Album Review: Yeezus, by Kanye West
Kanye West has enjoyed both commercial success and critical acclaim as consistently as nearly any recording artist in history, certainly nobody else in the past decade, and certainly nobody else in hip-hop. But his irascible public persona is defined by a lack of contentment with all his accomplishments; the only interview he’s granted in advance of his sixth solo album, Yeezus, last week with the New York Times’ Jon Caramanica, frequently focuses not on the 21 Grammys he has won, but on the ones he hasn’t won. West’s albums have often been good or great in spite of their awards bait aspirations; Yeezus is at its best when sounding pointedly disinterested in satisfying Grammy voters.
Yeezus is a lean, aggressive album, by the standards of both contemporary hip-hop and of West’s own unique career within it. It runs through 10 songs in 40 minutes — not exactly a sprint, but by comparison, his last album, 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, took nearly 70 minutes to get through 11 songs and a couple interludes. The Daft Punk-produced opener, “On Sight,” is half as long and twice as loud as West’s chart-topping 2007 single “Stronger,” which sampled Daft Punk, and with time has increasingly sounded quaint and clunky (the new song’s “I need… right now” refrain even seems to directly echo “Stronger”). “New Slaves” sounds like it’s trying to be the most intense and propulsive rap song you’ve ever heard with as little percussion as possible, which might be more impressive if Meek Mill’s “Dreams & Nightmares” hadn’t accomplished something similar a few months ago.
The much trumpeted stark, synth-driven minimalism of Yeezus starts to fall away after the first few songs, however. “Guilt Trip” is crowded with acoustic piano, strobing synths, guitars, cellos, a creeping drum beat, pitched-down vocal samples, and a tunelessly bawling Kid Cudi. Nina Simone and TNGHT samples collide into each other as well as West reciting C-Murder lyrics on “Blood On The Leaves” – he’s always been more about recontextualizing than creating, but sometimes the reference points don’t leave room for much else.
The lyrical reference points on Yeezus, however, are more troublesome. Increasingly, Kanye West’s lyrics feel like the result of a gross misunderstanding of the phrase “the personal is political”: the rampant use of imagery loaded with poignant historical context in service of mainly describing the life of a drugged out, oversexed celebrity. Earlier in his career, he cutely called himself “the fly Malcolm X/buy any jeans necessary,” and said he hated paparazzi more than Nazis (this was, of course, before he pursued a relationship with one of the biggest tabloid stars in the world). On Yeezus, that tendency hits a stomach-turning new low, with lines like “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign,” and, in a passage about sleeping with multiple women, “gotta keep ‘em separated, call that apartheid.” By the time “Blood On The Leaves” concludes with an apparent parallel between matrimony and lynching, it’s a little hard to handle.
But when the references aren’t too heavy, they’re disconcertingly lightweight. Early in his career, Kanye West prided himself on being able to push an openly religious song like “Jesus Walks” onto mainstream hip-hop radio, aided by the levity of a joke borrowed from Happy Gilmore. A decade later, “New Slaves” launched Yeezus as a grim, bold statement of intent, with a video projected on walls around the world. But it punctures the song’s sentiments about race and corporate corruption a bit when he compares himself to the protagonist of another stupid Adam Sandler movie, The Waterboy. His big, emotional breakup album, 808s & Heartbreak, suffered similarly when he’d try to focus all of his bitterness and spite at his ex-girlfriend, and would end up delivering corny lines like “How could you be so Dr. Evil?” as profound soul-searching revelations. “They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor, they gon’ come to kill King Kong” is one line on Yeezus that uses pop culture creatively to make a larger point, but for every moment like that there’s a dozen howlers. A line referencing Deepak Chopra suggests only the loosest possible understanding of both who Chopra is and how to pronounce his name.
When 808s & Heartbreak arrived in 2008, with West singing nearly the entire album through AutoTune, it was thought of as an interesting sidetrack at best, and career suicide at worst. Instead, it was hugely successful on radio (that “Dr. Evil” song went over big), and influential on a new generation of hip-hop artists. Many fans still clamored for West to return to making “real hip-hop” albums, but the ones that followed, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne with Jay-Z, ended up selling less than 808s. The risk and triumph of that experience made Kanye West seem truly bulletproof – any left turn he takes, the audience will follow him. Yeezus is so harsh and uncommercial that it seems to exist to deliberately test that theory.
West made a point of not releasing a single ahead of Yeezus’s release, and announced the album by performing its two most politically charged songs, “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead,” on Saturday Night Live (perhaps in tribute to his hero, Adam Sandler). As the album goes on, though, it feels more and more like a sequel to 808s & Heartbreak, with several songs seeming to return to the topic of failed old relationships, sometimes even with AutoTuned vocals. Those are the songs where you get the graphic sex talk, as well as some observations about monogamy and relationships that feel more viscerally hateful and misogynistic than the many of the lyrics other rappers write about promiscuity. West has a tendency to read people’s minds about whether they like black people, so it seems fair to take note of how much he seems to hate women at a time when he’s in a long term relationship with the famous woman who just gave birth to his daughter.
A decade ago, Kanye West was on the rise as a producer, working on what was to be his mentor Jay-Z’s farewell album, The Black Album. Initially, Jay bandied about the idea of releasing the album with no cover, and no advance singles, but that was eventually abandoned, just like his supposed “retirement.” But it was West that ultimately did pull that stunt off (and now that he has, his big brother has taken notice – on Sunday night, Jay-Z announced that he’s releasing a new album in two weeks, with no single preceding it).
At a recent concert, West declared, “When I listen to radio, that ain’t where I wanna be no more.” It was an interesting statement, given how long that’s been where he lives, particularly recently – “Mercy” and “Clique,” the two hits from his 2012 label compilation Cruel Summer, have absolutely ruled urban airwaves for the past year. And right now, even the competition bears his imprint: the most popular songs on rap radio are by Wale, J. Cole, and Drake, rappers who it’s hard to imagine existing without West’s influence. Even Kendrick Lamar, a West coast rapper less obviously indebted to West, has managed a similar balance of commercial and critical success by playing within a template of popular rap that Kanye West forcibly expanded. In some ways, it’s a little ludicrous for West to decry the state of rap radio when someone with comparable artistic ambition, but far greater lyrical ability, like Kendrick Lamar is doing so well.
Of course, Kanye West has never been a first rate rapper, which sometimes gets forgotten in his ascent to superstar, God, and Steve Jobs of the internet. On Yeezus, his lyrics and his logic sometimes get hazier and lazier than ever, which many fans seem to not just forgive but embrace as just part of worshiping the Best Aesthete Alive. He constantly tells us that his curatorial taste in art and fashion is impeccable, while his bar for wordplay is low enough that he seems inordinately proud of lines about being a “rap-lic priest” who speaks “swag-hili.”
Fortunately, Yeezus is a terrific-sounding album, and in some ways his most immersive and fully realized aural experience. At its best, its lurching, unusual beats, abrupt smash cut edits, and revolutionary sentiments bring to mind Erykah Badu’s New Amerykah Part One, one of the most brilliant albums of the past few years. One of the most inspired aspects of Yeezus is the several tracks featuring dancehall vocalists, whose thick Jamaican patois sounds strange and even poignant over such harsh, rigid beats – the Fuzzy Jones sample on “Mercy” foreshadowed this approach, but it’s still unexpected and wonderful to hear Beenie Man’s voice pop up on “Send It Up,” a dark club banger that could easily be the album’s breakout hit, if not its best song.
Of course, all the mixed metaphors and garbled logic of Yeezus are part and parcel of the package; maybe it is more important for an artist of his stature to say vaguely scandalous things about race than to present a coherent worldview. If he likes to speak to us through comedic pop culture references, perhaps it’s important to remember that one of West’s biggest recent hits sampled Will Ferrell saying “no one knows what it means, but it’s provocative.” But, to speak West’s language, I’m reminded of another goofy comedy – Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, which parodies overly serious biopics of musicians. As Yeezus trudges through a self-conscious dark period in in the career narrative West is constantly writing, I half-expect to hear John C. Reilly’s Dewey Cox shout “Goddamn it, this is a dark fucking period!”