“Kanye came over to play me what I assumed was going to be the finished album at three weeks before the last possible delivery date. We ended up listening to three hours of partially finished pieces. The raw material was very strong but hadn’t yet come into focus. Many of the vocals hadn’t been recorded yet, and many of those still didn’t have lyrics. From what he played me, it sounded like several months more work had to be done.”—Rick Rubin (Wall Street Journal, June 14th 2013)
“Kanye understandably prouder of his new album than his human baby.”
—comedian Rob Delaney (June 15th, 2013)
Of course it’s called Yeezus.
One of the most difficult things in doing any assessment of Kanye West is ultimately determining if you’re commenting on Kanye West the Artist or Kanye West the Persona. We’re all very well-versed in the persona: he’s a stage-crashing, rant-prone, self-indulgent public figure who still views his lack of a Album of the Year Grammy win (out of five nominations, three as a solo artist) as proof that he needs to try harder and/or no one respects him like they should. A great majority of people find him insufferable, and after his oft-cited Taylor Swift incident, even the President of the United States was recorded as calling him “a jackass”. These facts have been gone over time and again, and sometimes it is hard to forget how utterly reviled he was just a few scant years ago.
Kanye West the Artist, meanwhile, is a completely different story. After his self-imposed post-Swift hiatus, he emerged with 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which became the most heralded album of his already-stellar discography. It was an album that was absolutely overrun with guest stars but really didn’t need to be, as Kanye dominated over the proceedings with the sheer power of his own ambition. The album was dark, dramatic, and still contains the single-greatest verse that Nicki Minaj has (or will) ever spit. In many ways, the album did the unthinkable, as it made people like Kanye again. While even the most jaded of haters would at times have to acknowledge the mastery on display in tracks like “Jesus Walks” or marvel at the abrupt left turn his catalog took when he released the cold 2008 disc 808s & Heartbreak, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was an absolute game-changer the second it was released. While in retrospect it’s obvious that the album still has its flaws (see: Jay-Z’s verse on “Monster”), a lot of people were able to overlook a lot of those constant Kanye criticisms—his lyrical ability, his constant self-obsession—simply because of the sheer artistry on display.
As such, Yeezus—his first solo album proper after his “luxury rap” one-off with Jay-Z and his Cruel Summer posse compilation—arrives amidst reports of last-minute changes a mere week before release, a final refocusing of efforts by Rick Rubin, and early reports that this album would be abrasive, almost unlistenable (immediately echoing the press’ pre-release concerns about Nirvana’s In Utero, which, as it turned out, wasn’t as abrasive as people thought it was going to be). Music sites ran stories on the release of an unconfirmed four-second preview and Rolling Stone published a knee-jerk exaltation mere hours after the album leaked. Despite no singles, a solitary SNL appearance, and projections of Kanye performing the song “New Slaves” on buildings across the world, hype had reached a fever-pitch, and the press eagerly waited to see if his new album was going to change the game the same way that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did.
Now that it’s finally here, we find ourselves surprised to note that Yeezus is actually a bit of a contradiction of itself. While a great deal of tracks here sound very much like industrial music reappropriated in a hip-hop context, this notion is hardly new to people who have listened to Death Grips, El-P, or the darker corners of the Anticon universe. What is notable is how it’s Kanye who’s doing it: a rap artist still in his critical and commercial prime, releasing a remarkably aggressive album that challenges his audience musically even if it stays surprisingly safe on a lyrical front.
“On Site” opens the disc with squelching, distorted synths—the soundtrack of an evil robot coming to life. Once the beat kicks in, Kanye raps furiously about some of his most familiar tropes: how no one can tell him what to do, his ability to score almost any woman he wants (“I knows she like chocolate men / Got more niggas off than Cochran”), his accumulated wealth, etc. In one of the album’s most self-referential moments, West asks “How much do I not give a fuck? / Let me show you right now ‘fore you give it up,” and then halts all action to pull out a choral sample wherein children chant “You give us what we need / It may not be what we want.” Less than 90 seconds into the album and West is ready to declare that even if you don’t like Yeezus, it’s exactly what the genre needs right now. Again: hate him or love him, no one is going to argue about West’s boldness.
Far more intriguing though is “Black Skinhead”, over which Kanye depicts himself as being cornered, feeling angry, and wanting to do nothing but lash out. He worries about being a mere novelty for mainstream America (“Middle America packed in / Come to see me and my black skin”), and soon pleads for everyone to “Stop all that coon shit / Early morning cartoon shit,” before declaring that “This is that goon shit / Fuck up your whole afternoon shit.” At its best, Yeezus work as a kind of self-directed protest album, wherein West simply calls out the situations that he finds as being unjust or unfair, even if those problems are very much Kanye-specific. His arguments lose strength when he again goes all conspiracy theory on us (like on “New Slaves” where he says that the DEA and CCA teamed up to go after black people) or when he makes some statements that feel a bit disingenuous (“Fuck you and your corporation / Y’all niggas can’t control me,” he screams, Def Jam Records logo still firmly imprinted on the album’s CD face).
Despite all of this, West still remains a fierce storyteller, and in the baby-mama-drama section of “Blood on the Leaves”, there is no greater character detail than observing a woman who has a “$2,000 bag with no cash in your purse,” which echoes all the way back to his classic “Black female / Addicted to retail” line from “All Falls Down”. He’s very conscious to the society that he’s in and also how people perceive him. After all, a song called “I Am a God”—wherein he wonders where the hell his croissants are—is not intended to be taken seriously on any level even as the throbbing electro-pulse behind him is completely devoid of humor. There are still some quite excellent punchlines to be found on the disc (“When I park my Range Rover / Slightly scratched your Corolla / OK, I smashed your Corolla”), but they sometimes get lost in the aggressively sexual nature of a lot of the lyrics, making horndog club-crashing tracks like “Send It Up” fall apart under close scrutiny. While the tone of the whole album is “aggressive”, his desire to be both a riot-inducing societal tipping-point and a standalone sexual braggadocio ultimately pull on opposite ends of the same leash, missing the deft cohesion of confession and prowess that made MBDTF so utterly compelling.
Still, even when he’s talking about how he’s going to “pop a wheelie on the Zeitgeist”, credit still must be given to his dynamite production choices. Just listen to the way dog barks have been integrated low into the mix on “I’m in It” or how the synth sounds on “Black Skinhead” use West’s own mumbled voice as the melodic sticking point. These small touches help in crafting the album’s overall sense of despair, but even with all of the primal drumming that dominates Yeezus’ proceedings, there is still nothing quite like the classic soul-sampling that West made his name on, which is why closing track “Bound 2” serves as wonderful last hurrah. It avoids the pointed/aggressive insights that dominate the rest of the album to simply describe another horndog outing for West, but the chopped samples, the single bass synth being the only instrument heard during Charlie Wilson’s chorus, and the surprising bit of warmth the emanates from the songs core makes for a remarkably upbeat note to end such a bleak album on.
Prior to the release of The College Dropout in 2004, Kanye did interviews wherein he described how he had the album titles for his discography picked out well in advance. After Dropout, it’d be Late Registration then Graduation then (of course) Good-Ass Job. In 2008, however, he followed up Graduation with an album called 808s & Heartbreaks instead: an Auto-Tune heavy, more singing-based album, offsetting his careful career planning but something he felt that he had to do in order to deal with his recent heartbreak. If anything, 808s serves as a more direct antecedent to Yeezus than My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy does, as they are both personal, stark records that certainly polarizes his audience. Although West has made some bold moves with this album, a few weak tracks and the occasional lack of focus on the lyrical front prevent this from achieving the untouchable status that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy did. However, that won’t stop admirers from calling this album groundbreaking, critics from hailing it as revolutionary, or the rest of the world from wanting to hear his bold next step forward. Whether you see this album as flawed or not doesn’t really matter in the long run: Kanye still has our rapt attention, and if Yeezus proves anything, it’s that we’ll be still paying attention to him for years down the line.