Dissecting Kanye West's Turning Point, In Microscopic Detail
When America took to the polls in record numbers to vote in last November's historic election, the fate of the nation wasn't the only thing hanging in the balance. In a sense, the next season of Dissect was, too.
Cole Cuchna, host of the Spotify podcast made notable thanks to his meticulous "note by note and line by line" dissections of the most iconic hip-hop and R&B albums in recent history, had already selected the LP and scripted most of the new season. But he knew that releasing an in-depth consideration of the album — and specifically the artist — in question in a year as tumultuous as 2020 could prove flammable.
Needless to say, Kanye West has inspired that kind of reaction continuously over the last decade. But Cuchna didn't select him and one of his most polarizing albums, Yeezus, as the focus for season eight of Dissect for that reason. He chose Yeezus because it's among his favorites "by any artist of all time." And when the classically trained Cuchna refers to "all time," best believe he's including the likes of everyone from Beethoven to Bob Dylan.
"From a historical perspective, I can't help but see Yeezus as this kind of clear marker in history that aligns with so many artists that stand the test of time," Cuchna says, "where we can look back and say that moment defined the next 50 to 60 years of music."
Of course, he draws his conclusions using more than mere hindsight, putting his degree in music theory and composition to good use. This season, he also gets co-writing help from Travis Bean and Chris Lambert, hosts of the Kanye-themed podcast Watching the Throne.
The new season of Dissect, premiering Monday night at midnight Eastern, comes on the heels of a season of wildly speculative news for Kanye: an impending divorce from Kim Kardashian and a disputed Bloomberg report that he is now the richest Black man in America. But before he checked lucrative deals with Adidas and the Gap, a curious visit to Trump's Oval Office or his own oddly mounted presidential run off his bucket list, Yeezus was the last album on which the old Kanye could be heard voicing his frustrations as a Black man on the outs with the billionaires he sought to bankroll his all-American dreams.
It's an album that deserves revisiting and deeper reflection, Cuchna says, even if the new Kanye has become a dark, twisted allegory for some: "I know there's a segment of people that are going to be really into the season, but I am interested to see if there's pushback from other people that just don't really want to give Kanye any more attention."
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Rodney Carmichael: Up until now you've dissected albums that are universally heralded. You're not doing that this season. What inspired you to pick this particular album at this particular time?
Cole Cuchna: It's my favorite Kanye album. I would say probably in my personal top three favorite albums by any artist of all time. I just loved the record, so I've always wanted to talk about it. Then, everything around the album is just so interesting — not only where Kanye was in his life. He'd just overcome nearly being canceled for [interrupting Taylor Swift at] the VMAs, and then his comeback season with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch the Throne. So, he essentially wins back the public — and then decides to jeopardize his career, at least his music career at that point, by creating an album that he knew was going to be polarizing.
It's one thing to create an experimental album if you're a lesser-known artist. It's not as much of a risk. But it's really interesting to see someone in the public sphere at the highest level [choose to] do that. It just commands a lot of respect, if you liked the album or not. The fact that he did it is just interesting to me.
It was definitely polarizing, but in hindsight Yeezus almost feels like the last album from the Old Kanye — maybe not sonically, but definitely in terms of content. It's a lot less strange compared to a lot of the stuff he ends up doing post-Yeezus.
The interesting thing about Yeezus is, if you can get around the sonics of it — which I understand is not for everyone. Just the sound of the album is what I think throws most people off, and that's understandable. It is pretty challenging in terms of just the musicality alone. It's dissonant, it's rough, it's minimalism, it's very challenging on that level. But if you listen to the lyrics, it's almost like a return to The College Dropout content, in terms of what he's talking about.
"New Slaves" is probably the most potent example of him really talking about some serious stuff in detail, calling out CCA [CoreCivic, formerly known as Corrections Corporation of America] by name and alluding to the private prison and prison industrial complex. That essentially was his first single, and saying, like, f*** the corporations. It's a big middle finger on a number of levels.
What do you make of a lot of that anti-capitalist sentiment on Yeezus now that he's a billionaire?
That's another complication for sure. On one hand, it seems like he's criticizing the system, but on the other hand, are these critiques just because he's not getting cut in? If you listen to his interviews [from that time], he admits, "I am a new slave, too." There's a lot of historical references to the civil rights era, and he really thought himself as being in a new civil rights moment. He compared himself to Michael Jackson not getting his videos played on MTV because he was Black. He felt like he represented a Black man in America, successful, trying to get into that next level, that really elite billionaire, behind closed doors [with] the power shakers. He saw himself as trying to break that wall down so other people could follow his lead. I think he really believed that.
Are you at all worried that the season could end up being as polarizing to your audience as Kanye has become?
Yeah. I do wonder what the tolerance level for Kanye is now, after everything that happened last year. That was a big reason why I didn't release the season last year, even though the scripts were more or less done. Just the timing, I just didn't see it going off during a tumultuous year for a lot of reasons. And his presidential run and all that; it just seemed really messy at that time. I feel like I'm sneaking it in right now. He's relatively quiet. We've gotten past, hopefully, the worst of the election stuff. So it seems like a safe time to drop it, but it will be interesting.
Was there any consideration around the political implications of focusing on Kanye?
I tried to just be careful how we frame things. I'm not going to back down on my praise of his artistic levels. I feel like that ... would be irresponsible. And really, the way we approached the season, all the most controversial stuff happened after Yeezus.
I approach every album as a time capsule, so I never really go forward too much. The only times that I'll really do that is in the finale episodes, where we're looking back and then assessing what this album has meant in the present day. I haven't written that episode yet, but I will likely talk about at least some of the stuff that has transpired since Yeezus.
The first episode is the exception to that, because I'm framing how he got from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy to Yeezus. Of course some of the outside stuff's going to come into that conversation, because it fueled the subject matter of the album. But I do my best to keep my head down and only let the music inspire the conversation, not the other way around.
You played guitar in rock bands growing up, then studied classical composition in college. When did your fandom for hip-hop start?
I've been fan of hip-hop since I can remember. I think my first CD was MC Hammer. I don't know if that's considered hip-hop, but I was 8 or whatever at the time. I remember one of my earlier memories is at Tower Records. Me and my dad were shopping for music, and I brought up a Warren G CD, like, "Can I have this?" And I put my thumb over the parental advisory.
[Laughs] That was slick!
It worked though, and I got it. But yeah, I've been a fan of hip-hop since I was a little kid. I've always been attracted to that stuff. It wasn't the only thing that I listened to, but it's something that I've always listened to throughout my whole life. It's always been a part of my life.
My parents were not really that into it. I grew up kind of a typical suburban-lifestyle, conservative household [in Sacramento, Calif.]. So rap wasn't, like, the most respected genre in the house, but that never really swayed my opinion too much.
You once said that you write the episodes with your mom in mind. Is extending the appreciation for hip-hop beyond hip-hop culture a huge motivation for you?
Yeah, definitely. I'm a fan of all types of music, but obviously I've stuck to hip-hop and R&B for Dissect. And a huge part of that motivation is still trying to up the level of appreciation for the genre that historically has been disrespected, in my view, academically and in the awards system. Whatever mark you want to use, it's always brushed off to the side as kind of lesser music. I think that's changing, especially recently. But that's very recent, and we're talking about a genre that has [more than] 40 years of history now. I do try to present it in a way that is accessible to everyone without diluting it. I hope I don't dilute anything.
In the first episode, you compare Kanye, and the turning point he made with Yeezus, to Stravinsky and Bob Dylan.
Dylan, I feel, is a really strong comparison. Obviously, we're still in the middle of Kanye['s career], where Dylan is pretty much at the tail end. But Dylan going electric was a clear marker in his career, where you thought he was one thing and it ended up, no, he wasn't that. And he was never that again. I think with Kanye, the same is going to be true.
I always think about Beethoven and Kanye. People like the Fifth Symphony, the most famous symphony probably ever — at least the most well-known and recognizable. Everything about that symphony just broke every single rule. And looking back, we just universally deem that as one of the greatest pieces of music ever written. But it wasn't so clear-cut at the time. The same thing is true of Stravinsky with The Rite of Spring. I don't know if Yeezus is that album, but I think Kanye is that artist.
What do you hope people get from this album that they may have missed the first time?
What people miss about Yeezus is, it's actually a love story when you unpack the narrative. This is why we set up the whole first episode talking about Kanye as a storyteller, because when you really get into Yeezus, it starts out very confrontational, but it ends in this introspective journey where he documents all his failed relationships and his problem with women. Then it ends with him meeting Kim on "Bound 2." So, digging back into that part of the story where he found love and started a family, it's this weird juxtaposition. Now, eight years later, he's achieved that success financially and creatively, but also lost the family that he created at that same time.