Kanye West intentionally made an album nobody wanted to buy, yet everyone still heard. What does this mean for the future of pop music?
On June 13th of this year, Kanye West released Yeezus, his sixth studio album. Until this album’s release, in a nine-year career as a solo artist, West sold a combined 13 million albums in the United States alone. Furthermore, he has arguably become one of this generation’s most intriguing and progressive musical artists. All of these plaudits aside — in a manner similar to most every other artist in this generation — West’s career of late has been plagued by a precipitous decline in album sales. Once a traditionally dominant revenue stream, now due to the notion of album piracy becoming commonplace (and a few other key indicators) it is one of many key commercial sources for a successful artist. With this being the case, it is entirely possible that Yeezus — an often cacophonous, aesthetically militant and downright perverse listen — was crafted by a rapper that had finally decided that if the popular notion is that music is meant to be heard, but not sold, then it was time to make an album that met that expectation. In reaching this point, what exactly does this mean for the future of albums? Even further, what does this mean for the barriers (or lack thereof) regarding artistic creativity in popular music in the 21st century?
In its debut week on the market, Yeezus sold 327,000 copies. Week two’s sales figures hit 65,000 copies, an 80% drop from the previous week. As much as Billboard Magazine’s Keith Caulfield attributes the album sales decline to Yeezus’ “untraditional marketing,” it may be that Yeezus fell prey to an unprecedented number of pirate downloads coupled with one of the single greatest cases of “buyer beware” in recent musical history.
When Yeezus leaked on Friday, June 14th, the Washington Post’s Chris Richards described it in truly epic terms: “[Yeezus] didn’t leak online over the weekend. It gushed out into the pop ecosystem like a million barrels of renegade crude — ominous, mesmerizing and of great consequence.” If the standard by which we measure first week rap album sales is Jay Z’s 2013-leading 527,000 buys, it’s entirely possible that a seemingly unprecedented 200,000 potential Yeezus buyers gladly found the album somewhere on the internet for free.
As well, for as many positive reviews that the record received from internet pundits, the average listener offered more jaded feedback. In fact, OkayPlayer’s “Big Ghostface” (known for a provocative writing style that mimics street corner slang) alluded to one of many issues that the less critically attuned ear would have with the album: “Brother Ye on his pro black s**t for this joint namsayin. Son really tryin to make his pro-BLACKest song to the pro-WHITEst music here tho. I cant say I all the way f***s wit this s**t… “
The 21st century reflects a plethora of polarities with which the universe must deal. In fact, it may be in so brashly dealing with these concerns that developed the creative impulse behind the album. However, for an artist who brashly compares himself to Apple co-founder Steve Jobs, to have an oft-discussed and intriguing listen that has commercially underwhelmed could be the ultimate definition of a gift and a curse in these polarized times.
These are the amazing truths of the world in which Yeezus creatively resides. Barack Obama is both a black man and the President of the United States. Jay Z released an album that was aided in going platinum even before its digital and physical release date by Samsung bolstering its aspirations for dominating the mobile market bypurchasing one million copies and releasing the album with an app. To celebrate, the rap mogul released a 10-minute long video where he raps about copulating with his pop star wife in a manner similar to having sex with a prostitute, then proceeded to dance with noted performance artist Marina Abramovic. As well, among many issues, global warming is real and while kids have cell phones, they don’t learn cursive in school anymore.
In response, Kanye assumes the role of Jesus Christ entering the temple, assessing the flaws residing within, and promptly tearing it asunder in anger. Rap groupies are apparently scandalous enough to be dealt with via lynching, so much blood on so many leaves. As well, black people are slaves to luxury and are shouted at over a track that is the sonic equivalent of impending revolutionary violence, that demanded an ominous video to be displayed on the sides of buildings throughout the United States. Misogyny, sociopathic allusions, narcissism and outright blasphemy exist in abundance. It indeed is an album where few pop-friendly reasons were given for purchasing, but absolutely everyone had to hear.
Whether a fan of or truly repulsed by Yeezus, it is an undeniably brilliant deconstruction of the overabundance of issues that potentially plague popular music-at-present. To head into the creative process knowing that the goal is more to make statements than sell singles, then the potential of the output is arguably limitless.
If a fan of electronic dance’s marriage with rap, there may be no better produced co-mingling of the two in recent memory than anything Daft Punk or upstart bass-friendly duo TNGHT create on the album. As well, if you find that lyrical simplicity is a wonderful anathema to years of over-intellectual and lyrically dense rap, when Kanye West says “I AM A GOD,” there’s really nothing left to question and nothing else that needs to be said. Miss Kanye’s love of soul samples? “Bound 2" is mellifluous and hearkens back to the days of Kanye being a College Dropout, and not being very angry about much of anything at all.
Insofar as the future? Yeezus finally reset popular music. In being intriguing, dense and well delivered as craftsmanship with artistic merit, it excels. In creating a critical divide and being so far a commercial failure (as compared to likely public expectations), it’s a positive as well, as in so boldly opening the door, the fools (as they always do) will likely rush in first, allowing the cream (aka those who learn from where Yeezus excelled and where it, quite possibly intentionally, fell short insofar as currying favor in the arena of public opinion) to rise to the top. A future where popular music reinvigorates itself and yet again meet a style and function in line with the demands of a radically altered era is entirely likely, a pleasant notion and a logical possibility.