Album Review: Yeezus

The night Kanye West’s new album Yeezus leaked, Los Angeles’s Power 106 FM played his single “New Slaves” during the height of rush hour. The man responsible for spinning the record was audibly stunned when it finished, and responded: “It’s, uh, different…I think people are going to like it.” He wasn’t convincing. His voice probably masked the sound of station execs banging their heads against the soundboard. Playing “New Slaves” was a mistake.

In defense of the station, any new Kanye release is a newsworthy event, and deciding not to play a highly demanded song once a clean version was acquired would have been negligent. The other realistic choice was the primal and controversial “Black Skinhead,” which was performed on Saturday Night Live two weeks before. “New Slaves” was the better choice, but it wasn’t a good one. A good choice could not possibly have been made for radio play even if they had radio-friendly versions of every song off the album. None of the songs on Yeezus will be hits, and Mr. West will be lucky if any of them get significant airplay.

This has become a familiar process. Radio stations went through the same predicament with his previous solo record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. The album was a glorious critical and emotional achievement, but it was Kanye’s first album that did not produce a top-10 hit. Reception glowed while sales plummeted, and fans resigned to the idea that Kanye would never produce a hit song again. His new release continues the trend. Much like its predecessor, Yeezus is highly inaccessible. It’s also magnificent.

Mr. West has always produced tremendous leadoff tracks, and “On Sight” is the best of the bunch. Recruiting Daft Punk to provide the anti-melody, Kanye attacks the arrhythmic track for one exhilarating minute before giving the listener a peek into his past life as a producer. For twelve seconds, he reverts back to his gospel/soul sampling tendencies, as the Holy Name of Mary Choral Family appropriately sings: “he’ll give us what we need/it may not be what we want.” The aforementioned “Black Skinhead” provides similar exhilaration with minimal production, instead relying on a pulsating beat, heavy breathing, primal screaming, and violent imagery to support Mr. West’s dark vision. There is no Kanye song less indicative of Kanye’s signature sound than “Black Skinhead,” and he succeeds marvelously out of his comfort zone. It makes me wonder whether every zone is his comfort zone.

Much has been made about Kanye’s arrogance, and the album’s third track “I Am a God (ft. God)” adds barrels of fuel to the fire. It turns out to be the album’s least compelling song. The production doesn’t compare to the exhilaration of the previous two, and even an angelic Justin Vernon vocal does little to soothe the pain of the song’s abrasive and terrifying conclusion. It does, however, provide the hilarious line: “I just talked to Jesus/he said, ‘What up, Yeezus?’/I said, ‘I’m just chillin’” It also inspired this. That the worst song off of Yeezus contributes plenty to his image solidifies his already comfortable position on rap’s throne.

Following “I Am a God” is the aforementioned “New Slaves,” an indictment of black materialism, white exceptionalism, the police state, and the prison industrial complex, and is surprisingly relevant and enlightening. “Meanwhile the DEA (drug enforcement administration)/teamed with the CCA (a corporation specializing in private detention centers)/they tryna lock n—– up/they tryna make new slaves,” he raps, fully aware that more black men today are incarcerated than were enslaved during the height of the South’s peculiar institution. Power 106’s DJs made a mistake playing it over the airwaves. It belongs in the Smithsonian.

“Hold My Liquor” is a lovely double-entendre on intoxication. It is the album’s first real yin-yang production, balancing drill king Chief Keef’s raspy snarl with Vernon’s saccharine vocals. The muffled guitar paired with a sporadic siren sounds like the oil and vinegar Mr. West most likely consumed before inspirational trips to the Louvre. It pairs well with “Blood on the Leaves,” the album’s longest and best track. “Blood on the Leaves” begins as a comfortable ballad before exploding into a frenzy of confused mayhem, courtesy of TNGHT, and it eventually resolves in a hopeless rejection of the two. Uninspired lyrics hamper the song’s incredible production, but it should go down as a modern classic of mixing the new with the old. It’s important to note that “I’m in It,” which comes between “Hold My Liquor” and “Blood on the Leaves,” is sickeningly visceral and misogynistic, which is nothing new for Kanye, though it worked much better as a testament to his shameful behavior on Dark Fantasy.

Finishing the album comes “Bound 2,” the album’s most troublesome and misplaced song. Many will claim “Bound 2” to be the album’s best because of its Motown soul, harkening back to The College Dropout and Late Registration, but the song shines despite the Ponderosa Twins sample. “Bound 2” does not share the same celebration of black music as found on his first two albums, instead wallowing in the complacency of his newfound love and his ambivalence towards his own fame. Midway through the song, the sample falls, and Charlie Wilson croons “I know you’re tired of loving/with nobody to love.” Breaking the old to peek at the new contrasts the reverse tactic used on the first track “On Sight,” as the bookends to the album provide both retrospection and a hint towards what Kanye West and maybe all of rap will sound ten years from now. Mr. West has been rap’s greatest curator for the last decade, and that’s a title even more important than best rapper alive. He’s not about to give up either position.

By early next year, The College Dropout, arguably the greatest debut in the history of rap, will be ten years old. It was praised by critics who grew tired of rap’s disco-like obsession with self-centered glitz, and loved by listeners who now had an excuse to dig through faded orange crates at dying record stores. The album is long, fun, and popular, everything that Yeezus isn’t. But after listening back to both works, I believe Mr. West’s debut has many good songs, but only two transcendent moments: “Slow Jamz” and “Family Business.”

The entirety of the wonderful MBDTF transcends pop, and Yeezus comes close to matching that feat. It’s not the best album of the year (it’s not even the best rap album, I’ll give that nod to Acid Rap), but it will be the most talked about, and potentially the most celebrated. The College Dropout and Late Registration are cherished because they were exactly what rap needed to advance beyond its selfish monotony, but MBDTF and Yeezus are albums that will stay celebrated for its cathartic rebellion against one artist’s unique troubles with fame. It’s only fitting that Kanye West found much of his inspiration at the Louvre, because Yeezus is as close to French post-modernism as rap has ever gotten.

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1 Comment

  1. […] reboot Kreezus, a Kris Kringled interpretation of Mr. West’s genre-splitting 2013 release Yeezus. The recording production is iffy and the backing vocals are comedically awful, but the ideas are […]


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