America’s hip-hop sweetheart (end sarcasm) returns with a new LP, but does he find true North on this record? See what I did there?
“Father forgive me, for I have sinned”. Please excuse me while I finish my Hail Mary’s, but even mentioning the title of Kanye West’s latest project, Yeezus, leaves me feeling intensely blasphemous and filled with sinner’s guilt.
While not a huge fan of the eccentric, obnoxious and terribly egoistical rapper cum critically panned fashion designer, one thing I cannot deny is his sheer bravado in exploring the aural boundaries of hip-hop. Dare I say, the talented (yet disturbed) Mr. West pushes, breaches and reshapes them on each record, not necessarily to match his angst-riddled messages, but more so to feed his burgeoning superego; after all he is the only “the only rapper compared to Michael”, I rest my case.
Yeezus, beyond a surefire way to make your Baptist grandmother clutch her pearls, is thematically, the deeper, darker and far more twisted continuation of his simultaneously self-deprecating and self-aggrandizing 2010 record, My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
Where Fantasy blended the key sonic ingredients of his past work into one, very grand and ambitious sounding record, Yeezus drops off most of the polish and takes a decidedly dark timbre throughout, broaching punk, heavy metal and industrial at points. The album’s production can wax dangerously close to being ill-conceived noise at points; grating screams, shrieks and a barrage of other inhuman and unsettling effects punctuate tracks with a crassness and un-likability second only to his infamous interruption of Taylor Swift at the VMAs.
The dark grey soundscape is occasionally spiced up with a generous dosage of reggae and dancehall, from Jamaican artists like Beenie Man, Popcaan, Assassin and a sizable sample from Capleton’s “Forward Inna Dem Clothes” on the megalomaniacal “I Am A God”. Quite an aptly titled track to borrow from considering the latter was purportedly penned by an offended West after an attempt by unnamed fashion houses to dictate his attendance during Paris Fashion Week in 2012…or so the legend goes.
Whether an immature and overly harsh reaction to perceived wrongs against him or his superhuman persona, or his unadulterated and razor sharp views on racial relations in a modern world, evidenced in lines such as “black man with a white woman, at the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong” on the album’s reported lead single, “Black Skinheads”; one thing is certain, Kanye is still angry and very much upholding, to quote him, his “walking ‘round always mad reputation”.
Lyrically, West goes on a tirade against the usual vampiric, materialistic vixens that seemingly have been strutting in and out of his life with destructive consequence since his days as a collegiate teddy bear; laments the 21st century re-enslavement of not only black people, but humanity in general to the ails of wealth and materialism; and barks down continued institutionalized ignorance which he attributes to the “Man” who keeps blocking and censoring art and its truth, more specifically, his art and truth.
There is of course the dick measuring, ego stroking moments where he reverts to a typical hip-hop star, spewing his manifesto of sex tricks and blowing his own horn (thankfully nothing else) as done on “I’m In It”, where he boasts about crudely reinterpreting the raised, clenched fist of the civil rights movement. Only Kanye would dare verbalize this.
The album’s most striking moment for me is the track Blood On The Leaves, one of two tracks on Yeezus (the other being “New Slaves”) that draws inspiration from the sorrowed ode to lynching in the American south, “Strange Fruit”. The track opens with a sample of soul legend Nina Simone’s rendition before catapulting on a stomping beat which provides an angry backdrop for the maestro to recount a very soured love affair with as much disappointment as he can muster. Yet it all feels somewhat trivial for him to be crying over spilled romantic milk on a sampled song that stands as one of the most well known pieces of the tragic, collective history of black people in the western world; yet in its somberness, it remains a stunning track. Single worthy if you ask me.
Another noteworthy cut is “Hold My Liquor” featuring contributions from fellow rapper Chief Keef and Justin Vernon, front man of the folk rock band Bon Iver, who returns after working with West on Fantasy in 2010. “Liquor” finds Kanye in a gin slurred, reckless sexual encounter with a non-descript ex, after smashing her innocent Corolla with his Range Rover…hope she knows Jake from State Farm.
The record ends off on the soul/hip-hop concoction that is “Bound 2”, featuring a sample from a Motown-esque girl group ditty, where in his most frank moment of the entire album, Kanye basically expresses his true frustration with the usual groupies and harpies that fame attracts, craving beneath it all, for a feeling one would never equate with him; true love. The track is beautifully bridged by the melting-butter vocals of soul legend Charlie Wilson who warns, “nobody leaving this party, with nobody to love”.
Whatever one feels or thinks about Kanye West, it is clear that he could care less, based on his progressively F-you attitude which pervades each successive record. Yeezus is meant to be, from my perspective, a reminder of what Kanye West thinks about the world as it revolves around him, a continuation of the angst, hurt and veiled fragility that he has been exploring in his music from as far back as 808s and Heartbreak. Only difference this time is that he has eliminated the sugar content and this coffee’s black, hot and will burn all the way down to get the message across. As the album’s opening track states, quite unapologetically, “He’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want”; truer words have never been spoken of an artist or an album.