Kanye West, Radiohead, Bon Iver, and the art of disruption

The music world is constantly on the search for the innovators, the pioneers, the trailblazers, those who live by the beat of a different drum. Those who challenge the norm, break down the rules of convention, disregard the rulebook, and do something many artists can only ever dream of doing- disrupt. As Steve Jobs once did with a multitude of Apple devices, as Elon Musk continues to do today, some musicians are driven by the need to defy expectancy, to change the approach to a certain craft.

In the 21st Century, few artists can comfortably fit into the category of disruptor, but with Kanye West, Radiohead and Bon Iver, it’s difficult to challenge their accolades and bodies of work. And while each have gone through a multitude of album-centred personas, rapidly changing their sound and image with each and every project, there’s three of their projects that specifically cater to the art of disruption, landmark releases on the scale of innovation and progression, game-changing projects for their respective genres. Those three releases are Yeezus, Kid A, and 22, A Million.

Kanye West is of course no stranger to innovation, with each of his eight albums bringing drastic change to the world of hip-hop. From soulful production and ‘a creative way to rhyme’ with his debut The College Dropout, to ousting the immovable object that once was gangster rap with Graduation, through to possibly one of the most under-appreciated albums of the 21st Century- 808s & Heartbreak. Dark Twisted Fantasy is also of course one of the true masterpieces of hip-hop.

But three years after 808s, via the collaborative Watch The Throne, Kanye returned with perhaps one of the most disruptive, innovate pieces of music in years, 2013’s Yeezus. Abrasive, harsh, metallic, unforgiving, relentless, vulgar, in-your-face, Yeezus was a confounding, challenging and eye-opening release teeming with unapologetic references to Kanye’s self-proclaimed position as a musical deity.

Yeezus was presented to the world as the complete musical entity in which it was crafted. From its distanced relationship with the media, to its tour production values, through to its merchandise and packaging. It was a complete unveiling of the Kanye West state-of-mind, a mind that pairs Bon Iver with Chief Keef, a mind that collided the worlds of electronic music with hip-hop and rap, and filtered it through far-out samples from the likes of TNGHT and Nina Simone.

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Radiohead too, are far beyond the album-promo-repeat band of today, they always have been, and always will be. Across a glittering 30-plus-year career, Radiohead have changed the landscape of music full stop, least of all rock music, on more than one occasion. And while the likes of OK Computer and In Rainbows are often hailed as their most celebrated releases, it’s with Kid A, that the band were at their most disruptive.

Kid A is an eclectic and mesmerising journey through a catalogue of musical alliances. Built on a backbone of krautrock and experimental rock, the 11-track project floats in and out of ambient and techno, flirting with the idea of jazz, classical and hip-hop along the way (Yorke recently revealed how Dr Dre was nearly on the album). The dreamy landscapes of the album’s title track, coexist peacefully alongside the fiery, guitar-punishing The National Anthem, while the venomous and gorgeously abrasive, techno-infused masterpiece that is Idioteque, gladly bows down to introduce the sparse, dystopian Morning Bell.

The magic and the perfection in Kid A is the ultimate amalgamation of sounds and influences, from a catalogue of places and spaces, repurposed for use in a bleak and dwindling era of rock music. Following a Brit-pop challenging OK Computer, and a desolate few following years in the rock music landscape, the year 2000 was crying out for a release as disruptive and innovative as Kid A. An album that fell into neither rock nor electronic music, an album that had no stake or pursuit in the formula of that era. Released alongside the likes of Hybrid Theory, U2’s All You Can’t Leave Behind, and a hugely forgettable Oasis album, Kid A shone out as beacon of innovation and disruption.

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Kanye West and Radiohead have both had the upper hand of long, illustrative careers, stretching over 25 and 32 years respectively, in which releasing a combined 17 albums between them. In contrast, Bon Iver has only three albums under his belt, in a career spanning just 12 years. But in a relatively short career so far, specifically with the release of his 2016 album 22, A Million, Justin Vernon and co. can too be considered among the elite, in the art of disruption.

Besides helping pioneer a new movement toted as ‘folktronica’ alongside fellow innovator Four Tet, a genre later plumped by the likes of James Blake and Francis & The Lights, its with Bon Iver’s third album that the group found even further acclaim. Much like Yeezus’ promo and packaging, 22, A Million was unveiled as a cryptic and shadowed product to the world, with Vernon removing himself from the process almost entirely. From the offset this wasn’t going to be a typical project.

Similar in structure and approach to Kid A, 22, A Million fused the worlds of electronic music with folk, indie and alternative. In doing so, the album possesses a litter of non-linear, scattered arrangements, which travel through punchy percussion and hard-hitting basslines, stopping at moments of utter beauty and poetry along the way. The cryptically titled tracks make it difficult to differentiate moments of the album, and the effortless synergy across all 10 tracks make that task no easier.

Much of the album is filtered through an overarching injection of distortion, yet the ever-present acoustic guitars, and soft dainty piano keys, shine through as moments of clarity and direction. The album plays through as a battle between musical influences, with electronic and folk music fighting and arguing for the spotlight. But as the project mills on, it’s as if Vernon has tamed both, introducing each to the benefits of one another. It’s a hugely daring, dangerously combative approach to crafting a full-length album, and in the end, the results are like nothing we’ve heard before.

The magnitude of Kid A’s influence and legacy really is immeasurable, and it’s impossible to pinpoint just how much of an impact Radiohead’s 2000 album really has had on the industry. Vince Staples’ Big Fish Theory, Run The Jewels, Danny Brown, Travis Scott, the list really is exhaustive for those inspired by Kanye West’s Yeezus. With Bon Iver’s 22, A Million, the next few years will continue to define it as a pioneering release, one that follows both Kid A and Yeezus, as landmark examples of genre-shaping disruption.

 

 

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