Music

'Yeezus' Displeases: The First Week of Reactions to Kanye West’s New Album

After a week of listening to, reading about, and thinking about Kanye West's Yeezus, we take stock of where we are.


Kanye West

Yeezus

Label: Def Jam
US Release Date: 2013-06-18
UK Release Date: 2013-06-24
Amazon
iTunes

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"

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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