If all those summers in the late ’90s wasted away in front of a television airing Saturday Night Live reruns from the mid-’90s taught me anything, it was never to trust the SNL stage. The best statement you could ever hope to make was a provocative, meme-like stage show that capitalized on the essence of the times. If not in physicality, Kanye’s performances of “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” certainly embodied the spirits of predecessors Sinead O’Connor, Ashlee Simpson, Fear, Eminem, and… Kanye himself. Unlike many of those performances, the awkwardness of the moment was overpowered by its mere presence: why is Kanye screaming at us, and how did the Occupy movement get control of SNL’s projectors? Are these songs kind of good, or am I just totally amazed this is happening? SNL’s stage rarely proves a song is worth its salt, but it can certainly raise the eyebrow of the middle class America. Understanding the spirit of that performance, it was hard to be scared by it.
But looking back on those performances now does raise a few questions about the state of Yeezus and Yeezy, good and bad. If we’re to believe Rick Rubin’s many quotables in the Wall Street Journal, half the songs here feature lyrics written and vocalized in under two hours. A job one of the industry’s most grizzled, diverse veterans assumed would take months to complete at the time he was brought into the fold hit assembly lines mere weeks later. You have to wonder, considering the blatantly antagonistic spirit behind every factor of this album’s release — the lack of any case-lining, the 1984-like projection singles, going on a comedy show to complain about being a paid rapper — if Kanye doesn’t in some ways hope we hate his album.
There is, of course, recent precedent for this in rap: Eminem famously pretended that Encore was a real album from the depths of an opiate well, and Lupe’s veiled self-hatred as a result of agreeing to make an album like Lasers was as public a label admonishment as we’d seen since Clipse told Jive Records to go fuck themselves on “Mr. Me Too”. I’ve stopped to ask myself what Kanye might think he has to gain by making people mad, but between George Bush and having a child by Kim-fucking-Kardashian, I’m pretty sure he understands precisely what he has to gain by making people angry in 2013. Yeezus could be Kanye’s Empire Burlesque (Dylan, Bob), or perhaps Tonight (Bowie, David]). And if it is, I believe he’s fully prepared to take those comparisons as total compliments.
All of this psychoanalysis feels necessary because, well, Yeezus is a spectacularly bad album in as many ways as it is a great one. Many of this album’s flaws exist from apparent carelessness, an often explicit fracture of expectations. I want to use the word endure, but if you are a Kanye fan from the beginning, it’s probably more proper I say relish in the last minute of “New Slaves”, that cocky sample on “On Sight”, the terrible loop on “Bound 2”. None of it fits, and that’s the point, as Kanye teases around these strange sexual fantasies on the way to conceptual happiness.
At Yeezus‘ darkest moments, however, Kanye only sometimes keeps up. It’s a shame because even without his name on the tags of most leaks’ credits, his obvious desire to feel like his after-dinner mushrooms didn’t taste so good ends up being overshadowed by a few guests that actually make Yeezus feel as paranoid as Kanye wishes it would. “I’m in It” has some wild one-liners from Kanye, and it’s fun to have the image of a mid-30s Kanye West sleeping with the nightlight on. But it’s another thing entirely to hear “Assassin” sway in and out of the beat like a pirate ship on the high seas, giggling at Kanye’s one-liners as he carries listeners off to The Bug’s London Zoo.
“Guilt Trip” is an example of what happens when that paranoia takes total hold. Many interesting parts are combined into an awkward whole that leaves the listener wondering why Kid Cudi didn’t get to keep the track for himself, realizing that Travis Scott’s aggressively abstract trap sound has consumed most of this album and Kanye had long ago tuned out. Most of the songs during Yeezus‘ midsection have their captivating moments — when Kanye loses the ability to snag an ear for any random 30 seconds, let’s talk — but they struggle fitting together as wholes. “Send It Up” is so close to amazing with its misogyny and Suicide-style bleep bloops (especially with the sloppy soul of “Bound 2” following) that it’s a shame that the token “Travelin’ Man” sample is so awful. Giving Frank Ocean a similar spot to nod at James Fauntleroy on “New Slaves” is just distracting, too.
It’s a shame that half the album feels so absent-minded, or perhaps riddled with Ritalin, because the brilliant moments of Yeezus justify all the mystique Kanye built up around it. Astute listeners will quickly note that the war-zone backbone of “Blood on the Leaves” is TNGHT’s “R U Ready?” played straight, a historically bland hip hop move that Kanye lifts into the heavens with a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit”. Likewise, the opening four-song set headlined by Daft Punk on the boards is perhaps the purest id intoxication I’ve been witness to.
“On Sight” is hilariously spastic, Kanye getting his Red Flame on over a steampunky alarm clock that doubles as Daft Punk’s answer to all those lamenting Random Access Memories‘ refusal to react to the rise of Justice and similarly aggressive descendants. And the two SNL singles here are repurposed not for their token shock value but for Kanye to toy with being iconic; “Black Skinhead” isn’t Kanye’s “Beautiful People”, it’s his “Rock and Roll Part II”, with Kanye gesticulating from behind the mic as though he’s imagining Will Ferrell and Adam McKay taking a crack at the Bring It On/Drumline genre of high school battle flicks. “New Slaves” is Kanye figuring out how to make his “Scream” or “Stranger in Moscow”, evoking the spirit of pop’s most paranoid royalty with all the fire and brimstone of Game of Thrones‘ Mad King.
After about 15 minutes of total alpha male, 300-style cartoon catharsis, Kanye unfortunately proceeds to make perhaps the most terrible choice of his career by following with “Hold My Liquor”, an autotune duet between Justin Vernon and Chief Keef (seriously) while someone’s playing the Ratatat guy’s guitar. Nothing about this song is remotely interesting other than the deeply soothing, warm bass which is layered very nicely in the mix; on an album full of obnoxiously in-your-face 808s, “Hold My Liquor” is really the one ‘headphone’ track — and at five-and-a-half minutes, it crushes the schizophrenic mania. The slog allows previously amped listeners to take a real hard look at some of the utter crumminess of Kanye’s performance at times throughout the album.
“I’m in It”, a song that plenty of people are going to learn to love, really should’ve figured out how to articulate a response to Ray J’s “I Hit It” that didn’t include that last verse from Kanye, full of fun meme-ready catchphrases that don’t make for a very cohesive 30 seconds, or lead very cleanly into “Blood on the Leaves”, Kanye’s nod to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy fanatics. As I mentioned earlier, Kanye, Mike Dean, and the crew have a lot to be proud of with this track. Using the 808s & Heartbreaks autotune setting, the song clues listeners in that this is probably an Amber Rose track, and quite a frank one at that. At least it is for the first two-and-a-half minutes of dirty laundry before indulging in a 40-second ode to “Down 4 My Niggaz”, the old No Limit posse cut, then again reconfiguring itself as a skewering of the lifestyle fans of the Kanye/Amber relationship lead, telling a love story that begins on Instagram and ends in divorce in just over a minute. Again, that Miss Simone is wincing about the “blood on the leaves” from “Strange Fruit” throughout this entire thing and it sounds incredibly natural isn’t a thing to frown at.
Kanye closes the album with “Bound 2”, ostensibly a sequel to the song’s main sample, “Bound”, by the Ponderosa Twins Plus One. On paper it likely shouldn’t be one of the album’s most divisive moments, being a soul-oriented boom bap loop (for the most part) that follows a lot of music imagining the Treacherous Three had been offered the finances — or been interested — to make albums inspired by Can and James Chance instead of Parliament-Funkadelic. But that soul loop is messy in a way even Madlib beat tapes are rarely capable of, and it’s sort of hard not to chuckle a little at its sweet lyrics being directed at his new nuclear (in more ways than one) family (and Kanye might be a little in on the fun, considering he ends with a Martin quote). It’s hard not to chuckle at a lot of Yeezus, both because it’s extremely funny and because at this point, most of Kanye’s complaints are about houses he built for himself, not walls holding him back.
As a sonic experience, Yeezus isn’t as dangerous as it likes to think it is, but it’s certainly the epic banger Kanye’s worried he didn’t have in him since he first ran to Timbaland to help beef up his drum sounds on Graduation. The idea of it being a rush job to the finish line can be a romantic one for fanatics, but keener eyes might realize a really fantastic album is dragged down a little more than it’s supposed to be by its attention-deficit nature and litany of awkward moments. It feels self-sabotaged as often as it does transcendent, and that may be the statement Ye would like to make most of all. A man afraid to stand still suddenly finds himself in the grandest, most confounding prison of them all (“…love?”), and Yeezus is that man searching for a baptism in his sex sweat. It’s not a pretty sight, “but tell me, have you seen that before?” asks the showman as the curtain closes.