Two years ago, our Holy Savior the Lord Yeezus Christo blessed us with his testament. The dark and moody minimalist exploration of what hip hop was going to be as it crept towards middle age was divisive among fans if it was anything. Everything from the non existent cover art to the decision to bring in Rick Rubin two weeks before release to revamp the sound was put under a microscope and analyzed to no end by critics.
That same day that the Lord Yeezus gave us his witness, we were also blessed by another release, this time from an aspiring prophet. J.Cole‘s Born Sinner came out to considerably less fanfare than Yeezus but was no less of an achievement. more in line with what hip hop was, Born Sinner was the Old Testament to Yeezus’ brand new sound; Cole was flipping old Ronnie Foster samples made popular by A Tribe Called Quest into something new with Kendrick Lamar (‘Forbidden Fruit’) while Kanye was rewriting the book on what we saw as rap music.
Fast forward now and the two artists have continued their very different trajectories. Cole’s last album 2014 Forest Hills Drive was a featureless reflection on how Cole had gotten to his present day; rapping candidly about subjects ranging from losing his virginity (‘Wet Dreamz’) to an emotional plea for self-love (‘Love Yourz’), 2014 Forest Hills Drive was Cole rewriting the rules that he saw as governing the rap game. As an artist post-Born Sinner, his aesthetic has changed immeasurably in the past two years, maturing both as an artist and as a human. West on the other hand is exactly the same. Although he indubitably altered the landscape of rap (Travi$ Scott owes his career to the Yeezus sound, the Nina Simone sample from ‘Strange Fruit’ that no mixtape is complete without flipping anymore, Hudson Mohawke’s entire sound, etc.), Kanye’s album never felt like it was on the same level as any of his earlier releases.
College Dropout, Late Registration, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy were all classics from ‘Ye nearly the week they dropped. Yeezus was, and has been, more of a developing relationship. The longer you look at the album , the more logical it actually seems in the greater context of West’s hits. Kanye has built his entire career around talking about race in America over incredibly catchy hooks.
Don’t believe me? Look at the thematic discussion of familial relations, growing up black and West’s critiques of what he sees as an overtly materialistic society that he’s totally bought into; these ideas are the crux of Late Registration and College Dropout. Following these, he keeps the educated black man motif going by naming his next album Graduation and even though the album feels for the most part, uplifting, the spectre of being “otherized” is felt throughout the album. West wraps all these themes together on MBDTF and then followed it up with the black empowerment mega smash Watch The Throne.
So is Yeezus really that out of place for ‘Ye? All the themes that he’s finally explicitly addressing (materialism on ‘New Slaves’ and ‘Black Skinhead’) with lines like “Black girl sippin’ white wine/ Put my fist in her like the civil rights sign” are pretty much in character for Kanye, regardless of the graphic nature he addresses them with for the first time, all of which brings us back to the duality of Born Sinner vs. Yeezus.
Both albums were the logical progression of each artist and both saw pretty substantial commercial success; only one of them had the staying power to be labeled classic and while Cole has moved on to much bigger things (2014 Forest Hills Drive is a fantastic album that you should check out if you haven’t yet), where the two artists came from serves as a reference points for two different ways of speaking about the same ideas.