Kanye West’s most recent opus, Yeezus, is ugly.
It’s not as soulful as his debut album, 2006’s The College Dropout, or as lush as Late Registration. It’s nowhere near as polished, sonically, as Graduation or as introspective as the auto-tune-driven 808’s and Heartbreaks, and compared to My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, West’s sixth solo effort is abnormal and wildly experimental.
Despite everything it’s not, however, the 36-year-old’s latest album could quite possibly be exactly what hip-hop needs.
Faintly veiled behind distorted synthesizers, abrupt howls and stripped, unconventional production, exists a fiery album full of brash, politically incorrect, socially charged messages.
On the album’s opener, the Daft-Punk-produced “On Sight,” West lets us know how much he doesn’t care about outside opinions by interrupting the jagged house beat with a sample of Holy Name of Mary Choral Family’s “He’ll Give us What we Need,” reminding listeners, in the brief 14-second interval, that he will always deliver what’s in the best interest of the genre, not what fans, taste-makers or critics demand.
West has made that mistake before.
In a recent interview with the New York Times, he described his 2010 effort, Dark Fantasy, as a “long, backhanded apology.”
“That was the album where I gave people what they wanted. I don’t think that at that point, with my relationship with the public and with skeptical buyers, that I could’ve done “Black Skinhead” [from Yeezus],” he added.
This time around, West forgot about us. He forgot about the fans, forgot about proper album promotion protocol and forgot about political correctness. The result is his most abstract piece of work to date.
West is my slave name, Yeezus is my God name
Yeezus is a raw 10-track album that sees West preaching over diverse production, mashing together punk, house, reggae and hip-hop elements, among others, into one body of work.
On “I Am a God,” another Daft Punk production, West raps over a house beat infused with electro phasers, topped with a vocal sample of Capleton’s “Forward Inna Dem Clothes.” Elsewhere, the Agent-Sasco-featured “I’m in it” starts off resembling a mid-’70s rock ballad before morphing into a full-on upbeat dancehall anthem, taking listeners from zero to 60 in the twinkling of an eye.
These fusions of elements from different genres, scattered across the album, play a critical role in Yeezus’ identity.
Beat wise, the album’s most exciting track comes at track seven with “Blood on the Leaves.” The song opens with a sped-up sample of Nina Simone’s rendition of “Strange Fruit,” a song about the horrific lynchings of African-Americans in America. Once the beat drops, aside from the blaring horns, infectious snare drums and the Nina Simone sample, it’s the reworking of TNGHT’s “R U Ready” and interpolation of C-Murder’s No Limit classic “Down 4 My Ni**az” that help make this track shine brighter than the nine others. Combining a song about racism and the violent injustices of America, and a Southern rap anthem about the limitless loyalty to one’s brother, even if it means resorting to violence, with a mega-popular electronic jam, is simultaneously random and brilliant.
Fans of the soul sampling, traditional Kanye West only get one glimpse at that person on Yeezus. “Bound 2,” which features a refreshing appearance from soul legend Charlie Wilson and samples Wee’s “Aeroplane,” while lifting vocals from both Ponderosa’s “Bound” and Brenda Lee’s “Sweet Nothin’s,” is reminiscent of the the fledgling artist who opted to wear a “Pink-ass Polo with a f**king backpack” over throwback jerseys during the infancy of his rap career.
And while the musicality on Yeezus is most certainly the centerpiece of the album, the intentional underproduction of each song allows for listeners to clearly receive each message West delivers.
And the Bible said…
The most refreshing part about Yeezus is that the messages ring out like church bells. Whether discussing social injustice, the plight of today’s Chicago youth, white America’s fear of the black male genitalia or plain braggadocious materialism, West’s lyrics come across clear as crystal thanks to his team’s deliberate effort to minimize the production.
In a recent interview with the Wall Street Journal, Rick Rubin, the legendary hip-hop icon and Yeezus executive producer, said West was looking to go in a “[s]tripped-down minimal direction” with the music.
“He was always examining what we could take out instead of put in,” said Rubin
Granted, the music is still the big talking point on Yeezus, however, the production doesn’t feel as over-the-top as the beats on his previous efforts, giving plenty of platform for the rapping.
On “Black Skinhead,” which West performed last month on Saturday Night Live, West compares religious groups criticizing his antics to the media’s reaction to the current violence among the black youth in Chicago with the line:
“If I don’t get ran out by Catholics, here come conservative Baptists / Claiming I’m overreacting, like the black kids in Chiraq, b*tch.”
On “New Slaves,” which West has been projecting visuals for on buildings across the world, the new father discusses the covert racism blacks still face in 2013.
“Meanwhile the D-E-A , teamed up with the C-C-A / they tryna lock ni**as up, they tryna make new state. See that’s that privately owned prison, get your piece today / they prolly all in the Hamptons, braggin’ ‘bout what they made.”
Then there are the sex lyrics, which are plentiful.
Many of the album’s lyrics are grotesque, pornographic and derogatory. While this is certainly not new ground for West, these thoughts come across a lot less playfully on Yeezus.
There’s no better example of this than “I’m in it,” whose title spells out exactly what the song is about.
“Your pu**y’s too good, I need to crash. Your ti**ies, let ‘em out—free at last,” West says in one line, while following with “Black girl sippin’ white wine, put my fist in her like a civil rights sign” later.
This is West’s album. Whether he’s discussing the current state of blacks in America, comparing himself to Christ or expressing his affinity for threesomes, it all comes across the same way—powerful.
Believers and non-believers
There were no singles serviced to radio for this album, which was intentional. During his 2013 Governor’s Ball performance, West stated that “…at this point, when I listen to the radio, that ain’t where I wanna be no more.”
Not that he needs it anyway. His name alone will send records flying off the shelves, because he’s Kanye West.
The real question surrounds how the album will be received. Not only is this a different album for West, but it’s a different, unfamiliar sound for the majority of his fan base and hip-hop as a genre. There will most likely be very little middle ground when it comes to the public critiquing of Yeezus. People will either love it or hate it, for various reasons.
Yeezus is a piece of art, but just because it’s different, does that automatically make it good? No. Covering one eye and tilting your head doesn’t transform a piece of work into something greater.
However, Yeezus succeeds and is a great body of work because the music and honesty of its messages, crude or not, are exceptional on top of the album being ‘different.’
West and his apostles, from the world-renowned Daft Punk and Rick Rubin to the lesser-known Travi$ Scott and Kid Cudi, to the even lesser-known Chicago drillers Chief Keef and King L (Formally King Louie), put together an impressively succinct album that will last much longer than 2013. From the samples used in the production and cohesiveness among the album’s guest features, to the sequencing of the tracks and unconventional roll out, everything about Yeezus was done masterfully, resulting in an album that stands right there with West’s most heralded bodies of work.
If God had a name, what would it be? Yeezus, maybe.
Brandon Neasman is a freelance writer who has penned articles for both national and regional publications, including usweekly.com and the Hard Rock Hotel’s Las Vegas magazine. A graduate from Florida A&M University, Brandon is an editor at mostlyjunkfood.com and a graphic designer for the Gannett Company, Inc. You can follow him on Twitter at @Bnease.