Kanye West’s sixth studio album, Yeezus, leaked four days before its official release on June 18th, 2013. Guess who didn’t give a fuck? Kanye West. After months of anticipation, a star-studded listening party at NYC’s Milk Studios, and a brash and refreshing marketing strategy of public video projections, Yeezus reached the masses early and illegally, yet the world got almost no response from the Chicago MC.
This nonchalant reaction not only solidifies Mr. West’s opinion about the leak – as well as the album cover itself – but it also represents his approach to the new LP as a whole. “How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now, ‘fore you give it up,” West raps in his exaggeratedly nasal voice, just one minute into the album’s opener, “On Sight“. ‘Ye is already letting everyone know that he’s going to do what he wants on this album, with no apologies. And as the above lyric cues “On Sight”‘s techno barrage to let up and reveal a sweeping soul-ish melody reminiscent of his past work, West’s brash aversion to convention pays off. Beautifully.
“On Sight” gives us a little taste of the Kanye we’ve known in the past, easing us into his new world with a head-nodding, futuristic-sounding banger à la “Stronger” that quickly changes directions as the track morphs into a sharp and warbled electronic shrill. Once this discomfort has slightly set in, “Black Skinhead” comes at us full throttle. The track is the highlight of the album, effortlessly combining gut-wrenching electric guitars with militant, almost ceremonial drums. Better yet, Kanye’s flow is in a rare double-time that makes his neurotic shrieks even more compelling. (Trivia: he probably hasn’t flowed that fast since “Get Em High“)
The third track, “I Am A God” continues with the same strength as “Black Skinhead“, with ‘Ye declaring himself a “close tie” to Jesus. Understandably, the song has raised a bit of controversy, with many opposed to Kanye presenting himself as a deity. But listening closely to his tone as he snarls those four words, it seems as though Kanye is declaring his status as a god to both the listeners and himself. Furthermore, beyond those four words, it’s important to note the line, “Until the day I get struck by lightning, I am a God.” Even when he’s elevating himself to the heavens, Kanye still seems to be wary of going too high because maybe there actually is someone above.
The production on the album is constantly complex and often schizophrenic, weaving both seamlessly and abruptly between dark House music, distorted dancehall and maximal EDM. This raging mixture of blown-out bass and disparate noises is honestly like nothing else we’ve ever heard from the Chicago rapper. It is not uncommon for rappers to attempt to cross genre-boundaries and it is very common for producers to violate these boundaries (if they even believe in them), but Kanye genuinely seems to have built this album’s soundscape with pure openness. The production credits for Yeezus are notably extensive for an album without live instrumentation. Moreover, artists with very loose hip-hop affiliations seem to have had significant roles.
Nevertheless, perhaps this openness should have been reined in a little bit. Take “Blood on the Leaves,” for instance. Sampling Nina Simone‘s cover of “Strange Fruit,” a song about lynchings of Black males in the South, Kanye samples TNGHT‘s “R U Ready” and creates a song that’s chilling, yet impossible not to dance to. It’s easy to view the sample as the work of a provocateur, but if nothing else, the album is absolutely a gesture in sincerity. In other words, Kanye actually does think it’s okay to conflate lynching with relationship problems. If that sounds absurd to you, that’s because it is. But how could Kanye think that comparison is okay?
That question brings us to Yeezus‘ lyrics. Lyrically, Yeezus isn’t particularly evocative. Kanye familiarly raps about luxury life on songs like “Send It Up”, women on cuts like “I’m In It” and “Hold My Liquor”, and loss on “Guilt Trip.” Even when these familiar topics are paired with new interests like the youth of Chicago and the contradictions that come with being a black celebrity, the lyrics aren’t particularly rewarding. The real reward of the album is its affect. Even when Kanye is comparing lynching to relationship problems, despite the absurdity of this comparison, the atmosphere of the song, how it makes you feel, is overwhelming. In fact, Kanye seemingly makes the comparison because of how he feels. For him, affects, feelings, can be equated in ways that words (or realities) cannot. Thus, he doesn’t ask us or convince us to feel a certain way by using clever lyrics: he makes us feel a certain way by pairing two disparate sounds and forcing them to work. That is the strength of “Blood on the Leaves” and the overall strength of the album. Kanye has learned to use sound to command listeners to feel a certain affect regardless of how that affect was created. A cynic might say he really is a God.
The last track on the LP, “Bound 2”, is a journey into nostalgia. From the moment the sample of Ponderosa Twins Plus One‘s song “Bound” begins playing, it’s like time- traveling into the 70’s. This final song is a true treat, because it takes us all the way back to ‘Ye’s College Dropout days, when he pulled samples from some of the greatest singers to bless our ears, including Chaka Khan and Luther Vandross. Mr. West’s rhymes are what we’d expect from him, but the singing throughout the track is what makes it exceptional. To put the icing on the cake, ‘Ye lets Charlie Wilson belt out, “I know you’re tired of loving…with nobody to love.” It’s a very comforting ending, especially in comparison to the atmosphere that preceded it.
Yeezus lacks a teddy bear or anything closely resembling one, but Kanye West remains embraceable. In fact, Kanye has grown even colder since “Cold,” but perhaps that’s the point. Yeezus doesn’t have have to give a fuck about us for us to give a fuck about him. He’s a god.
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