By Rob Wilson
It’s hard to find somebody nowadays that doesn’t have an opinion on Kanye West – and whether that opinion is positive or negative, that opinion is always an extreme one. Even the man himself seems to orchestrate the controversy surrounding his every move in the public eye by commenting on his personality, his music and his public perception without a hint of modesty or reserve. It’s because of all this, and more, that Kanye West knows exactly what you think of him, and that’s why he’s come up with Yeezus – one of the most intelligent, idiotic, confrontational, controversial, arrogant, contradictory, extreme and completely hilarious albums in contemporary music – brought to you courtesy of every word ever spoken of him him.
From the very beginning, Kanye was never afraid to focus on his most horrifying experiences (‘Through the Wire’) or expose traits of his personality that bordered on egotistical (‘All Falls Down’). As he has developed as an artist, Kanye has switched his lyrical focus from the death of his mother, to the collapse of his various relationships and his desire for dominance and legend status. But one thing that Kanye has kept consistently prominent throughout his entire solo discography is his hunger to expose himself. Although Kanye can be as shallow as the likes of A$AP Rocky or Gucci Mane, with accusations misogyny often cropping up, it’s his ability to reach into the cavernous dungeons of his soul where demons crawl and supressed memories writhe in agony that allows him to create masterpieces like My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Although expressing his urges isn’t exactly new territory for Kanye, there’s an ever-present throbbing thirst present on Yeezus that manifests itself as a furious, sexually driven, politically motivated monster – the like of which we’ve never seen from him before. ‘I’m In It’ paints incredibly graphic imagery of lust and other sexual urges that go beyond social norms and on more than one occasion – most notably on the controversially titled ‘I Am a God’ – West angrily shrieks and yelps his way through interludes that break up some of the heaviest, darkest and most experimental instrumentals we’ve ever heard on a Kanye solo album. This certainly justifies the comparisons between Yeezus and Death Grips’ experimental brand of hip-hop, which have certainly been the most common on social networking websites – and it’s this darkness, as well the influences of primal desires shining through in his sonic exploration, that mostly keep the topics Kanye re-introduces for Yeezus as interesting as they’ve always been.
Despite the fact that we’ve heard him discuss the poor treatment of black Americans in their own country before, we’ve never had Kanye lecture us on how this problem perpetuates as a result of capitalism and blind consumerism – but the fascinating and captivating ‘New Slaves’ allows Kanye to stand on several soapboxes and alert people to this problem. Instrumentally, ‘New Slaves’ doesn’t pack West’s best trademarks into one like ‘Runaway’ did, or allow one of the best producers on the planet to wrap complicated soul samples around his little finger – instead, ‘New Slaves’ channels its energy and frustration through one thudding synth line that is eventually halted by a triumphant, utterly euphoric outro, during which Kanye declares his freedom as Frank Ocean tries his hand at falsetto freestyling.
At points, Yeezus focuses on Kanye’s primal desires and irrepressible urges in a way that takes the dark demons of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and supercharges them to extremes. It was clear from his performance on Saturday Night Live last month that ‘Black Skinhead’ was Kanye reaching his boiling point. At points during the performance he broke off from his lyrical tirade to pierce through the whirlwind with high-pitched shrieks while he raced through topics at the speed of light – tackling racism and his perception in the media. Although Kanye has explored similar lyrical themes before, it’s not what he says, it’s how he says it. The lusting hunger on display combines perfectly with Kanye’s metaphors that are drenched in wit – he compares the public reaction to his relationship with Kim Kardashian to the Empire State Building battle in King Kong.
Now it’s worth mentioning here that the phrase “it’s not what you say, it’s the way you say it” becomes more important than ever on ‘I Am a God’ – but for all the wrong reasons. Lyrically, ‘I Am a God’ is arguably the most flawed song Kanye has ever written. He has been criticised for his lyrics throughout his career – some of it justified, some not so – but if Kanye’s best offerings these days result in “Hurry up with my damn ménage, get the Porsche out the damn garage” or “I just talked to Jesus, he said ‘What up, Yeezus?’” then he’s doing nothing to shield himself. Having said that, ‘I Am a God’ is rescued in quite a big way by yet more fantastic production that sees West exploring sonic depths he only tampered with briefly on 808s & Heartbreak. Those comparing Yeezus to Death Grips will probably have had their opinions sparked by the pounding, relentless bass hits that add a huge amount of strength to the instrumentals.
Unfortunately, the weak spots on Yeezus continue as the album begins to tail off just after the halfway mark. Where My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy picked up with the deafening trumpets and pounding beats of ‘All of the Lights’, Yeezus presents us with ‘Hold My Liquor’. Kanye’s delivery and rapping style has been criticised by a few hip-hop fans since the very beginning, much like his lyrics have, and just like ‘I Am a God’, their claims are given further support. A dissonant, cheap strike of a guitar separates Kanye’s unadventurous rhyming schemes that feel carelessly rushed and unfinished (rhyming “loner” with “donor”, Kanye?) until the same guitar harmonises beautifully from the right-hand side of the mix with another, slightly lower pitched guitar that hovers in the left. The control of dynamics for ‘Hold My Liquor’s outro provide the first moment of calm on Yeezus – by the album’s standards anyway – but the beauty doesn’t last long as the corny, borderline hilarious ‘I’m In It’ stomps in with sexually charged lyrics and samples that leave featured artists Justin Vernon and Agent Sasco sounding completely lost and unnecessarily overdramatic respectively.
One continuously rewarding factor that counts towards the success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy is how much Kanye brings out of every single guest vocalist. Nicki Minaj conjured up the performance of her life for ‘Monster’, Pusha T added his own self-deprecating bitterness to ‘Runaway’ and even the worst offending guest from Yeezus, Kid Cudi, produced a stellar third verse on ‘All of the Lights’, but here Yeezus is hampered severely by either poor contributions or poorly managed contributions. Chief Keef’s auto-tuned hook on ‘Hold My Liquor’ is a disaster, Frank Ocean’s appearance on ‘New Slaves’ is far too understated and the characterless cameo from Kid Cudi on ‘Guilt Trip’ rounds off a series of collaborative choices that leaves me, and probably everybody else, longing for the days where it seemed Kanye spent half of his time carefully selecting his guest vocalists.
Despite not getting the best out of both his sampling techniques and his vocal guests this time around, Kanye does show the occasional moment of sampling genius that we’ve grown to love him for. Yeezus’ flat second half is briefly perked by ‘Blood on the Leaves’ – Nina Simone’s smooth recital of the famous Abel Meeropol poem ‘Strange Fruit’ is chopped and inserted between the explosive horns of TNGHT’s ‘R U Ready?’ to create frantic, explosive drama that Yeezus’ second half lacks in abundance. And as Yeezus closes, we see Kanye returning to the very beginnings of his solo career in the form of ‘Bound 2’ by sampling The Ponderosa Twins’ ‘Bound’ from 1971 – it’s a track that transports Yeezy back to the days of The College Dropout’s ‘School Spirit’. The vintage nostalgia is broken up, however, by Charlie Wilson – the man who Kanye really has managed to reach into and pull out the fire needed for a record such as this. Wilson pours emotion onto his section of the closing track to round Yeezus off in style.
I’ve often marvelled at the success of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy because an album with that much relentless drive, attention to detail and creativity should collapse under the weight of its own ambition in the way The Beach Boys’ Smile Sessions did almost 50 years ago – so to top Twisted Fantasy with Yeezus, even a man like Kanye West would have probably had work on his hands that even he wouldn’t have been able to hold. Simply put: Yeezus does a job. It fills the gap in between Twisted Fantasy and his next potential classic. The genuine fears I had about this album were soon erased, but the lack of consistency overall hurts this album more than Kanye should have allowed it to. Despite the fact that this is Kanye’s shortest solo release to date, it lacks consistency in a big way. His debut, The College Dropout is four minutes away from being double the length of Yeezus but is compelling and irresistible until the second it finishes. Even his 2008 release 808s & Heartbreak, that initially disappointed many, ended up having quite an impression on the likes of Frank Ocean, Drake and The Weeknd. But Kanye has been dubbed the ‘saviour of hip-hop’ on more than one occasion for a good reason: he’s never gone more than two albums without creating an album that has been regarded as a genre classic, so if we have to wait another three years for another reinvention of hip-hop from Kanye, then Yeezus’ first half does enough to tide us over until then.