John Lennon touched a nerve when he famously claimed the Beatles were “more popular than Jesus,” but at least no one could accuse him of replacing his surname with “the Baptist.” The same restraint cannot be said of one Kanye West, a similarly ubiquitous artist whose self-referential new album, Yeezus, is an exercise in provocation and minimalism that seeks to strip away pretense even as it borders on hubris. As producer, rapper, businessman, fashion mogul, and mega celebrity, West is one of the most successful (and polarizing) individuals of the new 21st century. He and peer Jay Z have steered rap music to its current perch of cultural relevance and sonic opulence; their rags to riches stories represent everything about Western living that is infinitely promising and tragically flawed. Although both men have embraced married life and begun families (though not in that order for West), modest goals are no longer enough for would be saints Yeezus and Hova — their day jobs must now be committed to constructing edifices such as the Magna Carta, the Holy Grail, thrones, and an impressive array of other dark beautiful twisted fantasies.
Kanye in particular exerts a magnetic pull akin to bad reality television. Many of his fans tune in because they’re thirsty for that Big Gulp cocktail of fame, decadence, and rampant materialism that he’s serving up — West embodies not just the good life but the great life, that elusive mirage of the 1% that mesmerizes a good chunk of America’s youth. The remainder of Kanye’s audience listen because they’re by turns appalled and amused by his human train wreck of egotism, louche conduct, and poor taste — we roll our eyes, but just can’t look away. It’s half American dream, half satire, and all fascinating. To date, West has been especially subversive not just because he appeals to both worlds but because he invites crossover between the two — his most enduring songs (“Gold Digger,” “Power,” “Runaway”) are filled with enough self-reflection to get the sycophants to question their own narcissism and the sort of intoxicating hooks that entice highbrow intellectuals to roll around in the mud with him.
West’s sixth album fascinates because it purposefully severs allegiances with both sides of that aisle — Yeezus is too bleak and sonically spartan for popular tastes, yet it boldly flaunts West’s bravado and outrageous behavior to a heretofore unseen degree. It feels as though the record’s goal is to alienate everyone it can, then take those who are left clinging on an exhilarating yet disturbing anti-joy ride. These ten songs eschew West’s usual R&B/soul influences, ornate orchestral embellishments, and sweeping choruses for coldly austere, often brutal arrangements powered by acid house synths, industrial beats, and Chicago drill music. Lyrically, Kanye lifts a long, black middle finger to the myriad of forces that would keep him at bay — greedy corporations, conservative Baptists, record company execs, second-string bitches looking for a paycheck, and D-league rappers — an odd thing, given that My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s commercial and critical success has placed him in a position of enviable control. Most telling is the way Yeezus reveals the desires and fears that propel Kanye West forward, whether it be his grudges against society’s ills or the personal demons he’s trying to escape. It’s the most unapologetic, driven record of his career and one that will likely piss off a lot of people. And West, as he’s prone to professing, sounds like he couldn’t give a fuck.
From day one, West has been his own greatest believer. “Allow myself to introduce myself” he famously proclaimed on debut The College Dropout before promising to “use my arrogance as steam to power my dream.” With each successive record (save perhaps the understated 808’s and Heartbreak), West sound has grown grander, his goals loftier, and his brand bigger — “Jesus Walks” has slowly morphed into “I Am A God.” This maximalist progression makes Yeezus‘ sonic minimalism so jarring, but it makes sense. Lyrically, West is as rudely full of himself as he’s ever been (look no further than the immortal line “You see there’s leaders and there’s followers/ But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”), but he’s recognizing that another entity is present— namely the emotional and spiritual vacuity that comes with his success. Yeezus, in all its stark, unvarnished intensity, gives a name to that void; it’s the sound of West stripped to core, both loving and despising what he sees.
That tension is imparted by Yeezus‘ utilitarian instrumentation. West largely forgoes the organic, soul music samples he made his name on during the aughts for more synthentic modus operandi — Roland 808’s, drum machines, and squelchy keys. There were hints of this direction all along — the paranoid robot funk of “Stronger,” that manic synth whine hook on “Niggaz in Paris” and the trance breakdown on “Mercy.” But on Yeezus, that transformation is complete — opening trio “On Sight,” “Black Skinhead,” and “I Am A God” all feature knob tweaking electro whiplash, cauterizing bass tones, and enormous empty space — largely courtesy of the production efforts of the the artist whom Kanye most resembles these days, Daft Punk. Or at least, what Daft Punk used to sound like before the Francophiles began imitating the 70’s style dance tracks Kanye’s been sampling for decade (Funny, how that works). On the Daft Punk-produced tracks especially, Yeezus feels stark naked, its flesh resting on the bones of drums, sparse synths, and Kanye’s vocals repurposed into percussive elements. His chopped and looped screams sound breathless, guttural, and at times genuinely fearful, a technique that makes Yeezus feel both personal and desperate.
West employs far fewer samples on Yeezus than previous works (“Black Skinhead” mimics the visceral drum track of Marylin Manson’s “Beautiful People” rather than lift from it), and as Pitchfork’s Jayson Green points out, the samples that do show up act like shadowy counterpoints in Ye’s raw soundscapes rather than joyous centerpieces. “Blood On the Leaves” melds Nina Simone’s timeless croon with a TNGHT sample “R U Ready” that sounds like Zeus throwing thunderbolts — a mighty backdrop for an allegory of mid-20th century racism and 21st century divorce. “Bound 2” is a vintage Kanye soul jam in the vein of “Through the Wire,” “Devil In a New Dress” and “Otis” — proof that West can still drop a stunning R&B collage at will. But his account of meeting wife Kim Kardashian is equally notable for the psychology that it explores; the twisted boondoggle of trust and self-sabotage in West’s relationships (“And hey, ayo, we made it Thanksgiving/ So hey, maybe we can make it to Christmas/ She asked me what I wish for on my wish list/ Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?”) and the emotional lassitude of the single life he both adores and abhors (“I know you’re tired of loving/ With nobody to love”).
As much as Kanye works himself into a hot lather over big ticket social issues like racism and consumerism, the bulk of Yeezus reeks of inner exhaustion. More often than not, Kanye is raging against himself — after-wedding guilt, strings of past failed relationships, relationships as sexual entrapment, and sexual self-confidence masking self-doubts. At times it feels like a purge of all the emotional sewage in West’s system — ugly, pungent, and tidal wave strong. Kanye reportedly wrote and recorded the vocals for last few tracks during the 11th hour of the final day of recording, a remarkable feat if it’s true. The lyrics aren’t Ye’s most insightful or memorable but their frantic, spittle-flung delivery lends Yeezus a noticeable raw intensity. We’ll probably never know the full story — did producer Rick Rubin help Kanye prune back Yeezus‘ snarled overgrowth of sonic opulence into this wiry sculpture of discontent or did Rubin inherent the broken shards of an unfinished record and glue them into the best shape he possibly could, pawning the frayed edges off as purposeful? It almost doesn’t matter, since the results are so cohesive. Yeezus feels like a dish that came together at the last possible minute, but it works because it tastes bitter all the way through, with just enough hints of spice and sweetness to engage your sonic palette.
Like many rappers, Kanye draws lyrical inspiration from his own experiences. Those used to include overcoming poverty, drugs, and addiction, coming into his own as a superstar, and struggling with the backlash to his fame. Now it consists of the power and insecurity he feels inside the celebrity fish bowl on top of Mount Olympus, an ecosystem that isolates and warps all its denizens. It isn’t even enough for Yeezy to share the pain and arrogance he now feels because of his success — even his pain and arrogance have to be greater than anyone else’s, his ills planet-sized. He still writes about what he knows — only now it’s the misery of being the best, of being the piece of shit at the center of the universe, of comparing yourself to a deity. John Lennon knew pressures like this but only Kanye can claim to being the black Beatle who’s really just a cockroach. He’s trapped in an vicious, infinite loop of egotism, and it’s a captivating cycle to witness. What remains to be seen is whether West’s staggering ability to articulate his life’s details will ever translate into the sort of the wisdom that should come with parenthood, marriage, and maturity. That would be a truly remarkable exercise, that of West facing the inner torment of self-will run riot and coming to grips with vulnerability in the face of his diminishing physical prime.
West has never been the best rapper, singer or lyricist in hip hop, but he certainly works the hardest — he’s an artistic visionary and studio perfectionist whose success has been driven every step of the way by critics’ beliefs that he should have just stuck to producing records. Now that he’s at the top, Kanye is arguably more representative of our culture’s conflicted social and spiritual psyche than any artist alive today. What happens when you’ve achieved your materialistic goals and find there’s nowhere else to go? When you’re eaten alive from the inside out by insecurities, doubts, crumbling morals, and fear of intimacy. Do you stop evolving your music? Do you stop living? Or do you continue to create, to craft art from the only thing that you know — the fun house mirror that your life has become. Right now, West chooses the later and deals with the consequences. I reluctantly root for him because sometimes the only way out is through, to face the reflection until you’re finally ready to step away and look within. Because if West can’t work his way through this, what does that say for the culture he tragically embodies? In some ways, to root for West is to root for us all.
Kanye West – “Black Skinhead” – mp3
Beautifully written and engrossing. I’m seeing SO much about this album release all over the place, nothing as cogently presented and thought-out as your piece. Thanks. And thanks for the link to a cut. Sonic opulence, indeed.
Glad you enjoyed it Sandy!