***1/2 (out of four)
When was the last time you saw Kanye West smile? He was once a schoolyard dick-joke rapper; now he’s “all black everything,” every day, constantly dressed for a funeral and fighting the paparazzi with Kim Kardashian on his arm. In a recent New York Times interview, he said, “Maybe 90 percent of the time it looks like I’m not having a good time.”
On 90 percent of “Yeezus,” Kanye’s sixth studio album, the Chicago-raised rapper doesn’t just sound unhappy. He sounds angry, beginning with the searing black-power tilt of “New Slaves,” the pseudo-single he debuted using 30-foot-projections of himself on street corners, rapping, “[Bleep] you and your Hampton House!”
The heavy consciousness of “Slaves” relates to the modern racism-tackling vein of “Watch The Throne,” but that talk doesn’t extend far into the rest of the album. Instead, the anger stems heavily from Kanye’s crazy personal baggage.
On “808s and Heartbreak,” he sounded distraught and hardly rapped. On "Yeezus," he raps as little as ever but his manic intensity often turns violent when it comes to women and relationships. On the amazing “Blood on the Leaves,” Kanye retells something like a nightmare version of “Gold Digger” while a haunting Nina Simone “Strange Fruit” sample loops and TNGHT’s “R U Ready” horns blast away.
The Rick-Rubin-razed sounds of industrial noise and throbbing basslines actually do fold nicely into the album’s dark corners. His backdrops stay cold and faceless, while Kanye struggles over and over. The grim, volatile “Yeezus” actually carries a heavy stamp from our city, Kanye’s grim, volatile hometown. He samples acid house and Young Chop, shouts out old friends and makes the drill scene’s bad kids, Chief Keef and King L, the record’s only rap features. Keef, in particular, adds a self-destructive bent to the sparse, tremendous “Hold My Liquor” with Justin Vernon, the story of a drunken drive to visit Kanye’s ex-fiance.
“Bound 2” ends the album with a beautiful, blatting soul sample that's a relief despite its focus on marriage's most tethering word. The Kanye shrug (and maybe even a smile) returns, making restless compromise: “She asked me what I wish for on my wish list/ Have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?”
Kanye is as adventurous as ever at 36. He just can’t chill out, and that instability makes for some really wild, awesome stuff here. It’s the most human thing about him, and while it bodes well for his music, it doesn’t necessarily for his state of mind. Pray for Kim K. y’all. Yeezy season looks something nasty.
Adam Lukach is a RedEye special contributor. @redeyechimusic
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