Kanye West is never boring. Bratty, self-obssessed, egotistical, lewd and contradictory? Yes, but never boring. He’s not stupid either. Which goes some way to explaining Yeezus, his sixth solo studio album released this week, is so captivating.
Presaged by a frankly ridiculous New York Times interview, Yeezus is the latest event in Kanye West’s career. Something Kanye is very good at. Kanye calling himself a version of Jesus is a natural progression for a man who has shown entitled form over the years but Yeezus isn’t a sermon from an omnipotent being delivering enlightened advice to the masses. Yeezy as a god is as flawed as he always has been and that’s a big part of the appeal of this record.
As is the fact that only Kanye could bring the likes of Daft Punk, Hudson Mohawke, Evian Christ, Gesaffelstein, Brodinski, Arca, No ID and whoever else (even Benji B?) is listed on the album’s sprawling production credits. Yeezus is a vital listen for that reason alone.
It perhaps also explains Kanye’s decision to draft in executive producer Rick Rubin to put some shape on Yeezus in its somewhat rushed last few weeks. With so many people involved: not to mention guests like Frank Ocean, Kid Cudi, Justin Vernon, Chief Keef, King L and more, Rubin was needed to reduce the album to the brash minimalism best heard on the album’s establishing tracks.
The album is heralded in with the industrial buzzing synths of ‘On Sight’ which bring an acid urgency to proceedings, matched only by Kanye’s “How much do I not give a fuck? let me show you right now before you give it up”, before he jackhammers in a soulful sample into the din for no apparent reason other than he can.
The album is at its best when Kanye attempts to proving himself as worthy to a godly title. ‘Black Skinhead’ flips Gary Glitter’s ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll’ and celebrates his adversarial conquests “Middle America packed in / came to see me in my black skin” along with a promising creed “I’ve been a menace for the longest / But I ain’t finished, I’m devoted / and you know it.”
The most obvious deity reference ‘I Am A God’, is really where Kanye’s mask of bravado starts to slip. Those lines about “damn croissants” are damn funny sure, but the song is really Kanye asserting himself: “Soon as they like you make ’em unlike you/ Cause kissing people’s ass is so unlike you.” By the end of the song Kanye is sounding more like a demon possessed than a god, thus setting the stage for the album’s undercurrent of continued self-assertion in the face of everyone else. ‘I Am A God’ is Kanye building himself up in his own mind primarily.
“You see there’s leaders and there’s followers / But I’d rather be a dick than a swallower,” he says on ‘New Slaves’, a song in which Kanye criticises himself, and everyone else in the pursuit of aspirational consumerism: “What you want, a Bentley? Fur coat? A diamond chain? All you blacks want all the same things”. He’s reached the top of the mountain but knows he’s part of the problem.
The concept of a modern slave is more directly linked in the latter verses to the US prison system, which incarcerates more African-American adults in its facilities than were kept as slaves in the 19th century. That unjust fact explains Kanye’s disgust of the Hampton dwellers, the 1%. His only comeback is an explicit sexual one.
The album’s urgency drains as it goes, the clenched fist relaxes and Kanye immerses the album’s themes in the sexually explicit. For a man who has just fathered his first child, Kanye still seems hung up on his old relationships. ‘Hold My Liquor’ alludes to the five years since he broke off his engagement with Alexis Phifer and puts up a brave front at a party. On ‘Guilt Trip’ he leaves behind an un-named girl in a song that relies heavily on Auto Tune, “focus on the future and let the crew knock her” before his insecurity about himself is raised by Kid Cudi’s vocals “If you love me so much then why’d you let me go?” ‘I’m In It’ goes further, after verses of sexually explicit lyrics, his fears come to the fore. “I’m so scared of my demons, I go to sleep with a nightlight.”
The album’s biggest blunder ‘Blood On The Leaves’ should be the album’s centrepiece. The song takes Nina Simone singing Bille Holiday’s ‘Strange Fruit’, a song about the lynching of black people and pairs it up with bombastic big dumb brassy tones of ‘R U Ready’ by TNGHT. It’s a bad decision to mix these two sources by anyone’s standards but when the song’s subject matter concerns alimony payments and taking ecstasy with his ex Amber Rose, it’s an incongruous and ugly mix.
For only a ten-track album, it’s disappointing that the second half loses the first’s burst of raw energy. The narrative loses focus. ‘Guilt Trip’ sounds like it was cut from the same cloth as My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy while ‘Bound 2’, which addresses his current relationship with Kim Kardashian in a positive manner, sounds like Kanye earlier work. The trailing off of the industrial electronic sounds into what Kanye has done before, lessens the impact of the first half on repeated listens. The last minute rush to finish the album ultimately may have lead to this and didn’t help help the overall vision.
Listening to Yeezus is like watching a really good TV show. You root for the characters you like but are still drawn to the bad ones when they appear. The only difference is that Kanye is letting us see all aspects of himself. He is all the characters here, a multi-faceteted, living breathing contradiction, a simultaneous two-headed beast of good and evil. A god, a man: flawed but who likes to think he’s flawless. On ‘Bound 2’ Yeezus ends with Kanye less a tortured immortal but a man admitting his imperfections to his partner: “hey, you know ain’t nobody perfect.” As visceral, vital and as alluring as Yeezus is at its best, it is also flawed, just like its creator.