Kanye West’s madness is supremely profound, and Yeezus is a testament to that if nothing else.
West may not quite believe that he is an actual deity, but he seems to sincerely believe that not only is he the best rapper alive (at least), but also that his art necessarily transcends the genre, and music itself, to the point of shaping world culture around it, like a God would shape a rock spinning through space. His mental health record is surely longer than DMX’s criminal record at this point, and egotism is just one item at the top of a very long list that includes delusion, misogyny, ADD, anger mismanagement, and poor impulse control. But these conditions are nothing more than the layers of primer underneath the art that we’re here to examine.
Yeezus isn’t as impressive as its Creator seems to think it must be by definition, and in fact it’s not even as impressive as 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But there’s a lot to admire.
The album opens with On Sight, which has deceptively strong lyrical work backed by a somewhat discardable semi-dub electro beat that feels like a ReBirth demo track. Its pattern is a bit too simple to be so repetitive, the only reprieve being an abrupt, but brief detour into chunk of an old gospel choral song.
It’s an introduction by design, opening with a proclamation: Yeezy season approaching, fuck whatever y’all been hearing… a monster about to come alive again / Soon as I pull up and park the Benz, we get this bitch shakin’ like Parkinson’s… Then, the misogyny that bloggers are so up in arms about makes its first appearance, before we’re even a full minute into the album: Black dick all in your spouse again / And I know she like chocolate men, she got more niggas off than Cochran. Go ahead and get offended at the content, or the cheap beat, but that is a Mike Tyson one-two lyrical punch.
Black Skinhead is as close to rock as we’ve seen ‘Ye venture, with audible breaths and hollers acting as punctuation. Though the beat was created from scratch, the drums are easily mistaken for samples from Marilyn Manson’s The Beautiful People, which we have to guess inspired the track. If so, it’s an interesting nod to another artist known to have proclaimed himself a superhuman. Yet it’s hard not to see Manson identifying himself as Antichrist Superstar as an act of theatrics, contrasted with a rabid self-conviction that suggests Kanye is going beyond role playing.
On I Am A God, there’s a dark futuristic-goth groove at the bottom-most layer, which comes from a completely different planet than the hook placed directly on top of it, a sample of reggae artist Capleton’s deep cut Forward Inna Dem Clothes. And then Kanye says, with no apparent irony, “I am a God.” The message is fairly simple: Kanye is a God, to be treated as one, and never made to wait for massages, orgiac rites, Porsches, or baked goods. He is the God of culture, the only rapper that can “compare to Michael” (not sure if he means Jordan or Jackson, or either interchangeably), and until he gets struck by lightning for the claim, he’s a God because he says he is.
There are two breaks between verses where Kanye simply screams long sustained screams, as if terrified, over and over. During one of these fits, the track abruptly goes completely silent for about five long seconds. Nothing. Then another long scream. It’s perhaps the weirdest passage on an album that seems hardly premeditated. It even outshines the instant meme where the beat drops out as Kanye loudly shouts: Hurry up with my damn croissants!! …And that is saying something.
The track closes with a two-line hook from Justin Vernon, who is hopefully a permanent member of the Kanye West band by now. Ain’t no way I’m giving up, I’m a God. It only lasts a few seconds, but Vernon’s ethereal, sort of naturally auto-tuned vocals compliment Kanye’s aesthetic consistently well, and are always welcome.
There’s a lot to process in I Am A God, but it’s nothing compared to the amount of baggage New Slaves shows up with. It manages to more formally present the album’s thesis, but every seam is bursting with bitter rage and emotional leakage. At first glance, it seems like a genius satire of Kanye West; It takes a mega-serious premise of slavery, dwelling on it almost to the point of discomfort… Before drunkenly careening into talk of Maybachs and getting head, and finally icing the crazy cake with obnoxious caterwauling over some crazy Hungarian prog rock. But after a few more listens, you realize that, somehow, it all sort of makes sense. And while the backing track is a bit disappointing, the lyrics are the most powerful on the album.
Here’s the statement: The old-school racism that Momma suffered may be obsolete, but blacks are still niggers to those in power. At such a disadvantage in the rat race against those that have been running for generations upon generations, their lack of knowledge and business experience is constantly taken advantage of. When a white man has wealth, he can leverage it for power and control. When a black man has wealth, he’s no threat, for all you have to do is take it from him, with contracts he won’t understand, or in exchange for Bentleys and Maybachs, fur, diamond chains, designer clothes. Meanwhile, the DEA and the corrections industry have teamed up to put more blacks in prison today than there were enslaved before the Civil War. The fundamental disrespect hasn’t changed at all.
So Kanye goes ballistic. These new plantation owners are up in the Hamptons, living large and bragging about what they have stepped on black bodies to achieve, so fuck them. Kanye’s going to walk into your house, fuck your wife with his big black dick, and jizz in her mouth. And for everyone calling this the height of insensitive misogyny, the context here is that a man’s entire race is being dominated, and all he has to fight back with is animalistic rage. I don’t even have to frame it as brutality in self-defense; Surely at least some of these Hamptons wives are down to be railed by a virile black man, and for a moment, that power structure is flipped, and those tables get turned. That violence is arguably fair.
Hold My Liquor and I’m In It are both comparatively light on messaging. The beats are pretty simple, relative to Kanye’s discography. Both have a lot of standard rap posturing from ‘Ye, with Chief Keef throwing in a verse’s worth on Hold My Liquor. Justin Vernon’s verses keep me from ever skipping past that track, while I’m In It has some addictive, though indecipherable verses from dancehall emcee Assassin. Something about doing drive-bys, shooting guns like they’re aerosol cans, and getting away with all of it like O.J. Simpson. That assault flows into a tag team hook, Kanye spitting variations of the titular line between beautiful, soaring falsettos from Vernon.
The I’m In It outro has another croissant moment. Kanye’s firing off one-liners, like I’m a rap-lic priest / Uh / Getting head by the nuns… This goes on for about 15 bars, and ends with that trick again – the music going silent, and the last lines: Uh / they be balling in the D-league / Uh / I be speaking swag-hili. Swag-hili.
Blood On The Leaves is built on Nina Simone’s version of Billie Holiday’s haunting song Strange Fruit (originally written by Lewis Allan, but Billie earned the credit). The source material is about as heavy as it gets. The “strange fruit” in the poplar trees were the bodies of lynched blacks, and this song was written in the 1930s as a firsthand account. The lines black bodies swinging in the southern breeze and blood on the leaves, used by Kanye, were literal, and if you don’t know the rest of the song, you have spared yourself a valuable nightmare.
The only qualm I have with Blood On The Leaves is that it does the thing that I was glad New Slaves didn’t do. The lyrical content is a personal, but passing complaint, about a girl that somehow got away after some drugs and naked debauchery. All built on one of the top five most soul-tearing pieces of music ever composed? The thumping, percussive horns sound great, and Kanye’s flow is flawless. I can’t get enough of the final verse, skewering some washed up wannabe gold digger in a rapid-fire assault. All in on that alimony, uh, yeah yeah, she got you homie… So infectious. But this is all you’re going to do with Strange Fruit? Honestly, after all the misogyny and threatening of white people, using Billie / Nina so frivolously is the only thing that offended me on Yeezus. It’s as if the lyrics for New Slaves didn’t fit on this beat, so he just randomly threw something else on it.
Yeezus ends a little shaky. Album closer Bound 2 is a nice throwback to Kanye’s first few albums, soulful with some cool hooks from Charlie Wilson. But Guilt Trip kind of slips by unnoticed, like an accidental interlude, and Send It Up might be a genuinely bad cut on an album that commits only a few real artistic sins for all its blasphemy. It sounds more like Rack City than the kind of valuable expression we’ve come to expect from Kanye West.
Overall, the album’s construction is perfectly represented by its package-fee packaging, marketing-free marketing, and its birth, dropped out of the clear blue sky with little warning and zero apologies. It seems to have been put together with a completely different mindset than that which bore Dark Twisted Fantasy, with nothing over-worked or over-thought. In its worst moments, it’s a little undercooked, but in its best moments, as Kanye is stomping around, maniacally screaming, proclaiming that he is a God, it’s pure, unbridled artistic expression of the bravest and most sincere variety. And that is how such apparently preposterous content achieves the impossible distinction of being Kanye West’s most honest work yet.
Reviews published prior to February 23, 2015 used a 1-5 star rating system.