I’ve been struggling with this review for over two weeks. I’ve had discussion after discussion with friends and colleagues, analyzing the details of Yeezus ad-nauseum. The road behind me is littered with the bloody corpses of false starts and abandoned ideas. After some serious searching I realized that I was trying to create a masterpiece of critical musical writing, sweeping and eloquent. I was trying to follow the all-encompassing model of grandeur Kanye West laid out in his magnum-opus My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy when I should have been looking right in front of myself and gone for the polar opposite, sleek and stripped-down approach West has employed on the dark, minimalist Yeezus.
Yeezus shares its skeletal form with West’s most divisive album, 808s & Heartbreak. But where that album was a desolate wasteland that found West pouring his heart out, Yeezus is an unrelentingly bleak record that finds West angrily amplifying his personality by lashing out at everyone.
West has proven time in and time out that he is a top-tier producer and Yeezus is no different. The sound of the album is one overflowing with aggression and rage, never letting up from the opening moments of the piercing, Daft Punk-assisted “On Sight” – A song that features the slightly too winking and obvious murder of a classic West “chipmunk soul” beat, like a sacrificial lamb offered up to the all-too-cool gods of I-don’t-give-a-fuck. Drums have nearly gone extinct in West’s brave new world (Save for the positively sublime “Black Skinhead”), having been traded for intentionally jarring electronic dissonance, in much the same way West has dropped his trademark “soul beats” in favour of the brutal, discomforting edge and cold calculation of a computer-based world.
West has traded warm comfort for change, seemingly because he can. But, really, it’s not necessarily a bad thing. It’s clear that West is, as he seemingly always is, striving for something different on Yeezus and it starts, unsurprisingly, with the production. This is an immaculately and powerfully produced record created with a purpose West doesn’t want you to be comfortable – Just listen to the bizarre bird call that populates “Black Skinhead” or the grating line-markers in “Hold My Liquor.” The idea of comfort allows for the dangerous possibility that you may get too comfortable and miss something. Mr. West believes, unsurprisingly, that he has something important to say and you better be ready to hear it. And he really does have something to say (Or at least interesting ways of saying it)…for the first half of the record.
Kanye sounds inspired out the gate, through the aforementioned “On Sight” and “Black Skinhead,” the ready-made punchline-titled “I Am A God” (Which ends with unsettling breathing and metallic screaming) and the record’s high-point “New Slaves.” Here ‘Ye sounds as evangelically inspired as he has since “Jesus Walks.” West’s anger bounces around the track, striking at anything that grabs his attention, barely contained by the sparse electronic beat and haunting background vocals. It’s a startlingly vicious and easily the most genuinely aggressive track West has released to this point.
A lot of people have unfairly criticized West heavily for his perceived lack of rapping ability. But he’s always had an impressive way with words and a great sense for finding a turn of phrase, whether for dramatic or comedic effect. But sometimes swinging for the fences, as West always does, results in nothing but a pop-fly. Ladies and gentlemen of the jury, I present the completely pointless and slightly disturbing sex-rap of “I’m In It.” Here Kanye brings some seriously dark and confusing language as he attempts to mix in civil rights imagery with graphic sex acts imploring to his woman, “Your titties, let ’em out, free at last/Thank God almighty, they free at last,” shortly before he describe how he, “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” Really, Kanye? I’m all for an open discourse on sex, but that is some twisted stuff there. I don’t really know what he was going for on the track and I was ready to give him the benefit of the doubt. After all, with that track record, he’s earned it.
West has built a large portion of his career on contradiction – putting the materialist next to the godly, the bravado next to the regret – but here on ”Blood on the Leaves” he massacres a beautiful sample from Nina Simone’s reading of “Strange Fruit,” one of the most powerful songs in black music. It’s a wonderful idea and an evocative sampling, but West uses it to rap about his relationship and the first time he did “molly” (Pure MDMA, for those few not in the know) with the particular lady-friend in the song. It’s a completely misguided track and a surprisingly poor attempt by Kanye to jump on one of the lamest trends in hip-hop, something he’s usually setting, rather than hijacking.
The album sort of sputters through its second half with West’s lyrics never reaching anything resembling the highs he started with at the beginning of the record, but luckily he decides to end it on the classic-Kanye of “Bound 2.” It’s the warmest track on the record – built on a slow-rolling soul beat and full of silly Kanye lines like “I know I got a bad reputation/Walkin’ ‘round always mad reputation/Leave a pretty girl, sad reputation/Start a fight club, Brad reputation.” It’s a necessary ending to an excessively dark and aggressive record.
It’s almost unfortunate for West that he released such a towering, powerful record like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because there’s no possible way he could live up to it. There are parts on Yeezus that lead one to believe he might not have been trying to live up to it and he just decided to say, “Fuck it,” and defiantly put out whatever he had. Given West’s notorious work ethic and obsessive nature, it’s hard to believe he didn’t purposely leave the holes there, that this is what he wanted. It’s enough to finally make me question of a giant of modern music that has been consistently strong throughout his career. Yeezus is the weakest and least elegant record in West’s catalogue, but Kanye West on a bad day is still more interesting (And probably better) than most of the big albums people are going to buy up in droves in 2013.