Jun 18, 2013

Music Review: "Yeezus" by Kanye West

By Ian Cory

2013 might be remembered as the year that everyone figured out to market their albums. Justin Timberlake, Daft Punk, Boards of Canada, Jay-Z*, even Lonely Island all used a mix of traditional media and new digital innovations to transform their album releases into cultural events in an era where albums mean less and less every year. But even though each of these campaigns were effective and a thrill to join in, its all too fitting that the biggest record of the year was promoted by a single tweet, a single SNL performance and no single. Of course there were the worldwide projections with Kanye giving a single continuous Kubrick Stare, but those didn’t feel like a promotional stunt so much as a super villain delivering their ultimatum (seriously, watch it back to back with the “You Are Not Alone” scene in Man Of Steel and ask yourself which scared you more). Of course a Kanye album being hyped from here to high heaven is somewhat inevitable. And of course its leak would inspire a mass panic across the Internet. But none of this answers the question of whether or not Yeezus is actually good.

Short answer, yes. Longer answer, its complicated. As the SNL performance suggested, Yeezus is a hell of a harsh album, with next to no concessions to any club you’d want to go to or your car speakers. On top of being sonically extreme, the lyrical content is a mix of the most political and incendiary subjects West has ever touched on, along with the vilest and most outrageous sex rhymes on earth. I don’t doubt that this is an intentional move on Kanye’s part, with the goal of making middle class white people (i.e. me) incredibly uncomfortable. As the man said himself, he’s here to tear shit down while popping "a wheelie on the Zeitgeist". And Yeezus definitely succeeds at that, leaving behind the crystal palace production of Cruel Summer for the grime-covered basements from a David Fincher film. Even beyond this album’s joking nod to Fight Club, the vibe of nilhistic pre-9/11 counter culture runs strong. “Black Skinhead” lifts its swinging drums from Marilyn Manson’s “The Beautiful People”, Daft Punk’s production on “On Sight” draws from Aphex Twin’s acid house era along with their own early work, and “I’m In It” is lyrically a hip-hop version of Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer”. Hideously distorted bass lines and stuttering rhythms make up the majority of the record’s composition, but there are plenty of flashes of older Kanye sounds. The classic soul samples of Kanye’s early work are present, but instead of sounding like concessions to the fans, they appear as sneering perversions of the past. The autotuned vocals of 808’s And Heartbreak show up on “Blood On The Leaves” and “Guilt Trip”** and fit in surprisingly well with the inhospitable surroundings.

It’s always difficult to separate Kanye’s musical choices from his lyrical ones, partially because of his ability as a rapper to subsume himself in the groove, but also because of his obsession with the big picture. On Yeezus he matches his stripped down and ugly production with a complete distillation of his lyrical persona. With every new Kanye album there’s always a rush to catalogue the most meme worthy lines, and there are certainly contenders, both on the serious side and the “I can’t believe he actually said that” side. “I Am A God” captures the essence of Kanye’s self-mythologizing along with his ability to turn French cuisine into the funniest thing on the planet. On “I’m In It” he unleashes a storm of lines equating sex with Asian women to Chinese food and fisting to the civil rights movement, ending the song by asserting that he speaks “SWAGHLI”. It’s hard to defend much of the lyrics as anything other than Kanye being Kanye, which is expected if the reports of much of the writing happening in two hours are to be believed. Still, there are moments when all of the elements crystallize into something truly beautiful. “Blood On The Leaves” is a song that pits all of the contradictions inherent in Kanye West against each other. Nina Simone versus TNGHT, political sampling versus personal lyrics, sympathetic autotuned singing versus cold and callous rapping, and finally having enough depth to be broken down academically versus the fact that when those horns hit there is no way you will sit still.

The discourse around this album will stay in the public spotlight for the remainder of the year no matter how much anyone enjoys listening to it. And to be certain, this is not a perfect album. After the six-song tour de force of “Black Skinhead” through “Blood On The Leaves”, there’s a significant drop in quality, ending with the sloppy and lifeless “Bound 2”. This is not the star-making burst of energy of College Dropout or a legacy-cementing masterpiece like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. But for an act of deliberate self-deconstruction, Yeezus is surprisingly tuneful, and for a major pop culture event it’s remarkably weird and challenging. It’s hard to imagine that there will be a storm of imitators trying to bottle this magic like there were with Graduation or 808’s, but I certainly wouldn’t mind seeing more producers learning tricks from Throbbing Gristle and Skinny Puppy. Yeezy season approaches, and something tells me that it won’t end anytime soon.

Grade: A-/B+

*This is somewhat speculative because Magna Carta Holy Grail isn’t out yet, but come on, there’s no way Hova is going to fuck this up. (Ed. Note: A testament to the fact that Jay-Z has learned the #newrules)
**The piano on this track also reminds me of the piano line on “Bring Me Down” from Late Registration.

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