The Yemplate

On April 3rd, 2022 @ 4:04 PM EST, The Weeknd floated the idea on Twitter that he might “pull a YE and just legally change [his] name to ABEL. no last name.” Personally and career-wise alike, The Weeknd (Abel) and Kanye West (Ye) have quite a significant overlap. First and perhaps most relevant in the vast majority of music enthusiasts’ minds, Abel replaced Ye for his Coachella spot after his departure from the festival lineup. Additionally, both have encountered issues with the Recording Academy throughout their careers. 

Personally and creatively, Abel has largely followed in the footsteps of Ye while also evading much of the scrutiny from mainstream press the latter artist has been liable to invite throughout most of his career. He serves as a case study for the notion that certain aspects of Ye’s career — a discography forming a coherent series of narrative albums, maverick attitudes regarding the music industry’s domineering role, and democratic artistry — ought to become a template or “yemplate” for artists to consider following regardless of their niche/genre. 

Points of similarity between their attitudes toward the Recording Academy aside, each artist has had a similar career trajectory, especially with regard to their discographical arcs. Though they are certainly not alone in this yemplate aspect, both began their artistic journeys by releasing a trilogy of albums. Furthermore, even if they have been distinctly executed, Ye and Abel have musical catalogs with shared direction and themes. Both arcs seek to ridicule some aspect of society before delving into a love-hate relationship with fame and how it serves to help or hurt relationships — romantic and platonic, external and internal. Now, Ye and Abel have hinted toward the release of subsequent trilogies, dealing with more spiritual or religiously-inspired themes of life, death, resurrection, and the afterlife. 

As mentioned above, Ye began his catalog with a trilogy of albums — one that has often been colloquially deemed “the higher education trilogy”. Heidi Lewis’ “Examination of Kanye West’s Higher Education Trilogy” in her 2014 book The Cultural Impact of Kanye West explains: “[Ye] is critical of a continually perpetuated mis-education about the purposes and benefits of college: the narrow and unrealistic ways in which we conceptualize and validate the path to economic success as inextricably linked to college, the fallacious and dangerous insider/outsider dichotomy that permeates much of our discourse on the matter, [and] the low expectations for black males when it comes to education, success, and communal value”. As such, “the higher education trilogy” (2004-2007) has a central thesis which Ye set out to substantiate via his own life experiences. 

Intentionally or not, Abel’s first trilogy (aptly dubbed Trilogy) attempted to and ultimately realized a similar end. According to a Fact Magazine writer, “Trilogy doesn’t just expose or subvert the womanizing male archetype of modern [R&B], it destroys it, by rendering it quaintly one-dimensional. By Trilogy’s end, the model seems a psychologically clumsy anachronism, a little like how the cowboy archetype seemed by the ‘60s. And with its demise goes nearly 30 years of unchallenged male gaze.” Whereas Ye’s first trilogy is a socioeconomic critique of a classist modern education system, Abel’s Trilogy of projects is more of a statement against sexism and traditional gender roles. Nevertheless, both serve as introductory points in each of their careers that speak to a subject matter significantly larger and more relatable than merely one’s personal life. 

And it doesn’t stop there. 808s & Heartbreak (2008), while tangentially speaking on the untimely death of his mother Donda West, is primarily about Ye’s romance with then-fiancée Alexis Phifer and its heartbreaking conclusion (pun intended) likely resulting from celebrity-induced jealousy. Albeit in a more complicated manner, Abel’s Kiss Land (2013) is also the consequence of toxic romance (or rather multiple toxic romances) — doomed to failure by stardom’s temptations. 

Even ignoring the root word they have in common, Ye’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) and Abel’s Beauty Behind The Madness (2015) both tackled fame’s drawbacks in such a memorable, relatable way that said records ironically saw each artist garner more attention. Instead of shying away from this increased notoriety, however, their next albums would embrace it with mindless superstar-level braggadocio while intermittently denouncing its lasting repercussions on relationships with self and others  — those both eventual and concurrent. Featuring iconic production by none other than the now-defunct half-machine, half-French electronic music duo Daft Punk, Yeezus (2013) and Starboy (2016) are shadow-self-portraits of their ugliest yet most enticing characteristics.

Last to be produced but not least in artistic value, Abel’s recently unveiled sophomore album trilogy is running contemporaneously, and one might argue thematically, alongside the less-than-smooth rollout of Ye’s Donda trilogy. Whereas the three Donda (2021) listening parties were said to follow the religious epic of Dante’s Inferno, a press statement asserted that Dawn FM (2022) took place in a state of purgatory. Ignoring a few gaps in Abel’s discography relative to Ye’s — namely the absence of his self-indulgent, experimental “The Life of Abel” corresponding to Ye’s The Life of Pablo, his self-titled “Abel” (Ye), and his album declaring a full-blown conversion to Christianity (Jesus Is King) — The Weeknd has not strayed too far off track from the yemplate.

This state of affairs is even more applicable to how Abel has declared war on the music industry. Most notably, after his 2020 record After Hours received an abysmal zero Grammy nominations despite spending weeks atop the Billboard charts, Abel has since refused to submit his music for Academy consideration. In a similar vein, Ye once famously placed one of his 21 Grammys in a toilet before urinating on it and was recently barred from the 2022 award show due to the inappropriate comments he’s made on social media. 

Partially in response to leaks exposing the Recording Academy for having secret selection committees — something which was unlikely to have come as a surprise to either of the two artists — both Ye and Abel have become absentees from the Grammy award show. Moreover, their albums as well as their corresponding rollouts have often spoken against the industry’s control over artists. Most recently, Ye attempted to make a statement against the current anti-artist streaming model with the deployment of his $200 stem player in conjunction with an online statement on how Donda 2 (2022) would be released exclusively on this device.

One crucial way in which Abel’s career has diverged from Ye’s is how they have built relationships with their fans. Historically, artists have typically preferred to release music on their own terms. It is their own music after all. Ye is a prime example, however, of the contemporary tendency for artists to be executive producers democratically making creative decisions with a legislative body in mind — in this case, the most passionate yet dissatisfied fans of their music.

From seemingly endless strings of manic social media updates to continuously altered tracklist sequencings, Ye has broken the conventional mold of what it means to be a musician in the 21st century. Ever since the delayed release of his sophomore album, the aptly titled Late Registration (2005), Ye’s album rollouts haven’t exactly been the smoothest of endeavors for his most emotionally invested and impatient of fans. In particular, The Life Of Pablo (2016), was and remains infamous for being fully realized only after months of various revisions prompted by popular demand. 

Indeed, Pablo was a seminal project in which Ye decided to let fans in on his creative process, giving up some dictatorial power in favor of letting democratic artistry take hold. “Ima fix wolves,” said Ye, and fix “Wolves” he did. Just over a month after its world premiere on SNL featuring Sia and Vic Mensa and prompted by popular demand, Ye’s revised version of “Wolves” brought these features back on the song when they had previously been missing from it. Nowadays, Ye does not simply release music to the public. The full realization of his artistic work requires immense amounts of creative feedback — not only from his collaborators but also from his audience. Before its “official” release, Donda underwent multiple revisions based on how listening party attendees received various iterations of the same tracks. 

The song “Jail”, for example, was originally teased as featuring a triumphant return from Jay-Z at the first official listening party in Atlanta. At the final listening party in Chicago’s Soldier Field, the song had then featured a verse from a more controversial figure — DaBaby. This version initially received criticism for not living up to the hype generated by the prospect of a sequel to Jay-Z and Ye’s 2010 Watch The Throne collaboration. However, many fans were disappointed when Donda first released without this DaBaby verse included. That was until “Jail pt 2” featuring DaBaby came online. 

Similarly, at first, “Remote Control” included a verse from another frequent Ye collaborator — Kid Cudi — while not on the album’s first release, was slated for the deluxe version. If not for these eventual additions (and many more), fans would have — in all likelihood — been dissatisfied with the release as it would have not lived up to their unrealistic expectations. Also, multiple instrumental versions of “Hurricane were narrowed to one via responses to a Mike Dean tweet. In theory, Ye’s stem player is also supposed to allow consumers of music to become producers of it by adding, removing, and transforming aspects or stems of a track — even though it comes with a hefty price tag of $200.

While it would be somewhat of a risk to both the fans and himself, Abel still has the potential to take such a “democratic artistry” route. I would argue that this is an essential part of the yemplate. It’s extraordinarily difficult to imagine an alternative career path for Ye that did not include revolutionary, fan-involved projects (such as The Life Of Pablo and Donda) without sacrificing some of what makes Ye so important to the music industry and artistic endeavors at large. Additionally, some non-rap artists, such as Charli XCX with her 2020 quarantine album How I’m Feeling Now, have already made attempts to replicate this democratic mode of creation to great success. Thus, this aspect of the yemplate is already being replicated outside hip-hop — its genre of origin.

So where do we go from here? Abel has obviously taken some pages out of the Ye playbook — what I’ve coined the yemplate — but where does the rest of the industry stand? There are some Ye-influenced artists who seem as though they are ready to try and emulate some of those groundbreaking aspects of Ye’s career — namely Chance the Rapper and Tyler, The Creator, both of whom started their careers with a trilogy of sorts. Are they mavericks in the music industry? Are they willing to become democratic artists? Ultimately, time will tell whether the yemplate is merely an isolated trend or a formula that will pick up speed and legitimacy in the coming decade.

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