Oh Yeezy – so many people love you, and so many people love to hate you.
People didn’t quite know what to make of this backpack rapper from Chicago when The College Dropout came out. He was rapping with Jay z about Louis Vuitton while also rapping about crack and Jesus over Aretha Franklin samples. With each new release, Kanye’s talent (and ego) grew to epic proportions and paved a new direction for what popular music could be in the second half of the 2000s. This is a man whose mission was to become “the greatest”, though not necessarily the greatest in any singular way – not the greatest rapper, not the greatest producer, not the greatest performer – just “the greatest”. Kanye wanted to be the greatest like Michael Jackson was the greatest, the ultimate pop star who had, for better or worse, the attention of every person who ever claimed to like popular music.
Most people can agree that Kanye reached a new peak with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, which is already one of the most critically acclaimed rap albums of all time. Though it didn’t receive the recognition it deserved at the Grammys, it confirmed to most of the world, much like how Thriller did for Jackson, that Kanye was a living music legend. If Kanye made MBDTF 2.0, then he would have been the undisputed “greatest”, and maybe he would have finally won that Album of the Year Grammy.
But here’s the thing: Yeezus is not MBDTF 2.0, and it sounds like Kanye doesn’t want that Grammy anymore.
If you view MBDTF as Kanye trying to be the next Michael Jackson, then Yeezus is Kanye trying to be Kanye West – and right now Kanye West is mad as hell and has been listening to a lot of Philip Glass. Yeezus is ten tracks that are out for blood over heavy, sometimes inhumane electronic beats and Marilyn Manson samples. West has revisited his electronic songwriting from the 808s & Heartbreak days, but it has now married that solemn auto-tune with angry minimalism that does not belong on radio. If MBDTF was pop, then Yeezus is anti-pop.
So yeah, Kanye West is crazy and he’s egotistic and he’s brilliant and Yeezus is a very angry record — but is it actually any good? The short answer is yes. In fact, it’s nearly brilliant. Yeezus contains some of Kanye’s most vicious and demanding songs that will stand high among all of his work so far. This could also be argued to be his strongest rapping album, especially throughout the whole first half of the album, which is perfect.
So yes, Yeezus is a fantastic work of art — but would you like it?
This is how Kanye described Yeezus in his New York Times interview, and for the sake of this review let’s refer to this album as Black New Wave – because this sure ain’t rap or pop or anything else you’ve heard before. “Normal” New Wave was a common tag associated with 808s & Heartbreak, which makes sense since Yeezus is the beefed up and pissed off devil side to 808s‘s moody yet angelic side. Right away from album opener “On Sight” you have a taste of what’s to come, from the aggressive electronic sampling to a very blunt Kanye telling us literally how much he doesn’t give a fuck about…well it’s hard to say, but you know he doesn’t give a fuck.
And like 808s, Yeezus‘s minimal production puts more emphasis on the rapping, which makes this album all about what Kanye has to say. And boy does he say it. The first half of the album demands your full attention in ways that not even MBDTF, in all its weird pop glory, could do. There are no proper singles on this album, so “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” will have to do since they’re the most familiar tracks (and don’t worry, they’re just as crazy here as they were on SNL).
Yeezus is for the music obsessors who loved 808s and want to see Kanye incorporate new and challenging styles into his music. Props to Rick Rubin and Daft Punk for helping with production – I do dread to think of what this album would have sounded like without their last-minute guidance. For casual fans, Black New Wave might be too much to handle, and Yeezus, more than any other album, will confirm to fans/haters what they love/hate about Mr. West, which means you will either love or hate this album.
Yeezus is not an album title as much as it is a state of mind, an alter-ego of sorts, and this persona that West consistently carries throughout each song makes this his most focused album. You are never in doubt that all these songs play by their own rules, which is the album’s ultimate strength and weakness.
It is important to note that, while Kanye gets some much needed help from Rick Rubin, no one else really does anything to help Kanye. Frank Ocean is reduced to just sounding pretty on “New Slaves”, and Justin Vernon’s charm, which was unexpectedly great on MBDTF, quickly wears out its welcome over the couple of songs he’s featured on. In fact, sometimes a guest appearance ruins an entire song (Chief Keef on “Hold My Liquor”). This is all just a reminder that this is West’s album, and it belongs to no one else.
The album also grows weaker over time when the same abrasive themes are rehashed on every song. Unfortunately by the time “New Slaves” is over, the album hits sort of a wall. The first four songs are so crazy that the rest of the album feels rehashed. The only standout from the second side is “Blood On The Leaves”, which, along with the goofy “Bound 2”, is the closest thing to vintage Kanye as you’ll get. Yeezus is a lot to handle, and it’ll take a couple of listens to appreciate each song within its place on the album. But then again, it takes a while to appreciate Kanye West, the man, too.
One aspect of Kanye’s music that never gets enough recognition is his humor. From the skits off his early records, to Chris Rock’s hilarious appearance on MBDTF, Kanye’s ability to balance serious and humor has always given his music charm. I’m sure you’re already familiar with the now infamous line from “I Am A God”, which already lives in music infamy (“Hurry up with my damn croissants”). This line, within the context of the song, is so bizarre for Kanye to say that it’s so hilarious to hear.
There’s plenty of unexpected charm on Yeezus, hidden within the industrial beats and raps about Black Skinheads. Kanye knows the value of a well-placed line, and I’m sure the croissant line was intended to have the effect it had and to remind us that Kanye does indeed have a sense of humor. Now you might not think that fucking bitches and claiming to be a god is your idea of a good laugh, and that will determine if you like Yeezus or not.
Overall: Yeezus is the embodiment of everything you love and hate about Kanye West – his smart sampling, clever wordplay, his humor, unapologetic ego, and his fearless ambition to be “the greatest”. But take away Kanye the person and you’re left with a challenging, hilarious, and sometimes brilliant piece of art by Kanye the musician, who, as of now, is currently “the greatest”. It’s not for everyone, but neither is anti-pop.
Essential Tracks: “Black Skinhead”, “New Slaves”, “Blood On The Leaves”
Brady is the founder of Headphone Nation. He’s responsible for all this mess. Sorry about that. He’s also on Twitter @BradyWGerber