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Kanye West – Yeezus

on June 21, 2013, 12:03am
Kanye.Yeezus A+
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It was inevitable that our greatest pop mind would eventually make an anti-pop record. The question is why did he have to make the thing so difficult on us. Kanye West shut the rap game’s whole shit down with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, 2010’s positively bloated force that had us realizing the inadequacy of that very term, “rap.” Because, in addition to being at turns beautiful, dark, twisted, and fantastical, MBDTF was also unmistakably Ye’s —  the product of the only guy who could have pulled off such a superhuman feat, yes, but who’s also built his career on extrapolating others’ sounds and making them, inventively, his own. With Yeezus, the proper solo follow-up, Ye reveals himself as even more eccentric and cocky than he’s been in recent years. And given that the 36-year-old makes his best music when he’s most willing to get right up in our faces, what we have here, blessedly, is a nearly too-close-for-comfort look at one of our leading provocateurs’ neurotic makeup.

That’s not all we have here, of course. On the mere sonic front, West has never gone bigger. Yeezus is an album alternately metallic, manic, and melancholy, with top-dollar samples ranging from Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” to Pusha T’s “Blocka”, plus overlapping cameos from Chief Keef and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon. But more on all that later — most pressingly, this is a document so indicting that you worry whether you’ll personally be called out by the time it’s done.

The guy’s on-edge, see. West’s first kid was born Saturday, and Yeezus — recorded mostly in three very recent weeks — was written and made during his daughter’s gestation. But while such a timetable arguably should lead to interpersonal worries being the record’s primary source material, West is at his most sociologically minded ever here. A vast portion of the album’s tension stems from perceived racism and inequity, both social and economical. This is Kanye working that out with his classic hypocrisy in tow. He contradicts himself, but he is a god, he contains multitudes. 

Songs have names like “Black Skinhead” and “New Slaves”, the Nina Simone joint was originally written as a poem about the lynching of African-Americans, and West can’t help but bring the color divide into play even as he’s talking about fucking: “Put my fist in her like a civil rights sign.” Also significant are the presences of Chicago rappers Keef and King L, the former the numbed voice of the bullet-riddled South Side, the latter, born in ’87, a sort of communal median between West and the 17-year-old Keith Cozart.

Like MBDTF, though, Yeezus is a total package in the sense that the lyrical pleasures start small. Some very Kanye wordplay here: “You see it’s leaders and it’s followers/ But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower.” “I keep it 3hunna like the Romans/ 300 bitches, where the Trojans?” There are also oddball references to The Waterboy and Tron, and “I Am a God”’s “Hurry up with my damn croissants!” is bound to be the new “What she order, fish filet?” I’ve already mentioned the two guest rappers here – there are no posse cuts a la “Monster”, much less guest verses that could keep up with Nicki Minaj’s on that 2010 track – but West always has the personality to keep things, to say the least, interesting.

Except when he’s dead-ass serious, which is when the album’s at its best. On “Black Skinhead”, we get some lines regarding his relationship with Kim Kardashian: “They see a black man with a white woman/ At the top floor they gon’ come to kill King Kong.” The song is racially charged, with another line about “them black kids in Chiraq.” Its freneticism and urgency make it such a thrill. “New Slaves” has one of the clearer concepts on the whole album, about the relationship West sees between blacks of different classes and consumerism: “You see it’s broke-nigga racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’/ And this rich-nigga racism, that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more.’” Lord knows this stuff isn’t as vivid as The Autobiography of Malcolm X or Menace II Society, but the only thing keeping it from being stirring like the entertaining Django Unchained is its lack of gratuitous violence.

Here’s one of the more memorable pulls from West’s recent interview with The New York Times, his first of any kind in years: “I think that’s a responsibility that I have, to push possibilities, to show people: ‘This is the level that things could be at.’” Each of West’s first five albums pushed possibilities, but never has he made a record this radical. With contributions from a wide array of collaborators for the music – including Rick Rubin, Daft Punk, TNGHT, and Young Chop, plus usual suspects RZA, No ID, and Mike Dean – Yeezus has a uniform character and can change things up at a dizzying clip.

A brief sampling: “On Sight” is abrasive acid-house, there’s a blasting brass-drop at the two-minute mark of “Blood on the Leaves”, “Send It Up” is on some DJ Mustard-via-Pretty Hate Machine shit, and “Bound 2” is a veritable geyser of soul samples, the prettiest thing we’ve heard from West since “Devil in a New Dress.” Rubin was brought in to give the album its minimalist bent (his records used to say “reduced by Rick Rubin”), and it worked to the thing’s endless benefit. These beats bang and clang, just not busily so, leaving space left to be occupied by the raps and all of Vernon’s vocal calisthenics as well as pure atmosphere.

Yes, the minimalism leads to an atmosphere characterized by very little subtlety – a thread historically intertwined with the most unselfconscious pop music. Yeezus, of course, is anti-pop, but conceptually instead of sonically; “Honestly, when I listen to radio, that ain’t where I wanna be no more,” West proclaimed during his headlining set at Governors Ball. But West being the same guy who did “Gold Digger”, who did “Stronger”, who did “Love Lockdown”, there was always going to be some level of commercial-friendliness to the album, or at least it was going to be more accessible in his hands than in anyone else’s attempt. Yeezus feels very proto- something, the roots of some aesthetic that has yet to be minted. It’s revolutionary at its most urgent, as on “Black Skinhead”. It’s an album for the books, one that indicates West’s hunger for exploration while always sounding like it could become extraordinarily popular, even for him. This is the level that things could be at.

Essential Tracks: “Black Skinhead”, “New Slaves”, “Blood on the Leaves”, and “Bound 2”

Feature artwork by Steven Fiche:

yeezusfeature Album Review: Kanye West   Yeezus

Purchase this artwork (via Society6): Print || Canvas || iPhone Case || iPhone Skin

27 comments

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Forbidden Fruit
July 12, 2013 at 4:18 pm

Ugh. Just more hipster bullshit from a tantruming 30-something Kardashian fucker. “Anti-pop” my ass. You can’t make an autotune album and then claim to be “anti-pop” or avant garde.

Is nobody going to mention that SNL performance?! That’s what you call trying too hard. And dat jacket. His fashion designer boy toy should’ve NEVER let that happen.

Ayo Kanye: stick to producin’.

John A.
June 24, 2013 at 2:22 am

Frankly, I don’t like niggas that straight up say what’s wrong with people and then embody that. Kanye gonna call black people ignorant, & then be ignorant himself. I just can’t get down with a dude whose the embodiment of everything that’s wrong with the race just because he makes dope beats. If you actually listening to this dude, you gotta know what he is; the opposite of MLK. And it’s a damn shame… Be better niggas. Expect better.

Ms. Good Pussy.
June 21, 2013 at 8:41 am

I’m sorry but this album isn’t worthless all 5 stars. I’d give it like 4.3 but come on now.

pizzmoe
June 21, 2013 at 2:39 am

Our greatest pop mind? I can’t process that statement.

As far as the record goes, some good production, but with all due respect, Ye’s not a good rapper and the lyrics are nothing we haven’t heard before. Don’t believe the hype.

GLM
June 20, 2013 at 9:22 pm

Thanks for the thoughtful review, Mike! I really enjoyed it–particularly that interesting, educational bit about Rick Rubin. I have only listened to the album once. I don’t think I will have a proper impression of it until I have heard it on my car stereo system, but I know that I find it fascinating. I think that it will end up being like U2’s No Line On the Horizon album for me, meaning that I will enjoy it a lot on the random occasions that I decide I want to be shaken-up.

Jonathan Pink
June 20, 2013 at 10:29 am

By the way in 2008 Williams responded to accusations of Kanye ripping off his sound. His response is not what you may expect.

http://allhiphop.com/2008/09/22/saul-williams-response-to-kanye-wests-love-lockdown/

This is also why I praise Kanye: He has exposed a far greater population of people to a sound that they otherwise would have never in a million lifetimes opened their eyes to. Kanye has packaged the sound of artists like Saul Williams and Death Grips and made it more accessible. The idea is that now Kanye fans will begin to seek new music and broaden their musical preference and begin to see the larger picture. We can’t however, praise Yeezus for its innovation – though it probably will be. I am not saying this is necessarily wrong – it just is what it is.

Keep your ear to the (under)ground…

Jonathan Pink
June 20, 2013 at 10:23 am

Yeezus would be a far more impressive album if The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust, wasn’t made 6 years ago – an album by the hip-hop artist and accomplished poet Saul Williams. I found Williams in high school when I stumbled upon one of his books of Poetry “She” and later the widely successful “Said the Shotgun to the Head”. I have to believe that this album didn’t rock the music industry (especially the hip-hop scene) to its core because of the many great albums that were also released in 2007, Radiohead etc… The other explanation is that the world was simply not ready for the album – truly before its time.

The differences between Yeezus and Niggy Tardust are subtle and the similarities are alarming. The underlining tone and sound of Yeezus is strikingly similar to Niggy Tardust (which is a play on Ziggy Stardust – if you didn’t catch that already). Kanye has been accused of ripping off Williams before and after this album I have to believe that Kanye knowingly and intentionally copied the tone of Niggy Tardust – not to mention the commentary, which I feel that Kanye fails to fully portray. Simply put, Williams is one of the brightest minds of our time and his poetry puts him in the company of Charles Bukowski and William S. Burrows – and it is not easy fully grasp and mimic his artistic themes. The sound that teeters on the edge of hip-hop, hardcore electronica, “post-modern” rock, and a counter culture/punk feel is a sound that was arguably coined by Williams (and the great Trent Reznor who is also behind the creation of Niggy Tardust).

**On a side note. The production of Reznor on Niggy Tardust is rumored to be sampled on Yeezus with no credit given. This makes sense given that Rick Ruben produced both albums. Sounds a little fishy…

***Second side note: The sounds and feel, especially during live performances of Yeezus (I saw him at Governor’s Ball) is strikingly similar to Death Grips – a project that has pulled hip-hop in another direction similar to Williams but along a different avenue.

All this being said, a lot of new music has taken the direction that Williams and Reznor set those years ago, BUT, none have the similarities and feel that Yeezus does. Williams’ character Niggy Tardust approaches issues surrounding hip-hop and elements of individual meaning from different viewpoints with a holistic understanding only achieved by deep reflection achieved by the greatest poets. Kanye approaches these same elements from the inside with an air of arrogance (which I hope is part of this artistic act – but sometimes I don’t know) and at times completely misses the point.

So the “genius” of Yeezus to me is a joke. To me the “genus” was achieved 6 years ago with nearly identical ideas, message, and sound – but the world was not ready for it. I praise Kanye for this album as I think it is his best work to date. Though we can’t give this album all the credit it is receiving because of its disregard of previous
works. The first few songs are stellar and flow perfectly and then the album begins to unravel and loses its listeners. This has to be due to the army of people (Daft Punk included) that were involved in its creation. This shows that the first songs were guided by the team and producer working on it, but eventually Kanye’s personality can’t hide forever. The lyrical content is typical of Kanye and in all honesty detracts from the brilliance of some songs. These are issues addressed by Williams in Niggy Tardust of the hip-hop scene…but I guess Kanye didn’t get that part.

Regardless if you did or didn’t like Yeezus I challenge you to get a copy of Niggy Tardust and tackle the ideas that are portrayed within.

Rory Biller
June 21, 2013 at 11:29 am

Never made this connection before you mentioned it, but I am inclined to agree. Niggy Tardust was way ahead of its time.

Pierce
June 19, 2013 at 12:22 pm

great review, no doubt the album of the year and the most influential artist of the 21st century

Animator606432
June 19, 2013 at 8:16 am

Like most Kanye Album’s the production was creative and catchy but the lyrics were shit. I’ve listened to the album almost 10 times and I really don’t see what everyone’s talking about. It’s not horrible or even bad, but it really isn’t even HALF as amazing as every music blog is making it seem. I mean, Lupe Fiasco is an amazing lyricist but he doesn’t get half the praise Kanye does.

YeezusBS
June 19, 2013 at 8:16 am

it is music…. you shouldn’t have to study to think you like a song…. it sounds wack point blank.. People can pretend to like it all day. Bet you won’t but it loud in your car though

Roger Kingsland
June 19, 2013 at 11:49 pm

I bet you I will.

I like this album. A whole lot. And I assure you, I’m not pretending. The truth is, not all music is meant to communicate directly to whoever happens to hear it—or even to be “expressive,” for that matter. Sure, beautiful music sells more records, but some art (especially *good* art) requires an understanding of the techniques and systems it employs in order to be understood.You wouldn’t enjoy reading a book in Chinese if you had no idea how to read Chinese characters, would you? Nope. You’d get nothing from the experience, no matter hard you tried.

I’ll admit that last comparison was a bit of a stretch, but for a more relevant example, try listening to a piece of 12-tone serial music (I’d suggest something by Anton Webern; maybe his Variations for piano, op. 27). I can tell you right now, it will be a SHOCKING experience. “Wack point blank,” as you’ve so eloquently described the aesthetic of Yeezus, probably wouldn’t even do it justice. You won’t enjoy it. At all.

And you wouldn’t be alone! To most listeners, serial music sounds disgusting. Alien, even. But if you hope to appreciate this sort of music for what it’s truly worth, you’ll need to take [lots of] time to study the idea of serialism and its application in 12-tone music. Believe it or not, a LOT of work goes into this music, even though most listeners would prefer to simply dismiss it as “atonal” and move on. Essentially, entire pieces are built using a pre-composed “tone row” which contains ALL 12 chromatic pitches, not a single one of them repeated, as a building block. There are no functional diatonic chords (e.g. I, V, vi, IV)—instead, every single note is equally represented, creating a tonally “balanced” sound like nothing else heard in Western music.

The row is transformed and transposed in all sorts of ways over the course of the piece, and rarely does the same “melody” or sonority sound twice. To the untrained ear, it sounds shapeless. And to “train” your ears to appreciate it, you may actually need to sit down with the score(!!!!!) for a few hours, and trace the various forms of the row through the piece. But when you’ve finished, and you listen through it again, it will no longer sound foreign. It will sound absolutely MAGNIFICENT, because you’ve come to understand it.

Yeezus is a truly minimalist work. Minimalism, another technique pioneered in the 20th century, is a beast in its own right; it’s often more palatable than serial music, but just as unfamiliar. Radiohead’s latest, The King of Limbs, is chock full of minimalist techniques… but most just dismiss it as a “Thom Yorke solo project,” unaware that it’s just a different aesthetic than they’ve been “trained” to enjoy.

It needs to be UNDERSTOOD in order to be appreciated.

See where I’m going with this?

Dan
June 21, 2013 at 4:23 pm

TL, DR: you have to be learned to like this album, apparently.

Sure, the music is amazing and well done, but the lyrics are absolute shit. It’s like taking a Monet and adding stick figures to the scenery. Yeah, underneath it all it’s beautiful, but there’s a layer of garbage on top. I loved the sound of this album, but the delivery and lyricism was an utter disappointment. Lyricism has NEVER been a strong suit for Kanye.

Adam Long
June 19, 2013 at 2:23 am

I really don’t think the minimalism benefited the album. A few songs would have been perfect. Over half the album, and I’m craving more texture. The songs work well as stand alone tracks, but the minimalism feels redundant in sequence.

And I don’t really understand how this review doesn’t mention auto-tuning ( and how fucking bad auto-tuned singing sounds).

Kahron Spearman
June 19, 2013 at 1:20 am

I LOVE that people are so split on the record.

terrible dream
June 21, 2013 at 9:16 am

the album is in an area of left field you didn’t know exist till this album and most people don’t know how to handle a rap beat that goes light on the drums and bass but heavy on everything else

M M
June 19, 2013 at 1:04 am

This album is atrocious. Half of the songs I kept thinking I have heard a beat so similar to this before… Oh ya. I HAVE! He evidently bought almost all of these beats and sampled them…

Also, using auto-tuned vocals is innovative??? It sure sounds like shit to me.

Greg
June 18, 2013 at 8:01 pm

5 out of 5 stars? LOL. the most overrated musician of the age continues the trend….

Dan
June 18, 2013 at 3:16 pm

@Likwid I listened to it and can concur with them. Very Kanye (awful) lyrics, but as usual, amazing samples and production. He did nothing innovative or new with this, just went a different direction many others have already taken and jumped on the bandwagon. His raps sound contrived over the tracks, nothing visceral about the delivery. Bound 2 is solid Kanye, though. Overall, I’d give the album 3.5 stars. Production is amazing, but lyrics and delivery are severely lacking.

Tom Novak
June 18, 2013 at 3:14 pm

The moment you began the review with “Our greatest pop mind,” I was done. Kanye makes enough of these overblown statements about himself himself, do you need to add on to the hype? Jeeze. Tone it down, buddy.

Likwid
June 18, 2013 at 2:53 pm

Mr_CO & Abraham Tribesky, M.D., if you don’t like Kanye, or his music, why the hell would you even bother commenting on it. Obviously you haven’t even listen Yeezus. You can’t appreciate, what you can’t understand or comprehend. People like you two are what is wrong with this world.

Mr_CO
June 18, 2013 at 12:09 pm

Wow, could you blow any more hot air up his butt? Did the record company pay you to write this fluff piece? There are literally hundreds of artists I’ll listen to in order to be challenged before this egomaniac. The most challenging thing about his music is getting through a song without vomiting. – End Rant -

Sara L. Rose
June 18, 2013 at 11:43 am

Rich man buys top samples to create “album.”

Mr. HD Gainz
June 18, 2013 at 3:37 pm

if you seriously do not understand the art of sampling, then you do not know music at all, so kindly keep your plebeian word vomit to yourself.

evolvearte
June 18, 2013 at 10:22 am

Hey people check out this design i made of Kanye West

Heatwolves
June 18, 2013 at 1:52 am

amazing album, solid review.

Max
June 18, 2013 at 12:16 am

Amazing review. I agree that Bound 2 is the “Devil in a new dress” of this album.

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