posted: June 20, 2013
REVIEW: Kanye’s Yeesus YeesusRoc-A-Fella/Def Jam CD
“I go to sleep with a nightlight,” Kanye West confesses late onto Yeezus.
If he doesn’t, his demons come out to play. If that’s the case, Yeezus was no doubt recorded with the lights definitely off. The demons are not only out; they populate songs like a club that’s well over capacity.
Even for West, an artist known to rant and regret (half-regret, sometimes), Yeezus is a brutally abrasive lesson in mouthing-off and worrying about it never. Sexually aggressive, racially blunt, and at times borderline abhorrent, the record’s 10 songs are littered with moments that dare the listener not to turn the record off. And yet Yeezus is an album that twists and turns until it throws questions back at the listener. “Soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you,” West raps in “I Am a God,” a line that serves as a sarcastic mission statement for the album.
Weapons-grade synths quiver like they’re leveling the middle-class, horror soundtrack screams appear out of nowhere, and West prattles off with the free pass unparalleled fame has brought him. Uttering a line that will forever define Yeezus on Twitter, West hassles the wait staff for his “damn croissants” and then pretends to talk to Jesus, all of it continuing at least “until the day I get struck by lightning.” On Watch the Throne, West’s 2011 collaboration with pal Jay-Z, the Chicago native celebrated the good life. Here, he absorbs all its temptations, contradictions, and money-driven deceit, and shoves it back in the listener’s face like a combination superstar/supervillain. West’s transformation from a middle-class kid on 2004’s College Dropout, on which he told tales of his gig at the Gap, to a TMZ target on Yeezus, on which he sings of needing lawyers to end a relationship, is complete.
Don’t like it? Well you made me, West may as well be saying.
What he sees on Yeezus is not a 64-carat playground filled with riches and rap-star posing, although he uses plenty of the latter to get his point across. Rather, this is a world where sex is currency and racism is disguised but no less rampant. “They see a black man with a white woman,” West raps on “Black Skinhead,” and “they gone come to kill King Kong.” The song plays out like a panic attack, all huffs and puffs and steel-coated tribal rhythms as West goes on a fists-up terror through mainstream America. Yeezus is bracing in its imagery and striking in its sound. Throughout, primal beats frame the most potent lines and synthesizers are equally cacophonous and minimal, creating an argumentative mix that references old industrial, pre-EDM dance, and the distort-it-all adventurousness of 80s hip-hop.
Yeezus once again proves West’s musical risk-taking is as outsized as his personality, as he has the gall to shred Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” the good sense to call on R&B vocalist Charlie Wilson for a sobering assist, and the vocabulary to sample Hungarian rock and old Chicago acid house. It may not be as revolutionary as 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak—on which melancholic robotics paved the way for everyone from Drake to Frank Ocean—but Yeezus, with Daft Punk and Rick Rubin among the producers, is out for blood.
That’s obvious from the lyrics. They’re set to offend, and no doubt they will. Perhaps it’s the moment West makes light of Parkinson’s disease, or perhaps it’s the moment he graphically describes where in a woman he’s going to stick his fist. Or maybe it’s the downright unjustifiable line about “sweet and sour” sauce in regards to bedding an Asian woman. The West on Yeezus is maniacal, his dark humor never more twisted, his disregard for political correctness never more brazen.
What saves West, barely, from succumbing to the violent, misogynist amateur hour of Odd Future and Chief Keef (the latter a guest on Yeezus) is the sense (the hope?) that while he may be an unconscionable braggart, at least he’s one with something to say. “New Slaves,” for instance, is an explosive gift to those who think his antics with Taylor Swift and paparazzi can pass as controversial. The song aims to shine a light on less-gossipy aspects of fame. In it, West jousts around popcorn-popping synths as he slams corporate America, seduces your preferably white wife, and references prison overcrowding. A shock tactic? Hardly, as West wonders why he’s treated differently now that he has cash and paints those richer than him as modern slave owners—puppeteers that are using West’s antics to distract from anything real affecting inner-city America.
“I’m in It” and “Blood On the Leaves” go even further in using Civil Rights-era imagery, although West’s revenge fantasies involve little more than acting the sexual aggressor. The former, his voice manipulated like some sort of anonymous night stalker, is a test of patience. And while “Blood on the Leaves” is a rather gripping drama about upper-crust adultery and abortion, its connection to the harrowing tale of racism that is “Strange Fruit” proves more puzzling than eye opening. “Hold My Liquor” provides a counter-balance, as West and Chief Keef drop machismo for vulnerability and West can’t stop himself from hunting for a lover who knew him before he became “hopeless,” “soulless.” Desperation and one-night stands rarely sound as urgent—the rhythms buzzing, the synths a chainsaw—while all the enticements around West keep sending him into a spiral.
“Bound 2” closes the album by slowing things down and giving West some soul samples to catch his breath. “I’m tired, you tired,” West raps at song’s end, but not before asking for all sorts of unsavory Christmas gifts and discarding a thousand other women. It may bring the album to a close, but the arguments over what West presented have just begun. If great art confronts, then West has put up a masterpiece of a challenge.–Todd Martens