It used to be easier to pretend that an album was its own perfectly self-contained artifact. The great records certainly feel that way. But albums are more permeable than solid, their motivations, executions and inspirations informed by, and often stolen from, their peers and forbearers. It all sounds awfully formal, but it’s not. It’s the very nature of music — of art, even. The Six Degrees features examine the relationships between classic records and five other albums we’ve deemed related in some way. In some cases these connections are obvious, in others they are tenuous. But, most important to you, all of the records are highly, highly recommended.
Good or bad, everyman or egotistically delusional, righteous or tasteless: At this point we know that Kanye West's albums will certainly never bore us. This is partly because the persona driving them only grows stranger by the year, his ascension from the conflicted, Benz-pushing backpacker of College Dropout to his present-day, Godhead grandeur one of the more gripping stories of celebrity and crisis in our lifetimes.
Fame is the context that Kanye seems to both covet and resist, and it makes for music that is more often than not astonishing. He certainly didn't make Yeezus, his sixth solo album, to be judged. It's a dark and proudly difficult album, compelling as much for his artistic choices as for this consistent feeling that it's all some grand act of self-sabotage. There are few moments on here friendly to the radio or the nightclub — the two songs that announced Yeezus were the Marilyn Manson-evoking "Black Skinhead" and the drum-free, kaleidoscopic critique of "New Slaves." Despite guest work from Daft Punk, Chief Keef, Justin Vernon, Rick Rubin and the RZA, this is definitely not the continuation of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy — maybe just the my-dark-fantasy part.
"Soon as they like you, make 'em unlike you," he lashes out on the stifled house of "I Am A God," which sounds about right. Like some strange cross between J. Beez wit the Remedy and In Utero, Yeezus feels like a transitional record, 40 minutes of a fascinating artist thinking himself into a corner. At its best, its provocations are brazen and entrancing — nodding to C-Murder and "Strange Fruit" for "Blood on the Leaves," the masterpiece of "New Slaves." At its worst, the provocations can be pretty vile — "I'm in It," the albums' ungenerous low. Throughout, he seems self-conscious of how alienating its squelchy, twitchy production and seemingly random ragga breaks might sound to his more casual fans. "How much do I not give a fuck?" he asks over the mega-distorted electro of "On Sight" (produced by Daft Punk). And then: It all disappears for a few seconds, replaced by a heavenly choir.
The Housing Authority
Kanye has nodded to his Chicago roots frequently in the past, from sampling Curtis Mayfield to propping up his former idol Common's career. Yeezus draws heavily from the city's other musical traditions, most notably the sparse synth-futurism and heaven-bound transcendence of house. While hip-hop and electro swept most major cities in the early 1980s, Chicago invented their own sound. This mix offers a compelling argument for Trax as one of the most important American labels of the past 30 years. At its best, Chicago house still sounds like nothing else, from early, lo-fi classics like Farley "Jackmaster" Funk's "Jack the Bass" to Mr. Fingers' dreamy "Can You Feel It?" The influence of Trax — the Chicago sound for anyone Kanye's age — are everywhere on Yeezus: the snaking alarm-call of "Send it Up," the cloudburst jog of "Hold My Liquor," the warehouse aesthetics of "I Am A God." Daft Punk appropriates Phuture's "Acid Tracks" for Yeezus's "On Sight," turning the seminal acid cut into something menacing, sinister, industrial.
The Original Drill Sergeants
Some lost themselves in the euphoria of warehouse parties; others holed up in dank basements and tried to eke out as much noise as possible to match the world around them. This was a different path to catharsis, one that emerged out of gargantuan, scabrous noise and industrial racket. Wax Trax! was another of Chicago's great, 1980s independent labels, and local synth act-turned-major-label monsters Ministry remain one of their most famous alums. Psalm 69 was released in the wake of fellow Midwesterners Nine Inch Nails' unlikely pop chart successes, which meant that tracks like the demolition derby pile-up of "Jesus Built My Hotrod" or the George Bush I-mocking "N.W.O." actually got airplay. There's a goth-y, accessibly "industrial" feel that runs through Yeezus, most notably on the distorted, Marilyn Manson-isms of "Black Skinhead." But it's also in the way he seems to turn simple ideas ugly, allowing the bass to pulse to the point of distortion or escaping down a corridor of scratchy feedback.
The Don Dada
Who knew last year's Fuzzy Jones sample on "Mercy" was just the beginning? On Yeezus, Kanye lifts lines from dancehall legends Beenie Man and Capleton as well as young upstart (and Pusha T associate) Popcaan. It's as much an album of deconstructed digital riddims as it is EDM. There's always been a strong affinity between hip-hop and dancehall, and some of that is attributable to the early-1990s breakthrough of Super Cat. On his 1992 U.S. major-label debut, the lean, charismatic deejay aspired for a halfway point between New York City and Kingston. Heavy D showed off his patois on "Dem No Worry We," while remixed versions of singles like "Ghetto Red Hot" and "Dolly My Baby" would become hits in U.S. and pave the way for future crossovers, none of which were as unlikely as Super Cat's own cameo on Sugar Ray's "Fly."
The Young Turks
If you look back at all of Kanye's albums, you'll notice that he's always been exceedingly open-minded about collaboration and co-optation. He seems unthreatened by those younger than him, which perhaps explains why Yeezus's most prominent collaborators include Frank Ocean, King L and Chief Keef. "Blood on the Leaves" features Kanye rapping over a slightly modified version of "R U Ready" by TNGHT, an ongoing collaboration between Glasgow's Hudson Mohawke and Montreal's Lunice. The duo makes beats that are cavernous, sparse, obnoxiously bass-heavy — rarely do they need vocalists for their drama. Last year's eponymous EP is like some alien interpretation of stripped-down Southern hip-hop, all frenetic hi-hats and thrashed trash cans ("Bugg'n"), regal fanfares ("Higher Ground") and deep pockets of boom.
The Reset Button
Still one of the most mesmerizing examples of an artist trying to escape the trappings of the present. There's a Riot… was a document of all the tumult that overtook Sly Stone after the success of 1969's Stand!. Bristling at the dictates of his record label and reprogrammed by drugs and radical politics, he recorded a wondrously manic album filled with sarcastic highs and woozy lows, cryptic prophecies over unspooling funk. It's a recurring theme in pop music, the artist who skims the sun and feels burnt by it all. You can keep playing or lash out — that's what Yeezus feels like. As Sly demonstrated, even something that was intended to be petulant and unpopular can end up changing or commenting on the culture around it. The sad part was that he ended up being the casualty.