Yeezus has risen. After months of eager anticipation coupled with enigmatic projections, changing artwork and ridiculous/amazing declarations, it is finally here. Kanye West’s first solo album since 2010’s My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy comes in the form of an aggressive synth driven “monster about to come to life again”, and in the span of 10 tracks manages to push the listener away and suck him back in simultaneously. In that respect, Yeezus is much like Kanye himself; polarizing and contradictive. But some of us can’t stop listening.
The first striking aspect of the album is the production. Though Kanye has experimented with electronic sounds and productions in the past, he has taken it to a whole new level on Yeezus. From the introductory “On Sight” with it’s vacillating, glitchy bass, as compared to the softer sounding Yeezy intros past (the beautiful Elton John sample in “Good Morning”, the lonely electronic blip of “Say You Will” and the grandiose harmonies of “Dark Fantasy”), one knows that this ride is going to be a very different one. After getting some help from music guru Rick Rubin on stripping his tracks to the bare essentials, this album is definitely the rawest sound that Kanye has delivered. The only truly recognizable sample, Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit”, gets sampled and chopped on “Blood On The Leaves”. Ye went ham on dancehall/roots samples (logical extensions to his work on Cruel Summer), while working with Daft Punk on several tracks creates a never-before-heard mélange of dark electro goth synths and hip hop drums.
As risqué as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy may have been at the time, Kanye never dared take it to this extreme level before, even though he may have had it in him. Even when more traditional soul samples are used, they are cut out and inserted in ways that never let the listener stay comfortable. This is not College Dropout. One must remember that post Taylor-gate, Kanye was still trying to re-ingratiate himself with the public, and as he explains himself in the Jon Caramanica New York Times interview, he says he was giving the people what they wanted. With this LP however, the emcee is all about “giving no fucks at all”. Kanye has brought a Death Grips mentality to his brand of hip hop–if it can even truly call it hip hop anymore–as it has essentially transcended the genre. None of the hip hop staples that are usually taken for granted are necessarily present in any of West’s work since circa 2008. Forget gratuitous features, guest production from so called “hot” producers of the moment. Kanye had his second album, Late Registration, excutive produced by Jon Brion, a composer. It is safe to say that Kanye has been operating outside the constraints of hip hop for quite some time. With him one must expect the unexpected.
While much of the production is cutting edge and creates what could be a soundtrack for doom, there is a serious lack of narrative throughout that album, and some glaring contradictory content as well. While he can be angry as all hell on “New Slaves” about the way his mother’s generation was treated, on his extremely sexually explicit “I’m In It”, he describes putting his “fist in her like a civil rights sign”. The same old Kanye contradictions are re-visited again, but there seems to be less heart than there was in previous projects. Yeezus is more about the delivery and the attitude that comes with it in regards to its relationship to the production that it is about the actual content of the lyrics. If anything, lyrically the album will be remembered for one liners like “eatin Asian pussy/all I need was sweet and sour sauce.”
With no radio single (“Black Skinhead” with it’s rolling drums and punk channeled vibe probably the closest to being a viable single), the other standouts come in the form of the choice of features. Justin Vernon is all over the album, and as on My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, complements every track perfectly. Kanye and Justin really bring out the best in each other in that respect. Chi town natives Chief Keef and King Louie make appearances on “Can’t Hold My Liquor” and “Send It Up”. Keef delivers a heavily auto tuned hook, and King L slowly raps a gloating intro verse (“last night my bitches came in two’s, and they both sucked like they came lose”), both making memorable impacts on their respective tracks. Recently dropped from G.O.O.D Music, Kid Cudi sings a great outro on “Guilt Trip”. Even though Frank Ocean is featured on “New Slaves”, his cameo is extremely short and at the very end of the track (a la The Dream in “All Of The Lights”). The last track, “Bound 2”, features a wonderful performance by “See Me Now” collaborator Charlie Wilson, who really hammers home a great chorus on what is the most throwback Yeezy track of the album, and which happens to be the finale.
If this experimental album says anything about Kanye, it is that retrospectively, even though it may not be his best album, 808s And Heartbreaks is his most important album. It is on that album that he started messing with electronica, and it is on that album that he chose to use auto tune as an aesthetic rather than a tool. “Guilt Trip” sounds and awful lot like “Paranoid”, and a “Blood On The Leaves” could have pretty much fit seamlessly into 808s And Heartbreaks. The robot-like screech in “Hold My Liquor” unmistakably harkens back to “Robocop”. That album created it’s own lane, one without which artists like Kid Cudi and megastar Drake wouldn’t exist. Yeezus is a success because much like on 808s, Kanye isn’t afraid to do something completely different, he constantly pushes himself to break through ceilings. He says it best himself, that he’d “rather be a dick than a swallower.” And no one can deny that. Open wide.