At the time I bought Kanye West’s much publicized latest effort, Yeezus, I also noticed a used copy of College Dropout. Long story short, I purchased both. Of course, Yeezus got first spin in the car stereo, and much to my surprise, what followed was an onslaught of mystifying musical moments, at times plain bizarre, at other times exceptional. Upon finishing my sojourn through the baffling, complex world of Yeezus, I popped in College Dropout, and was amazed at the contrast. Even though traces of the egotistic asshole Kanye persona we all come to love/hate exist, the voice that bleeds through on the album is most often times endearing and relateable. Whether he was rapping about his family business, his struggles with a wired jaw, or presenting skits about the dreary options for recent post-grads (which are a little too real at this point in my life) Ye’s struggle was one that the whole world could get down to. Flash forward to Yeezus, and as the name indicates, Kanye is all too self-aware of his importance to pop culture.
The phrase “great expectations” hardly even scratches the surface of what we have to come to expect from Kanye West. Amid his ridiculous shenanigans, Ye has consistently blessed music connoisseurs with masterpiece after masterpiece, beginning with his debut, College Dropout. The idea that Kanye will produce a “dud” of an album is not even an afterthought to his fans, but a impossibility all together. Apart from his musical genius, Kanye’s successes stem mostly from his chameleon-like sensibilities, fully capable of adapting with the ever-changing, ephemeral tastes of the masses while still adding his own unique bent. In the moment, Kanye’s musical leaps from previous efforts always seem tremendous, but in retrospect all of his albums seem to spring from inevitable creative branches. As a result, Kanye is the biggest force causing his albums to sound outdated in comparison with his current work. For instance, Kanye rendition of Daft Punk’s “Bigger, Faster, Stronger” (“Stronger”) seems to be tame in light of his new musical endeavors. But this sign of true genius: When an artist can dig deep within their creative arsenal, transform themselves, and offer the world something not quite like their original output but yet still maintain quality. Say what you will about Kanye as a person (as there is much to say, and most of it negative) but a long look at Ye’s musical achievements pre-Yeezus (College Dropout, Late Registration, Graduation, 808s and Heartbreaks, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, Watch the Throne, Cruel Summer) are a testament that he is a true master in this regard.
Reactions to Yeezus have been almost as polarizing as the gay marriage rights issue. Mostly, critics from major publications like Pitchfork and Spin magazine have been unanimous in their acclaim, while most hip hop theorists are largely disappointed, going so far as to label the album the first “dud” of Ye’s career. Some conspiracy theorists have even speculated that the “box” of Amber Rose is superior to that of Kim’s, because Rose’s box brought about MBDTF, while Kim’s brought about Yeezus. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the pleasure of sampling either box, but Rose’s vag’ was only part of the impetus behind that landmark achievement. In 2010, when Ye’ went to work on MBDTF (quite possibly the greatest album of the last decade) he had a lot to contend with. The world, including President Obama had turned its back on Ye, and many had questioned whether his hip-hop sensibilities were intact after the experimental 808s and Heartbreak. It’s no secret that artists often create their best work in times of distress, and Ye accomplished that ten times over with MBDTF. But Yeezus is a very different album, the like of it bares no resemblance with any album I’ve ever listened to. To translate: the shit is nuts, b.
On Yeezus, there are hardly traces of any 808s. In interviews, Ye’ said that Punk music had a large influence on the songs recorded for the album, even though none of the songs resemble the music of The Clash or The Dead Kennedys. But as theorists will tell you, Punk is dependent on not just music, but attitude as well. Even Ye’s decision to forgo an album artwork is a nod to earlier punk groups who used similar tactics when giving away their music. Again, nothing on Yeezus bares resemblance to anything the so-called “Gods of Punk” ever created, but the attitude is pure punk. Minimalism is typically the main ingredient in punk songs, with artists sacrificing melody and polished, heavily-structured beats for simpler, more authentic sounding recordings. “On Sight,” the opening track, is more along the lines of a musical lovechild between Daft Punk and Sonic Youth than anything we’ve previously heard from Ye. The track sets the tone for the rest of the album, which consists of WTF moments, sometimes stellar and other times just plain bizarre. With “On Sight,” it’s apparent that Ye’s braggadocio is intact, as hilariously spits: “Real nigga back in the house again/ Black Timbs all on your couch again/ Black dick all in your spouse again.” It’s no mistake that the most indigestible track for fans of Ye’s previously material is the first we hear, because in his new-founded-punk-philosophy, we are to take it or leave it. Although it falls well below the brilliance of “Dark Fantasy” or even “Good Morning,” the intro is strangely alluring, like a car crash you can’t take divert your eyes from. With all that said, this is definitely the worst record on the album.
The following track, “Black Skinhead,” is still difficult to stomach on first listen, but after a few listens the bizarre brilliance of it begins to bleed through. When asked about his inspiration for Yeezus, Ye cited Trent Reznor of Nine Inch Nails of having a large influence on his musical thought process. This influence can be most accurately felt on “Black Skinhead,” where Ye fashions an entire song out of the Jay-Z coined “All Black Everything” philosophy, while making a few poignant, angry, punk-infused observations about modern society’s general attitudes toward black celebrities. Ye raps “They see a Black man with a White woman at the top they gon’ call that shit King Kong.” Although Ye’s previous work is vastly different in scope, his overall aggressive persona seems to fit snug with the 90s industrial rock beat and speedy drum patterns. Still, it’s difficult to get past this song not because of the disparate style, but particularly Ye’s mistake of confusing the Greeks in the movie 300 with Romans. This may be minor to some, but it personally bugs the shit out of me.
Much can be said of the third track, “I Am God,” co produced by Daft Punk. Obviously, the title is more than enough to raise heads (as if the title “Yeezus” wasn’t enough?). Or, there’s the fact that on the official tracklisting, God is listed in the credits as a feature, and yet his (or His) presence is disappointing, considering he is…well…God. Longtime Kanye collaborators Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and Noah Goldstein add a little flare to this track, and I’m not convinced that Kanye should not be able to make another album from this day forward without Justin Vernon and Noah Goldstein. Pitchfork.com, a publication that awarded Yeezus a rating of 9.5 on a 10 point scale, recently published an article in which the main players involved in the project spoke the production process in length: According to Golstein: “The very first time I heard Kanye say “I am a God,” we all were like, “OK, that’s where we’re going– let’s go all the way there.” And they did. On the track, Ye’s presence on the track is more akin to the God depicted in the Family Guy series than the one that rests in heaven, especially with bars like “I Am A God/ So hurry up with my damn message/ In a French restaurant/ Hurry up with my damn croissants.” If you don’t already know, the phrase “Hurry up with my damn croissants is steadily making its way into standard cultural phraseology, so you baristas, don’t be shocked when you hear some old man shouting it you at Starbucks.
It’s exceedingly difficult to label Kanye’s new music in little cute genre gift wraps. Kanye samples from so many different genres on this record that it is impossible to assign any real accurate label to the music. According to Charles Aaron of Spin magazine: “Yeezus is “a hip hop album, not a rap album”, because of how its sounds and subject matter are assembled together, and although listeners can hear “‘punk’ or ‘post-punk’ or ‘industrial'” throughout, “hip-hop has always been about noise and dissonance and dance music as agitation. “New Slaves,” aside from being one of the most reminiscent beats of Kanye’s later work, is quite possibly the most controversial song of the album. In typical Ye’ fashion, the single (and video) was broadcast on 66 buildings across the globe. The track is far from radio friendly, lacking a hook, but primarily lacking the friendly nature usually attributed to songs that litter the airwaves. Although this is a mute point which hardly bears stating, Kanye is never one to hold his tongue, and on “New Slaves” he rhythmically rants about a concept he views as sort of neo-slavery, in which predominately African Americans are controlled by the high ranking powers that be. Although he criticizes the immense importance Blacks tend to put on materialism, and the practice of large corporations attempting to pimp Black culture, his main beef is against the faulty prison system in America. “They tryin’ to lock niggas up/ They tryin’ to make new slaves.” Ye’s answer to these screwy quandaries is a rebellious reversal of sorts, with him doing the screwing: “Fuck you and your Hampton house/ I fuck your Hampton spouse/ Came on her Hampton blouse/ And then her Hampton mouth.” After the rant comes to a close, the beat shifts rather abruptly and yet brilliantly to much more melodic waters, as Ye croons:
I won’t end this high
Not this time again
So long, so long, so long
You cannot survive,
And I’m not dying and
I can’t lose
I can’t lose
No I can’t lose ’cause
I can’ leave it you
So let’s get to high
Get too high again.
Frank Ocean provides a few subtle vocals towards the concluding moments. Next up is the infamous collaboration with fellow Chicago emcee Chief Keef. I say infamous, not because of Chief Keef’s lengthy arrest record, but because when the tracklisting was released, long before the record actually hit stores, internet quacking revolved around large hesitation about how two seemingly polar opposite artists would mesh on a Ye-produced track. However, “Hold My Liquor” is without a doubt one of the greatest songs on the album, with Sosa handling the hook duties. The beat has the aura of a slasher film soundtrack, with Ye’ spitting some of the most comical lines of his career: “Slightly scratch your Corolla/ Ok I smash your Corolla.” Somehow Keef’s thick garbled flow blends magically with the beat, and I’m positive “Hold My Liquor” will be a staple at parties for a long time to come.
And where do I begin with “I’m In It,” a song that makes Ye’s previous lyrical content fit for the Disney Channel? Here Kanye raps about explicit sexual scenarios, such as biting ass and dining on Asian pussy with sweet and sour sauce…yeah. The beat combines elements of old school Chicago house music and dance hall, with a reggae artist unintelligibly commanding a large portion of the track. Justin Vernon admitted in the Pitchfork article that he was not only sure of what the Jamaican dude was saying, but himself as well. Regardless of how you feel about this song, the mere scope of it is dazzling. “I’m In It” is another clear indication of Kanye’s newfound DGAF attitude, because the song contains wholly absent of the simple melodies and grooves one might find melodic or catchy, an strategy that permeates throughout the album. According to collaborator Hudson Mohawke: “There are a lot of amazing songs that were left off [Yeezus]– stuff that you might consider to be more melodic or in-line with Kanye’s previous material– purely because they didn’t necessarily fit this rough-edged, 90s-industrial-type vibe. A lot of the record is trying to avoid obviousness. Through the entire process of putting it together, there were tons of easy slam dunks, but rather than just going for the hits and having an album that nobody’s going to give a fuck about in a month or two, he intentionally sidestepped the obvious route each time. I think that’s what going to give it more longevity and put it in a category of records that you’ll go back to in 10 years time. I assumed that he was gonna do the maximalist thing again with this album, but it’s more like: ‘Boom! We just made a song, and it bangs, so fuck you.’ It’s such an awesome contrast.”
On Yeezus, some of the best moments of Ye’s musical career are juxtaposed rather jarringly with some of the most “huh?” moments of his career. The gaps in quality confirm, at least in my eyes, that the ambitious sonic leaps takes with this record are conscious decisions rather than true indications of withering genius. “Bound 2,” seems to exude all the great moments of Ye’s career in one track. It is no surprise, given Ye’s purpose behind Yeezus, that the most easily identifiable Ye track comes at the very end of the album. Enlisting R&B legend Charlie Wilson for vocals, West provides the most soulful recording of the album by far in “Bound 2.” Rick Rubin, the legendary long-bearded Caucasian hip-hop producer was largely instrumental in the harvesting of this record, and others. Recently, Rubin has stated on record that he personally felt that the tracks on Yeezus needed another year to reach full blossom, but respected Kanye’s insistence on a minimalist approach this go ’round. Speaking to the Daily Beast, Rubin had this to say: ““There was so much material we could really pick which direction it was going to go,” he revealed. “The idea of making it edgy and minimal and hard was Kanye’s. I’d say, ‘This song is not so good. Should I start messing with it? Can I make it better?’ And he’d say, ‘Yes, but instead of adding stuff, try taking stuff away.’ We talked a lot about minimalism. My house is basically an empty white box. When he walked in, he was like, ‘My house is an empty white box, too!'”
Other tracks like “Send It Up,” and more notably, “Blood On The Leaves” fall just short of five star status in my eyes. “Blood On The Leaves” is a shining testament to Ye’s fearless musical ambition, as he is very possibly the first person in the world to think to combine a song about racial hate crimes (Nina Simone’s cover of Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit) with the “fuck them other niggas ’cause I’m down for my niggas” beat. “Blood On The Leaves” features the more sing-happy Ye we witnessed on 808s and Heartbreak than the back-pack-rapper-with-a-fondess-for-Bentleys on College Dropout. Ye ranges in different emotions as he speaks about relationships that have lost their vitality. Although it is not my favorite track on the album, most critics have been unanimous in their praise of the song. “Guilt Trip” is one of the aforementioned songs that could sit snugly in a collection of Ye’s greatest songs to date. As he proved on “Gorgeous” and “All Of the Lights,” Kid Cudi has a knack for adding flare to Ye productions, even if his guest spot is minimal. Cudi’s crooning toward the waning moments of the song are no doubt the cherry on top of an awesome record. As the song implies, Ye laments about a relationship gone wrong, as synths and computerized sounds replace 808s.
The well-known mythology behind Ye’s recording process is that he is a ruthless perfectionist in the studio, meticulously slaving over every minute piece of a song until it finally meets his satisfaction. However, the recording sessions behind Yeezus were much different, with Ye spending not enough half of the time working on this record as he did with MBDTF. Speedy production is a strong element in most punk music, as often times bands freestyle their songs in effort to mimic live performances, mistakes and all. The tactic is hardly practiced in hip-hop however, but there are a few notable exceptions. Once he was out on bail, fresh outta jail, California dreamin’ 2pac recorded possibly the greatest album of all time, All Eyes On Me, in just two weeks. But 2pac’s is a rare case, and while the tracks on Yeezus do not feel “rushed” per say, there is the looming feeling that the songs did not reach their full potential. Even with that said, after a few listens, I have to admit that I am a fan of all the songs on the album, and in total feel that Kanye put out a very strange, yet awesome record. It’s comforting to know that hip hop artists are in a position where they are able to comfortably push, push, and push boundaries, as consequently polarizing as these finished efforts are. It remains to be seen what Ye’s next move will be, with his G.O.O.D. Music compilation disc set to drop sometime this winter.
Anyways, after writing this long review I’m hungry, and croissants sound mighty good.