The Maximalists of 2010: Kanye West and Sufjan Stevens
In 2010, Kanye West released the redemptive, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Considered perhaps the greatest rap album of all time and one of the industry’s most exciting comebacks, the album has become a touchstone for all rap albums since its release. Beyond the folklore surrounding its conception by a disgraced, post-VMAs Kanye, the secret to this album’s cult following is its unabashed embrace of maximalism. The more-is-more production philosophy made the album so explosive, everyone nearly forgot that they were supposed to hate Kanye. Although it was an earth-shattering start to rap in the 2010s, Kanye was not the only artist to adopt maximalism that year.
Indie-folk sweetheart, Sufjan Stevens, released the equally shocking album, The Age of Adz, in 2010 as well. Inspired by the work of schizophrenic artist and self-proclaimed prophet, Royal Robertson, The Age of Adz captures the integrity of Robertson’s eccentric visuals into sound. However dissimilar to MBDTF in many ways, the album remains highly influential in the indie space.
Before this album, folk’s traditionally austere aesthetics impeded practically any experimentation with production. While folk is associated with acoustic instrumentation and earnest lyrics, Stevens seemingly threw away the rule book on The Age of Adz which includes a 25-minute final track called “Impossible Soul” which, frankly, seems better described as an epic than a song. Although it received mixed reviews by fans at the time of its release, the work has since proven itself a pioneer for the emerging sub-genre, Folktronica (a mix of folk and electronica).
So, what is “maximalism?” (And why doesn’t Microsoft Office recognize it as a real word?) Maximalism essentially means anti-minimalism or a reaction against minimalism. The term was originally coined by musicologist, Richard Taruskin, to describe German modernist compositions from 1890 to 1914. In his words, maximalism is music “radically intensified,” usually defined by big orchestration and complex harmonic and motivic features.
The maximalist tendencies of both MBDTF and The Age of Adz are intrinsic to the analysis of both works – neither can be critiqued without recognizing that much of their greatness lies purely in our inability to look away. Both are so sonically hyperbolic and surreal that they command your attention.
Although I am tempted to say it might be easier to make a captivating maximalist work than a minimalist one, I hesitate. The success of a maximalist album is reliant on the artists’ ability to control and master almost innumerable elements of production, teetering on the edge of cacophony yet somehow avoiding the chaos. It is an incredibly hard line to walk, but it is one both Sufjan Stevens and Kanye West did well in 2010.
Interestingly, the follow-ups to the release of both MBDTF and The Age of Adz were both albums that would be considered minimalist, proving perhaps that what goes up must come back down. Maximalism loses its strength when it becomes the norm, not the exception. Its power lies in its shock-value. Both MBDTF and The Age of Adz were climaxes in the artists’ discographies, and the power of the climax is that it’s merely a moment of passion in the greater narrative arc.
Kanye West’s next album, Yeezus, (2013) defined by its jagged, raw synths and skeletal beats, proved a harsh comedown from the beloved MBDTF for many. Still polarizing today, some listeners herald Yeezus as Kanye’s best, while others mark it as his worst. While Sufjan Stevens also released a fairly bare-bones follow up, Carrie and Lowell, (2016), its reception was much more positive, and arguably, Carrie and Lowell has become more of a fan-favorite than glitzy The Age of Adz.
The minimalist Carrie and Lowell was a return to the simple folk/singer-songwriter side of Stevens’ which fans had craved for after the unanticipated climax of The Age of Adz. And for Kanye fans, Yeezus was another risky, out-of-the-box experimentation, except this time it toyed with minimalism.
Ultimately, MBDTF and The Age of Adz will be well regarded in the years to come for their trailblazing experiments with both rap and folk music. While Simon and Garfunkel’s song “Save the Life of My Child” from the album, Bookends, is probably the first instance of Folktronica, Stevens’ The Age of Adz expanded and modernized what “Save the Life of My Child” started. This eventually opened the doors for artists like Bon Iver to continue and expand the scope of the sub-genre.
For rap, MBDTF popularized a push toward more extravagant, glamorous beats and has been said to inspire future rap kings like Kendrick Lamar and A$AP Rocky. Scoring a rare, perfect 10 rating from Pitchfork, MBDTF might be one of the most beloved albums of all time by critics and fans alike. While maximalism is not always executed well, Kanye West’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Sufjan Stevens’ The Age of Adz have used maximalist production techniques with mastery, cementing their works as influences to artists in the 2010s.