Kanye West - Yeezus
Artists can transcend genres. It doesn’t happen often, and it’s more than just garden variety genre hopping (think Rebirth, The Knife’s Tomorrow, In a Year or Brian Eno, Beck, Frank Zappa and Blondie). This involves a band or artist blatantly flicking between established sounds, deliberately, whether for an entire album or 30 seconds of a song. Transcendence occurs when an artist evolves beyond their means, evolves to such a state that the music they are instinctively making becomes removed from the genre they’re rooted in. The greatest have done this. The Beatles, Prince, David Bowie, Pink Floyd, Queen, Led Zeppelin. Whilst remaining fixed in a genre they’ve pushed it to a new level, fusing it with new sounds and techniques to create something unique.
What is only slightly surprising is that it came from Kanye West. Arguably the most talented producer in the industry (I dare you to challenge me on that), his previous record was the masterpiece My Dark Twisted Fantasy and he sat in an incredibly exclusive group, those that have never released a mediocre or worse album. Every record he has released is a certifiable classic, including the ever growing 808s & Heartbreak, a stunning epic that utilised the much maligned auto-tune (thanks a lot T-Pain), and exposed the inner sanctum of one of the world’s most confident men to the harsh light of day. I disregard Cruel Summer here because Ye was not the drop off, and it was a collaborative effort. The only blemish.
How do you follow something like Twisted Fantasy? Possibly the quintessential hip-hop album, West fused every aspect of hip-hop perfectly and laced it with the most expert of production and a bevy of superstars (even Mike Oldfield get’s a credit!) to create something truly special, that will endure as one of the greatest records of all time. That’s not overselling it. He was due for a change, an experiment. Releasing 3 albums during the mid 2000s that could be considered straight laced hip hop he then set about exploring his range and the patience of the genre on 808s & Heartbreak. Successful, he retreated to craft his opus, his hip hop opera. And, as with everything he has ever done (yes, even “Drunk and Hot Girls”), he achieved glory. But how to follow? Watch The Throne was pure enjoyment, for all involved. Happily constrained by the comparably conservative Jay-Z, he flew through a whirlwind of thumping traditional production, beautiful 70s soul samples and a lyrical game that only continued to shock and awe for its growth and development (In the past if you picture events like a black tie / What the last thing you expect to see, black guys? / What’s the life expectancy for black guys? / The system’s working effectively, that’s why!. Seriously, give this a read. He’s on it).
Yeezus comes in to being. Kanye West transcends hip hop, and becomes an unheralded critical darling. Pitchfork raves, fans rave, the singles charts don’t. When I say it comes in to being, the birth is a blood-ridden mess, best tackled with epidurals and a caring husband. It’s uncomfortable, even painful. The opening to “On Sight” is so abrasive I used it to sandpaper down my surfboard. Warning: Don’t turn your headphones up before pressing play; your ears may not survive the assault. “On Sight” begins with trademark swagger, “Yeezy season approaching, fuck whatever ya’ll been hearing, fuck whatever ya’ll been wearing, a monster about to come alive again”, his deadpan delivery all that’s required with a beat so aggressive. He follows this recent formula of opening a record with a relatively simplistic song. IANAHB II opened similarly, and J. Cole’s Born Sinner uses this blueprint too. It’s just Kanye being Kanye, cold and confident, dismissive and detached. It’s a shock to the system like a splash of cold water in a hot shower. You’re expecting one thing, you receive something wholly different. It’s unpleasant..
“Black Skinhead” pounds in. A similar intro, brutal synth, but that gives way to one of the stronger percussion beats you’re going to hear outside of The Roots. Those live drums being POUNDED and the heavy breathing taking the place of the hi-hat or snare is a good idea, it makes the entire thing feel eerie and breathless. Unfortunately, the beat doesn’t go anywhere. There is a breakdown in the middle that sounds like he looped feedback, and then the drums explode double time. But Ye’s lyrics fall flat, he ranges through being hated by Christians to comparing himself to King Kong (which isn’t too bad of a line), to preparation for sex with 300 groupies. At this point, I am listening but not appreciating. Is there something wrong with my ears? Are they not delivering the typical West genius reliably to my brain?
We’re halfway through the review, so I can tell you my secret now. I do not like this record. I haven’t liked it from the moment I first played it, and over the past week and subsequent 15 or so spins I have not come to appreciate it any more or less. It falls depressingly flat for me, and one reason is something troubling, because it’s the area he is most improved in, lyrics and delivery. When Ye first started out pitching rhymes to Jay-Z after Jay set him up with The Blueprint, his flow was off, his lines were simple and unsteady. He had confidence, but you could tell rapping didn’t come naturally. Over the course of the next 14 years he has become a force, even confident enough to stand next to one of the greatest lyricists and release a collaborative LP and NOT be out-rapped on every track. On Yeezus it’s as if he has experienced a de-evolution. Many are heralding it as poetic, a strain of conscious thought, spoken word opus. I’m sorry, but lines like ‘put my fist in her like a civil rights sign’ is as crass as anything that Wayne spat on IANAHB 2. Other busters include “I be speaking Swaghili”, “I keep it 300, like the Romans, 300 bitches, where the Trojans” and “I’d rather be a dick than a swallower”. Mindless punchlines, which are perfectly acceptable from a punchline rapper, but Ye is so much more..
In isolation lyrics like this might be ok, a blatant disregard for status and good taste, a statement of intent and anger. But they need to be interspersed with his trademark story-telling. Kanye’s lyrical strength resides deeply in his addressing of themes and content that other rappers shy away from. His honesty towards religion and his own mental state, particularly in terms of consumerism materialism has been refreshing and insightful. “New Slaves” is the same song he’s been singing since “All Falls Down” and “Diamonds From Sierra Leone”, and whilst it is an admirable concept it’s hard to fathom how this can be considered better, a bunch of snatched one liners and unfocused anger. Every theme he addresses has been visited before, more successfully, by himself. He didn’t need to tell us he is a god, we already knew. We buy his music, we worship his talent and work ethic, his genius. Screaming, the line ‘Mi casa, su casa’, treating the poor people with disdain, ‘Hurry up with my damn massage... Hurry up with my damn croissants’. It’s lazy and unformed.
There are exceptions. Bound 2 is the best track on the record, a lovely 70s soul sample that breaks in to a simple synth riff that compliments the nature of the song perfectly. It also provides the strongest lyrical performance on the record, detailing the story of an innocent sounding girl from the hood that Ye takes a liking to. He walks us through their relationship from meeting to somewhere in the middle before cutting us off. Lines like “I’ll turn the plane ‘round, your ass keep complaining’ and “Hey, you remember where we first met? Ok, I don’t remember where we first met”, not to mention “She asked me what I wished for on my wishlist, have you ever asked your bitch for other bitches?”. The crass honesty is what we come to expect from Kanye, but interspersed with his story telling persona, not this aloof, punch-line one he seems to have commandeered.
Production. Oh dear.. Look, the problem is, it’s too different. When The Knife made Shaking The Habitual, it was a difficult, uncomfortable listen. But its texture was rich, there were layers to discover, hidden pieces of music that only revealed themselves at the 5th or 15th listen. Yeezus is just different, period. “I Am A God” is as uncomfortable as anything, but it is so limited. The screams just render it unlistenable at the end as a hip hop track. “New Slaves” is the weakest track he has ever produced until he falls back on his trademark sample staple at the end. “Guilt Trip” could’ve been produced by any of the Molly generation honestly, it’s an uninspired, simplistic synth riff that is surrounded by cascading, swirling keys and some space ship sounds he took off of the Windows 2000 Pinball game. There are more mainstream moments, “Hold My Liquor” employs a spaced guitar to create a dreamy, hazy atmosphere, but sadly Chief Keef manages to out-perform Yeezus, actually sounding like a real rapper whilst Kanye sounds like a cheap Gil Scott-Heron impersonator.
It’s not all doom and gloom. When Ye trusts his stunning gift for sample utilisation, brilliance (beat-wise) follows. “Blood On The Leaves” is a dramatic stomp propelled by a soulful sample, throbbing synth and a dusty piano that wonderfully adds that drama. “Bound 2” is another high point, and his simplistic approach actually pays off on “Send It Up”, that single 808 is all the propulsion the track needs, and carries the theme of the percussion literally carrying this release. Essentially though, if Ye was trying to sell these beats to another rapper I’d be surprised if he got many takers at his usual asking rate. The problem is hip-hop is such a constraining medium if you want to develop sonically. There are set paths to travel down, trail-blazed by people like DJ Premier, Pharrell, Timbaland, Rick Rubin, and Kanye himself. These producers created new sonic pathways, they developed and cultivated new sounds and new ways of dealing with old ones. Industrial strength electronica is not conducive to hip hop music, it doesn’t allow enough scope to include the nuance and subtlety that in turn develops the richer and more rewarding sound. Autechre is a good example of this, they moved gradually away from dance club beats because the formula is too set in stone, you cannot breathe within it. Kanye’s attempts are admirable, but were ultimately doomed due to the genre he has chosen.
5/10. Ouch. I know that seems harsh. But for long stretches this record is near on unlistenable. To follow what was basically the definitive hip hop record of recent years with something like this is incredibly brave, but ultimately I think flawed. Whilst My Dark Twisted Fantasy and all of his previous work (Cruel Summer excused) will, in time be held as even more iconic and classic than it already is, Yeezus will sit uncomfortably in his collection. Critically it will always have its Wikipedia entry. But I can’t honestly see this record enduring, spawning copy cats or even being acknowledged as a classic in 5 years time. How could it? It’s too different. Kanye doesn’t sound like a god. He sounds unfocused and exhausted, darting in and out of harsh electronics as if he is fighting a boss on the hardest setting of your favourite FPS. The music dwarfs him; he is hamstrung by it, unable to achieve any kind of flow or rhythm.
Best Tracks: Blood On The Leaves, Bound 2