Kanye West is better than you: the Yeezus review
I listened to the album a bajillion times (approx) and this is what I think.
Uh oh, Kanye West has fallen through the glass atrium on to your banquet table again. “How much do I not give a fuck?” West asks in the opening track ‘On Sight’. The conceit that West doesn’t care is of course a front. West cares. A lot. As he proclaims in this rather ridiculous interview with the New York Times, West equates not being selected for a kids basketball team even though he was good, with the lack of acknowledgement of his genius, even though everyone pretty much everywhere nods in agreement that he is one of the artists of his generation. “I am so credible and so influential and so relevant that I will change things,” West says. Dude we know. We know you’re there, Kanye, but a spotlight can’t be fixed on someone ALL the time.
The result of this incredulous discontent, and plenty of other things, is ‘Yeezus’, the strange, challenging and unsettling 10-track record that is his sixth studio album (seventh if you count ‘Watch The Throne’.) You can almost feel the saliva spray from your headphones, and you can almost hear the frantic phone calls of major label pop execs to each other, “Out with the dubstep guys! Out with the EDM. Get Trent Reznor to do Katy Perry’s new tune!” West’s music is a hurricane warning, sweeping away the existing conditions and dictating what comes next, and the dark industrial fist-on-the-chrome-table thump of ‘Yeezus’ will be heard as loudly as the confessionalism of ‘The College Dropout’ and ‘Late Registration’, the electronic anthemic aspects of ‘Graduation’, the minimalism of ’808s & Heartbreak’, and the WTF kitchen-sink awesomeness of ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’.
This is weird, hard, whiplash-inducing music, announced with Daft Punk’s acid house growl from the get go. And early on, there are few reminders of Kanye’s sound – if in fact he really has one anymore with this sort of exhilarating progression. ‘Black Skinhead’ has tribal drums reminiscent of ‘Love Lockdown’, but this time the warriors are marching towards the abattoir and there’s a level of meanness here somewhere on the Marilyn Mansun / Slipknot spectrum, as distortion hangs from meathooks.
West admonishing consumerism on ‘New Slaves’ unleashes the Alanis Ironic Klaxon. But it could also be construed as West baiting the contradiction, especially when he repeats “I know that we the new slaves.” And ‘I Am A God’ contains that hilarious killer ‘Ye line that every record needs, “hurry up with my damn croissants”. The pulsating beat, hypey synth, the reverb and echo all drill away at the happy clappy MDMA-coma American music is in right now. This is the come down, the dark recesses of a mind that breaks that track only to engage in horror movie screams before Justin Vernan falls into a well. The whole thing evokes the atmosphere created when Keith Flint headbanged in an abandoned railway tunnel.
It’s remarkably difficult to conjure all of this with so little furniture. Rick Rubin is a master of reduction, but West strips ‘New Slaves’ back to nothing but a simple seven note beat backed up with some occasional ghost train texture. Then that pitched up vocal that was so much a part of Kanye’s early production returns like a ghoul, yet when we rise from the basement of this track, we’re in a sparkly music hall, as the song stumbles out of the dark into a much brighter vista.
This indication of optimism is continued on ‘Hold My Liquor’ where within the Genesis vibe, there’s a Trent Reznor-inhabited eagle noise scratching its claws down the blackboard. And welcome back, Justin Vernon, even if this time he sounds more shredded than the calming influence he once was, morphing into a butchered James Blake, eventually ignited by a Tron-like pulse, jolting the spark plugs to life.
While West might be speaking ‘Swaghili’, he falters on ‘Blood On The Leaves’, a callback from ‘New Slaves’. Now, it takes a lot of balls to sample ‘Strange Fruit’, but it takes delusion to surround that sample with lyrics about taking ecstacy. West is one of the few artists (whaddup Cher) who can use autotune without inducing rage, but the brass bombardment and lack of tightness in the lyric department turns the strange fruit into a sticky jam that just doesn’t spread properly. Just when you think he’s fallen off, the dreamy ‘Guilt Trip’ brings some great Crystal Castles-level morphing over a piano riff, and when ‘Send It Up’ comes along with its demented helium swagger, the beat becomes a knock on the partitions that set apart other rappers in cubicles while West slams his office door.
Unfortunately, this all ends on a duff note. ‘Bound’ brings back the traditional West soul sample early 00s sound, flipping into what is almost a boy band refrain, completely out of place here, like a Chippendale cabinet in E-1027. It would have been kind of amazing if Ye saw through the whole hard sound throughout the entire record, but (don’t tell Kanye), nobody’s perfect.
The choruses throughout are proclamations, brief statements: “NEW SLAVES”, “BOUND”, “I AM A GOD”, as if nothing more needs to be said, demonstrating West’s emphatic nature. And Rick Rubin’s ability to isolate a vocal almost makes each one a towering bronze statue on the song’s promenade. Pulses, repetition, droning, noise, the abrupt changes within tracks – all of these elements rip the flowing arteries from ‘My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’ that saw tracks consume every change with ease, and leaves the blood on the floor.
Does anything in hip-hop right now sound like this? No. Is that a victory? For someone who prizes innovation, most def. West has done it again, carving out a completely unique space from out of nowhere. But hang on, does that make the record good? This isn’t a blockbuster in-the-club colossus by which hip-hop albums are frequently judged upon. But on what merit can you judge West apart from his own?