Premature Evaluation: Kanye West: Yeezus
Just over a minute into Yeezus, Kayne West is riding the malfunctioning-star-destroyer glitch-screams of “On Sight” when he poses a rhetorical question: “How much do I not give a fuck? Let me show you right now, ‘fore you give it up.” He repeats the question, as the screaming robots underneath him disappear into empty black space. Then, welling up like a chorus of angels, we hear a classic-level Kanye soul sample, one of those things that once made his music sound so life-affirming. It’s actually a gospel sample, a full choir pleading that “He’ll give us all we need,” their voices just slightly decayed, like they’re coming through an old speaker. And then that choir disappears just as abruptly, the robot roar returning, the laser-sounds pretty soon working like they’re fighting each other, like they’re pushing themselves so hard that they’re falling apart, while Kanye barks about dicks in mouths. He’s dangling his beloved old self before us, then snatching it back. A few songs later, as “New Slaves” — the defiant blast of wrath that weaponizes the so-self-conscious ambivalent consumerism that Kanye was doing way back on “All Falls Down” — is fading out, soul-sample Kanye comes back, cooing that he can’t lose in Auto-tune over celestial strings while Frank Ocean answers him back. That’s where the old Kanye becomes triumphant. He’s the vehicle for the new Kanye assuring us, ever so briefly, that these forces that he sees assembled against him aren’t enough to drag him down. It’s, once again, a rare note of peace in a dark and violent album.
Those two moments stick with me because they briefly bring Yeezus back down to earth and highlight how far Kanye has come in the nine years since he first stepped out to the front of the stage. And they’re short, since reassurance is very, very low on Kanye’s list of goals this time around. He went into Yeezus to make something stark, cold, bracing, “new wave,” and he’s done it. In the great New York Times interview that preceded Yeezus, Kanye West talked to Jon Caramanica about how he felt at home back when he was producing for Dead Prez: “I was able to slip past everything with a pink polo, but I am Dead Prez.” And we hear some of that duo’s righteous downtrodden-people rage in Yeezus, in the DEA/CCA talk on “New Slaves” or in the sharp provocation of “Black Skinhead.” But more than that, it sounds like Kanye has made an entire concept album based on the distorto-sandworm bassline of Dead Prez’s “Hip Hop,” which means he’s made, by several orders of magnitude, the best Dead Prez album ever.
Those soul samples, the ones Kanye rode into the game, were always part of Kanye’s Chicago heritage; think of the incandescent Curtis Mayfield horns that Just Blaze sampled for him on “Touch The Sky.” But as Kanye himself has pointed out, Yeezus is probably the most Chicago album Kanye has ever recorded, and it’s a Chicago album in ways that go way beyond those soul samples. Chicago, after all, is a beautiful city full of lovely and friendly people, a place with a deep civil rights history, the city that produced our first black president. It’s also a freezing-cold wasteland seven months out of the year, a place where the entire administrative system is deeply broken, a place where 41 people were shot last weekend. And for all the beautiful Sunday-picnic soul and gospel that the city has churned out over the years, that cold harshness has also come through in plenty of the music, and that’s the music Kanye’s working with here. Chicago’s early house music was all tick-tock robotic minimalism. It’s all over Yeezus, and Kanye has found a set of production collaborators (Hudson Mohawke, Arca, Daft Punk back in their vengefully brickwalled Human After All state) who understand that sound and who are willing to grind it further down into digital dust. That same empty chill is still there in Chicago music, in drill music, and Kanye makes the connection as plain as possible. The only other rappers on Yeezus are guys from the drill scene. There’s Chief Keef, muttering bluesily and playing the Freeway to Justin Vernon’s Mos Def on the funereal “Hold My Liquor.” And there’s King Louie on “Send It Up,” rapping nothing much but still forcefully hijacking the song anyway. More than the actual rappers, though the foreboding empty space of drill absolutely suffuses the album. And as the rap critic Noz pointed out on Twitter over the weekend, the early industrial music of Al Jourgenson and Wax Trax is also Chicago music, and that’s here, too, in the apocalyptic pound of those first three tracks and the id-barrage “I’m In It.” In fact, the only huge and obvious musical influence here that isn’t Chicago music is the scorched-earth dancehall that Kanye samples so liberally on the album’s second half, and that stuff has the same end-times effect as the grating industrial textures. It’s all rupture.
In fact, the music is so dark and heavy and immersive and powerful, so unlike what we expect from any A-list rap star, even Kanye, at this late date, that it took a while to even register what he was so angry about. Yeezus isn’t the political statement that “New Slaves,” the one true masterpiece of a song here, made it seem like it was going to be. Instead, it’s mostly a severely fucked-up album about relationships and sex. “Blood On The Leaves” is probably the most deeply discomfiting song here. The thunderous moment where the honking brass band from TNGHT’s “R U Ready” might be the greatest musical moment on the album, or on any album this year, but the sample I keep thinking about is the other one, from Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit,” the 1939 lynching lament that’s among the most breath-stopping songs in American history. Kanye knows what he’s doing in using a piece of that song, but he’s rapping about the idea that women trap men by having kids with them. That same dumbshit idea was at the center of “Gold Digger,” of course, but that was such a fun and joyous song that it barely bothered anyone. On “Blood On The Leaves,” it’s much starker and nastier, especially in the way its “Strange Fruit” sample implicitly conflates lynching with child support.
And this is where we bring Kanye’s personal life into it. Kanye’s first baby, a daughter with Kim Kardashian, was born maybe 24 hours after Yeezus leaked. And it’s certainly possible to hear the anxiety of impending fatherhood in Kanye’s lyrics here. But in all its nasty anti-woman sentiment and its joyless talk of mechanistic anonymous sex, it’s also possible to hear those lyrics as the ranting of a deluded asshole who isn’t ready to become a parent, or as an uncommonly vicious album-length breakup letter. Even the album closer “Bound 2,” the one song that returns Kanye to his welcoming soul-rap sound and strives for love-song sentiment, has some meanness to it: “They ordered champagne but still look thirsty / Rock Forever 21 but just turned 30.” Listening to Yeezus, I kept picturing the entire US Weekly newsroom sitting around and listening to it, attempting to make some sense of what they were hearing. And on Twitter during the leak period on Friday, I slowly watched my entire feed go from bugging out over the album’s sonics to getting queasy over its sentiments. That stuff works as rupture, too.
When 808s & Heartbreaks came out, I felt the same way: This was a total shithead move, an album-length character-assassination of an ex-fiancee who wasn’t famous and who thus had no real way to publicly respond. These days, I go through periods (mostly in wintertime, mostly when I’m stressed) where 808s is my favorite Kanye album. Poisonous words have been a huge part of Kanye’s persona from the beginning. So have total clunker lyrics, and this album has its share of those; Kanye does after all, call himself “a Raptholic priest” and claim to be “speaking Swag-hili” in the space of one verse. But on every one of those past albums, the nastiness and the clunkers have blurred and faded and, in the case of the clunkers, become oddly lovable, evidence of a sort of genius that’s powerless to detect its own terrible ideas. They’re also cathartic, even in their stupidity, especially when you find yourself succumbing to the same sorts of stupid ideas that Kanye brandishes. Yeezus, like all the rest of those old albums, isn’t a perfect work. But it’s a complicated and forceful and fascinating and all-consuming one, an album to play when you’re punching down brick walls with bare fists, and that’s enough for it to be my favorite album of 2013 thus far.
Yeezus is out 6/18 on Def Jam.