By Jared McNett
I took my own sweet time reviewing this record for several reasons. First, trips into the awe-inspiring Mountain West kill almost any desire to work. Alongside the fact that it’s hard to find any Wi-Fi on the side of a mountain. But more importantly this is a Kanye West record, one of the few artists left in any genre whose release dates turn into full-blown events. Once the release date for Yeezus was announced, I found myself intensely circling June 18th with the sort of anticipation reserved for a kid at Christmas. In short, this is something worth taking your time on, less you risk being bowled over by the hypemachine that is always threatening to run off the tracks every time Kanye releases a new album. And finally, I took my time with this review, because after 10 full spins down into the rabbit hole, I’m still not entirely sure what I’m hearing.
Not that an album like this is without precedence, though the reference points may appear dated to some. The last commercial artist (for whatever that means anymore) to make this deliberately non-commercial of an album was Radiohead with Kid A in the face of the capital they garnered with 1990s touchstone OK Computer. Drifting back a bit further, we find another Yeezus companion in the prickly In Utero, Nirvana’s aural balking at the success Nevermind afforded them. Yeezus keeps company with these mangled predecessors. A dense, often impenetrable album, Yeezus is so subsumed with blind rage and paranoia it’s a small miracle Ye manages to craft a coherent line while spitting with such venom. In the case of the crushing industrial complex of “I Am a God” it’s the gospel, with Kanye’s righteous anger reduced to a serious of dissonant yells and blood-curdling screams. Whereas, Radiohead was wigging out over the perils of living in the Y2K decade, and Cobain & crew were doing everything to kill the 800-pound gorilla in the room that was Nevermind, Yeezus‘ fury is fomented without cause and aimed in every direction.
As is often the case with a great work of horror, an apparent lack of rhyme or reason to the madness is all the more terrifying. And on the first few listen-throughs, Yeezus is bereft of any method to the madness. “I’m In It” is positively stomach-churning in its thorough documentation of a party that reached its legal limit hours ago. A warped, coked up take on classic Prince circa Purple Rain, the song relies on a double-tracked Kanye voice that could fill in for Victor von Doom; creating the sort of party atmosphere where Leatherface would be a must-have on the guest list. Kanye manages several of his so dumb they’re genius lines on the track; turning sweet & sour sauce into something sexual, and reconfiguring the Civil Rights Fist for his own hedonistic purposes, but they’re the only chuckles to be found on the claustrophobic song.
An immediate difference between this record and prior solo-release My Beautiful Dark Twisted is a steadfast commitment to a less is more approach. If West gleaned anything from producer Rick Rubin on the record, it’s that lesson in minimalism that Rubin perfected with Run DMC, LL Cool J, and The Beastie Boys and West employs to great effect on conversation started “New Slaves.” The song is little more than the bleeps and bloops West filtered throughout 808s broken up by the occasional orchestral menace that made “H.A.M.” so bracing. Chief Keef who has staked his career thus-far on masking minimalism as bombast, shows up for a subdued vocal turn on “Hold My Liquor” where the entirety of his performance can be boiled down to “I can’t handle my liquor, but these b***hes can’t handle me.” West raps over a muted drum beat and guitar swipes, futilely attempting to keep his destructive tendencies at bay.
For anyone that still has a proclivity for pigeonholing hip-hop as a genre rife with over-accentuated machismo and misogyny, they’ll be clocking overtime on this record. A friend commented that this album plays out like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy’s “Hell of a Life” blown-up to LP proportions, and in many ways he’s right. That song was the pinnacle of the decadence, hedonism, and narcissism found on MBDTF, but it pales in comparison to much of Yeezus. Past stylizing himself as a God, West declares this “the greatest s**t since “In Da Club” on the drill-scene inspired “Send It Up,” threatens to “turn the plane around if your ass keep complaining” on closer “Bound 2,” categorizes an unnamed woman on the mutilated Daft Punk production “On Sight” as doing little more than “tryna get a nut, and wears the crown of Big Poppa on “Guilt Trip;” and those scan as some of the tamest examples to be found on the album.
All of that is just foreplay for the poison pill Kanye force-feeds listeners on centerpiece “Blood on the Leaves.” If the song has a sibling in the West discography it’s in MBDTF‘s “Blame Game.” That song was a heartbreaking tale of betrayal, West desperately trying to make contact at 1 in the morning, “calling your brother’s phone like what was I supposed to do?” On that song, West was wounded and could hard make sense of the relationship that was crumbling before his very eyes. That’s not the case here, Kanye instead demands “let’s get on with it,” before a Spartan beat offered up by TNGHT obliterates a sample of Nina Simone covering Civil Rights anthem “Strange Fruit.” The sample harkens back to a “simpler” time for West, when rapping and making soul beats were his only concerns, before he became tabloid fodder and courted controversy. But that soul sample is the only recollection of 2004 Kanye on the track, lines like “let’s take it back to the first party, where you tried your first molly,” unlikely to pop up on “All Fall Down.” When he bitterly re-terms marriage “unholy matrimony,” it’s the ice-cold grasp of 808s & Heartbreak that is recalled and not the warm boom-bap of College Dropout. Almost a decade into his career, Kanye seems utterly incapable of running in place, each successive album designed to deconstruct what came before it.
In Ryan Dombal’s review for Pitchfork, he wrote that “many of the album’s most powerful moments have him broken down, insecure, and bloody, railing against an ineptitude with the opposite sex,” which should come as no surprise to anyone whose followed West since the beginning. The great trick of Kanye’s career has been to construct a front of overconfidence in the service of concealing his Achilles heel of insecurity. For every moment West elevates himself to Godlike status, there’s an equal part of beating himself up to a bloody pulp. He can move from the consciousness of “New Slaves” to the oafishness of “Send It Up” and not even bat an eye. Back to “Blood on the Leaves” he confesses to wanting “what I can’t buy now,” conjuring up 2007’s “Can’t Tell Me Nothing.” He’s traded Mos Def & Freeway spots for Chief Keef and King L, cast aside much of his soul stylings for drill music/dancehall/and Titanic-sized electronica, and moved from the neon daydream of Graduation’s cover to the unadorned Yeezus. But one thing hasn’t changed and that’s the man at the center of it all, a restless rap savant who still “don’t care what people say.”