Kanye West is the most influential artist of the 21st century. It’s not even up to debate. Every album launches a brand new paradigm that the entire musical world slowly follows. And this was established before the new decade. Since then he’s created his magnum opus, leveled the playing field between him and Jay-Z, and fashioned the best possible soundscape for 2 Chainz to drink champagne on an airplane. And now there’s this, his confusing, short album that acts as a middle finger to everyone who’s followed him since day one. And the whole time I was listening to Yeezus, I was just thinking “Holy shit, is Kanye in the top 5 of all time?”
Yeezus is a powerful album and one that demands attention. Even before I reached an opinion on it, I was awed by the energy that courses through it. It sounds like nothing in his career, hell it’s a reach for the whole genre (and yes there were some groups experimenting with this sound but people who listen to Kanye don’t listen to those guys). There’s an electronic vibe on the album. It’s as if he took the auto-tune ideas of 808’s & Heartbreak and fed them black kryptonite. Sometimes it sounds like a deconstruction of the stadium-rap that he’s nearly perfected with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and Watch The Throne, keeping all the power but with a minimalist edge. It seems to be the antithesis of the chipmunk soul of Kanye’s origins, as if we’re watching him being burned by lava and transformed into a soulless metallic rap Darth Vader (and Jay-Z is screaming “YOU WERE SUPPOSED TO BRING BALANCE TO RAP, NOT DESTROY IT!“) Yeezus does sound sterile at times, shiny and hollow. There’s not much that can prepare you for the glitchy nintendo breakdown of “On Sight,” which made me park my car to make sure my system hadn’t exploded. It’s jarring, and it’s only something that Kanye could have done.
There’s a lot to be said about the electronic overhaul Yeezy has done with his sound. Industrial metal, witch-house, Euro-dubstep all play a part in Yeezus. This has two effects. It connects Kanye with the techno history of Chicago, in a different avenue than his soul samples used to. But more interestingly, it’s Kanye’s reflection of Chicago right now and the bleakness of the Drill scene. Remember, Kanye West has been decrying the poor living situation in his hometown since “Jesus Walks,” and the mechanical violence of Yeezus can be seen as complementary to what young producers like Young Chop are doing in the Chi right now. Chief Keef and King L, two stars of the scene, make appearances and fit right into the dark void of the album.
Yeezus realizes the brute strength of these sounds. Kanye wields every individual sound like a sledgehammer, and with the help of such producers like Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, and Rick Rubin, has been able to create a soundtrack that pounds the listener at every opportunity. Even more impressive is his utilization of voices. He’s like a conductor, bringing in a new instrument every so often but always keeping it distinct. Who else could pair the mumble of Chief Keef with the angelic Justin Vernon of Bon Iver on “Hold My Liquor,” or use a Jamaican patois so powerfully on “I’m In It.” Whether it’s a lifeless soul sample or a high pitched scream, Kanye finds power in the solitude of these sounds, which makes Yeezus a minimal recording as compared to his orchestral achievements of the past where he piled on as many voices as he could.
Of course the most powerful voice is Yeezy’s itself. Kanye has evolved from being a lower-level producer MC into a rapper worthy of his own beats. Much has been made out of the lyrics on the album, how they were wrote very quickly and that shows in their simplicity, but it’s all classic ‘Ye. The obvious punchlines, the way he changes how a word sounds for emphasis (got more niggas off than COCH-A-RANE), and the incisive dashes into the beat, they’re all what people have come to love or hate about Kanye. Whether he’s demanding croissants or rocking Chewbacca fur, that’s Ye. But what is special here is how strong his voice itself is. Not many rappers could ride a terrain as jagged as Yeezus, but Kanye has morphed his voice from the awkward delivery of his earlier years into a deafening HUNHHHHHHH! The way he repeats his lines, just a bit stronger each time, gives me chills. Hearing him work himself into a rage on “New Slaves,” screaming about what he plans to do to your Hampton wife is exhilarating.
But there is something problematic about the blatant misogyny that runs through Yeezus and it’s been the most lambasted part of the album. For a while I’ve been thinking about he’s using his sexuality as a blunt object, deigned to offend the listener just like the sounds of the album. But beneath his alienating comparisons between his sexual advances and the civil rights movement, there are some of the most resonant love stories of his career. Yeezus shows Kanye in his element, dealing with love and lust, and poignantly displaying his fears of settling down. He captures the duality of love, being completely in control but losing it at the same time, the aggressiveness of lovemaking and the fragility when it’s over. On “Hold My Liquor,” he loves how his girl cares for him sober or drunk, happy or hungover, but her aunt tells her he’s bogus. “I’m In It,” a storming stripclub anthem from Hell, finds him ruminating how he has “the kids and the wife life, but can’t wake up from the night life.” You can hear his heart breaking through the autotune as he sings “let’s take it back to the first party, when you tried your first molly” on “Blood On The Leaves.” It’s a tale of nostalgia and despair that’s on par with the youthful drug indulgences of Springsteen or the Hold Steady. When “Bound 2” plays at the very end of the album, it’s as if Kanye’s coming home after a long night of drinking. It’s the old Kanye, sobered up, sampling soul records but he’s hungover so they’re a little choppy (“B-B-B-B-Bounddddddd to falllll in loveeeeeee”), about to make his case to his significant other. He’s seething with irritation. She’s in the club ordering champagne but still looks thirsty, rocking Forever 21 but just turned thirty. She complains even on vacation, dutty whining around all these Jamaicans. So when Ye realizes that “one good girl is worth a thousand bitches,” it’s heartwarming. Maybe they can still make it to the church steps.
I like Yeezus. It’s not for everybody. It’s disruptive and offensive and I played it for my mom once and it was a huge mistake. There are abrupt beat changes, odd outros, and a moment where Kanye sounds like Napoleon Dynamite and calls himself God. I’m pretty sure Martin Luther King Jr. wasn’t talking about a girl’s breasts when he said “Free at last!” and I don’t think Nina Simone would appreciate the connection made between lynching and paying alimony. But when you’re in love (especially with Kim Kardashian), you make stupid mistakes. I think Yeezus ranks real high in his discography. For the record I’d have to say my favorite albums are:
- My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy
- The College Dropout
- Watch The Throne (with Jay-Z)
- 808’s And Heartbreak
- Late Registration
That’s one of the greatest discographies in hip hop and you could argue literally any single one of those albums for the number one spot. That’s just my preference. But the connecting thread through all of them is the propelling motion into the future and the boundaries that have been shattered in their wake. Now just watch the rest of the rap game slowly start speaking Swaghili.