Kanye West - Yeezus

West proves again that his aesthetic innovations are in service of a singular viewpoint—and this time, it’s a confused one.

Additional Info

8.4

ALBUM: Yeezus

ARTIST: Kanye West

2013

Hip-Hop/Rap

In the brief and mysterious run up to Yeezus, the prevailing school of thought was that it would be his club record, one inspired by Chicago house and drill—both a testament to parts of his hometown previously untouched and the natural extension of West’s jet-setting and admiration of high art. While those cultural aspirations certainly define the record’s sonic format and provide a framework for understanding it, the man who once took Freeway and threw him on a track with Mos Def once again proves that his aesthetic innovations are in service of a singular viewpoint—and this time, it’s a confused one.

But where inferior records complicate the artist's conceit and fail to isolate their thematic through-lines, Yeezus is confused only as far as West himself is: How does a rich, black American reconcile the baggage that comes with each of those descriptors? Furthermore, he has (as he says on “I’m In It”) “the kids and the wife life/but can’t wake up from the night life”. The triumph and bombast of “I Am A God” gives way to the powerlessness of “New Slaves”; no amount of focus on his id can kill the romantic in West. The critical and popular reaction to the album has unfortunately been co-opted by thinkpieces and angry tweets about the hedonism that defines Yeezus, but to object to the content misses the point—that very content is what West is wrestling with.

For the forty minutes the record runs, West—making a daring departure from 2010 masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy—deploys sparse production dominated by synths and rumbling low ends. The result is an intoxicating atmosphere that he populates with distorted vocals and lyrics that are ostensibly about the consequences of the aforementioned nightlife, but are as frenzied and immediate as the night itself. While there are few moments as undeniably brilliant as “All Falls Down” or “Runaway” (though “New Slaves” comes close) and while it doesn’t quite measure up to classics like Dark Fantasy, The College Dropout (2004), or Late Registration (2005), Yeezus is an excellent album that fully articulates a thoroughly taboo point of view. Where West pined for domesticity on 2008’s 808s & Heartbreak, he’s now found it—and he feels trapped.

“Got the kids and the wife life, but can’t wake up from the night life”

1. On Sight
“On Sight” is a utilitarian song intended to disorient and, more than likely, confuse. If it fails, it does so by mischaracterizing the rest of the album—absent is the paranoia of “Guilt Trip”, the animal-sexuality-meets-insecurity of “I’m In It”, or the race-based disaffection of “New Slaves”. But if it succeeds, it fulfills its promise of being a jarring opener, throwing the listener headlong into unfamiliar territory. Ultimately, “On Sight” feels minor in the shadow of the weightier songs that come after it, and vintage Kanyeisms (“fuck whatever y’all been hearin’/fuck what—fuck whatever y’all been wearin’”) are tempered by a delivery that’s a bit too strained. The saving grace is the choir breakdown, where a cast of children tells us exactly what Kanye believes he’s doing: giving us what we need, even if it may not be what we want. 7.0
2. Black Skinhead
When Black Skinhead was debuted on Saturday Night Live, the expectation was that it would stand as one of the more experimental records on the album. As things played out, it’s one of the more conventional songs on Yeezus. But with growling guitars and Kanye’s willingness to cast himself as a dangerous outsider (“middle America packed in/came to see me and my black skin”), “Black Skinhead” is menacing. In typical fashion, West doesn’t let the emotion of the song serve as an excuse to forego the detail-oriented perfectionism that made him famous. The harmonizing along with the guitars to open the song builds a sort of soulful momentum from the get go, and the alternating panning of the vocal sample makes an already eerie track a few degrees more haunting. 8.5
3. I Am a God
The one song that had its title whispered about for weeks before it was even confirmed proves to be the album’s low point. While the sentiments on the rap verse (“soon as they like you, make ‘em unlike you”) speak to one of the secondary themes of Yeezus (the shrugging off expectations after an unprecedented critical run), bars like “pink-ass Polos with a fucking backpack/but everybody knows you brought real rap back” read like nervous qualifications of “I Am A God”’s sonic and structural risks. The stilted delivery—always at odds with the neo-dancehall production—makes what should be an intimidating, triumphant, dark song feel a bit too cloying to work. This failure to commit to the premise—being, well, a god—drags the track dangerously close to the self-parody territory it already flirts with. It’s an interesting listen, but one that should have been left on the cutting room floor. 4.0
4. New Slaves
In the middle of an inward-looking album about a global superstar’s midlife crisis is the most biting social commentary to hit mainstream rap in the last five years. In the space of four bars (“meanwhile, the DEA teamed up with the CCA/they tryin’ to lock n----s up, they tryin’ to make new slaves/see, that’s that privately owned prison—get your piece today!/they’re probably all in the Hamptons, bragging about what they made”), West takes the grey area racial politics that dominate his social commentary and eschews them in favor of trying to incite outrage over draconian public policy. He does all this (and more—the “contracts” line in the second verse certainly lost him untold millions in potential sponsorships) over a perplexingly simple track devoid of any conventional hip hop drums. Of course, the song culminates in a beautiful, triumphant coda that’s effectively an oasis in the middle of an already-dark album that only gets darker. 10.0
5. Hold My Liquor
Aside from the hilarious juxtaposition of Justin Vernon and Chief Keef, who share hook duties here, “Hold My Liquor” is the most focused, narrow song on the album. The list of rap songs about the consequences of alcohol consumption is far too long to include here; instead, this song is the spins. It’s paranoid, anxious, and frankly uncomfortable at points. West’s verse is one of the strongest on the album, and one can only hope that “skinny bitch with no shoulders” enters the American lexicon. If the song could use one thing, it’s more of his vocals. The extended, Vernon-driven outro is pitch perfect, but Kanye could have put more of his imprint on the track as an emcee. Reading the song as the end of the album’s A side is interesting—the excited opening of “On Sight” and triumphant declarations of two succeeding songs has already given way to the disillusionment of “New Slaves” and, now, the drawn-out desperation that pervades this song. The album thus far is a night out gone wrong, and it went wrong fast. 9.0
6. I'm In It
But just like that, Kanye doubles down. In all the confused discourse about Yeezus, one piece of conventional wisdom is undoubtedly true: “I’m In It” is pure sexuality. What makes it work so fantastically is that West is able to infuse a song that’s almost entirely his unrestrained id with the insecurity and inner turmoil that defines the album. For example, for all the animalistic boasting in the first verse, he’s embarrassed to be caught buying condoms at the 7/11. Those traces of reluctance are more or less wiped out by Assassin’s murder-by-dancehall cameo, but by the time Kanye gets around to his second verse, he acknowledges the world outside of, well, *ahem*, the abyss. The crowning aspect of the song, though, is Justin Vernon’s contribution, which eclipses everything he’s done with West outside of Dark Fantasy closer “Lost In The World”. 9.5
7. Blood On the Leaves
The elephant in the room with this song is, of course, the “Strange Fruit” sample. I actually think the intent is pretty clear: Citing such an oppressively heavy song is a means to frame how important the subject matter of “Blood on the Leaves” is to West. The song is basically six minutes of him trying to talk himself out of settling down, first by ruminating on past relationships gone wrong (in exceptional, autotuned whining that recalls the best moments of 808s) and then by mocking both parties in failed marriages during the second half’s rap verse. For such a bizarre song, the execution of each component part (save one) is otherworldly. From the muted outro to the repurposed C-Murder chorus, the song excels by working through an entire range of emotions in an effort to make a single point. What keeps the track from the very upper tier of West’s catalogue is that rapped verse. It’s mostly good, but the Beyonce line is sloppy and the chastising over expensive purses and a few other points are subpar. 9.5
8. Guilt Trip
“Guilt Trip” is effectively the end of the strange journey that is Yeezus, and it’s not a pretty one. Where before he was brash, then innocent—or wrestling with how he felt about confining himself to one woman—“Guilt Trip” finds West simply sad that he was the one who was left. Continuing the dancehall motif (but to a more depressing effect), the song leads down a rabbit hole of regret, culminating in Kid Cudi’s excellent “if you loved me so much, then why’d you let me go?” bridge. Unfortunately, beyond the excellent opening lines (“maybe it’s ‘cause/she’s into Leos and I was into trios/plus all the trips to Rio…couldn’t have helped”), the writing here isn’t as strong as it is elsewhere on the album. As a whole, it’s also less fully realized than massive songs like “Skinhead” or “Blood On The Leaves” and lacks the precision of leaner gems “New Slaves” and “Send It Up”. 7.0
9. Send It Up
It seems that the impulse of some fans and critics is to draw fast conclusions about the socio-political implications of King Louie’s appearance here. The short explanation, though, is that he fits the record, and a presence as gruff as his wards off the misconception than anything that strays too far from conventional hip hop production is ‘soft’ or illegitimate. Where West’s collaboration with younger Chicago rapper Chief Keef might read as a challenge to the white establishment that had reluctantly welcomed him back into the fold after 2009 and the Taylor Swift incident, “Send It Up” is a great club song, and it would be a mistake to project much more onto it. Louie’s verse is sneakily clever (“tattoos how they break the news”), and West’s own is dripping with his familiar wit—he warns that he may “ride around on [his] bodyguard’s back like Prince”. The dancehall elements from earlier in the album return here with the Beenie Man sample, and to superb effect. It’s the most uncomplicated and relentlessly fun moment on the album. 9.5
10. Bound 2
The Wikipedia entry for Yeezus speaks of “rave reviews” from music critics and a decidedly mixed reaction from fans. While that reads like a gross generalization, it’s truer than we’d like to admit. One could certainly argue that both sides indicate a lack of imagination: The refusal on the part of the press to break rank when it comes to Kanye West’s music—even though the praise has been largely deserved to this point—actually threatens the validity of the accolades he does deserve; meanwhile, rap fans show a continually frustrating dogma when it comes to change, especially when the result is something as unfamiliar as this album. Consequently, for the second group “Bound 2” was hailed as the saving grace, the proverbial ‘only good song’, and it’s easy to see why. “Bound” is what West promised when he emerged as a rapper: Daring when necessary, but always well executed, even when the song seems simple. In some ways, it seems to mitigate against the record’s theme, finding some peace—however strained—in a comfortable relationship. “This that prom shit.” 9.0
Paul Thompson is a writer based in Los Angeles. He is a the lead writer at 2dopeboyz and a frequent contributor to Passion of the Weiss.



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