Kanye West’s latest offering “Yeezus” demands attention. The question is: should you oblige?
Kanye West haters are in a flurry: Yeezus is here, and it’s certainly the ammunition they’ve been wanting to lambast the rapper. Yeezus oozes the narcissism, arrogance, and general grandeur we’ve come to expect from Mr West. Unfortunately for the naysayers, Yeezus—as fans have come to expect from his records—works. The album has hip-hop fans, feminist groups, even rock and roll stars crying foul, and that means he’s succeeded once again in reinventing himself, and pushing rap music forward, or diagonally or perhaps through a wormhole and into another dimension. Yeezus, while not as fundamentally “successful” as 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, is a triumph. At a trim 40 minutes, this album is a cohesively dark and driven, psychotic rollercoaster, weaving through the darkest corners of Yeezy’s psyche. As he snarls in the Daft Punk produced inaugural track, “On Sight”, a new “monster about to come alive [sic]”, and it’s not afraid to make you squirm, cringe and eventually—inevitably, bob your head.
I’ll be the first to admit that my first cycle of the album was jarring. The electro-industrial beats and loops are unexpected, but mesh perfectly with West’s newest stylistic incarnation. Fans of The College Dropout might find it difficult to recognize Kanye beneath the metal-works synth, but fans that have followed the Chicago rapper through his five-album gestation shouldn’t be surprised that Kanye has changed his style; West’s catalogue is anything but predictable. A minor, but poignant example is the outro of “Send it Up” where the 4/4 beat begins to breakdown, syncopation throwing conventional hip-hop beats out the window in exchange for the spastic consistency of an assembly line.
After his descent into madness on MBDTF, Kanye now revels in his satanic identity. Gone are adolescent days of the Dropout trilogy, replaced with a darker, more mature West. While I won’t suggest West is the most politically correct musician (what rap music necessarily is?), Yeezus represents a transition to deeper issues, with greater introspection from West, and greater consideration for public issues, dealt with in over-the-top Yeezy fashion: “Ya’ll throwing contracts at me, you know n****s can’t read”. West’s newest offering, manages to stack prominent dichotomies, attacking racial divisions, romantic divisions, and of course, economic divisions. “I Am A God”, a provoking title to say the least, is not as one sided as it purports. There is a satanic irony in the thumping beat and growling delivery—nothing remotely “holy” lies therein. Moreover, “I am a God” reintroduces the vocal modifications from MBDTF, doubling teeth-gnashing rhymes with a booming, devilish voice. The irony in the song extends to the sardonic, proving Kanye understands the limited dimensions of his musical “god” status: “I am a god…in a French a** restaurant/ hurry up with my damn croissants”.
West’s maturation is pronounced, opting to write about race politics over simple, tasteless cash-raps. Again, West’s themes are accentuated by his sonic choices. Tribal drums, jive beat and patois lyrics (and lyricists) are all foregrounded, emphasizing West’s concern with black history and black roots. Tribal drums and Daft-Punk-borrowed synth may seem incongruous, but they blend to create a profound aural experience, infectiously danceable, but powerfully dark all the same.
Kanye compounds racial politics with sexual politics, particularly in “I’m in it”, where white sexual partners become civil rights signs, confronting issues of segregation that (should) no longer exist. Some of West’s biggest critics might be quick to judge his use of “Strange Fruit”—a tragic song about lynching in the south—in his track about failed relationships, and use it to indicate his flawed character. Unfortunately, that ad hominem criticism is unfair and hopelessly short-sighted. West’s use of the sample is obviously strategic: “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” emphatically announce their racial themes and would have been more suitable for “Strange Fruit”. In fact, “New Slaves” references “Strange Fruit” directly on multiple occasions. One must therefore ask: why would he use the sample in such a trivial manner when more “appropriate” opportunities presented themselves? Using Simone’s sample for a love-and-sex track strengthens the album’s cohesion, and compounds sexual, racial, and socio-cultural symbols throughout the album. To trivialize a song like “Strange Fruit” echoes the racial marginalization felt throughout the rest of the album. It’s a testament to West’s growth as an artist, and the complexity of his music (though it’s not always acknowledged as such).
*Be Advised, Content is Explicit*
Yeezus continues the track record Kanye West has set during his career, revolutionizing the genre with each release. While the album is not as sonically perfect as MBDTF, this album is not as neatly set in its genre. Where Dark Fantasy was the culmination of West’s hip-hop career to the point, Yeezus can barely be labelled hip-hop at all. The dark electro-industrial sound that dominates the lyrical complexion of the album and dictates the brisk, focused pacing signals a radical departure from anything we’ve seen before. The only thing that remains consistent in Kanye’s catalogue is his execution: once again, West is nearly flawless.
9 Yeezus Pieces out of 10