen Kanye West's performance on Saturday Night Live's season finale at this point. Or maybe they caught the video for Yeezy's new song "New Slaves" playing on the side of a building somewhere around the world. Or maybe they've seen the man himself perform live recently.
Whichever way you heard it, most people are quickly becoming familiar with the new, darker, rawer Kanye presented on the songs "Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves." Opinions vary, of course, which is predictable any time an artist steps outside the boundaries of his or her most predictable sound. But the truth is, Kanye's new sound may be the most exciting, original thing to come out all year so far. Here's why.
Kanye West has been an innovator and a trendsetter since the day he first stepped into a studio. With Just Blaze, he practically forged the sound of hip-hop to come in 2001 by shaping the soul-inspired production of Jay-Z's The Blueprint. Then he came out with his own music on The College Dropout and, all by himself, killed the necessity of a gangsta image in hip-hop. Guys like Drake wouldn't exist without that album.
On every album since, Kanye has changed it up. He's switched his fashion, his style, his flow, and his sound on every release. And to date, this has not failed him. In a way, he's a modern-day David Bowie, jumping around like a child with ADHD to new ideas and new trends constantly; not hopping on bandwagons but creating them. Like him or not, music today has changed with every single album he's put out.
Due next month,, Yeezus, his sixth solo LP, promises to continue the trend. The two singles so far have not disappointed, and present something which we've hardly seen this year: something new.
While all year there have been great albums, they've almost all come from established artists. Almost halfway through 2013, we haven't really seen a single new artist break out with an original sound. The tide hasn't turned. In fact, all the most exciting things that have happened in the music world this year. And last year for that matter, have been nostalgia based.
Take the world's highest paid musicians last year, for instance. Dr. Dre, Roger Waters, Elton John, U2, and Take That. Sure, I love them as much as the next guy. They're still exceptional performers. Out of those five, however, only Take That is under the age of 40, none released new music last year, and Take That was on a reunion tour. New? Hardly. Original? Nope. Roger Waters and Dr. Dre may have been innovators many years ago, but that time has passed.
Even new stars right now aren't doing new things. Adele, the highest-selling artist to debut in years, performs a version of pop which has been popular off and on for the last 60 years. It may be catchy songwriting, but it doesn't inspire anyone. Those who once inspired in that realm of music are long dead.
There are those doing new things out there. There always have been and always will be. But they're in the underground. They're on the Internet. They may have enough fans to fill Fitzgerald's, but that's not enough. Those who have brought real change to the musical landscape have done it on a grand scale. People like the aforementioned David Bowie and Roger Waters were working on the big stage, presenting new ideas to mass audiences. Best of all, they didn't even have to compromise their integrity to give us that innovation.
This is where Kanye West stands today. He's perhaps the only artist who is so big, who works on such a large stage, who can sell out stadiums, that is innovating and creating new sounds, new trends and new ideas, all while refusing to be put in a box or to compromise his vision.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was a dense, unwieldy album spilling over with sounds which hadn't been heard in the pop world before, or if they had, they hadn't been done in such a way by anyone else.
Take the nine minute long single "Runaway," for example, which primarily consisted of staccato notes being played on a piano, followed by an extended talkbox outro. Who else could get away with that in the pop world? Not only did Kanye get away with it, he released it as a single and it even became a big hit. It's what everyone dreams of: an artist creating interesting, innovative compositions and still making lots of money.
"Black Skinhead" and "New Slaves" are no different. Each song presents a difficult, uncompromising new image of Kanye; one which is angry, unpolished, and even, dare I say it, punk. They show a visceral viciousness which hasn't been seen in pop in ages. To be blunt, no one has been ballsy enough to come out with a pop song like this in a long, long time.
From the artistic style of presentation chosen on SNL (notably completely removed from Kanye's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy art direction just three years ago) to Kanye's new studded leather jacket; from his pissed-off screams to the wacked out sample of Marilyn Manson that could pass for a post-punk riff; from the stark, minimalist beat of "New Slaves" to Kanye's socially conscious lyrics about racism. Kanye rapped on his last album that he was a "motherfucking monster," and now he's proving it, on no smaller a stage than Saturday Night Live.
Color me impressed. Will the new album live up to this hype? Who knows? No one can say how Yeezus will fare when it's actually released. But we can listen to these two new singles and make a prediction. So far, Yeezus is shaping up to be one of the most exciting, original releases in years.
At least, the most exciting, original release since Kanye's last record. It's a safe bet at least that it will be interesting, something that cannot be said about the latest nostalgia release or reunion tour. When it comes to hearing something new out of the industry machine, this is our safest bet.
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