In an interview with the New York Times that predated the release of Yeezus, sixth solo album from Kanye West, the rapper/producer proclaimed himself the nucleus of music, fashion, internet and culture. On “New Slaves”, the quasi-single anonymously debuted on the side of 66 buildings worldwide, Kanye, in less-than eloquent diction, declared his preference of being a leader over a follower. He recently named his firstborn child North. That's right, North West. But no matter how bad the self-aggrandizing, the thing that has always set Kanye apart is that his music can usually back up his claims.
Since 2004’s The College Dropout, West has been a force in hip-hop, releasing records with innovative and forward-thinking production, garnering acclaim from fans and critics alike. His antics in the media have kept him amongst a swirl of controversy. People love to discuss Kanye West because his actions demand you have an opinion of him. To deny his cultural impact is to bury one's head in the sand. While often devoid of tactfulness, his outbursts generally come from an earnest place, and even if the person himself is disagreeable, the music can be appreciated separately.
And that mythos, that combination of raw talent, hard work and self-absorption has been present his entire career. Politics aside, he consistently pushes boundaries with his inventive and versatile production. 808s & Heartbreaks was a grievous record, risky in its cold soundscapes and auto-tuned warbles, pioneering a sound that would eventually birth acts like The Weeknd and James Blake. 2010's My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, lush and maximalist, was as grandiose as it was effacing. And that's why Yeezus is disappointing: it's derivative. It's Kanye haphazardly mashing up a mix of recent musical trends and passing it off as his own. Yeezus is Kanye deceiving listeners, delivering an album ripe with conflict but lacking as much in sophistication as it is in album art.
Buzz-saw synthesizers are lent percussion from an EKG machine on the opener, "On Sight", immediately setting the tone for a dark and abrasive album. "Black Skinhead" could pass as a rap version of "The Beautiful People" by Marilyn Manson. "New Slaves" is a snarling anti-consumerist rant on top of a menacing and minimalist beat remindful of the underground worlds of Super Mario Bros. But though there are moments throughout Yeezus that suggest some grander statement, there never seems to be more than controversy for the sake of controversy. It's plagued by underdeveloped ideas and a pervading sense (or well-documented evidence) of being rushed.
Still, even Kanye's worst songs are better than many of his peers', and Yeezus does have a few bright spots. "Blood On the Leaves" samples Nina Simone's "Strange Fruit". While the context of the original track, an influential anti-lynching song, seems somewhat out of place among tales of breakups, lawyers, and MDMA, the result remains memorable. The sample is laced between quaint keys and 'Ye's introductory bars, the flow eventually enveloped by TNGHT's elephant trunk horn section and hyper-speed hi-hats. "I'm In It" is the amalgamation of a mess of sounds ranging from reggae voices to Martin Luther King Jr. to Justin Vernon's mouth-full-of-marbles chorus. "Bound 2" is the implicit Kanye track, the requisite introspective story with a malaise backdrop, this time featuring a looped soul-sample à la "International Player's Anthem" and an arena-sized hook. This ilk of track often brings out the best in Kanye lyrically:
"What you doing in the club on a Thursday?
She say she only here for her girl birthday,
They ordered champagne but still look thirsty,
Rock Forever 21 but just turned thirty."
I recently read an engaging Newsweek interview with producer savant Rick Rubin, "The Man You Listen To Everyday". It's interesting how many albums he's been a part of, how many classic records he has helped shape and how few people know who he is. When asked to diagnose the problem with the record industry, Rubin said, "People are willing to get short-term gains at the risk of long-term choices." He proceeds to detail the 15-day timeline he was given to complete Yeezus after being presented a loose collection of beats and half-structured ideas. Anxious to catch his flight to Milan, Kanye wrote entire songs in thirty minutes. With a sound likely to alienate a section of his listenership regardless, Yeezus is disappointing because it's the sound of potential; the sound of Kanye trading in his work ethic for tabloid tales of the rich and famous.
6.9 / 10
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