Sometimes, it pays to procrastinate.
For whatever reason, I spent all last week avoiding making a pick for Album of the Year (hey, someone had to marvel at Miley and laud Lorde ), a “strategy” that left me lagging behind basically every website in the universe. But then, right around midnight on Thursday, I was granted a reprieve … in the form of Beyoncé’s game-changing self-titled album, an effort that rendered all previous year-end lists obsolete. I was off the hook. Like I needed another reason to bow down to the Queen.
There’s no denying that in just five days, Beyoncé has altered the landscape to such a degree that any look back on the year seems incomplete without her. The strategy behind the new album was unparalleled, the secrecy surrounding it unmatched, and the sales unbelievable. She turned the past few months into ancient history and made every other star a distant memory. In essence, you can break 2013 down into two distinct timelines: everything that happened before Beyoncé was released, and everything that’s happened since.
But is all of that enough to make Beyoncé the Album of the Year? Don’t hate me Beyhive, but the answer is no. Make no mistake, it’s a great album, a deep, decidedly mature effort that paints a fascinatingly complex portrait of the multi-hyphenate superstar. It is full of songs about love and loss and lust (lots of lust,) anthems of empowerment and frank admissions of insecurities. It pays homage to history — both musical and personal — and re-contextualizes the future. It firmly cements Beyoncé’s legacy as a once-in-a-generation talent.
But it is also less than a week old, and because of that, while it made my list, it’s not #1. Instead, that honor goes to the one album that has dominated the discussion for the majority of the year; the most confrontational, controversial and confounding release of 2013: Kanye West’s Yeezus.
Why? It wasn’t just because the album was such an abrupt departure from ’Ye’s normally ornate opuses, 40 minutes of skinned-alive sonics with a single thrown in at the very end as a f— you. Or that he replaced that sonic heft with his most scathing, snarling songs to date, tracks both haunting (“New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead,” “Blood on the Leaves”) and harrowing (“I’m In It,” “Guilt Trip,” “Send It Up”). No, Yeezus stands alone as 2013’s best album because it’s also the most important of West’s career, the point where he stopped caring about contemporaries or commerce and just made art for art’s sake. And with that realization came transformation.
Kanye weaved a web of discord in 2013, and Yeezus was the filament. He waged an outright war on everything and everyone — the whole of the fashion industry, his eighth-grade basketball coach, Jimmy Kimmel — and never wavered or apologized. Sure, in the past, he’d never been one to hide his displeasure, but this year, he made it his mission to settle the score with every doubter or detractor. And the sonic squall he cooked up on his audacious album was the accompaniment to that quest.
In fact, the man and the music have basically become one at this point, and that is the truest testament to this album’s strengths: It’s almost as if Kanye is playing Yeezus now, a preening, pissed-off deity who’s willing to die for our sins, yet expects a little bit of credit for doing so. He’s both a martyr and a masochist, determined to live amongst us all while, at the same time, ordering us to avert our collective gaze. Even when he’s parading his paramour or getting ice cream. Is West aware that, in his current form, he’s essentially eroding a decade’s worth of good will? Probably. Does he care? Not in the slightest.
Like he raps on the aptly-titled “I Am A God:” “Soon as they like you, make ’em unlike you.”
With Yeezus, Kanye became something entirely new, whether you liked it or not. After turning the industry on its collective ear with her new album, Beyoncé is still basically just Beyoncé. And therein lies the difference between the two albums: They’re both great, but one is transformative, the other merely temporal. Is Yeezus a defining, defiant work of art, or a misguided step down a slippery slope? Is it an eerily prescient concept album about his confrontational year, or the byproduct of ego on overdrive?
Ultimately, it doesn’t matter … Kanye’s evolved to a level beyond our comprehension. Like he says, “F— every question you’re asking.”
The Rest Of The Best: My Other Favorite Albums Of 2013
»2. Daft Punk, Random Access Memories
»3. Arcade Fire, Reflektor
»4. Chance The Rapper, Acid Rap
»5. Beyoncé, Beyoncé
»6. Portugal. The Man, Evil Friends
»7. Vampire Weekend, Modern Vampires of the City
»8. DARKSIDE, Psychic
»9. Justin Timberlake, The 20/20 Experience
»10. Paramore, Paramore
»11. Disclosure, Settle
»12. Haim, Days Are Gone
»13. Queens of the Stone Age, … Like Clockwork
»14. Phosphorescent, Muchacho
»15. El-P and Killer Mike, Run The Jewels
»16. Drake, Nothing Was The Same
»17. Jim James, Regions of Light and Sound of God
»18. Boards of Canada, Tomorrow’s Harvest
»19. The National, Trouble Will Find Me
»20. Tegan and Sara, Heartthrob