Review | Yeezus by Kanye West

Kanye West’s latest studio album, Yeezus, is intense, brutal, and fascinating. Departing from the R&B-heavy sound his previous studio efforts became known for, West delivers an unapologetic broadside to many of his fans’ expectations. And while some may be put off by the album’s lack of a clear radio-friendly single—viewing its unrepentant self-congratulation as narcissistic or arrogant—others will appreciate West’s most complete start-to-finish album yet. I consider it to be one of the tightest, most original works of pop music released in the past several years.

Yeezus is indeed confident, to say the least. West, who notably referred to himself in June as the “Michael Jordan of music,” makes no pretense about his high self-opinion. This is nothing new for West. But in Yeezus, he seems to have shed any desire for public approval. Gone is the remorseful tone of his previous solo album, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, and in its place is West at his most shameless and unrestrained. And yet, rather than being abrasive, West’s candor—shown off best in the tense “I Am a God”—comes off as refreshing. It’s nice not to feel like he’s begging for your approval. It’s invigorating to listen to Kanye embrace his status as arrogant, self-important celebrity, rather than awkwardly trying to address his public missteps. He’s done with confessions or invitations to judge him. As Jamaican star Beenie Man—himself a man with a contentious history—proclaims on “Send It Up:” “Relivin’ the past? Your loss!”

This is not to say that West’s rapping has reached new levels. It hasn’t. Like his previous releases, Yeezus features the regrettable combination of excellent musical production coupled with generally subpar skills on the mic. It’s not all second-rate – West’s intense delivery on “On Sight” and “Black Skinhead,” for instance, is captivating and complements the music’s agitated feel well. The forceful “Black Skinhead” combines social commentary and Yeezus’s devil-may-care attitude particularly effectively. And West does manage to put out a witty line or two here and there; it’s hard not to give him credit for coining the term “Swaghili,” for instance.

Generally, however, West’s raps are average at best. In many instances, they feel like filler. On “Send It Up,” for example, West banally declares, “This is the greatest sh*t in the club / Since ‘In Da Club’ / It’s so packed I might ride around / On my bodyguard’s back like Prince in the club.” What’s worse, West is still banging the tired, offensive, and—perhaps most unforgivably, dull—drum of celebrating his sexual conquests. Threesomes and fellatio make for uninspiring thematic fodder in all but the most talented emcees’ hands, and most of the time on Yeezus, such an exercise is awkward and unpleasant. Listeners’ level of tolerance for West’s aggressive sexism will surely vary – Brandon Soderberg calls the album a “tipping point for rap misogyny,” while others are somewhat more charitable – but it’s hard to say that it isn’t getting a bit old.

At other times the lyrics just seem like words meant to fill a beat. And perhaps that’s the best way to look at them. Indeed, if you can move past West’s unspectacular rapping, it is possible to appreciate Yeezus as a complex, multilayered, gripping work of music. West’s true strength – as a producer – has never shone as brightly as it does here. In that respect, West is entirely justified in praising himself: he’s one of the best in the business. And the musical product West delivers in Yeezus is unlike anything we’ve heard before from him.

From the beginning, Yeezus is darker, harder, and bleaker than West’s previous works. “Black Skinhead,” which samples Marilyn Manson’s 1996 hit “The Beautiful People,” cleverly manipulates the unhinged quality of the original song to set the album’s tone. I daresay metal is one of the least encountered styles of music in hip-hop, but “Black Skinhead” makes a compelling case for its inclusion. The album’s taut, tense feel intensifies as the album progresses. West liberally punctuates the music with disconcerting sounds and a marked sense of rhythmic disjointedness. Songs such as “Send It Up” and “I Am a God” prominently feature screams and sirens as central sonic effects. “Bound II” shifts abruptly from one sound profile to another, and “I’m In It” often feels as if West is working with multiple time signatures at once. Throughout the album, West is not afraid to challenge standard pop song formats and structures.

Notably absent from most of the album are what West has referred to before as “soul beats” – samples that draw heavily from the R&B canon. The one notable exception, “Blood on the Leaves,” which samples Nina Simone’s performance of “Strange Fruit,” manipulates Simone’s voice so heavily that it almost comes off as a dystopian echo of the original tune. It’s markedly more unsettling than West’s previous works. Many will surely be surprised to hear such music from the man who gave us such danceable hits as “Champion” and “All of the Lights.”

 

This is not to say that the man has lost the ability to innovate and astound. Yeezus features West’s characteristically inventive mix of styles, which range from Hungarian rock (“New Slaves”) to dancehall and Bollywood (“I Am a God”). Songs such as “Blood on the Leaves” and “Guilt Trip” are shining examples of West’s epic, idiosyncratic arrangements at their best. And while individual tracks, on their own, may seem fragmented and unusual, taken in the greater context of the album, they work well. Indeed, more than any of West’s previous albums, Yeezus’s tracks really do work best when they are listened to in succession, from start to finish.

West seems to appreciate this. He’s commented that he may not even release any tracks as singles. Should he follow through on this, the album will be the stronger for it. When you step back from the urge to view Yeezus as a set of individual tracks, and try to experience it as more of a suite or symphony, its true strengths come out. Taken as a cohesive whole, the sweeping, majestic, and yes, disturbing aspects of West’s orchestrations and arrangements make a lot more sense. I prefer to experience the individual songs more as movements, in which each musical choice in the background is equally relevant and integral to the greater whole as the raps and vocal melodies are. And in this context, it’s much easier to appreciate West’s strengths – as an arranger, as a producer… even, dare I say, as a composer.

That’s the way I choose to experience Yeezus – not as a rap or hip-hop album, but an album that features rap as one of its many diverse elements. Those who focus on lyrical delivery will surely consider such an approach to miss the point, and that’s fair. But I believe that West speaks to the listener in a variety of different ways, musically as well as verbally, and that in Yeezus, West lets his music – his orchestrations, in all their sweeping, chaotic, dark beauty – do the most effective communication. In an increasingly bland and homogenous world of pop, it’s a breath of fresh air.

James McNally is a PhD student in ethnomusicology at the University of Michigan. He is currently researching the music of Carnival in Salvador da Bahia, Brazil. His broader research interests include music and nationalism, identity, race, and religion in Brazil and the United States. Originally from Vermont, he received a BA in Music from Amherst College. 

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