Kanye West – “Yeezus” Album Review
Nirvana’s In Utero was meant to be the anti-Nevermind; an abrasive bit of post punk that threw away the “candy pop” sounds of the Seattle trio’s commercially and critically explosive landmark second record. Less personal than their previous work, Kurt Cobain was obsessed with drenching every last note they played in distortion and reverb, to the point that DGC label execs began to get nervous and hassle initial producer Steve Albini following the sessions at Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota (where the band was recording under the alias “Simon Ritchie Bluegrass Ensemble”), going as far as to replace Albini with R.E.M. producer* Steve Litt, who would remix singles “Heart Shaped Box” and “All Apologies“. But the damage had already been done during the speedy, stripped down fourteen day spell, and In Utero emerged as a monolithic testament to Cobain’s anti-commercialism sentiment.
Kanye West’s latest record, Yeezus (yeah, I still can’t get over that title either), is reminiscent of Nirvana’s final record in many ways, as not only does it follow his most critically lauded release to date (the sprawling, intimate My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy) and fourth consecutive No. 1 debut on the Billboard charts, but acts as a similar stripped down, mercantile marauding artistic statement. Completed just two days before it was due to be turned in to Roc-A-Fella/Jef Jam under the supervision of super-producer Rick Rubin (whose previous hip hop collaborations include creating hard hitting tracks for Public Enemy, Beastie Boys and LL Cool J during Def Jam’s formative years in the mid to late ’80s), Yeezus is just as abrasive, off-putting and, at times, utterly beautiful as Cobain & Co.’s swan song. It’s a rejection of the sample based aesthetics that made him a hip hop icon, replacing them with a cold, tinny, distancing aesthetic that recalls industrial pioneers like Nine Inch Nails instead of the “drill” and “trap” sound West promised in pre-release interviews.
With Kanye, the narrative of the record’s conception is often just as important as the completed work itself. Each is often a labor of love, chronicling the emotional constituents of his highly publicized private life. 808s & Heartbreak painted West as a man so heartbroken by the death of his mother and break-up with then fiancée Alexis Phifer that he needed a machine to express his pain for him, turning away from the colorful braggadocio of The College Dropout and Graduation, in favor of an almost emo-robot rap auto-tuned sing song sound that was as alienating as it was emotionally effecting. Likewise, My Beautiful, Dark Twisted Fantasy came in response to his press painted public persona as an artist unhinged, stealing microphones from Taylor Swift and going on what seemed to be drug and drink fueled Twitter rants about everything from race to fame to his love of ninjas.
Each of West’s album have resulted from the fruits of seemingly endless studio sessions, where the artist boasted about fine tuning every last sample and snare drum until he found the final mixed product to be utterly perfect. At the height of his hands-on madness in 2010, West even claimed to have invested more than 5,000+ hours into every song he produced (which, if you have a brain, let alone a calculator, doesn’t exactly add up but whatever…). But the simple fact was, you could hear that attention to detail in every track he dropped, and with Dark Fantasy, his skill as a rapper finally rose to meet his expertise behind the boards, resulting in a record that revealed an artist at the pinnacle of his powers. So it must have been a bit of mind-blower when Rubin received the call just weeks before Yeezus was due for release, asking if he could assist in putting the final polish West’s sixth album. “Many of the vocals hadn’t been recorded yet, and many of those still didn’t have lyrics,” Rubin told the Wall Street Journal. “From what he played me, it sounded like several months’ more work had to be done.”
Much like Albini did with Nirvana, Rubin didn’t just re-invent West’s sound, but stripped it down and then built it back up from scratch. Taking out almost all of the soulful samples that made tracks like “Gold Digger” multi-platinum hit singles, much of what’s left is a propulsive, low end bass that is punctuated by multiple synth and distortion stabs. The deadline West was under can be felt in nearly every track, giving many moments an almost spontaneous, “from the gut” feel. The fractured opener “On Sight” and the propulsive, Marilyn Manson sampling “Black Skinhead” set the stage the best. “On Sight” is almost like an off-the-cuff one take whirlwind re-jiggered into a Daft Punk song (which, if the rumor is to be believed, the French duo helped produce the track’s “raw” material) while “Skinhead” is the closest to out and out rock star West has ever been, shouting his lyrics along to the pounding, tribal beat of Manson’s “The Beautiful People”. Even by the standards of an artist who could easily be classified as the “Radiohead of Rap” it’s a desperate, drastic departure. But that despair works in Kanye’s favor, as it’s such an intriguing intro that the listener can’t help but wonder what the rest of the record has in store for them.
Yeezus then continues to become an almost purposefully imperfect album, as his usual seamless samples, bridges, and refrains are replaced with shrill screams and impromptu breakdowns like the beautiful coda on “New Slaves” (which really sounds like the only track that could be considered “radio ready”). Album centerpiece “Blood on the Leaves” twists a sample of Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit” and TNGHT’s war signaling horns from “R U Ready”, creating a cacophony of equal parts sadness and chest beating anger. “Hold My Liquor” and “Guilt Trip” are Dramamine requiring bits of sea-sickness that change course at the drop of a dime, as Kanye’s vocals stylistically switch with the quickness of a man attempting to out-run a Sherman tank.
The constant zingers and quotable one liners West is known for remain, however. Whether he’s kicking it with Jesus and discussing how he “stacks millions”, or using his almighty power on “I Am a God” to demand his “damn croissants” and “pop a wheelie on the zeitgeist”, Yeezus is far from being completely self-serious, which leads to a stark bit of lyrical vs. production dissonance. You feel as if a record this sonically abrasive should somehow arrive with a domineering artistic manifesto, but instead, West opts to play the jester just as easily as he does the conquering king. And while there are moments of flat out audience trolling like “eatin’ Asian pussy, all I need was sweet and sour sauce,” they’re few and far between, as Kanye is yet again an open, festering wound as opposed to some kind of date rape ready frat boy.
Also of note is the fact that West hasn’t left his cast of supporting characters behind. Flanked by his usual inner circle of crooners, including Charlie Wilson, Kid Cudi, and Bon Iver’s Justin Vernon (who continues to be the unlikeliest funky white boy on the planet), West peppers the record with collaborations that point back to his previous records, bringing an air of familiarity that helps long-time fans feel a little more at home on this alien terrain. Meanwhile, newcomers Chief Keef, Frank Ocean and Chicago’s King L all add some of album’s most memorable moments, as Kanye continues to help usher in a new era of hip hop talent.
If there’s a moment where the record stumbles slightly, it isn’t until the very end, where closer “Bound 2” seems to be pulled directly from the outtakes of West’s breakout record Late Registration. A soulful breakdown that brings West’s signature sample style back to the forefront, it isn’t a bad track per se, but simply feels out of place after thirty-five minutes of punishing, angular, sometimes improvisatory sounding production. Also — some of West’s more confrontational lyrical moments don’t feel entirely earned, as his somewhat maddening martyr complex seems to have grown bigger than baby mama Kim Kardashian’s pregnant belly. “New Slaves,” comes off somewhat whiny in moments, as West rages over “the industry” neglecting his genius. And while it’s meant to act as a kind of filthy slow jam to fuck to (at least at first), the visual of a woman being penetrated with a fist that looks like a “civil rights sign” on “I’m In It” is more than a little off-putting in its thinly veiled misogyny.
While Yeezus isn’t the first time Kanye has released an audacious, anti-commercial tome, the metallic compositions are unlike anything he’s put to tape as of yet. Much like In Utero, it strips away any of kind of pop pretensions, leaving only the artist’s sound at its most raw and raucous. It’s a record of uncompromising fiber, proving that West isn’t content with simply resting on the laurels of mega hits. And while we lost Cobain too soon after his band’s final record was released, we can only hope Kanye sticks around for much longer and delivers on the promise of this brittle bit of revisionist, in-your-face hip hop.
*Which is kind of hilarious, as before recording began, Albini is famously quoted as thinking Nirvana was “unremarkable”, calling the band “R.E.M. with a fuzzbox”