Kanye West Yeezus

[Def Jam; 2013]

Styles: take it or leave it
Others: Suicide, M.I.A., Nas

1. Yeezus will be precisely as interesting to people as an album as Kanye is as a concept. It’s a nebulous, dense, paranoid web of utterly unfiltered expression that’s utterly or negligibly fascinating depending on how much you care about Yeezy. West is trapped under our gaze unlike any other songwriter before or hence. Since his “reinvention” of the rap game was ultimately predicated on one thing — the complete rejection of the universal subject — Yeezy’s thoughts and feelings come at a premium completely unlike that of Bono’s, Madonna’s, Jagger’s, or Lennon’s; our fascination with him comes not from what he fashions from the whole human experience thing, but what he alone experiences and then shares, filtered exclusively through his obsessions, his neuroses. For all of the awe involved in the response to Kanye, people may as well be watching a Cirque du Soleil that talks back. If there’s anything universal in his music, it’s incidental. He’s propelled purely on his own hot air — his own intuitive sense of the world around him — and as such Yeezus is utterly the most proactively singular reflection of the conflicted, confused, embittered self to ever make it out of someone’s head and onto an album. It’s the apotheosis of personal content opened to be read as universal, rather than vice versa. As such, what you carry into this determines what you carry out; it requires buying in. It’s hard to develop new feelings on a prisoner just by staring at him harder.

2. West is not a savior, a spokesperson, or an activist. This album is about and for one person only, yet being indifferent to Kanye is like not voting. It means tuning out of popular culture to some extent generally and, by extension, sidestepping the debates he’s raised. Strangely enough, it tends to feel like he alone sits at the nexus of race, commercialism, consumerism, and award ceremony etiquette in worldwide discourse. When Yeezy says in his New York Times interview that he’s the center of culture, he means it, and he knows he’s pretty much right about it. Kanye’s competition is not Kendrick Lamar or hip-hop; musically, it’s what’s on the radio, and topically, it’s whatever irks his imperial whims. At this point in his trajectory, the closest touchstone for Yeezus is Dylan circa Highway 61 Revisited, an album made under a paralyzing public gaze that took swipes at authority but spent most of its time hung up on women and their follies, while throughout being musically a fierce “fuck you” to everyone who wasn’t savvy enough to keep up with where Our Visionary though the times were heading. Consider this; who else has gone through such rapid permutations over six albums within a decade’s length? The folksinger of 1963 looks as distant from the Rimbaud-quoting beatnik of 66 as the backpack-reppin’ Ye of 2005 does from the Yeezus who needs his croissants fetched. Both are equally as self-obsessed. Yeezus is an assertion of complete autonomy, but it reserves the right for autonomy to quake.

3. Talking about how Yeezus sounds is almost irrelevant five days after it leaked, but hey; Yeezy middle-fingers the clean, empty maximalism of mainstream radio pop and EDM, leaning back towards the nastiness of rap’s origins while using the latest in seek-and-destroy sonics. No matter how loud deadmau5 is, it’s not brutal. This eats Skrillex alive. In a time of dubstep etc., he’s making polyphonous, competing webs of rancor out of synths that sound like industrial strength vacuum cleaners. There are no singles, and there are no melodies. When hooks do finally crop up, they enter abruptly, feeling either like the discordant element among all the dirt and malice or shoehorned in with an eye on discomfort. If West is gonna throw dancehall in (and he does often), you bet it’s the most nihilist dancehall ever, with the patois of the MCs he uses pattering like someone tapping on your windshield at 3 AM in a parking lot. Almost unremittingly bleak, grimy, and minor key, it’s weirdly invigorating, like Illmatic raised on “Frankie Teardrop,” all lean, scabrous, and abrasive. If that sounds a lot like the last M.I.A. record, you’re right. It is a lot like the last M.I.A. record. I wonder what she’s thinking about that right now.

4. Having declared that MBDTF — a record replete with empathy, humility, and shame — was a “backhanded apology,” Yeezus is basically the point where Kanye’s self-obsession gets its most guileless, brutal, and rank exploration yet. It’s a record perfectly capable of ranting about black consumerism making new slaves on one hand while sampling “Strange Fruit” in a song that cites courtside seats to Knicks games on the other. “21st century schizoid man,” indeed. This is a celebration of vitriol, confusion, rage, grossness, and discontinuity simply by virtue of the fact that these are the characteristics that make up Ye at the moment. It’s basically a sour, ugly toast to the douchebag, and it’s clear that he feels he deserves it.

5. It breaks into two unequal halves. There’s the devastating opening run of four songs, which is a devastating call to action that’s basically been unseen in mainstream hip-hop for decades, and there’s the next, which is a dark twisted fantasy of fucking, nightclubs, money, bitches, shame, and discomfort, delivered by a man who knows exactly how fucking wrong he is and exactly how much he’s not going to extricate himself.

6. The opening run is incredibly arresting, a taste of the ultimate promise of what West’s talent is, picking up where “Who Will Survive in America” left off to tour West’s paranoia about being alive in America. “On Sight” is thrilling, a call to action that singes and hisses; when a sample of a gospel children’s choir abruptly enters, it feels like a balloon floating low over a public execution. Where in “Stronger,” the cry of “I need you right now” felt more like Yeezy just wanting a pair of eyes on him, “On Sight” invests it with an urgency more befitting of taking the kingdom of heaven by storm. When “On Sight” transitions into the massive drums from “Rock and Roll Pt. 2” by Gary Glitter sampled on “Black Skinhead,” it feels like we’re already marching with him. If you’re placed for it, it’s a shiver-down-the-spine moment, like this could be a dividing line in popular culture where Issues become unflinchingly a Thing, like listening to Damaged for the first time in a bedroom that’s sealed shut for safety. Ye yells “Baby we’re living in the moment/ But I ain’t finished, I devoted,” and you believe him. The feel of the closing section of “New Slaves” is reminiscent of “I Can’t Go to Sleep” by The Wu-Tang Clan, where the beat and Isaac Hayes soothe RZA, reducing himself to tears. Steel yourself, Ye; there’s more work to be done, and then…

7. …it gets confusing. Focus breaks down, shit gets hard, Yeezy gets drunk and high, and it’s all about him again. There’s a tone of exorcism to this stretch of the record, even if the songs are angry, blasé, and at worst very ordinary. The slack, abrupt structures, slow tempos, and competing, jarring polyphonous voices portray a pretty violent intrapersonal conflict underneath the monologues about pussy, money, and fame. Eventually, it all coheres into a narrative, of razorsharp focus and black anger deteriorating into being stretched out on the rack of the personal life. Squint and Yeezus is his Stephen Dedalus album. “Hold My Liquor” gets rejected; “I’m In It” tries to fuck its way out and fails; “Blood on the Leaves” complains; “Guilt Trip” stumbles into the alley; and “Send It Up” might be the most half-hearted club song in existence, to the point where it has to be by design. Ending on a lamentation about memory, it slinks off, empty-headed and gone. It’s self-consciously messy, abusive, self-indulgent, and dissonant, and at the center of it all, Yeezy whimpers, hisses, complains, and licks his lips. He’s no longer screaming.

8. Guest parts have previously been integral parts of a West album, but the intrinsic solipsism of Yeezus means that features either play out like (a) a metaphysical dramatization of his internal struggles (cf. Justin Vernon and Chief Keef on “Hold My Liquor”) or (b) oblique, general choral responses to his more specific experiences (Beenie Man’s closing chorus on the topic of memory in “Send it Up”). The opening run of four songs is virtually guestless, and is taut and fierce; when he brings buddies in, it feels like they’re dragging him unconscious from the bar. Moreover, there’s no longer any room for competing personalities; even if they could contribute to the scope of the dialogue at hand, they would dilute the substance, which is Kanye. It’s all Kanye. It’s hard to express yourself when you’re trying to make sure a dude doesn’t choke on his vomit.

9. Casual misogyny is central to Yeezus, and that requires full explication elsewhere, but the most curious and dark part of it sees Kanye use civil rights imagery and text to flesh out his sexual escapades; for example, he puts his fist in a woman “like a civil rights sign” — and that’s barely scratching the surface. Yet this conflation of civil rights activism and personal strife during the sex and money portion of the album raises a pretty fascinating question: Is the battle for equality won when you’re free to just worry about your own shit? Yeezus disappears so hard and irresolvably into the private from the public that it’s hard to come to any other conclusion. Societal rage, once swallowed, becomes not only a secondary concern, but manifested in the problematics of personal relationships. This raises more questions about minority race manhood, I guess, about how if you can’t march in the streets, you make the trains run on time at home. The extent to which women still get a raw deal out of Kanye not knowing what the hell he’s doing with himself isn’t going to change, is it?

10. For an album so caustic and harsh musically, it ends in full-on Kanye pleasure mode; “Bound 2” is the only song that could fit anywhere else in Ye’s discography, all crackling soul samples, wit, sincerity, pathos, outrageousness, and an extremely satisfying biblical pun. It feels full circle, a phase locking shut. Even the hook, which initially comes off as jarringly pasted in as the other hooks on the record, gets more natural the longer it hangs around. Nevertheless, the lyrics about Kim and his romance are exactly as personal and contradictory as Yeezus would have you expect; he cums on her face, requests a threesome, and gets rejected, apologizes by buying her a fur coat and generally hopes they’ll make it to Christmas. It’s basically a fist unclenching and strangely reminiscent of the titular closing track from Lou Reed’s Coney Island Baby; hearing Kanye say “close your eyes and let the word paint a thousand pictures” is pretty much up there with Lou just wanting to play football for the coach. After the rancor and clamor, Kanye’s unpossessive, loving dirty talk and cheekiness say just about one thing: the glory of love might see you through. Which is about as much of a cop-out you can get when it comes to asking how to survive in America, but he’s never been an answers man. Beyond love, neither was Jesus, I guess.

11. Ultimately, we’re dealing with a record as messy as Yeezy himself, which is the point. If you’re judging something by its intentions, Yeezus succeeds completely, because it is unambiguously and perfectly the State of Yeezy address for 2013. Rating it feels like giving him a star rating as a human being. It’s going to disappoint people who just want him to preach, party, or pull out, but Jesus was pulled in every direction too, right? Refusing to make a sacrifice for anyone means Ye will never have his real moment of crucifixion, but he’s happy as long as there are apostles hanging around. This is just the latest engagement in a cold war between him and the public; if we’re too engaged, he’ll sweat and rail under the limelight of obligation; ignoring him means there’s a critic to respond to viciously, and heck, there’ll always be a Pharisee around to send him into a rage. The most revealing thing about this is that it re-explores the lengths to which West is willing to spend not only his critical but also his cultural capital on swatting the flies buzzing around his head instead of turning over the moneylending tables in the temple. “Blood on the Leaves” is Kanye West — the entire history of American black experience has led to him being the most powerful musician on earth, and his prerogative is to use it to help sort himself out. It may feel wrong, but that’s a matter of expectation. He’s flawed, fascinating, and problematic, but not unforgiveable and can tell us as much about ourselves while exclusively referring to himself. If he was at the center of the zeitgeist giving answers, he’d be a guru, and he wouldn’t last longer than a week. What he gives us are questions. He’s been ahead of the game since he stepped foot in it, and this is going to be capital-i Important for the next six months at least, so listening to Yeezus is basically like Pascal’s wager: whether he’s right or wrong, incredible or tasteless, it’s a safer bet to pay attention to him. But that’s still a matter of faith.

Links: Kanye West - Def Jam

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