First, a preface: It’s fitting that Kanye West’s most recent gestalt is the first album review I post on this blog, as (to me) he’s one of the most forward-thinking artists, certainly of the last decade, but also in pop music history. Here’s a man who has literally torn himself apart on stage, not so much for our amusement but because he cares so much about his own opinions that he can’t keep them to himself. Millions of people–including two presidents–have called him names and dismissed his talent, disparaging the personality flaws of a man they’ve never met. As much as one might like or dislike Yeezus (and if my play counts from the last month are anything to go by, this will be the Kanye West album I go back to the least), every album he’s ever put out has been a boundary-challenging work that deserves respect.
There’s another reason I’m posting this here. This album review was originally written and posted a full month after the album leaked, which meant that it was dead on arrival, regardless of its quality. The zeitgeist had moved on to Jay-Z’s Samsung-sponsored album release and whether Robin Thicke’s hit music video was sexist. I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with moving on to the next conversation, but there is a problem when a month is too long to talk about one of the year’s biggest releases.
Kanye West – Yeezus
Record Label: Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam
Release Date: June 18, 2013
Where the hell is Kanye West? Though the question seems particularly apt in recent years due to the rapper’s resentment of the media, it’s one that many of his fans have been asking since the Chicago artist’s debut. Kanye has entrenched himself in so many different styles over the last decade—chipmunk soul, baroque pop, electro—that when he announces a new album, most of the fun comes from guessing in which direction he’s going to go next. Kanye’s 2010 opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy had the stamp of its dreamlike recording sessions in Hawaii on every song’s maximalist grandeur. Yeezus takes a different kind of trip, an internal one, delving deeper than ever into West’s psyche. Make no mistake; there is very little beauty here. In Yeezus, Kanye West has created his darkest, most twisted album yet.
Thematically, Yeezus takes most of its subject matter from My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s most affronting track: “Hell Of A Life”, a sordid mash of sex and religion that served as a celebration of the id. The same themes run through Yeezus, and West wastes no time getting there in the album’s first of many manifestos, “On Sight”. Instead of some off-color fantasy about marrying a porn star in the club, Kanye immediately grinds his boots into the real world: “black Tims all on your couch again/black dick all in your spouse again.” Kanye West will have sex with your wife on your couch at least one more time during this album, along with a variety of other women in cars, clubs, and (most memorably) sinks. He’ll smash cars, drink himself into near-oblivion, forget where he first met his daughter’s mother. And he’ll brag about it the entire time, every line delivered with something between a shriek and sneer.
Though the album sits at a scant forty minutes (easily the shortest in his discography), it can be exhausting to spend this much time inside Kanye’s head. West doesn’t spit his verses so much as vomit them onto the tracks, and there’s less humor than usual to dispel the darkness. Lines that compare popping molly to an out-of-body religious experience and certain sex acts to the Civil Rights movement come off as both obscene and inspired, often at the same time. Executive producer Rick Rubin (whose hands are all over these tracks, stripping them down to their bare essentials) has stated that about half of Kanye’s vocals were written and recorded in a two-hour burst, and at times the seams show. In terms of its lyrics, this is easily the rapper’s worst output to date, with repetitive and often simplistic rhyme schemes. Verses stop short, as if West can’t think of anything else to say, and his autotune digressions are finally starting to feel like a crutch. Yet there’s plenty to parse—particularly if you’re interested in hearing Kanye West rap about Kanye West, as that’s literally all that you’ll find here—and the album’s lyrical shortcomings are easily made up for by its stellar production work.
In many ways, “Hell Of A Life” sets a sonic template for Yeezus as well, its buzzed-out synths serving as a precursor to these tracks’ jagged and skittering beats, often punctuated with dancehall samples from some sort of apocalyptic Jamaica. No song ends where it begins, as Kanye pushes and pulls each beat around like he can’t help himself. Even in “New Slaves”—the album’s most straightforward song—the minimalist thump needlessly (and beautifully) gives way to a triumphant blast of an outro, complete with Frank Ocean helping Kanye sing “I can’t lose” over and over.
From a production standpoint, Kanye certainly can’t be blamed for bragging. This is masterful work, a testament to both his ear for different genres of music and his ability to mash them together in an oddly coherent way. Most listeners have rightly pointed to the bizarre combination of Nina Simone and TNGHT on “Blood On The Leaves” as the album’s standout production moment, but there are so many more: the tinkling keys under “Guilt Trip”, the stop/start breakdown of screaming on “I Am A God”, the stadium-worthy drums of “Black Skinhead.” One of my favorite moments on an album filled with them is the part of “On Sight” where Kanye cuts off the song’s icy stabs to play an old soul sample right after asking, “how much do I not give a fuck?” Children sing, “he’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want” before everything abruptly switches back to the original beat. It’s a brilliant joke on his fans’ expectations and feels like a statement of purpose about the chaotic production in general. It’s not that Kanye can’t make up his mind; it’s that he doesn’t want to.
Kanye’s ear for bringing together disparate musical elements extends to his featured artists as well, treating everyone as an extension of his production much like he did on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The guest list is more restrained than Kanye’s other rap albums, with fewer invites handed out than usual. Yet the limited roster adds urgency, as all show up ready to work. The ever-reliable Justin Vernon warbles alongside Chief Keef of all people in album highlight “Hold My Liquor” and it’s hard to tell who sounds better. Recent G.O.O.D. signee D’Baanj delivers two blistering performances. Even Kid Cudi moans his best hook in years on the harrowing outro of “Guilt Trip”. The only real error comes from longtime collaborator Charlie Wilson, who sings a misplaced R&B chorus during “Bound 2” that threatens to derail the entire song until a throwback beat and hilarious verses pull it back on track.
It’s interesting how unimportant most of the words are to each collaborator’s effect on these songs. After dozens of listens, I still have no idea what D’Baanj and Justin Vernon are singing during their respective sections of “I’m In It”— somehow, it doesn’t matter. King L’s opening verse on “Send It Up” would sound like a mediocre freestyle under a less menacing beat, but it works perfectly in the moment. Think of it as a musical RSVP: Mr. West requires his esteemed guests’ presence more than their actual words. Everyone and everything is churned together to swell Kanye’s ego, the raging tornado at the center of it all.
The first promotional image for Yeezus (and original cover) featured West’s famous Jesus chain ripped apart, its head split and melted. Though eventually the cover was reduced to resemble a blank disc, that original image remains the best representation of this album in all its fractured brilliance. On Yeezus, Kanye West is tearing himself apart, exposing his worst tendencies for everyone to see. Much like his chain, the results are pure gold.