Kanye West is multi-dimensional contradiction equally bent on social and racial justice as well as being a bombastic pop culture icon. A career-long fluctuation between genius and discord, loveable self-consciousness and erratic audacity, has turned Kanye into music’s most visible enigma. An incubus in next season designer garments, heralding himself as God while also pointing out,in detail, each one of his imperfections. But where his previous outing have shown the artist in a vulnerably forlorn, self-conscious and emotional light, Yeezus shows Kanye as a cynical, self-obsessed monster with little to no emotion, who drives fast, foreign cars and fucks and discards foreign women. And it’s amazing.
“Fuck whatever y’all been hearing” spits Kanye on the opening track, “On Sight”. Accompanied by a loud, combative, electronic zap and a myriad of buzzy drums and synths, Kanye is at his narcissistic peak while dismissing “whatever y’all been hearing” and announcing the much anticipated approach of “Yeezy Season.” Cue the goosebumps. The album is at it’s best with songs like “Hold My Liquor” a song with constant collaborator, Justin Vernon of Bon Iver and muse/performance art project, Chief Keef. Kanye paints a vivid picture of drunkenly crashing cars, meaningless one-night stands leading to bleak, stressful relationships (and disapproving aunts.) Another of the album highlight being the absolutely flawless “Bound 2.” The joyous quiet after the electro storm, Kanye cockily floats through a beautiful soul-sampled love song punctuated by outbursts of Charlie Wilson crooning about love. It’s the only “radio-friendly” song Yeezus has to offer and bound to be the song of the Summer.
“Black girl sipping white wine/stick my fist in her like a civil rights sign” That’s one of the most striking and telling lines on West’s 6th studio album. It’s a sexually charged reference to the iconic insignia of the Black Panther Party.In what can be read as a cheap metaphor, totally dismissive of the original intent, it flaunts Mr. West’s is acute consciousness of power, race and brash sexuality, and along the 40 minutes of the album, the commingling of the three becomes somewhat of a trademark. Kanye snaps, snarls, growls and screams over a soundscape that can only be described as a churlish, saw-toothed rollercoaster about being a rich, angry, sex-crazed black man in a world totally against him.
Earlier this summer, Kanye composed a string of guerilla marketing events in 66 different cities, projecting a stark black and white video of him performing “New Slaves”. That combined with his SNL performance of “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves” shed the best light on what was to come. The initial promotion illustrated an imminent revolutionary moment with Kanye West as the poster-child for the mad, black men and women of America. The super sinister “New Slaves”, a song about private owned prisons (meanwhile the CCA teamed up with the DEA/they tryna lock niggas up/they tryna make new slaves), his distaste for frivolous, rich, white people (fuck you and yo’ Hamptons house/I fucked yo’ Hamptons spouse) and how a luxury lifestyle is advertised to people that can’t afford it (spending everything on Alexander Wang/New slaves) is basically a sonic middle finger to the government and a call for consequential revolt, while “Black Skinhead” is a militant take on Kanye’s own personal experiences with prejudices. I went into an all-out Twitter rant a few days after his SNL performance, about how I felt as if Kanye was going to lead an uprising and make a difference but, save for those two songs, on the rest of the album the direction waivered. Most evidently on “Blood On The Leaves”, a track that samples Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit”, the jarring chronicle of the lynching of countless young black men in the 1930’s, where Kanye could have made a very important statement but instead chose to write a song about doing MDMA with gold diggers and scorned side-hoes gunning for child support. But I digress. I don’t know why I expected a pop musician to turn into Huey P. Newton anyway.
This isn’t Kanye’s extremist manifesto, but on second thought none of this is new to Kanye West, the son of a Black Panther and a professor. In fact on his debut album, there’s a song called “We Don’t Care” in which Kanye says, literally within the first 4 bars,“We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25/ Joke’s on you, we still alive,” it’sthe same bouts of institutionalized racism from “New Slaves.” He’s always confronted racism head-on, but I think “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” have a different, more energizing frequency to them, one that makes you want to act in opposition to injustice rather that withdraw into self-pity. I think that Kanye has opened a lot of minds and souls to new ideas of what music can and should be. He’s a star with universal and inescapable influence on mainstream culture and he’s created a dialogue about the boundaries between genres and the messages mainstream music can make. He’s one of today’s most esteemed stars because of his hardcore disregard for predisposed cultural conventions, an attribute that slim to none in today’s homogenized mainstream scene. I’m very excited to see the influence Yeezus has on the urban music scene in the years to come.
The lyricism on Yeezus is in no way, shape or form, his best but it’s the most provocative due to him being so hell-bent on proving and flossing his Godliness. His flow seems drunk and reckless, painting Kanye as a scornful, scrambling demigod. The production is sparse, vexed and direct, stripping Kanye’s earlier outings of lush, atmospheric jams to their dark, lucid skeletons. “Soon as they like you/make ‘em unlike you” Kanye spits on an album that literally dismantles the sound he/we once held at such a paramount. Working with giant producers like Rick Rubin, Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke and Mike Dean to create pulsating industrialist assaults on the senses. Yeezus is truly Kanye West’s most twisted, dark fantasy.
Words | Taj Ragland