Kanye West’s sixth studio album, Yeezus, is the latest affront from an artist who keeps inventing ways to tick people off.
At first listen, it is hostile, abrasive and intentionally off-putting, as if to test the loyalty of his fans. But, as usual, that’s only the beginning.
West is used to being written off as a shallow, petulant, needy, self-serving braggart, a talented artist who can’t resist impaling himself on his own ego. And some of that is true. But even as he barges in full of himself in Yeezus, West demonstrates that he has a lot more on his mind.
West is pretty good at turning sound into his personal playground. His records sound great, set standards, and then move on to something new: the “dusties” soul vibe of The College Dropout (2004), the orchestral audacity of Late Registration (2005), the melancholy electro-chill of 808s & Heartbreak (2008), in many ways the most influential album of the last five years.
Yeezus is no exception, consolidating ’80s Chicago acid-house and 2013 Chicago drill music, ’90s industrial, and avant-rap. Much of it sounds harsh, brutally minimal — sometimes little more than West’s voice and a drum beat or a distorted keyboard. It is ruthlessly edited, with rhythms and rhymes that hit like anvils, a perfect soundtrack for dropping bombs, invading homes or bum-rushing an awards show.
But there are sudden digressions and twists, with glimpses of old soul and gospel, a sample of Hungarian rock, even the protest anthem Strange Fruit. Inside lurk hooks and melodies that sink in over time. West sounds more complicated than ever, an artist willing to throw himself off the ledge not just to get a reaction, but to open up a conversation.
A wave of noise opens the album, synthesizers spazzing out in On Sight as West rises, “a monster about to come alive again.” He rages more outrageously with each line, a terrorist who is both merciless and irresistible. Abruptly it breaks into a sample from a gospel record that advises, “He’ll give us what we need, it may not be what we want.”
A decade ago, West was creating songs about the precocious kid who hated his minimum-wage job, a relatable, everyday figure in a hip-hop world populated by larger-than-life stars. Later he was the celebrity with a tendency to run his mouth and overstay his welcome — never as cool as his hero and mentor, Jay-Z, or as prodigiously gifted an MC as Nas.
West has always owned up to his contradictions, and Yeezus is no exception, even as it tramples all in its path. It amplifies his obsession with race, class and sex, and how they speak to issues of control and freedom.
Over Gothic organ and ominously ping-ponging synths, New Slaves finds West protesting that many of his business partners are just new slave owners in corporate disguise. At the same time, the rapper goes out of his way to be more explicit, more tasteless than ever in rhymes that equate sex with violence and casual misogyny. At times — in particular a racially offensive joke about “sweet and sour sauce” on I’m in It — he’s exasperating, indulging in the kind of transgressive “humor” you’d expect from lesser artists.
But in playing into a sexual-predator stereotype, he also forces a debate about why it’s perpetuated: “They see a black man with a white woman / At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong.” (West, of course, has been in a yearlong relationship with a white woman, Kim Kardashian, who gave birth to their child over the weekend.)
Thunderous jungle drums clear a path for the marauding Black Skinhead. It’s over the top by design, a mainstream nightmare by way of Marilyn Manson’s industrial screed The Beautiful People.
On I Am a God, West flirts with all those egomaniac perceptions of his public life. He plays into the outrage, even imagining a conversation with Jesus. “I am a God,” he intones, “hurry up with my damn massage … hurry up with my damn croissants.” Even as West threatens to turn this into the blackest comedy record he’s ever made, he goes one layer deeper, confronting the license granted him as a celebrity.
Hold My Liquor employs a wobbly, electronically altered Chief Keef vocal to lend a weird poignance to a tale of a damaged suitor stumbling into an old girlfriend’s house seeking solace. But Blood on the Leaves wastes a sample of Nina Simone’s biting version of Strange Fruit on a tawdry tale of a man who juggles a wife and mistress. On an album rife with images of oppression, it seemed like the perfect opportunity for an update of the harrowing meditation on racism, but West takes a pass.
The album winds down with the deceptively bouncy Bound 2. It piles on the soul samples and a guest vocal from the Gap Band’s Charlie Wilson, while West talks on and on, until finally even he’s had enough. “After all these long-ass verses / I’m tired, you tired, Jesus wept.”
This is an album that baits listeners into isolating and focusing on its most outrageous lines, its most brutalizing moments, independent of the whole. On the surface, West has created a polarizing album that practically demands to be loved or hated. But with him, it’s never quite that easy.