Kanye West’s Yeezus Is Manic, Melancholy and Brilliant

Our greatest pop mind has made his antipop record. At last

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Def Jam
Def Jam


This post is in partnership with Consequence of Sound, an online music publication devoted to the ever growing and always thriving worldwide music scene.

It was inevitable that our greatest pop mind would eventually make an antipop record. The question is, Why did he have to make the thing so difficult on us? Kanye West shut the rap game’s whole s*** 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.

(MORE: The 8 Best Things Kanye West Told The New York Times)

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 f***ing: “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 d**k than a swallower.” “I keep it 3hunna like the Romans/ 300 b****es, 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 à 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-n***a racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’/ And this rich-n***a 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.

(PHOTOS: The Recent Life of Kanye West)

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 s***, 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 antipop, 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”

More from Consequence of Sound: Kanye West Will Tour Behind Yeezus

22 comments
pierce
pierce

great review, great album. Album of the year without a doubt.

chillyacademic
chillyacademic

Wow, the critics are way out to lunch regarding this album, reviewing Kanye's persona rather than the actual record. Maybe I'm just not feeling Rick Rubin's style, but this album is no more than "decent" and a step down from the excellent MBDTF.  If an unknown rapper released this, it would not be reviewed as Yeezus has been. 

72winsbooking
72winsbooking

Honestly the album is garbage and the interview just says it's brilliant cause it's kanye. If this was his first album he'd be laughed out of the game. Yeezus is a terrible album 

joebloww
joebloww

this album sucked hep B ass. whatever that means

sobdjs
sobdjs

It's hilarious to see critics falling over themselves to praise this album. The music is amazing and groundbreaking for a rap album but the lyrics are medicore. It's not Kanye's worst album but it's far from his best. 

RezOKC
RezOKC

No, it's seriously overhyped. On pretty much every level. I'll listen to P.O.S.'s "We Don't Even Live Here" over "Yeezus" on any day of the week.

EricPeacock
EricPeacock

This guy had to been paid or laid to write this. Album is doodoo.

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

the 3 adjectives i'd use to describe this are pretentious, self-absorbed, and over-rated.  and yes, i "get" it, although there isn't that much to "get." it's not a bad album by any means. it is, however, FAR from "brilliant."

looks like Kanye's mission of having people who are easily influenced worship this album and suck his metaphorical D is complete.  glad you guys were able to take part in said mission @fearofnormalcyand @mdfv0202 , don't forget to cup his balls while you're gagging on him

the only thought-process in which i could even begin to fathom why someone would think this album is great goes as follows: 

"Metacritic and Pitchfork and Rolling Stone say it's off the hook so therefore it totally is!!! Yeah!! Kanye rocks!!! I'm not sure why I like this album...wait, yes I do, because I don't know good rap and the media told me to.  I can't tell people that though so I'll use the 'anyone who doesn't like it just doesn't "get" it argument so I don't have to actually defend why I like it ' argument.  Yeah!! That'll make me sound smart AND deep!! Go Kanye!!!"

Or maybe you're deaf and just like the vibrations from the bass, in which case i totally understand liking it.



branashton
branashton

@pierce@branashton"seeking social-commentary cred that he hasn't earned."

"refined and probably his least compelling. But they don’t feel lazy so much as drunk on bitterness."

"least likable album Kanye’s ever made"

But I asked your opinion... 

dietermorgan
dietermorgan

Arguably his weakest album lyrically but for sure some of the best Hip Hop beats to date.

Even those that try to gloss it over as ripped off electro music, or cloned 9 inch nails are way off the mark because this album sounds like nothing else.

Did Trent Reznor ever sample Nina Simone or fuse dance hall reggae with punk rock? 

Even Trent rent Reznor himself said he loved Kanye West's Yeezus.

Strange how nearly every reputable music critic on the planet gave the album top marks sonically, even if they weren't sold on the lyrics...did he pay them all off? 

I would argue that most of this albums harshest critics are simply not into rap music much less a character like Kanye West.

The majority of this albums negative reviews had more to say about Kanye's recent antics than the actual sound quality and production of the album

Search youtube for the Blood on The Leaves instrumental...listen to it, and then say this should be considered a poor album.


branashton
branashton

@mdfv0202@branashtonNice response... Typical. "I don't really know what's to get, but I don't want them to know, so I'll say "If you have to ask, you'll never know".

as cjh2nd said above "anyone who doesn't like it just doesn't "get" it argument so I don't have to actually defend why I like it ' argument.  Yeah!! That'll make me sound smart AND deep!!"

The lyrics are weak, the noise in the background only works well in 2 songs. Let's throw some industrial and electronic beats and try and rap on top of it... oh no ones ever done that so it will be revolutionary... critics will love it. If this was released by a no name artist, it would be considered a poor album.



dietermorgan
dietermorgan

Strange how nearly every reputable music critic on the planet gave the album top marks sonically, even if they weren't sold on the lyrics...did he pay them all off? 

I would argue that most of this albums harshest critics are simply not into rap music much less a character like Kanye West.

The majority of this albums negative reviews had more to say about Kanye's recent antics than the actual sound quality and production of the album