Album Review: Kanye West, Yeezus
From the May 1 announcement of Kanye West's sixth studio album Yeezus—via a subtle Tweet from West simply reading "June Eighteen"—fans and critics knew it was going to be a different album, reflecting Kanye's ascension to rap godliness. Without releasing a single or music video to help promote the LP, Ye approached marketing it to the masses guerilla-style—projecting one of its standout tracks "New Slaves" onto buildings all over the world from drive-by trucks—but still employed more traditional formats like an appearance on SNL, where he premiered two new songs. Today, Yeezus sees the light of day, and it's a moving and innovative work; its grand ambition harkening back to another one of West's break-the-mold albums, 2008's 808s & Heartbreak.
In a rare recent interview with The New York Times, Kanye explains a revelation he had about the progression of his sound leading up to 808s, dubbing his groundbreaking fourth LP the "first black new wave album." He reflects, "I didn't realize I was new wave until this project… I am a black new wave artist." With Yeezus, he takes that black new wave genre and forcibly meshes it with house, punk, dancehall and drill in earnest. The result is a collection of his angriest songs yet, accented with enough clever barbs and Kanye charm to make even his most biting commentary accessible.
Though Yeezus marks a sonic departure from West's orchestral instrumentation on last year's G.O.O.D. Music compilation, Cruel Summer, it explores some of the same ideas—excess, social status, inequality—as his collaborative project with Jay-Z, Watch The Throne (2011). Only this time, the themes are discussed with more humility and humor, as Kanye doesn’t feel the need to keep up with Jay’s emotionless grandiosity. Yeezus is home to some of Kanye’s most provocative writing to date, and it sees him perfecting his formula of dissecting power and otherness with a masterpiece mix of awareness, ignorant wit and fuck-off confidence.
The production is equally aggressive and bombastic. In theTimes piece, Kanye touches on working on Yeezus with master producer Rick Rubin, who's created a reputation of producing by reducing (sounds, vocals, etc.). Just as he described, the album is filled with minimal production; there are thundering drums which quickly show up then disappear and warped samples (screeches, gasps, sirens) sprinkled throughout. It's by far his least musical project, swapping the warm sounds of College Dropout and synth-pop beats of Graduation for more staccato, repetition-driven rhythms. If it all sounds weird, that’s because it is, but the motley musicality is justified by Kanye's mixed messages.
On the album's centerpiece, "I Am A God," Kanye alters his voice to play tongue-in-cheek, as if in on the joke that the same artist who made the God-fearing "Jesus Walks" also made an album called Yeezus. He clarifies the confusion with the line, "I am a God, even though I'm a man of God/My whole life in the hands of God, so y'all better quit playin' with God." In a juxtaposition of himself and God, he plays with identity so cleverly that it's more entertainment than commentary, or commentary masked as entertainment, something Kanye's always expertly walked the line on. Later in the track, a few beats after yelling, "In a French-ass restaurant; Hurry up with my damn croissants!" Kanye admits, "I just talked to Jesus, he said, 'What up, Yeezus?'" He's at his best when he reminds us of how hilarious he can be, even at his “most-high.”
Another standout comes on the Chief Keef-featuring "Hold My Liquor," an update on West's slept-on Graduation cut "Drunk And Hot Girls." On it, Keef shines—his hook is in equal measure heartbreaking, hopeless and empty—and gives Kanye room to pirouette through sirens and filtered drums with snarling, otherworldly couplets. The track's lyrical highlight comes with the resentful lines: "Then her auntie came over, skinny bitch with no shoulders/Tellin' you that I'm bogus? Bitch you don't even know us!/'Baby girl he's a loner, Baby girl he's a loner'/Late-night organ donor, after daddy disowned ya." He maintains a similar tone with "Blood On The Leaves," an ominous lust memoir that finds Kanye flexing his forgotten rapid-fire rap skills one second and singing an 808s-esque regretful refrain the next.
Yeezus' quick and hypnotizing pace finally leads to its emotional and musical highlight, the closer "Bound 2." It’s a twisted, compelling love song that's reminiscent of some of West's classic soul-tinged records. On "Bound," Kanye raps romantically ("Close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures/One good girl is worth a thousand bitches") and quirkily ("I wanna fuck you hard on the sink, after that give you something to drink/Step back, can't get spunk on the mink") about an unnamed love. It's a perfect sendoff that reminds you of Kanye's roots while pointing you in the direction of his future.
With Yeezus clocking in at a short 40 minutes, Kanye achieves his goal of creating a stripped-down, minimalist project; there's nothing extra or out of place here. More importantly, Kanye makes it abundantly clear that he's still got a lot to say, and a lot of new ways to say it.—Dan Buyanovsky