Kanye West ‘Yeezus’ – Review

24 Jun

‘Yeezus’ arrives in a blank, plastic jewel case. There’s no tracklisting, no cover, just a red sticker keeping the lid sealed. What is the implication? Has Kanye West run out of things to say? If there were a tracklisting, your eyes would be immediately drawn to track three – ‘I am God’. Now, Kanye has a right to be proud of himself, after all he made the best hip album of the past ten years (probably the second and third best as well) but likening himself to God? Even by his infamous standards, that takes things to a whole new level of arrogance. It dispenses with the subtleties and social commentary of his usual ego poetry and In the process undoes a lot of the good work ‘808’s and Heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ did in humanizing the caricature. So no, it’s instantly obvious that West is not short of statements to make. Instead, the bare packaging is meant to symbolise the minimalism of the music. In a recent NY Times Interview Kanye went to great lengths to list his influences, mentioning new wave, Peter Saville and Rick Rubin as key touchstones. The point being, Kanye West is still looking for boundaries to cross and doors to slam open. He isn’t God, but he wants that level of control, freedom and power. He wants to be untouchable.

‘On Sight’ opens the album dramatically. The song is built around a digitally distorted Acid-House line that jitters in and out of focus. At one point it collides into a soul sample that seems deliberately placed to disturb what little flow the song has. It also serves to contrast the Old Kanye with the new Kanye. Whereas before the samples were sweet and melodic, this one seems strained and desperate;snatched from its context and placed in a new and strange environment. The song veers to a halt suddenly after only 2 minutes. In both structure and production it has a fairly similar vibe to ‘Ghetto Muzik’ by Outkast – if that song was put in the washing machine or battered with a baseball bat.

Initially startling then, but ultimately it’s not too surprising that he’s gone in this weird, minimalist direction. Anyone who’s followed his career will know that Kanye likes to pull the rug from under your feet as soon as you get comfortable. ‘My beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ was quite possibly the most indulgent, extravagant, brilliant Hip Hop album ever made. It was his grand peak. He’d climbed to the top of that particular mountain. It was his ‘Ok Computer. In that sense ‘Yeezus’ is his ‘Kid A’. He’s found a new mountain to climb. But where Radiohead were anxious about their new direction, Kanye is anything but. ‘I’m a monster about to come alive again’ he declares with pure bravado within the first minute.

Before long you realise that a lot of this album is just that. Bravado. Oh, and a lot of noise. At around the ten minute mark you start to wonder if Kanye has spent more time worrying about the bruising sonic soundscape than the raps. Then comes ‘I am God’. From the off it seemed like a bad idea call a song this, but you would hope that being Kanye the lyrics would at least offer some depth, dialogue, insight or even irony. It doesn’t. Over the course of the song he sets himself up as somebody who; doesn’t kiss ass, doesn’t want people to like him, the only rapper who’s been compared to Michael, the man who brought real rap back, a member of the Rat Pack, and yes, God. It’s awfully charmless and conveys a real lack of self-awareness. He used to be arrogant in a naive, funny, youthfully brash way. Here his rhymes are lazy, emotionally distant and completely unstirring. On ‘808 and heartbreak’ and ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ Kanye came over like an egotist in rehab, here he’s like a drug addict who’s relapsed into a new harrowing, futile low.

‘New Slaves’ is track four and it’s where Kanye really starts to up his game. The first verse sees him back at his stunning best, contrasting different types of racism while also commenting on the discrimination his mother lived through. It’s classic Kanye. Even the infantile hook plays like an old ‘College Dropout’ zinger: ‘you see there’s leaders and there’s followers but I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.’ As the song builds so does his anger, until by the end he’s virtually screaming. ‘Fuck you and your corporation!’ he shouts, at the same time fully aware that his own infatuation with big companies is at best difficult at worst hypocritical. On one hand, as he told the NY Times last week, he wants to be the new Steve Jobs, on the other hand he despairs as the world becomes a ‘privately owned prison’. That’s the thing his critics have always missed – yes he’s arrogant to a blinding degree but at his best he embraces the contradictions (which is what makes ‘I am God’ such a failure – it plays right into those critics hands).

From here on in the album is a whole lot more interesting and often temperamental. ‘Hold My liquor’ is like a broken, burnt-out take on the despair of ‘808s and Heartbreak’. He paints broad-strokes images of hungover agony like ‘Waking up on your sofa / When I park my Range Rover / Slightly scratch your Corolla / Okay, I smashed your Corolla.’ A certain sadness carries over the next few tracks as well. ‘I’m In It’ takes a danchall sample and the most traditional hip-hop beat on the album, mixes it in with a Bon Iver hook and lets the melody do the emotional heavy lifting. Album closer ‘Bound 2’ is the most bracing and exposing song on the album. In some ways it’s the most traditionally structured track, with some sugary melodies, memorable rhymes and old-skool soul samples, but it’s stunningly bare and functional. Charlie Wilson falls upon Brenda Lee who falls upon Wee who falls back on Kanye. No real effort is made to smooth samples together, and there’s no real beat to hold the song down. Some of these tracks feel rushed or incomplete but ‘Bound 2’ feels quite deliberate and haunting. After all that earlier bravado, it’s simple and sparse, and fitting that in album’s dying moments he says ‘You know ain’t nobody perfect / and I know I got the worst rep… After all these long ass verses / I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept’.

At times ‘Yeezus’ is controversial and offensive. What worth in a line like ‘your titties, let ’em out, free at last, thank God almighty, they free at last’, or ‘got asian pussy, all I need is sweet and sour sauce’? I still have lots of questions about the album. Is the savage sound really that innovative? Suicide had productions like this a long time ago, and even in the field of Hip Hop there are precedents (Death grips anyone?). It strikes me that because of the album’s initially jarring sonic soundscapes, some people have rather over-estimated the record’s innovations. And although he’s hit upon an arresting sound, this is easily my least favourite Kanye West incarnation to date. It lacks any clear through-line or manifesto. This is not quite his protest album, or his love album, or his break up album or his party album. The minimalist glue can’t quite hold these hit and miss songs together. At its best ‘Yeezus’ is brilliant, at its worst it’s inconsistent, lazy, and tasteless. Despite everything, I can’t stop listening to it! I think this is a Kanye West album that had to be made, and one that will no doubt be remembered as an important step forward. Fascinating as always, slightly more flawed than usual, human afterall – which is far more interesting than being untouchable anyway.

8/10

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