On Yeezus, Kanye West sets out to be an equal-opportunity offender. Over the first week of official listening and reacting to it, the Internet seems to be awakening to this fact, as reviews describe the lyrics as everything from carelessly thrown-together to profoundly self-aware, stopping along the way to note the racism, misogyny, and determined cruelty toward pretty much every group, community, and culture. Advocacy groups for Parkinson’s began the official outcry against the album on June 20th, two days after the album’s official release, though the broader Internet had been decrying the record’s misogyny since its initial leak.
Beginning literally with the first verse, we can now expect advocacy groups for pretty much everyone to work their way through the album, verse by verse, deriding West, asking for an apology, or starting a petition—perhaps to get his teeth wired shut again?
The opening verse of “On Sight” is clearly offensive:
A monster about to come alive again
Soon as I pull up and park the Benz
We get this bitch shaking like Parkinson’s
As we will repeatedly hear throughout the album, West is poking every sector of the potential audience for Yeezus that he possibly can. As I mentioned earlier, he targets women most frequently: “I keep it 300, like the Romans / 300 bitches, where’s the Trojans?” And “Eating Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce”.
Throughout the album, he catalogs his various sexual proclivities (such as “Careless whispers, eye-fucking, biting ass”—wait, what?), describing his many, many, many conquests in some ways that are predictably problematic: “Now you sittin’ courtside, wifey on the other side / Gotta keep ‘em separated, I call that apartheid”. And others that are unpredictably problematic: “Uh, black girl sippin’ white wine / Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”.
Throughout the album, West is clearly being a provocateur, in the musical tradition of Madonna, Marilyn Manson, N.W.A, and probably other better examples of provocateurs. Despite the deeply-rooted misogyny of his lyrics (which has been there since his pop-friendlier early albums) and the casual racism (that has probably also been there but seems amplified here), it’s hard not to think West is very much in on the joke when he says things like: “Time to take it too far now / Uh, Michael Douglas out the car now”. Or, “Soon as they like you make ‘em unlike you” Or, as he repeatedly says in the CHORUS of the FIRST SONG: “How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now before you give it up”. The juxtaposition of these sentiments with the jarringly discordant production certainly suggests that West is interested, throughout both the lyrics and the music/production, in toying with our expectations of a Kanye West song and our cultural trigger-points.
Furthermore, as anyone with an awareness of popular culture (or a daily email of US Weekly headlines) knows, West does very much give a fuck. Very, very, very much. Although he makes little direct mention of his current relationship or his (at the time) impending fatherhood, West has previously brought his increasingly public persona into his lyrics. In “Cold”, from his recent compilation album Cruel Summer, he alludes to current girlfriend Kim Kardashian’s ongoing attempts to get a divorce from Kris Humphries; in “Clique”, he describes Kardashian as “a superstar all from a home movie”. How I wish they had filmed a “Keeping up with the Kardashians” episode where Kim listens to this album for the first time. Or where Kanye finds out that his unborn child is a girl.
But back to Yeezus. For an album that will likely receive little to no radio play, West needs things to keep him “pop[ping] a wheelie on the zeitgeist”. While critics hailed his previous solo album My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (2010) as one of the best by any artist of the past decade, it was his poorest selling to date. Despite the lack of discernible choruses on Yeezus, tracks like “Blood on the Leaves” mine that controversy for really fascinating and disturbing moments. The song uses a sample from Nina Simone’s rendering of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit”, which famously deals with black lynchings. As a production, it’s a sheer triumph, with a horn sample at the 1:07 mark that… has critics obsessed with pointing you to the 1:07 mark of that song. However, in stark contrast to the seriousness of the sample on which the song is built, the lyrics tell the story of a woman trying to use a baby to trap Kanye into a relationship. West juxtaposes the sample with lines like:
To all my second string bitches, tryna get a baby
Trying to get a baby, now you talkin’ crazy
I don’t give a damn if you used to talk to Jay-Z
He ain’t with you, he with Beyoncé, you need to stop actin’ lazy
Ironically, all of this is unfolding as Feminist Taylor Swift (@feministtswift) is blowing up on Twitter. The account (which describes itself as “Happy. Free. Confused. Oppressed by the patriarchy. At the same time.”) hilariously revises Swift lyrics into messages of female empowerment. A sample tweet: “You were Romeo, you were throwin’ pebbles / And my daddy said ‘Stay away from Juliet’ / But I’m a grown woman who can make her own decisions.”
In addition to gaining nearly 100,000 followers in less than two weeks, the account has sparked interesting conversations about the problematic nature of Swift’s lyrics. If there is a Bechdel Test for music, Swift’s songs would fail it (except maybe that one about how much she loves her mom), as virtually her entire musical persona revolves around men. Despite the seeming moments of empowerment (“I’m going to break up their wedding—because he loves me!” / “He asked my dad for permission to marry me—because he loves me!” / “He left that cheerleader—because he loves me!”—I made up all these lyrics, of course), Swift’s lyrics uphold traditional notions of gender roles and display an inability to speak about herself outside of the context of a man. By contrast, West’s lyrics are setting off a firestorm of controversy and seem poised to become a topic of debate across all media. Ultimately, we could make an argument that Swift’s lyrics/persona is more insidious, as she is marketed to young girls and often discussed as a role model for her prodigious talent.
In the months to come, it’s impossible to predict what the zeitgeist will determine about West and what Yeezus will do to his popularity and cultural significance. It’s also impossible to predict whether there will be a serious backlash against Taylor Swift, though I doubt it. All I know is that the more advocacy groups that complain about the album, the more often Matt Lauer will quote Kanye West lyrics on Today, the more often my distant relatives will wag their fingers at West on Facebook, and the more likely I will be to want to defend his artistic decisions. And the more hilarious I will find moments like this, which have nothing to do with anything but are nevertheless amazing:
I just talked to Jesus
He said, “What up Yeezus?”
I said, “Shit I’m chilling”
“Trying to stack these millions”