Henry Cavill may wear the tights, but Kanye West is our true Superman. Haven’t you heard? In a fascinating if mildly irritating New York Times interview West compared himself — in this order — to Steve Jobs, Walt Disney, Henry Ford, Howard Hughes, Nicolas Ghesquière, Anna Wintour, and David Stern. In West’s mind, he soars above such low company as the Beatles and Michael Jackson; titans of industry, fashion, sports, and film are his new peers. From serious think pieces to Page Six gossip, it’s impossible to read about West without encountering his spectacular ego, whose audacity would make Nietzsche alternately marvel and blush. This strikingly performative pomposity fits all too well into perceptions of West — notorious usurper of acceptance-speech microphones, Kim Kardashian’s baby daddy, entertainment news regular — as the embodiment of a culture of celebrity decadence. These are the people Kanye West infuriates. More often than not, these people miss the point.
Kanye West's richly satisfying and astringent new album Yeezus turns the focus back on Yeezy’s immense talent. It also offers yet another argument for why we should just throw our hands up and echo his self-led chorus of hosannas. No, West isn’t the Second Coming of Steve Jobs or Walt Disney. But he may be the most exciting and unpredictable music maker working in America today.
Thirty seconds. That’s about how long it takes to register the stark departure West’s sixth proper solo album is from his earlier work. Yeezus greets the listener with a crash of abrasive electronic noise, fuzzy low-register synth tones, and harsh drum-machine tapping. We are a universe away from the spoken words, welcoming piano notes, and gloriously stacked vocals that opened My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy.
My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy remains the zenith of West’s career, an Olympian summation of the brilliant catalog that preceded it. In other words, it was a dead end. Kanye West, in the unenviable position of following upon a stone-cold masterpiece, pulls a Kid A and smartly pivots. Yeezus contains plenty of callbacks to the processed balladry of 808s and Heartbreak and West’s sampling of classic soul has grown even more impeccable. But Twisted Fantasy’s bleakest and thorniest moments form the springboard on which Kanye West launches Yeezus into unflinching new territory.
Forty minutes. That’s the album’s length, about how long it takes to comprehend why Kanye West and Def Jam barely bothered to promote Yeezus, making it this year’s best known secret. Looking for a radio single or a future iTunes chart-topper? (“Bound 2”…I guess?) Yeah, good luck. I wouldn’t know how to market this bracing ice-water bath of an album either. Yeezus’ harsh power is meant to turn away the casual listener. Hence the slow trickle of information, West’s SNL performances of the album’s two most accessible tracks, the projection of his face spitting out "New Slaves" on city architecture around the world.
West made no secret about how dark his new material would be and that Chicago house music inspired its sound, but very few people had actually heard any album cuts before it leaked last Friday. That's why Yeezus provides such a wonderful initial jolt. Laced with chilly synths and thumping beats, its song structures fractured by jarring starts and stops and shifting dynamics and moods, yet teeming with melodic and soulful interludes, Yeezus is not the EDM record suggested by early rumors and his collaboration with Daft Punk (just try dancing to one of these songs). If anything, this is Kanye West’s Pretty Hate Machine, in much the same way Twisted Fantasy was his In the Court of the Crimson King.
Though Yeezus crackles with grievance, too little of West’s anger seems targeted at real societal ills, and instead appears to be directed at the particular annoyances of his daily life ("In a French-ass restaurant/ Hurry up with my damn croissants!"). The notable exception of course being “New Slaves,” where West draws a (problematic) line between abhorrent Jim Crow racism and the marketing of luxury goods to young, poor African-Americans. The song lands its true stinging blow, however, when it targets America’s shameful War on Drugs:
Meanwhile the DEA, teamed up with the CCA
They tryn’a lock niggas up, they tryn’a make new slaves
See that's that privately owned prison, get your piece today
They prolly all in the Hamptons, bragging 'bout what they made
At first glance, “Black Skinhead” and “Blood on the Leaves” appear to contain political messages, the former due to its provocative title, the latter for its sampling of Nina Simone’s seminal “Strange Fruit.” Although the first verse of “Black Skinhead” contains the album’s boldest lyric (“They see a black man with a white woman/ At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong”), ultimately the song becomes another declaration of Kanye West’s overall awesomeness (see “Stronger,” “POWER”). “Blood on the Leaves,” on the other hand, is basically a break-up song, which makes the inclusion of Simone's tale of lynching perplexing, if not offensive.
So Yeezus isn’t Kanye West’s protest album after all. Instead, it’s an intensely personal record — ten songs of unfiltered id. And for all its insularity, with repeated listens Yeezus opens its maw and sinks its fangs in deep. “Black Skinhead,” for good reason the album’s presumptive lead “single,” pummels with Mansonian intensity. But its aggression is a delivery system for catharsis, a trick West repeats on Daft Punk-produced album opener “On Sight” and the blaring air-horn dancehalltrack “Send It Up.” West balances Yeezus’ severity over and over again with strategically placed embellishments, namely those aforementioned samples and collaborator-provided hooks (funny how the word “starfucker” sounds beautiful when sung, with piercing regret, by Justin Vernon). The growling, escalating fury of “New Slaves” gives way to a wondrous Frank Ocean coda (side note: more Frank next time, Yeezy). A sample performed by reggae artist Capleton, and another Vernon vocal, provide a foothold into the album’s most outré track “I Am a God.”
“Hold My Liquor” and “Bound 2” are the glory of Yeezus, painfully great tracks on an album that doesn’t contain a single bum note. ”Hold My Liquor,” another break-up song, sounds as if it exists in the three minutes that conclude “Runaway.” Chief Keef and Justin Vernon own the track, trading mournful, Auto-Tuned vocals. A guitar and synth duo mirrors their interplay, and for that time we’ve returned to Twisted Fantasy’s majesty. “Bound 2” is the gulp of air at the end of an often stifling album: a moment of unadulterated joy after so much rage. If “Hold My Liquor” recalls Twisted Fantasy, then “Bound 2” is West’s reminder that nine years later, he is in fact the man who once recorded The College Dropout.
Yeezus is a sprint forward, with My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy's lush grandiosity far in the rearview. Kanye West doesn’t give the listener a second to realize the album is more a masterly response to a masterpiece than a masterpiece itself. With one sweep of the hand, West brushes away expectations. And then he sticks you squarely across the face. [A]