Album Review: Kanye West- Yeezus

One thing to keep in mind, if you can, while listening to Yeezus, is that Kanye West’s debut LP, The College Dropout, is almost ten years old. It really doesn’t seem like that much time has passed, but one then must look at how far Kanye West has progressed as an artist, as well as a brand, or an idea, since then.

From the techniques of speeding up sold soul samples and pink polo shirts on Dropout, to the heavy baroque influence on the Jon Brion-helmed Late Registration, to the venetian blind sunglasses and Daft Punk samples on Graduation. Then came the polarizing, depressing, electro-high concept 808s and Heartbreak. Finally, there was My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, an album so dense and grandiose; it was thought to be West’s definitive statement as an artist.

I don’t even know where to begin with Yeezus. The hype surrounding this album is beyond belief, and when it leaked on Friday morning, this is the first time I can remember any mainstream media outlets giving a shit about an album leaking onto the Internet prior to release. Purveyors of all things pop culture Buzzfeed had a timeline, breaking down the events that would lead up to this getting out ahead of schedule. Most of the country doesn’t even understand how an album leaks. And if they do, they probably don’t even know the first place to look for it online.

Not only is there the hype surrounding this album because it’s something new by one the world’s most successful performers, but there’s the hype surrounding the near-secrecy it was produced in, the high security to keep the music locked down until June 18th (that didn’t work), and the “no promotion” promotional efforts. No pre-orders. No radio singles. And if you thought David Bowie’s artwork for The Next Day was on some next-level shit, the bizarre packaging for Yeezus will more than likely be too much for you to comprehend.

(possibly the final artwork, with a blank red sticker sealing the case.)

In interviews, and in his recent stage banter at live shows, West claims that the radio isn’t where he wants to be right now. He’s trying to make art. And as frustrating and inaccessible as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy could be at times, it was still an album that, as a whole, most people probably “got.” It also had a relatively steady stream of singles released from it. While Yeezus isn’t certainly going to tank commercially, or be the end of West’s career, it’s going to alienate a lot of his casual fans. People who only like him for his singles will certainly be confused by the album’s incredibly dark and angry tone.

Yeezus is ten tracks long, and it is relentless. Like, it never lets up. For an album that West has claimed was made with “minimalism” in mind, thanks to the oversight of Executive Producer Rick Rubin—I would never describe this album as minimal. There is almost entirely too much happening on every song. Musically, West has said that he is “new wave,” and I’ve read somewhere that one could consider 808s the first post-hip hop album. If that was post-hip hop, then what the fuck is this? Making a generalization, you could just say it’s way “too future,” but then you should maybe explain yourself.

The production methods of this album will destroy your headphones. And if you listen to it in a car, and if you have a decent sound system, it will more than likely destroy that too. The synths are heavy. The bass is punishing. The beats are crafted to purposefully clip and become distorted. And it’s also terrifying. Like there were times when I was legitimately scared of Yeezus—E.G. the ending moments of the song “I Am a God.” They involve West just screaming like he’s being attacked, followed by heavy breathing, then silence. Then screaming again. This was something that actually stopped me in my tracks when I heard it.

All of West’s albums, for the most part, have revolved around a concept. Yeezus is no different. It’s a somewhat self-referential song cycle that ends as abruptly as it begins. Raunchy sex, a God complex, and the imagery of “blood on the leaves,” are just a few of the recurring themes that run through the album.  While West chose not to release any singles prior to the album’s street date, he has been performing much of the material live recently, as well as debuting “New Slaves” and “Black Skinhead” on the season finale of “Saturday Night Live.” One of those songs is about privately owned prisons. The other, among other things, takes on racism—“stop all that coon shit. That early morning cartoon shit.” Neither of those scream, “radio friendly,” or “hit single” to me. Yeezus is meant to be digested as a whole—the songs are almost designed in a way that they don’t work if they are taken out of the context surrounding them.

Lyrically, Yeezus finds West at his most polarizing. The Internet was already ablaze with quotable moments, like, an hour after the leak hit. Some highlights that stick out are:

In a French ass restaurant
Hurry up with my damn croissants

We get this bitch shaking like Parkinsons

Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign

When I park my Range Rover, slightly scratch your Corolla
Okay, I smashed your Corolla. I’m hanging on a hangover

There are probably more. But these are the ones that stuck out the most from the first listen. And into the second listen.

As mentioned early, musically, there is so much happening on Yeezus it’s actually overwhelming.  The frenetic synth sequencing on “On Sight,” the fuzzed-out bass and overblown drums on “Black Skinhead.” The terrifying reversed feedback on “I Am a God,” the last 1:22 on “New Slaves.” The moody, somewhat somber synth lines, that are actually quite beautiful, underlying in “Hold My Liquor,” the pitch-shifted vocals on “I’m In It.” The ridiculously chilling use of a Billie Holiday Nina Simone sample on “Blood on The Leaves,” the squalling noise that runs throughout “Send it Up.” And finally, the combination of two old, obscure R&B/Soul samples from the 70’s, and “Sweet Nothin’s” by Brenda Lee, that serve as the backbone to “Bound 2.”

(possibly the original cover art, with a melted jesus piece)

In a piece on Vice, leading up to the release of Yeezus, it mentions the juxtaposition of a member of the 1% speaking up for the 99%. Kanye West is the guy who coined the phrase “luxury rap” on his boastful collaboration with Jay-Z, 2011’s Watch The Throne. “New Slaves,” and “Black Skinhead,” are the only two really tracks on here making a real statement. Everything else is pretty much standard fare for West. He is a God, but he’s also a man of God (let that sink in for a second.) He can’t hold his liquor. He likes somewhat depraved sex. And it’s that last part that is in interested to ponder for just a moment when you think about the high profile relationship West is currently in—“celebrity” Kim Kardashian is carrying his child.

On Justin Timberlake’s 20/20 Experience, it was somewhat of a paradigm shift to think that the usually faceless “girl” being sung to in pop songs could be Timberlake’s wife, actress Jessica Biel. The girl on the receiving end of the…things that happen throughout the course of Yeezus—well it’s hard to believe that any of it is in reference to Kardashian. The roots of rap and hip-hop have always been based in storytelling—whether fact or fiction. Yeezus blurs the line somewhat, so that it’s hard to tell what is meant in jest, and what is sincere.

So what is the take away from Yeezus?

The thing that’s most obvious is that Kanye West is not afraid to push the boundaries of hip-hop. Or destroy the boundaries, as it were. If My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was his OK Computer, this is most definitely his Kid A. It’s a big record, and again, I’m failing to see any minimalism here. It can be a patience testing record. It can be ugly, beautiful, and both at the same time. And there are moments where it’s unsettling, somewhat terrifying, and incredibly claustrophobic.

An interesting factoid that was revealed shortly before the album’s leak was that Rick Rubin really came in at the 11th hour and helped shaped a lot of these songs. One is lead to believe that Kanye had rough outlines, and ideas for songs, but that many of them were incomplete—some without lyrics, until Rubin stepped in.

After the Internet was finished shitting itself over the fact that this album leaked, the debates started about if this was, in fact, the “final version” of the record. And there were discussions about when Kanye actually finished the album—there are those that have heard, somehow, that it was done two to three weeks ago, and there are others that claim he was still working on it at the start of the week, pushing everything to the absolute last second.

One has to wonder how this album actually did end up on the Internet, a full four days prior to release. According to the Buzzfeed story that tracked this, there was no iTunes pre-order options or iTunes advance streaming because that is apparently how the most recent Daft Punk and The National albums found their way online before they were intended to. It would seem that for the right person, it is very easy to hack into iTunes. The original zip file for Yeezus contained .m4a files, with a bit rate of 256 kbps—the standard file type and quality one procures from the iTunes store.

If you are looking to Yeezus as a “statement,” what statement does it make? Kanye West has always been a man of contradictions. It’s album that calls out racism and stereotypes but it also plays into those stereotypes at times. It’s incredibly cynical about love yet is looking for it by the end. It points the finger at the Corrections Corporation of America, and it glorifies a lifestyle that pretty much everyone who listens to this album will never be a part of.

It’s an incredibly dark and uninviting album—keeping the listener at an arm’s length, making you actually WORK at listening to it. Musically, while there is the hint of cohesion throughout the course of Yeezus, it’s definitely structured to be in two specific halves—the first having a heavy electronic sound, thanks in part to the collaboration between West and Daft Punk. The second half, still containing those elements, drifts into standard hip-hop territory—trap music is specifically named by West—as well as the usage of samples to create a song—looking mainly at “Blood on The Leaves,” and “Bound 2.”

My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy was weighed down at times by just too many guest appearances—Jay Z, Rick Ross, Nicki Minaj. It’s been interesting to watch, over the course of the last 72 hours, the changes and edits occurring to the Yeezus Wikipedia page. As early as Saturday, it listed each song’s production team—but now that’s all gone. It also, at one point, elaborated more on the guests featured on the album—Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon is credited officially on one song, but pops up two more. Up and coming Chicago rapper Chief Keef—a truly acquired taste vocally speaking—sings, heavily auto-tuned, the chorus on “Hold My Liquor,” Kid Cudi, who has a surprisingly good voice, belts it out on “Guilt Trip,” and a seemingly uncredited Charlie Wilson arrives periodically, almost breaking in from another song completely, on “Bound 2.”

Come Tuesday, it will be really interesting to see what the general populous thinks of Yeezus. Whether you love it, hate it, or just don’t get it, anybody should be able to see what an incredible accomplishment this is—Kanye West is obviously someone with a vision, and this record proves that he won’t compromise that vision. It’s refreshing to see someone so successful commercially take such an artistic gamble like this. Yeezus transcends the hype surrounding it. Listening to it, start to finish, is an exhilarating experience. Similarly to the day that the new My Bloody Valentine album came out, unexpectedly, and I sat on the floor of my living room, completely shook buy what I was hearing for the first time—putting in Yeezus and pressing play is like that. Every time you listen.