I'm sick of arguing about Yeezus. Kanye West monopolized the hip-hop writers' block like no other this year. We may have shrugged at Jay-Z's middling Magna Carta ... Holy Grail and Eminem's late-period legacy building Marshall Mathers LP 2, worried over Lil Wayne's artistic decline on his god-awful I Am Not a Human Being II, and kept lukewarm over Drake's competent Nothing Was the Same. But Yeezus was a provocation that those of us who could not care less about the Monsters of Rap oligarchy found difficult to ignore.
After many spins, I still believe that Yeezus is half-a-classic, and not as satisfying as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Its perversion of Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit" performance via "Blood on the Leaves" continues to bother me deeply, as do West's lyrics that equate women as a kind of chattel for rich men to inseminate. Anyone who thinks this metaphor on West's struggles to be taken seriously as a wealthy black man honors Simone's anti-lynching masterpiece should take a deep listen to her "Four Women," which devastatingly breaks down how black women thrive despite racial and sexual privations and humiliations. It serves as a corrective to West's self-absorption.
Still, the first half of Yeezus, from its assaultive "New Slaves" to the "hurry up, where's my damn croissants" line on "I Am a God," was more exciting than any other album I heard this year, and that may say something about the dearth of comparatively memorable maximalist big-budget rap in 2013. It certainly won't be the last time that a rapper makes a thrillingly perverse work of art. (Precedents such as Ice Cube's Death Certificate and Eminem's The Marshall Mathers LP come to mind.)
Hell, it wasn't the only time it happened in 2013. Rocko's "UOENO" was a haunting slab of neo-New Wave terror and, thanks to Rick Ross' impolitic guest verse about slipping "molly" in women's drinks and "she ain't even know it," a source of widespread protest. From my perspective, it was a moment when Rick Ross got so deep in his fictional "big boss" character he inadvertently exposed the ugly criminality of the real-life coke barons who are his models. If it takes a blasphemous song like "UOENO" to shatter the looking glass, then so be it.
"UOENO" may have been the worst controversy fueled by an Internet rage machine eager to complain about every hit single of note. In its ears, everything is racist! Misogynist! Xenophobic! Homophobic! Slut-shaming! Despite its increasingly hollow screeching, hip-hop is doing just fine, thank you very much. For club kids, there are the pimp-ish raps and minimalist rhythms of West Coast function kings like YG and Iamsu! For indie rap nerds, there are the lyrical jabberwockies of Serengeti and Homeboy Sandman. East Coast conservatives can choose from burly thugs like Action Bronson, or street strategists like KA. The South has blossomed with an assortment of hood storytellers like Kevin Gates, and elbow-waving energy crews like Migos.
In many ways, Earl Sweatshirt's Doris is as impressive as Yeezus. It proved that an intricately rendered novella focused on one individual navigating the aftermath of meme fame -- remember those 2011 "Free Earl" T-shirts? -- as well as his nagging depression is just as rewarding as Kanye's punchy Great American Rap Album.
Meanwhile, Pusha T's My Name Is My Name, executive produced by Kanye, simply features a great lyrical performance. The Underachievers' Indigoism hearkens to the late '80s/early '90s vogue for black consciousness and Egyptology, then updates it with a psychedelic bent. Their fanciful take on Kemetic studies and drug-fueled mind expansion hints at the kind of mixtape gold that today's rap audience thrives upon (which, sadly, often remains out of this service's reach due to sundry rights issues).
In years' time, when we reminisce about hip-hop in 2013, we'll have no shortage of music to delight in. Its vitality often lay just outside mainstream critics' grasp, and certainly outside an increasingly whitewashed pop radio wasteland, so it was easy to miss.
Part of West's brilliance -- I refuse to call him a genius, as others have done -- is that he "pops a wheelie on the Zeitgeist" with apparent ease. As difficult and infuriating as he has grown to be, his Yeezus anticipates how rap culture has evolved in 2013: a complex of styles both regionally located and globally viral, feted by tastemakers and warily appropriated by melting-pot popists, a frequent target of censorial disdain, a puzzle and a wonder. You either get it, or you don't.
- Kanye West, Yeezus
- Earl Sweatshirt, Doris
- Danny Brown, Old
- Ka, The Night's Gambit
- The Underachievers, Indigoism
- Homeboy Sandman, All That I Hold Dear
- Starlito & Don Trip, Step Brothers
- Drake, Nothing Was the Same
- Pusha T, My Name Is My Name
- Serengeti, Kenny Dennis LP
- Kevin Gates, The Luca Brasi Story
- Quelle Chris, Niggas Iis Men
- J-Zone, Peter Pan Syndrome
- Mac Miller, Watching Movies with the Sound Off
- J Cole, Born Sinner
- Kid Cudi, Indicud
- Prodigy, Albert Einstein
- Hieroglyphics, The Kitchen
- Tech N9ne, Something Else
- Black Milk, No Poison No Paradise