‘Yeezus’ (Def Jam)
On ‘Yeezus’, Kanye West plunges ever-deeper into the unresolvable conflicts that make him perhaps the only pop star that matters in the 21st century. It makes for a wild ride; but this is also a far bolder, more assured outing than the other experimental disc in his oeuvre, ‘808s & Heartbreak’ – we have producer Rick Rubin to thank for that, who according to Kanye gave his songs “focus” in an intense three-week editing session leading up to the record’s completion.
Plenty of people have taken its title, ‘Yeezus’, as continued evidence of the Chicago rapper’s apparently limitless sense of self-regard. But in context, it works perfectly: ‘Yeezus’ is Kanye’s attempt to wrestle with his own Messiah complex by (to paraphrase a line in ‘Black Skinhead’) “getting my [primal] scream on”.
Rejecting the lush arrangements that made ‘My Dark Beautiful Twisted Fantasy’ his most widely-acclaimed release since his debut, Kanye pairs his stream-of-consciousness flows with a brutally sparse palette, overlaid with blood-curdling screams and jarring segues. It’s a bold gambit, given that no-one had Kanye pegged for a minimalist up until this point – but remember, no-one thought he’d make much of a pop star pre-‘The College Dropout’ either, and no-one thought he could sing before ‘808s…’ (OK, he still can’t sing, but the point is he tried). What’s more surprising, though, is how well the approach pays off.
‘On Sight’ sounds like a virus being uploaded onto Trent Reznor’s computer, while ‘Black Skinhead’ snatches a surprising victory from stealing the glam-noir aesthetic of ‘Mechanical Animals’-era Marilyn Manson wholesale. ‘I Am A God’ resembles Nicki Minaj if she was more into Throbbing Gristle than trap (and boasts an already-classic Kanye couplet in the lines “In a French-ass restaurant / Hurry up with my damn croissants”).
‘New Slaves’ – the first track to air from the record – sees Yeezy swipe the double-time raps of Kendrick Lamar and bits of Lex Luger’s production techniques, recontextualising them for his own minimalist ends. And Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon once again makes a great foil for our antihero on ‘Hold My Liquor’, soft synths punctuated by incongruous car-crash sounds at the end of every line. When a beautifully judged – and totally unexpected – guitar solo arrives near the end, it’s testament to Kanye’s unwavering sixth sense as to what will make a song stick.
At this point, we probably don’t need to tell you there’s no ‘Gold Digger’ or ‘Stronger’ to bolster Kanye’s commercial stock on the record. Pointed ugliness is the name of the game here, and nowhere is that more apparent than in the lyrics, which are often grotesque but always fascinating. Wealth has done nothing to dim Kanye’s instinct for the racially divisive, nor has it tempered his misogyny – at several points on the record, he revealingly conflates the two, repeatedly stating his desire to put ‘Little Yeezus’ in white ladies’ mouths and even, on the industrial raga-tinged ‘I’m In It’, promising to “put my fist in her like a civil rights sign”. It’s like he’s putting the rap lexicon on the psychologist’s sofa, and it makes for some deeply unpleasant listening.
On ‘New Slaves’, here he is calling racism on people who assume that black people want nothing more than the symbols of conspicuous consumption (pot, kettle, etc) almost in the same breath as condemning America’s prison industrial complex. And on ‘Blood On The Leaves’, he manages to pair some rancorous observations about an ex with a sample of Nina Simone singing ‘Strange Fruit’. Yes, that’s the song about lynchings of black Americans in the deep south.
All of which sounds completely objectionable, of course, but by laying out his neuroses unvarnished for the world to see, what Kanye has created is the most honest – and yes, at times dislikable – record of his career.