One of the most striking metaphors for the tension within “Yeezus,” the new album from rapper Kanye West, arrives nearly 25 minutes in during a song called “I’m in It.” It involves a Martin Luther King Jr. quote. “Thank God almighty, free at last” raps West.
The line is notable for what it’s not: a charged reference to black freedom. Rather, those that are “free at last” aren’t enslaved humans but a woman’s breasts, released from the bondage of a bra during a bathroom tryst. The song, which could be called bawdy were it not so lyrically dark, is one of many on West’s sixth solo studio album that reference – and commingle – sex, ethnicity and/or power.
“Yeezus” is the most musically adventurous record he’s ever released, and after a handful of listens, it's pretty obvious that it will shock a lot of people. Those that already don’t like the polarizing Chicago rapper and producer will have a replenished arsenal come its Tuesday release date.
The record, which overtly addresses issues of race in three song titles – “New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead” and “Blood on the Leaves” – is the hardest, most abrasive record, both musically and thematically, of his career. It’s not one that you’ll want your kids listening to – especially if you’re a woman in the Hamptons who may or may not have had the fling with West mentioned in "New Slaves."
Ethnic stereotypes and shocking sentiments dot the record. The conquest of an Asian woman in "I'm in It" is accompanied by a line about “sweet and sour sauce.” Another already-controversial lyric in the song promises that West will “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.”
This is not a man concerned with offending women or racial activists. It’s an otherwise thoughtful man in pure id mode, thinking with his groin and worrying little about the ladies’ vote. Is it the primal scream of a man about to be a father for the first time? An early midlife crisis? An attempt at alienating the marketplace so that he can live as an artist rather than a paparazzi target?
Maybe the last would explain the rhyme in the song "I Am a God": "I am a god / So hurry up with my damn massage / in the French-ass restaurant / hurry up with my damn croissants." If it weren't embedded within a truly frightening song featuring curdling screams and deep bass, the line would be laughable. As presented, his intentions are unclear.
"Time to take it too far, yo," he says at one point, keenly aware of the size of his platform and the risks he’s taking. West recently decried musicians with corporate sponsors, and after some of the lines on “Yeezus,” it’s hard to imagine a heavyweight brand buying in.
Sonically, “Yeezus” is pure minimalism, a record filled with more aural space than anything on “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy,” his excellent 2010 record. “Guilt Trip,” especially, is a thrilling experiment with space: cosmic video-game synthetics race through the beat-heavy track, warbling and weaving bursts of noise that sound time traveled from 1982.
“Send It Up” is equally stupefying, a next-level freakout that sounds as weird and progressive as anything on the experimental beat scene. Ditto the sonically heavy modular synths in "Hold My Liquor," which hum with menace.
“Gonna start a new movement, being led by the drums,” declares West, unconcerned that there’s nothing new about minimalist beats, willfully blind to the fact that first-generation rap was also led by percussion.
What is new, though, is his increasing disregard with musical conventions. Sounds that draw on the popular “trap” movement abound, and pop kings Daft Punk produce a number of next-level beats that suggest the disco of “Random Access Memories” is merely one of their many strengths. The best of them, "New Slaves," is a serious jam, a nuanced rhythmic breakdown as aggressively out-there as it is hardened.
The same can be said, at least on early listens, for much of "Yeezus."
Follow Randall Roberts on Twitter: @liledit