> | | | > The Temptations of Yeezus: Kanye West's 'Yeezus' Considered

The Temptations of Yeezus: Kanye West's 'Yeezus' Considered

Posted on Friday, 28 June 2013 | No Comments

Give the guy some credit: he has put out the best Daft Punk album this year.

Beyond that though...well, it all gets rather tricky. Certainly, the audaciously, hilariously titled Yeezus stands as one of the most gleefully antagonistic and difficult major label releases in recent history. It's an album that, for thirty-six of its forty minutes, largely throws out any sounds and aesthetics we might have associated with Kanye West in favour of pummelling distorted beats that have left a lot of listeners wondering if he's been spending some down time with the two Death Grips records that came out last year. (It's also one of the most painfully mixed albums I've heard in some time: such is the level of clipping here, this album is exhausting even on a relatively low volume.) In lieu of any conventional single release, there's been a campaign of public video displays, an abrasive appearance on Saturday Night Live and a handful of typically erratic and egotistic interviews - take Kanye at his word, and this is the album Le Corbusier or Steve Jobs would have made, if only they'd been privileged enough to be on the same level as genius as him. There's next to no artwork, and if co-producer Rick Rubin is to be taken at his word, the completion of the final album was so rushed and last-minute, there almost wasn't an album. If not exactly the death throws of late hip-hop capitalism, it certainly looks like an example of the panic before the ship sinks beneath the waves.

The greatest through line between Yeezus and what lay before then is in Kanye's ever-contrary nature. Having climbed to the top of the pop hierarchy with Graduation, he turned around and dumped the gloomy AutoTune-d ballads of 808s & Heartbreaks. After that, the self-consciously critic pleasing pre-designated masterpiece of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy. Then a jaunt around the West's sports arenas with his similarly self-effacing chum Jay-Z for Watch The Throne, just about the most 1% album imaginable during that brief window Occupy looked like it might matter. With all of this behind him, his status as a mighty shape-shifting cultural juggernaut seems undeniable: no wonder he's now become just Kanye, in the way Miles Davis is just Miles and Scott Walker is just Scott. And looking at all those twists and turns, are you really surprised he didn't go and do The College Dropout 2?

Prior to the album release, the big story behind the album was that this was to be Kanye's political album: while he'd never been shy of advertising his views and opinions before, this was to be his focused statement. It's a theme that's only obvious in the two tracks previewed on Saturday Night Live before release, the glam stomp of Black Skinhead and the dystopian New Slaves. Between the former's stark demand for black emancipation and the latter's deconstruction of relative privilege and institutional racism and the rhythm-led, unadorned sound of both tracks, you could have been mistaken for thinking that the ghost of the 'black CNN' archetype had finally come back to take its place at the table, one of the most undoubtedly inside hip-hop artists now taking on the system he's part of. It's for this reason that they also stand out as two of the most exciting tracks on the album, and by far two of the most impressive songs of the year so far in any genre. The stripped-down and wired-up dance of these two tracks, which number amongst Daft Punk's contributions to the record, also suggest a far more effective and daring riposte to EDM than Random Access Memories managed - forget yacht rock tedium, these pieces meet the dreaded brosteppers head on and show them how to really power over the listener.

But Kanye West has always been too eccentric, too flighty to stick rigidly to stick to such a tight template, so maybe it's not such a surprised that Yeezus as a whole is a far less focused and more troubling affair. The meme-ready I Am A God might contain plenty of great punch lines - yelling out for his damn croissants, hanging out with Jesus - but there's still a fearsome thudding beat and an unnerving, screamed panic attack of a breakdown that reinforces how the only force in this universe equal to Kanye's ego is his doubt. On this level, there's also the slow-grooving Hold My Liquor, a menacing update of the 808s aesthetic that details the exact moment when high-life bombast crashes down into nocturnal loathing. As dark and depraved as a Bret Easton Ellis narrator, it holds the same kind of debauched douchebag allure as The Weeknd at his finest, and the paranoid niche it carves out for itself adds an additional queasy overtone to this vicious record.
In many ways, Yeezus acts like a photo negative of Dark Fantasy: in place of meticulous detail and luxurious arrangements is an enraged, scattershot attack. Writing for a student newspaper at the time, I described Dark Fantasy as a fifty-foot gold statue built in honour of its own grandeur; this is more like scribbling all over the Mona Lisa with a giant cartoon dick. And really, if there's any part of the anatomy which this album resembles, it's a great big monstrous hard-on. Everything here is filtered through a thick layer of oppressive and dominating sexuality that verges from the bleakly amusing to the plain indefensible. Sometimes it's tied up to the kind of black power ideas Black Skinhead and New Slaves play with: the former's lyric "They see a black man with a white woman at the top floor / They gone come to kill King Kong" is a neat way of using sex as another way of digging under the still-festering sore of veiled racism in the present day, besides which, if we're going to complain about sex-as-power-play lyrics, then why weren't people getting themselves so worked up about your average Jarvis Cocker lyric?

Unfortunately, Kanye answers this question himself. Yeezus is an album that conflates the ongoing struggles of the black American with Kanye's crazed sex drive and declares them the same thing. It's an album with an astonishing amount of fucking and ejaculating, right from opener On Sight's declaration that his "black dick all in your spouse again", until by album closer Bound 2 he's telling an unnamed female companion (perhaps one Kim Kardashian?) to "step back, can't get spunk on the mink". It's also one with the cataclysmically ill-advised I'm In It, which would just be another lazy, misogynistic bit of rap album filler if it wasn't for Kanye pushing it into new realms of bad taste by trying to tie it in with his black power theme. Just look at these: "Your titties, let 'em out, free at last / Thank God almighty, they free at last", "Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign" and "Eatin' Asian pussy, all I need was some sweet and sour sauce" - I'm no prude, but for fuck's sake. This is just witless, juvenile nonsense that even Odd Future would be embarrassed to put their name to.

There's also the head-scratching Blood on the Leaves to contend with too, where Kanye makes the insane but honestly brilliant decision to mix in Nina Simone singing Strange Fruit with TNGHT's track R U Ready to create one of the most colossal, cinematic beats of his career, and then uses his audacious reinvention of one of the defining soundtracks of black oppression and the civil rights movement to talk about...alimony payments. Because having to pay for the child ensuing from a one-night stand is definitely on a level with brutal racist murders. The production is stunning, Kanye's flow itself is good, but it's a lyrical nightmare that I'm still trying to untangle. It's at this point where the album starts to feel like some deranged Rorschach test: when confronted with something this inexplicable, whatever theory you throw at it - be it the ranting of a narcissistic bully, a sly bit of commentary on the super-rich, another bleak character piece, or just the kind of weird bullshit you get when you have seventy minutes to record five vocal tracks and write two whole lyrics, it's all equally plausible and potentially revealing about just how you receive music.
For the most part, Yeezus is a delightfully provocative record that sees Kanye West break new ground for himself, and potentially expose a mass audience to some distinctly non-pop sounds. The first half is perhaps the most thrilling and vital music he's ever made, and even the distinctly up-and-down second half has its thrills: leaving the lyrical issues aside, Blood on the Leaves is a daring and superbly executed bit of production, and the return to Kanye's classic chipmunk-soul sound on Bound 2 for a track which, cum shots aside, broaches the fear of aging and commitment in a compelling way. Kanye's always been the kind of artist where you have to take his brilliance along with his mistakes, and never have they been so entwined as they are this time around. The boldness of this aesthetic volte-face is a genuine shock attack on the current pop culture landscape, and suggests a possible way forward for one of the very few artists in our current era that manages to balance both great commercial success with genuine artistic commitment. If I've been shy of calling this a review out-right, it's because the contradictions and complications of this album are ones that I'm still trying to work my way through, and ones that I suspect we won't be seeing any kind of real consensus on any time soon. I can't be the only one wishing though that he could have made this brave new step without the horrible, out-dated anti-woman vitriol that threatens to undo the whole project.

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