Say amen to the raw power of Kanye West’s ‘Yeezus’
By Marcus Gilmer firstname.lastname@example.org June 18, 2013 9:25PM
Kanye West (pictured) performs with Jay-Z during the Watch The Throne Tour November 30, 2011 at the United Center. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times
Updated: July 20, 2013 6:35AM
It’s been a few days since “Yeezus,” Kanye West’s sixth proper solo full-length album, “leaked” to the world — it was officially released Tuesday — and the critics have been just as quick to embrace it as they did for West’s last album, 2010’s “My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.”
Rolling Stone gave it 41/2 stars (shy of the 5-star-masterpiece rating “MBDTF” received) and Pitchfork gave “Yeezus” a 91/2 (again, just shy of the “perfect” 10 it gave “MBDTF”). But this album likely will become as well-known for how polarizing it is to fans. Whereas “MBDTF” was a bombastic, anything-goes, even bloated mess at times, “Yeezus” is a bare-bones effort with Chicago props, including references to acid house and flashes of the rise of “drill” hip-hop. It’s West as raw as we’ve ever heard him.
The woozy, buzzing beats of “On Sight,” which opens the disc, are as stark and jarring, a far cry from the horn and R&B-tinged hits from his first efforts. The primal “Black Skinhead” continues the rawness even as it careens in another direction. “I Am a God” and “New Slave” sound like something West recorded while hurtling through the Underworld of Zelda. And the piercing air horn on “Send It Up” is one of the more agitating samples West ever has used.
Daft Punk’s fingerprints are all over the first handful of tracks as producers, and the stripped-back synth sounds provide a stark opening in contrast to Kanye’s earlier efforts (though the line “I need you right now!” from “Stronger,” a previous collaboration with Daft Punk, resurfaces on one of these new tracks). The bone-rattling backing tracks provide a fresh, dark context for West’s typically ferocious delivery.
West’s lyrical play is just as evident on “Yeezus,” though with less vulnerability and more head-scratchers than on his previous efforts (not to say there’s ever any shortage of those on any West album). By now, the whole world knows about the (in)famous line “Hurry up with my damn croissants” that punctuates an underlying wink to the track “I Am a God” (he gives God a co-writing credit, too). He lays bare his weaknesses in “Hold My Liquor,” revelling in the misery of his own desperation and mistakes as he tries to reconnect with an old girlfriend.
Less effective, though, is West rapping about a break-up, even a divorce, over samples of the Nina Simone version of “Strange Fruit,” Abel Meeropol’s song (popularized by Billie Holiday) about lynchings in the South. Like on “New Slave,” where West decries the bling lifestyle that he just boasted about on “Otis,” from his “Watch the Throne” pairing with Jay-Z, West is really reaching for a connection here, to make a grand statement, but falls short.
But just as the sprawling mess of “MBDTF” revealed itself over time, so does Yeezus reveal moments of transcendence. Much of the second half of the album, which is meatier than the first, sounds like it could have fit alongside much of “MBDTF” or even that album’s predecessor, “808s & Heartbreaks.” There’s the gorgeous outro to “New Slave” that has Frank Ocean freestyling over a sample from a 1960s Hungarian folk band. And “Bound 2” evokes the earlier half of West’s career, an ode to partying and his woman, set on top of a soulful sample (here, Ponderosa Twins Plus One).
Since “Graduation,” Kanye has steadily progressed in terms of style to the point that, as jarring as it sounds, “Yeezus” seems like something of a logical landing spot. The slow, electronic burn of “808s” was a left turn from his career-opening “School Trilogy.” Since then, the trajectory of West’s career — at least on record — makes sense as someone pushing the boundaries of pop and hip-hop, even if the results aren’t always pretty.
Say what you will about West, but he doesn’t rest on his laurels and rely on the same sound every time out. Of course, it’s impossible to see his music fully detached from his real-world behavior, which occasionally makes “petulant” seem like an understatement.
Yet here we are, still talking about his album, one of the most-hyped releases of the summer (well, until his pal Jay-Z stepped on his toes a bit). We’re still interested in the music because Kanye himself is still such an interesting, polarizing figure and the fact remains his music is just as interesting. And just as his music evolved, and his personality has as well, so does our interpretation. Five years down the road, “808s” stands out as criminally underrated despite a more muted critical reaction while “MBDTF” hasn’t held up quite as well, showing some creaks and cracks under its own weight. How Yeezus is interpreted years from now — even six months from now when year-end lists are published — will be interesting to see.
How much of the initial critical lauding of “MBDTF” was due to the last-second “leak” of the album, forcing many critics to publish a more immediate reaction to the album than in other cases when they get to live with the album for at least a few weeks before a review is published? Despite its stripped down nature, there’s way more to unpack from “Yeezus.” than from previous efforts which makes the early critical praise feel just as knee-jerk though not necessarily undeserved. One of the great parts of Kanye’s career is seeing the incredibly surreal turns both his life and music career take, how they feed off and inform each other, and how that affects the way we interpret his music. If nothing else, Kanye should be praised for making some of the most popular, yet least-digestible “pop” music of his generation, if not others. And whether the music’s complexity is intentional or our view of its turbulent nature is affected by outside elements is just part of deconstructing an artist that who gets harder and harder to figure out.
But it’s all still interesting, and for that we should be thankful.