"The obsession with production, coupled with a surprising shoddiness in composition, permeates the entire album. There is nothing beautiful... an album of special effects, dazzling but ultimately fraudulent."
-The New York Times, June 18, 1967
"Music may never be the same again."
-The Washington Post, June 18, 1967
These quotes are from two reviews of the same album that ran on the same day in two of the most venerable newspapers in the United States, almost exactly 46 years ago. The album in question was the Beatles' Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band. Suffice it to say, only one of these reviews was right.
In hindsight it's easy to chuckle at the Times, and many have. But that pan attests to what a shocking work Sgt. Pepper was; its author, Richard Goldstein, was one of the best and most important rock critics of his generation. When faced with something as audaciously new as Sgt. Pepper and forced to offer an opinion (on deadline) you either buy in or you don't. Most people bought into Sgt. Pepper, partly because, well, it was Sgt. Pepper, but also because by 1967 everyone knew the Beatles enough to trust what they were doing, even if a lot of them still didn't really understand it (even the glowing reviews of Sgt. Pepper often made pretty weird claims for it). Goldstein took a risk and lost, but doing so took fearlessness, and fearlessness was what made him a great critic.
I've spent a lot of the last week thinking about music without precedent, and people without fear. Last Friday saw the sudden debut of Kanye West's blastoff into aesthetic insanity, Yeezus, which leaked five days before its official release date. Yeezus isn't Sgt. Pepper (he declared, hesitantly), but it's a legitimately avant-garde pop record by a truly major artist, a hard, punishing work that seems to defy its own context and thrust us into the key of the epochal ("Music may never be the same again"). The New Yorker's Sasha Frere-Jones suggests that in a few decades Yeezus may be remembered as the album that got a brand new generation of kids into Kanye West, a vision of the future that strikes me as faintly apocalyptic, though I'm probably just getting old.
To say that Yeezus is the most-anticipated album of 2013 is a statement so obvious it's barely worth making; to say that it's the most significant, maybe even the best, is starting to feel close to the same. But what else to say? One of the most fascinating aspects of Yeezus' arrival is the discursive crisis it's caused, produced by a fast-react culture colliding with a work of art so confounding. On first listen Yeezus felt like a willing act of musical and commercial suicide, only to be foiled by its maker's pesky pop genius. Fans live-blogged their own befuddlement on Twitter and Facebook, venturing cautious endorsements, or variations on the opening line of this. On Saturday SPIN posted a feature in which nine editors and contributors gave "impulsive reviews" of Yeezus within hours of hearing it, a daring exercise pulled off pretty impressively by all involved (the album averaged an 8.4/10).
It's a pretty short list of truly major artists--artists indisputably at the top of their respective domains, both fame-wise and acclaim-wise--who've thrown curveballs this pronounced. The Beatles did it repeatedly. Miles Davis changed the language of jazz with Kind of Blue, and this piece of paper still sends chills. Bob Dylan went electric, you may have heard about it. Stevie Wonder did it once, almost quietly. One could make a case for Prince, but Prince's weirdness was so engrained in his game that curveballs were pretty much all he threw. Radiohead's Kid A was probably the last major release to provoke similar WTF-ness. But Radiohead in 2000 weren't the ubiquitous poly-celeb narcissists that West is (he'd take that as a compliment), a distinction that matters when said album contains the levels of self-deconstruction that Yeezus does.
I keep coming back to Sly Stone, who in 1971 blew the lid off a persona previously marked by optimism and utopianism with There's A Riot Goin' On, one of the best and most disturbed albums ever released by a major pop star. Riot was a moebius strip of coked-out despair that was also a musical revelation, one whose aftershocks would be felt throughout the 1970s (among other things, it boasted some of the earliest mainstream uses of a drum machine). "Family Affair," the lead single, dripped with exhausted melancholy and seemed to scoff at the group's entire ethos. Its first side ended with "There's a Riot Goin' On," a title track that clocked in at 0:00; the second side ended with "Thank You For Talkin' To Me Africa," a slowed-down, wheezing remake of "Thank You (Falettinme Be Mice Elf Agin)," the hit single from the previous year that had featured an entire verse of Sly savagely mocking his own material. All this might sound ridiculously alienating, but both "Family Affair" and Riot shot to the top of the Billboard charts: Sly's resignation letter to the world was summarily rejected by his fans. But the drugs had the last word, and after releasing one more great album, 1973's Fresh, the genius left the building.
I'm not comparing Yeezus to Riot, nor do I wish to, because the story won't end the same way. But it's the only precedent I can think of in which an artist wed such a dazzling work of aesthetic newness to a persona that seems so profoundly uncomfortable with itself, so insistent that we be uncomfortable alongside it. Patti Smith once famously remarked that "Jesus died for somebody's sins, but not mine," and at times I've felt the same about Yeezus; I want this dude to climb down off his cross and keep making the best music of his generation, because the cross is boring (if not worse) and the music is anything but.
Yeezus is a difficult record, difficult to talk about, difficult to listen to, difficult to unreservedly love in the way that many of us unreservedly loved The College Dropout (man, are those days over). But when I first heard it last Friday I felt convinced it would crash on the mainstream with a confused thud, the only possible outcome when the world's biggest pop star looks upon his public and instructs them to gather up everything they hold dear and familiar and go fuck themselves. Then, not three days later, I watched the trailer for Martin Scorsese's The Wolf of Wall Street, and heard "Black Skinhead" playing in the background like it was the most natural thing in the world, so natural that at first I barely noticed. And then I remembered that Kanye West is as good as he always says he is, and I'd never felt so much sympathy for Richard Goldstein, 46 years ago.