Kanye West - Yeezus
Okay I’m back out my coma. It’s been a few months since I’ve written anything about music, first because I got busy with school and then because I got busy with other stuff. But what I’ve been busy with the past five days is listening to Yeezus nonstop, and I feel compelled to write some words about my favorite album of the year. If any of you know me personally, you know there is some bias because Kanye has been my favorite rapper ever since I bought Late Registration the month I began high school. It may have been the censored version, but it was my gateway into rap music, especially the dizzying genius of Kanye West.
While it’s been close to three year since the near perfect My Beautiful Twisted Dark Fantasy, it’s not as if Yeezy has been absent since then. Between Watch The Throne and Cruel Summer, we’ve gotten our regular dose of Ye for the past two summers, but it’s taken him until now to release the official follow up to the album that blew us all away. The only similarities to that album on Yeezus are the “Dark” and “Twisted” part, as Yeezus is a sickening, lurching piece of music that seems to bring us into Kanye’s reality.
A writer for Pitchfork named Jamsion Cox that I follow on Twitter said just the other day that Kanye is like Bowser and then compared the collaborators on Yeezus with Bowser’s minions. I laughed at first but the more I thought about it, the more I realized how apt that was. Kanye West has, in a sense, embraced his role as the villain of hip-hop, creating an ugly yet incredible album that delves into his psyche. There’s a reason he used American Psycho as the inspiration for the promotional video he just put out. A quick glance through the lyrics will show some of the most brutal, misogynistic, yet vividly self-aware rhymes you will read all year. Kanye exposes himself bare, lays forth all his faults, and doesn’t ask for forgiveness or acceptance. “Soon as they like you make em unlike you” he says early in his already controversial single “I Am A God”. In the elaborate interview with the New York Times, Kanye admitted to making some concessions on his last album, but there are none to be found on Yeezus. Pretty much nothing here could fit on the radio, no singles were released, and the album packaging is starkly blank for a man who created his own fashion line and is so image-obsessed. With Yeezus, there is nothing here but the music.
You’ve already heard the countless stories of how Rick Rubin helped Kanye assemble the album and strip pieces to make it have a minimalist sound, and you will notice the lack of beats and grandiose horns and production you’ve grown used to from Kanye albums. This becomes apparent in the opening ten seconds of On Sight, a song produced by Daft Punk that is so full of screeches and halts that you’d be hard to point that out without reading the credits. When, a minute in, the song stops and a gospel choir fills your headphones for ten seconds, you’ll realize that Yeezus is unlike anything Ye has done so far. Yeezus is an industrial record, a dance record, a reggae record, and an experimental dance record. “I Am A God” features some of the harshest screams of the year outside of the amazing Pharmakon record that came out last May. Yeezus is a huge left-turn for Kanye, and partly because of the people he chooses to work with.
Three years ago, the indie community freaked out when they found out Justin Vernon of Bon Iver was singing on the new Kanye album. Now, Vernon is the only other artist besides Kanye whose voice is featured on MBDTF, Watch The Throne, and Yeezus. The three songs that he sings on don’t so much use his voice to add beauty to the track as they distort his image and persona and add an eerie companion on Kanye’s dark journey. Kanye embraces the dancehall part of reggae by featuring Beenie Man’s voice alongside other reggae artists (okay, I don’t know a lot about reggae). He reps Chicago by featuring the young troubled voices of Chief Keef and King Louie to draw attention to the youth engulfed in violence in “Chiraq”. You know that Daft Punk helped with three tracks that have way more energy than anything from their latest record, but the most exciting collaborators are the young electronic artists he works with including Evian Christ, Arca, and Hudson Mohawke of TNGHT. Evian Christ and Arca are two of the most innovative, experimental, and underrated new producers, and they add a real sense of turmoil, unrest, and unexpected energy to this bleak record that will hopefully garner them some well-deserved attention. Hudson Mohawke’s contributions are impressive as well, especially his work on the standout “Blood On The Leaves”.
Now some people have criticized Kanye for what he does with “Blood On The Leaves”, and it’s hard to argue their points. He interpolates a sample of “Strange Fruit” by Nina Simone, a song written in 1939 about lynching that compares a black man hanging to “strange fruit hanging from the poplar tree”. Critics argue the fact that Kanye uses that line in a song that is essentially a sequel to his popular “Gold Digger” is insensitive and reckless. I don’t think he is trying to compare extreme prejudice and murder to being forced to pay alimony, but rather just portraying an extension of his increasingly fractured mindset. His mind races, and his musical thoughts race so that he still brings up the ugly ideas of racism before moving on to an entirely different topic altogether. But Kanye has always been a master of samples, and the way Nina Simone’s voice fits into the track is hauntingly majestic, and for the first minute it seems as if Kanye has perfected the formula he created on 808s and Heartbreaks. Then, Hudson Mohawke’s beat from TNGHT’s “R U Ready” drops in as Kanye wails out “We could have been somebody” and damn if it isn’t the most powerful moment in music I’ve felt all year. No the lyrics aren’t perfect and the symbolism is off, but the song makes you feel something in a way you don’t get too much from other musicians.
These moments come on other parts of the album too, from the incredible throwback “Bound 2” to the wildly invigorating “New Slaves”. Both those songs feature the only soul on the album, a departure for a rapper who built his career around old soul samples. Both moments come as refreshing interludes, and accent two incredibly different tracks and mindsets. “Bound 2” is the closest thing Kanye can write to a love song, a four minute track about craving love, forgetting important details, infidelity, sex, god, and references to 80s television shows, which shows Kanye writing a love song the only way he knows how to. On the other end is “New Slaves”, the most overtly angry and political song he’s written in years, a black punk anthem that takes on wealth, racism, the prison system, and consumerism in one dirty fell swoop. It’s a triumphant moment on an album full of them. Kanye nastily confronts the world, not caring what the repercussions will be. No wonder he avoided the traditional marketing style of a pre-album release. His newly found anti-corporation stance now seems to be a stark reaction to Jay-Z and Justin Timberlake’s extensive campaigns with Samsung and Target to release their new albums. Kanye doesn’t want to play by anybody’s rules anymore, as he sees himself as “the only rapper compared to Michael”. For fans of the rapper, it’s a pretty exciting point to see Kanye free from limits.
Not everything about this album is perfect. There are some clunkers in the lyrics, and a few overt cases of racism and sexism that in a way also serve to underline Kanye’s new villainous role. However, many things about Yeezus are done perfectly, from the sequencing to the fact that at 40 minutes, the album begs to be listened to over and over again. I could spend pages typing up every great line from the record, but I might end up listing 85% of the lyrics. A friend asked me if it was better than MBTDF and I wasn’t sure how to answer. It isn’t as grand or expansive or lush. There are only ten tracks that clock in at a brief 40 minutes. Compared to the Good Fridays experiment he worked on a few years ago, Yeezus seemed to come out of nowhere and hit me like a ton of bricks. Twenty listens later and I’m still not fully able to parse through every aspect of it. Yeezus also does the remarkable job of making you pity Kim Kardashian for having to put up with this man, who truly seems like a monster in real life. As a musician, he is a genius and has done the unthinkable by following up a near-perfect album with another masterpiece. To answer my friend, I thought My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was the best album of the decade, the best Kanye album, and one of my favorite albums of all time. I’m not sure yet whether I like Yeezus better or not. That’s how good it is. The only thing as expansive as Kanye’s ego is his talent. No, he isn’t a god, but he is a sinner, a black skinhead, a loner, and a monster. He is Yeezus. This album is his crowning achievement.
- David Sackllah