When you strip away the instrumentation, genre and generational divide, you will find that Lou Reed and Kanye West aren’t all that different. Oh, wait, no you won’t; no matter which way you hash it out, Reed and Yeezy are two pretty disparate artists. Granted, both musicians sport prickly personas, both are fuelled by an intense creative flame and possess a rock and roll heart, but the way that they propagate these properties are worlds apart.
The poetry of the street is also a kinship that once bonded the artists, but in more recent times Kanye has been rapping about different streets altogether. On 2013’s Yeezus, Kanye’s scope is focussed on paradoxical egoist laments of egotism. He rallied against consumerism but in a way that was riddled with ironies either intentionally or otherwise. And these were ironies that Lou Reed recognised, as part of a lauded review of the record. He pointed out the obligatory blowjob references, the jarring sampled soundscapes and lewd effrontery in tales of menages-a-trois, but that didn’t stop the rocker loving the record upon its release.
“Majestic and inspiring,” were the two superlatives that Lou Reed adorned upon Yeezus, Kanye’s sixth studio album, in a review he shared on the website The Talkhouse. The late musician wrote, “There are moments of supreme beauty and greatness on this record, and then some of it is the same old shit. But the guy really, really, really is talented. He’s really trying to raise the bar. No one’s near doing what he’s doing, it’s not even on the same planet.”
This celestial adoration was mirrored by many critics upon release too, but whether the album has lived up to the legacy that was billed for it almost a decade on is questionable. At the time though Lou Reed was so stirred up by the string section during the crescendo of ‘Guilt Trip’ that he was “so emotional, it [brought] tears to [his] eyes.”
The album saw Kanye largely depart from his melodic stylings with his early gospel-inspired choruses all but sequestered in favour of acid-house sampled minimalism and simple synth beats mixed in a jarring sonic attack. This style change was intentionally implemented by the seminal Hip Hop artist who claimed that he didn’t want to produce catchy choruses, but Lou detected them, nonetheless. “He claims he doesn’t have those melodic choruses any more,” Reed wrote, “that’s not true.” Later adding, “But it’s real fast cutting – boom, you’re in it.”
Regardless of any personal preferences, the record is undoubtedly uncompromising, and this is the clearest similarity that it shares with some of Lou Reed’s work. When Lou Reed first changed the face of music with The Velvet Underground, they were so keen to do things differently and shock the cultural status quo with obtuse references to the darker side of life that the debut album actually flopped dramatically simply because the world wasn’t ready for it.
Now that the reverberations of his work and the multitude of other daring records that it helped spawn have changed the industry, Kanye’s shocks don’t land so powerfully, but the gargantuan creative intent remains. And it is this detail that offers perhaps the most interesting take-home from Lou’s review looking back: “It works because it’s beautiful – you either like it or you don’t – there’s no reason why it’s beautiful. I don’t know any musician who sits down and thinks about this. He feels it, and either it moves you too, or it doesn’t, and that’s that. You can analyse it all you want.”
After a breakdown of the individual songs, merits and a few downsides, Lou concludes, “It’s all the same shit, It’s all music – that’s what makes him great. If you like sound, listen to what he’s giving you. Majestic and inspiring.”