Kanye West and Modernism: In Defense of Yeezus

Yeezus
Yeezus

The title of this article may be a bit presumptuous. Yeezus, Kanye West’s sixth studio album, released in the summer of 2013, hardly needs any defense. According to Metacritic, Yeezus was the most critically successful album of 2013, reaching number one in several “best” lists. It received rave reviews from the Los Angeles Times, Pitchfork, Spin, Rolling Stone, almost every music critic, with even a positive nod from the late Lou Reed. And certainly West doesn’t want any help, whose bombastic track “I Am a God” boasts “Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you.”

And yet, Yeezus drew mixed reactions from his fanbase, the public, due to its dark and experimental departure from West’s earlier work. Primarily a hip-hop artist, here West integrates the sounds of industrial music, dancehall, acid house, and drill music, the sounds of Chicago, to create something much harsher, grittier, and angrier than any of his previous work. Yeezus is a minimalist piece of hip-hop, especially compared to the maximalist My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West’s ambitious and opulent album, released in 2010, and especially compared to popular contemporary music in general, and to those less willing to understand West’s lofty objectives, Yeezus certainly seems to be his most egotistical work.

In a statement made in a New York Times interview, West explained that he discovered his obsession with minimalism after repeatedly visiting the Louvre while recording in Paris. In particular, he describes a Le Corbusier lamp as his greatest inspiration, a comment that received both laudatory approval and internet derision.

Le Corbusier, born Charles-Édouard Jeanneret-Gris in 1887, was a Swiss pioneer of modern architecture, design, and urban planning. Constantly trying to tackle the spread of urbanization and the growing number of slums, Le Corbusier is most remembered and celebrated (and criticized) for his almost utopian urban planning. A skyscraper-sized apartment building without ornament, Le Corbusier believed, would be a housing solution that would end crowding and dirtiness, and lead to better living conditions, though his critics often found them boring and unfriendly. Le Corbusier is known for his Villa Savoye, a modernist villa outside of Paris. Built in the late 1920s, it is one of the most famous buildings of the International Style.

Le Corbusier is also well known for his simple, modernist furniture designs. While the exact lamp West described is unknown, one can get an idea of the lamp and what attracted West to it through an understanding of Le Corbusier’s work. It may seem incredulous that a contemporary, popular recording artist, a hip-hop star, a rock star, would or even could draw influence from an art that is so far removed from popular music as a “Le Corbusier lamp.”

Villa Savoye
Villa Savoye

For West’s detractors, his statement is an egotistical one, a meaningless and childish attempt at “creating high art.” But when one listens to Yeezus and hears something so distinctly different from West’s previous work, one has to wonder where that change came from. There is something unmistakably modernist about Yeezus, with a clear focus on minimalism and raw energy.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is an absolute experience. It is one of the largest hip-hop albums of all time, one of the most well-produced crystalline pieces of contemporary music, an all-encompassing grandiose work of art and entertainment. For West, the album is the pinnacle of a lineage of hip-hop emerging from West’s The College Dropout, his debut album, a highly-produced, well versed, poignant, mostly radio friendly lineage.

After My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, there was nothing left for West to pursue in this direction. It would not be a stretch to parallel West between Dark Fantasy and Yeezus and the struggle of modern art, the struggle to reinvent the western tradition, to both strangle and rebirth it. For the early modern artists, who witnessed the birth of urbanization and industrialization, traditional values of beauty had become obsolete. Poets such as Baudelaire and Rimbaud and painters like Manet and Gauguin, and later, Picasso, Braque, and those that followed, sought to redefine art’s place in society. Essentially, all modern art is about itself.

Yeezus is an attempt to redefine beauty in hip-hop and in contemporary music in general. West’s disillusionment with popular music and popular attitudes mirrors the avant-garde’s disillusionment with tradition and desire for radical change. Yeezus is minimal, grittier, louder, and grungier, an anti-Dark Fantasy, because, West knew, everything in that genre of hip-hop had been done already.

Modern art and in particular modern architecture and design has always been associated with revolution, from the anti-historicism and speed of the Italian futurists to the overtly Communist constructivists of Russia. Modern architecture generally concerns a simplification of form, an absence of ornamentation, and usually, an idea of social reform. Some of the most famous modern architects are Walter Gropius, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe, American darling Frank Lloyd Wright, and, of course, Le Corbusier. Strangely, even in contemporary society, modern architecture is still viewed as somewhat radical. It is often associated with socialism and radical reform and the new, as democracy has clearly sided with neoclassical architecture. Interestingly, Le Corbusier and Oscar Niemeyer, designer of Brasilia, Brazil’s planned capital, designed the United Nations headquarters, which is in itself a symbol of world peace and utopianism.

Le Corbusier Interior
Le Corbusier Interior

Yeezus, likewise, is a call to revolution in design and in society. It is simple to spot modern architecture’s characteristics in West’s music here. The concept of “truth to materials,” which refers to modern architecture’s refusal to conceal the natural appearance of materials, is rampant on Yeezus. Unlike the highly produced albums prior, with the endless lists of famous guest appearances, long, well acted skits, and sonic maximalism, Yeezus is a bare bones hip-hop album. It features a small cast of unknown rappers, such as King Louie, from West’s native Chicago, and the only track with the word “featuring” attached to it is “I Am a God,” which is “featuring God.” Compare this to Dark Fantasy, which lists Kid Cudi, Jay-Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj, Bon Iver, Pusha T, and John Legend, among others, in the track listing.

West’s goal with Yeezus was not to simply make the largest, most produced, most expensive album he could, but instead to create something more direct, musically and thematically, and with much less glitz. West’s industrial and acid house beats, which can again be linked back to West’s native Chicago, are as far as the artist could be from his well-layered, radio-popular, smooth tracks of old. There’s a simple, almost tribal aggression in “Black Skinhead,” “I Am a God,” and “New Slaves,” and oftentimes, especially on the latter track, West’s voice will only be accompanied by a simple beat or a slight void of silence.

Most important, and most likely what West took away from the Le Corbusier lamp in question, is a simplicity and clarity of form and the elimination of unnecessary detail. Stripping away all that is expensive and glamorous from his music, West is left with a very pure sound. He still utilizes his trademark oddball samples, but there are less on Yeezus, and they are much less explosive here. West uses repetition of simple beats, and many of them are scratchy, hard, and unlike anything in popular music.

The machine aesthetic of modern architecture can also been heard in these primarily electronic beats. Many tracks on Yeezus incorporate a distorted, glitchy drum machine and West utilizes auto-tune to pixelate and distort human voices instead of making them sound “better.” Although Le Corbusier’s notion of minimalism was for a pleasing and utopian end, West’s minimalism is abrasive and aggressively off-putting. Le Corbusier and modern architecture’s influence on Yeezus are clear, but Kanye West is an artist of a different ilk, and an artist from an entirely different era.

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy

Dark Fantasy featured a series of different album covers, each painted by contemporary George Condo for the album, one of which was controversial enough to be banned from stores. The large number of paintings circulating for the album’s cover perfectly fit into its central themes of decadence, excess, consumer culture, wealth, and self doubt, with West himself scrambling to own and brand as much art as possible. Art becomes a commodity and a luxury, an addiction, and the more the better.

Yeezus has no album art, consisting of a clear jewel case and an exact piece of red tape, neatly squared as if it were part of a Mondrian painting. The lack of cover art allows the sheen of the disc to be seen, harkening back to the “truth to materials” seen in modern architecture.

It could be argued that West’s connection to modernism and Le Corbusier is a meaningless link, that West’s statement is merely the pretentious words of an ego maniac. But this notion is misguided. It had previously been pointed out to me by a friend that West’s fascination and obsession with art and the history of culture is akin to “a kid in a candy store.” Art and culture sparks something in West’s mind, and that is a great thing. West, who is the master of controversy, from the Hurricane Katrina telethon to the 2009 VMAs, would fit right in with art history’s biggest scandal makers.

Kanye West is akin to enfant terrible Arthur Rimbaud, Igor Stravinksy, whose ballet The Rite of Spring incited a riot during its premier, and the Dadaists, whose leader, Tristan Tzara, was the original bad boy scandal maker and wager of cultural warfare. In our post-post-modern world, we have forgotten that art and the new is supposed to shock as much as it reforms, and that the best art is often controversial. Yeezus is certainly a shocking album. And while West’s contemporary Jay-Z increasingly raps about finding contentment, West grows more frustrated with each album. He pushes himself further with each step in his career and continues to experiment and invent.

Kanye West is a great artist because he is never satisfied.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

Posted on by
Game writer, Frank O'Hara wannabe, perfect Wagnerite, Pokémon obsessive, surf punk
Edited by Michelle Webb, Misagh.

Want to write about Arts or other art forms?

Create writer account

46 Comments

  1. I don’t care how many envelopes he’s pushing & what he’s supposedly trying to accomplish, the goal should be to make incredible music which that album isn’t in terms of Hip-Hop. First off its house/electronic music IT AIN’T NOTHING LIKE HIP-HOP MUSIC, it’s straight wack.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Vega, your comment is too real for me…I need to retreat into my post-modern fortress…

    • samuelrowe

      So he should stick to Golden-Age-nostalgia-boom-bap hip hop? ‘Ye is rapping as hard as he ever has but you find the beats abrasive and that, for some reason, undermines the entire album. You must think artists and groups like Cities Aviv and Gorgeous Children are too radical as well (There’s a Vega / Face Vega irony here.)

  2. Diana Chin

    This was an interesting article. While I may have not agreed on Kanye’s intentions on what he is doing in the music industry, he often does display a sense of unbridled willpower on being part of the public life.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      This may sound naive, but I honestly do believe Kanye West’s artistry far extends out of the “music industry” and into fashion and the arts and into popular culture in general. When he says he’s “pop[ping] a wheelie on a zeitgeist” I wholeheartedly believe him.

    • CharmieJay

      I do respect how deeply he indulges himself in the arts. However, I just feel like his is more for attention seeking than actually enjoying the arts. This disingenuous behavior makes me personally not care to listen to his music very much.
      That being said, I don’t mind some of his songs but I miss old Kanye from when he first came out.

  3. Very well researched and written piece, however, when reviewing Yeezus as an album I feel it is equally important to include Yeezus as a concert. Kanye has developed one of the most engaging and ambitious live shows for the tour that is more of an experience than a performance. Your thoughts on music as a form of art are well-crafted. I am curious to learn what you may think of other artists who are attempting similar endeavors; Childish Gambino’s Because The Internet, for example.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Because the Internet does not even come close to the level of ambition and artistry of Kanye West’s Yeezus. As far as witty rap goes, it’s a great album – but that’s about the extent of its greatness. Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar, and even Tyler the Creator are all witty rappers that are more entertaining (Kendrick Lamar might be the most talented rapper out right now), and even with Childish Gambino’s sort of lofty multimedia stuff, the whole package feels inadequate and only scratching at the surface of what that sort of project could achieve–

  4. Wonder Bell
    0

    Probably the best album I heard all year. Took me several listens: 1st Listen – This is bs? 2nd- What was he thinking? 3rd This is not bad. 4th: Praise Yeezus!

    This album challenged me, exposed me, upset me, entertained me and inspired me. Sad many of my contemporaries are so caught up in hearing the same ol’ shit on the radio every day that the unfamiliar is automatically classified as bad. Do yourself a favor, sit with this one before you write it off.

  5. Antonio Alvarado
    0

    Great read man. I finished listening to the album for the fourth time today and although it isn’t the catchiest album I think it is great. I realised earlier his albums are parallels to Radiohead’s and Yeezus is his “King of Limbs” if that makes sense.

  6. Very interesting piece.

    I do agree that Yeezus symbolizes a vehement break from tradition, making it a call to revolution of sorts. However, Kanye’s minimalist inclination proves to be contradictory. Minimalism is a conceptual rebuttal to expressionism; it is a methodology that seeks to eliminate subject self-input wherever possible. Louis Sullivan’s famous phrase “form follows function,” a hallmark of minimalism, serves as a testament to the irrelevance of a work’s creator.

    Yeezus exudes frustration and reactionary energy, and it is decidedly imprinted with Kanye’s internal condition. He has stated on various occasions that the album’s anger, so to speak, comes from the clash between his desire to expand artistically (namely in fashion) and the forces attempting to stop him. The content of the album is largely a reactionary subjective impulse; it distinctly comes from Kanye and it revolves around Kanye. Even the track most prone to demonstrate widespread revolution – “New Slaves” – centers itself on Kanye, as it steadily devolves toward vigorous selfhood from beginning to end.

    Do not mistake my commentary for an attempt to bash Kanye as an egomaniac. Yeesuz is notably artistic and marks an opportunity for hip hop to surpass the glass boundary that confines it. But the inherent minimalism fails to have meaning because of its paradoxical nature. A minimalist work eliminates “unnecessary detail,” as you say, and this includes subjective thoughts, feelings, emotions, and distortions; Kanye created a selfless glass that is half full of himself (or, perhaps, half empty). The entire minimalist ideology may suffer from this contradiction as well, if we consider such artistic design as abstract selfhood by way of excluding selfhood. In other words: minimalism strives to strip away self-input in favor of function but, in doing so, exhibits an intrinsic self-expression in its ultimate significance.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Wow, really great response…

      I’m not sure how to respond, but I will say this: in painting, you can still be a minimalist without being post-painterly. Post-painterly abstraction sought to “destroy the artist’s hand” so to speak, removing the artist completely from the work, something the Dadaists kind of came up with…that being said, if we look at Cubism, while not “minimalist,” the process is a process of reduction. Most modern art is a process of reduction and minimizing.

      Removal of selfhood, as you put it, is only part of the whole – the self is not automatically superfluous detail. In hip-hop, there are elements that I would specifically target as being superfluous and those are the ones that Kanye removes here – famous guests, polished beats, layers upon layers of sonic ecstasy…Yeezus is certainly a stripped down album.

      But essentially, you’re not wrong, and I’m still impressed with your comment…haha…

      • I definitely see what you mean when you say he stripped the album down. It’s very hard to argue against that point. But since his artistic expression began with his contemplation of a Le Corbusier lamp, I concentrated my interpretation within the framework of minimalist architecture, in which there is generally a robust focus on functionalism and the removal of subjective input.

        But, again, this did not limit my enjoyment of your article. Great job.

  7. Art Posocco

    I was completely unfamiliar with Kanye West’s music until I bought this album last summer. (I had read so many interesting things about it that I couldn’t resist.) I loved it immediately, particularly its rough electronic edges. It’s been interesting for me to move backward and discover West’s earlier music; it all sounds so much bigger and tamer than Yeezus.

    This is a great dive into the album’s influences and stated minimalism. I commend you on your research. I find the influence of architecture completely fascinating.

    One unrelated and potentially blasphemous comparison that I have made to people about Yeezus is that it reminds me of John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band album. Both albums possess a dark, subjective, confessional quality, both are minimalist (relative to their creators’ previous works), and both exhibit/release a lot of bottled up emotion (art as exorcism?). Musically, the two works are completely divergent; but thematically, the similarities are striking.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Yes great comparison there! I do think there’s a lot to be learned from comparing Kanye’s work to that of the different Beatles and subsequent work (which is probably, as you say, blasphemous…).

      I also really like your wording here “Art as exorcism” is a great phrase–

    • I certainly understand your comparison here and find the similarities interesting but it feels wrong that your comment implies earlier work from both artists share something in common. I don’t believe that Kanye’s records would have nearly as much impact without his larger than life personality and everything else he is doing. He certainly, however, as secured his place in pop culture.

      • Nilson Thomas Carroll

        You’re right, definitely, but I think you’re underestimating the extent of “Beatlemania.” Would, and I’m pretty much playing devil’s advocate here, something like Please Please Me be nearly as iconic if the Beatles themselves were not iconic? If the band members were unremarkable, and not memorable, the music would falter in the realm of pop culture.

  8. markflores

    I never thought Yeezus was an “anti-Dark Fantasy” but after reading this, you’ve opened my eyes and ears to that.I too, definitely think that West is an artist of a entirely different era. I enjoyed giving this a read, your insights on West and modernism was a delight.

  9. It’s a good album but it’s an intense, almost jarring record that isn’t very enjoyable for casual listening. The production is complex and the textures are harsh. It has lots of quotable lines, much like all Kanye albums, but it’s not very deep lyrically. He doesn’t really rap about anything insightful or meaningful. Lyrically it’s probably one of his poorest but the production is simply off the charts.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      I have to completely disagree with you on this – Sure Dark Fantasy has more all-encompassing, textured lyrics, but the slightness of Kanye’s vocabulary here is what makes the words more powerful. “I Am a God,” “Black Skinheads,” and “Send It Up” have great lyrics.

  10. Insightful article. Good knowledge of music and the album in question. Great flow of argument. Thank you for the article.

  11. Jon Lisi

    One of the best articles I’ve read about ‘Yeezuz’ to date. A pleasure to read. I prefer ‘Yeezus’ to ‘Dark Fantasy’ for its sheer boldness, but I don’t think West has made a bad album yet. He’s such a great artist and I don’t want to feed his ego by any means but I really don’t think he gets the credit he deserves. A lot of people just talk about his personality.

  12. I’ve always found Kanye West to be controversial in the media, so I thought reading about his newest album was interesting! Especially since I’m not a fan myself.

  13. Surprisingly insightful article, great job. And it’s a great album. The beats are very interesting. The lyrical content as always part provocative, part nonsensical.

    I know a few of my hip hop only listening friends were having trouble with it, the beats especially. But that’s what you get when you don’t seek out different types of music.

  14. daniel hernand
    0

    Kanye (the person) comes across as a massive idiot; Kanye (the artist) is certainly interesting. This album could be called a lot of things but dull isn’t one of them – I can’t remember the last time an album started with such a blast

  15. Kanye West is frustrating. The music and arrangements show real taste and intelligence, but his lyrics convey the exact opposite.

    Intentional perhaps, but still frustrating.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      I understand the sentiment, but there is a level of sophistication in a lyric like “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower” that I think both captures the rebellion of hip-hop and a “high art” subversiveness.

  16. Roberta Cummings
    0

    Enjoyed this album, happy it is divisive like all art.

  17. Luke Martin

    Great article. I believe the fact that this album has sparked division between his fans, critics etc. makes it a success for what his intentions wer; To make a minimalist, uncomfortable, subversive album. I also think people over-look his lyrical abilities on tracks like ‘new slaves’ & ‘black skinhead’. This is a revolutionary album! From the projections of ‘new slaves’ on buildings accross the globe (including shop fronts… nice touch), to the innovative YEEZUS tour that is unlike any hip-hop tour that preceded it. I am a FAN

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      People always overlook the lyrics of New Slaves and Black Skinhead. A lot of listeners quickly dismiss it as garbage writing, but it’s pretty tight, and certainly evocative.

  18. You missed some really key points of the album, or rather some interpretations of the album that could have bolstered your argument. Still, this was a very well written defense of one of my favorite albums of the last two years. Good work sir.

  19. Yeezus does feel like a piece of modernist art in its minimalistic approach with so much to say in its running time. There are songs that I did not appreciate upon the first listen that had a different impression on me with multiple listens. West is reaching for something, whether it is genuine or not is up to the listener but the public persona can get in the way of the art. Great article with analyses that brought perspective to an album that is better appreciated with time.

  20. I loved Yeezus. Each and every one of his albums has a different theme, whether it’s Trap music, Auto tune, or Simplicity, as is Yeezus. His goal is to keep us guessing while also mastering each type, unlike other rap artists who create the same type of music over and over again, quickly making them irrelevant. It takes a true artist to create an album like Kanye West. Many people are quick to jump on the “I hate Kanye, he’s arrogant” wagon, but those people are the same ones who haven’t taken the time to give his music a chance. He may be arrogant, but that doesn’t take away from the fact that his lyrics and music are unmatched by any rap artist of our generation.

    The only thing about this post that I would change is that Kanye’s 2010 album was named “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” not “My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy.”

  21. samuelrowe

    The parallels are important to draw out, but I have an issue with your implication of so many Modernist forms. Like, the Futurists aren’t analogous with Kanye, since they were embracing the rise of the machine and violence implicit in the aesthetic act as a form of breaking / blasting the past. Kanye, on the other hand, is actively engaging the tension of new aesthetic forms whilst keeping an eye on heritage, lineage, etc. etc. But like I said, most of this article is spot on.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      Good point, but I’d argue that Kanye could be analogous to the Futurist movement (I didn’t really say this in the article, but for the sake of argument). Kanye West alludes to a lot of heritage/lineage points on Yeezus (Modern art typically alludes to the past and is about tradition/breaking tradition), but is far more focused on bringing down establishment/history. Through his machine aesthetic, he is rebelling against the history of hip-hop, blatantly wants to kill it off. His allusions to the past are fragmented (thinking Blood on the Leaves), and filtered through a highly contemporary, visceral and angry lens.

    • Nilson Thomas Carroll

      And thanks for the comment : ) It’s great to have these kinds of discussions.

  22. I kind of joined this site so I could write this exact article. I’m happy that someone can see the merit in something like Yeezus other than something to “bump to”.

    I would go as far as to say that West takes his samples to another level of pastiche with “Blood on the Leaves” and “Bound 2” as there is barely any production outside of the cutting up of the samples to fit into the tempo.

    Great article!

  23. bbemily
    0

    I don’t understand why his allusions to Le Corbusier would be considered meaningless, egotistical ramblings…

    Why would we try to confine an artist to our own expectations of a genre? Let him be inspired by whatever, jeez

  24. Glad to see I’m not alone in seeing Yeezus as a masterpiece.

  25. An important thing to note (on the subject of why this record is or isn’t modernist) is Kanye’s dissatisfaction with everything in the past – Dark Twisted Fantasy was an attempt (and a very successful one at that) to conquer hip-hop as we knew it then. The next stage, in Kanye’s mind, I suppose, would be to subvert EVERYTHING he had ever done. And he did it.

  26. This is a very intelligently written article, and I think it’s a testament to the album’s greatness that you were able to write such an insightful piece without even mentioning the spectacular “Blood on the Leaves.” In my mind, it’s the best track on the album. The ingenious use of the “Strange Fruit” sample, the brass section, a shivering distorted voice spouting tortured lyrics – all these elements combine to say something about race, wealth, and relationships. Simply stunning.

  27. Thank you for the great insight. A friend of mine introduced me to Kanye’s oeuvre not too long ago and your article brings those discussions to life again for me. I love what you had to say about Le Corbusier’s influence on this “great artist” of our time.

  28. This article definitely puts ‘Yeezus’ in a new light for me and I will have to give it another sincere listen.

  29. This article is quite interesting. It brings ‘Yeezus’ forward into a different perspective for me, but that’s about it. While I realize that Kanye West is very talented and will never say he is not, I don’t think that this album can be considered a call to action of any sort. West makes very few important statements on this record, while the production may be different than his previous work, that does not mean that ‘Yeezus’ is leaps and bounds ahead of what he was already doing. While I enjoy the production on this album, ‘Yeezus’ is simply another album, it’s not the most important release of a year or the best release of West’s career and certainly not a call for revolution. That all being said, it is simply my opinion. This article is very well written and obviously had extensive research and time put into it. The likes of which I certainly have not done on ‘Yeezus.’ Some points are also incredibly valid and interesting. Great article, I’m just not sure if I agree with every idea.

Leave a Reply