3 stars (out of 4)
Kanye West’s sixth studio album, “Yeezus” (Roc-A-Fella/Def Jam), is the latest affront from an artist who keeps inventing ways to tick people off.
At first listen, it is hostile, abrasive (both sonically and lyrically) and intentionally off-putting, as if to test the loyalty of even his most ardent fans. But, as usual, that’s only the beginning of West’s new detour.
West is used to being written off by many as a shallow, petulant, needy, self-serving braggart, a talented artist who can’t resist impaling himself on his own ego. And some of that is true, as West himself will be the first to say. But even as he barges in full-on full of himself in “Yeezus,” West demonstrates that he has a lot more on his mind than just self-aggrandizement or self-immolation.
One thing on which just about everyone can agree: West is pretty good at turning sound into his personal playground. His records sound great, set standards, and then move on to something new: the “dusties” soul vibe of “The College Dropout” (2004), the orchestral audacity of “Late Registration” (2005), the much-maligned-at-the-time melancholy electro-chill of “808s & Heartbreak” (2008), in many ways the most influential album of the last five years.
“Yeezus” is no exception, consolidating the worlds of ‘80s Chicago acid-house and 2013 Chicago drill music (the sound of Chief Keef and King Louie, both of whom have prominent cameos), ‘90s industrial, and the avant-rap of Saul Williams, Death Grips and Odd Future. Much of it sounds harsh, brutally minimal – sometimes stripped down to little more than West’s voice and a drum beat or a distorted keyboard (with production help from Daft Punk and Rick Rubin, among others). It is ruthlessly edited, with rhythms and rhymes that hit like anvils, a perfect soundtrack for dropping bombs, invading homes or bum-rushing an awards show complaining that no way did Taylor Swift make a better video than Beyonce. But there are sudden digressions and twists within the oppression, with glimpses of old soul and gospel, a sample of Hungarian rock, even Nina Simone’s version of the protest anthem “Strange Fruit.” Tucked inside lurk hooks and melodies that sink in over time.
Drill even further down, and West sounds more complicated than ever, an artist willing to throw himself off the ledge not just to get a reaction, but to open up a conversation about, well, just about everything that matters to him.
A wave of noise opens the album, synthesizers spazzing out in “On Sight” as West rises, “a monster about to come alive again.” He rages more outrageously with each line, a terrorist who is both merciless and irresistible to all he encounters. Abruptly it breaks into a sample from a gospel record that advises, “He’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want” – a sly commentary on an album that is sure to defeat expectations about who West is and what he represents.
It is exactly those sorts of expectations that West aims to upend. A decade ago, he was creating songs about the precocious kid who hated his minimum-wage job at a retail store, a relatable, everyday figure in a hip-hop world populated by larger-than-life stars. Later he was the celebrity with a tendency to run his mouth and overstay his welcome – never as cool as his hero and mentor, Jay-Z, or as prodigiously gifted an MC as Nas. “Let's have a toast for the douchebags … Let's have a toast for the scumbags,” he sang on the 2010 track “Runaway,” before advising, “Run away as fast as you can.”
West has always owned and owned up to his contradictions, and “Yeezus” is no exception, even as it tramples all in its path. It amplifies his obsession with race, class and, sex (especially of the interracial variety), and how they speak to issues of control and freedom.
Over Gothic organ and ominously ping-ponging synths, “New Slaves” finds West protesting that many of his business partners are just new slave owners in corporate disguise. At the same time, the rapper goes out of his way to be more explicit, more tasteless than ever in rhymes that equate sex with violence and casual misogyny. At times -- in particular a racially offensive joke about “sweet and sour sauce” on “I’m in It” -- he’s exasperating, indulging in the kind of transgressive “humor” you’d expect from lesser artists.
But in playing into a sexual-predator stereotype, he also forces a debate about why it’s perpetuated: “They see a black man with a white woman/At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.” (West, of course, has been in a year-long relationship with a white woman, Kim Kardashian, who gave birth to their child over the weekend.)
Thunderous jungle drums clear a path for the marauding “Black Skinhead.” It’s over the top by design, a worse case scenario of King Kong run amok – a mainstream nightmare by way of Marilyn Manson’s industrial screed “The Beautiful People.”
On “I am a God,” West flirts with all those egomaniac perceptions of his public life. He plays into the outrage, even imagining a conversation with Jesus. “I am a God,” he intones, “hurry up with my damn massage … hurry up with my damn croissants.”
Even as West threatens to turn this into the blackest comedy record he’s ever made, he goes one layer deeper on the track. Here’s the artist who wrote “Jesus Walks” confronting the license granted him as a celebrity. By the end, heavy-breathing screams break up the electronic pulse, before being buried beneath a dark cloud of keyboards.
“Hold My Liquor” employs a wobbly, electronically altered Chief Keef vocal to lend a weird poignance to a tale of a damaged suitor stumbling into an old girlfriend’s house seeking solace and a second (third? fourth?) chance. But “Blood on the Leaves” wastes a sample of Nina Simone’s biting version of “Strange Fruit” on a tawdry tale of a man who juggles a wife and mistress, and loses them both. On an album rife with images of oppression, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for an update of the harrowing meditation on racism, but West takes a pass.
The album winds down with the deceptively bouncy “Bound 2,” as if trying to let a little light through the curtain of steel. It piles on the soul samples and a guest vocal from the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson, while West plays the rogue in pursuit of “one good girl.” He talks on and on, until finally even he’s had enough of his own babbling. “After all these long-ass verses/I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept.”
West has one final laugh at his own expense. It’s an album that baits listeners into isolating and focusing on its most outrageous lines, its most brutalizing moments, independent of the whole. On the surface, he’s created a polarizing album that practically demands to be loved or hated. But with West, it’s never quite that easy.
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