It seems only fitting that one of the last pieces that Lou Reed wrote was a raving review of Kanye West’s Yeezus. Reed was known for his un-comprimising rock and roll; songs with topics that the mainstream wasn’t ready to hear. Yeezus does that too. Instead of songs detailing kinky sex and drugs, West’s album is filled with his thoughts on race, classicism and riffs on why he’s not taken seriously as artist. And of course, the music is very Reed-like: abrasive, dark and uncomfortable.
West is no stranger to pushing buttons. It seems at least one a month there’s a headline from something “outrageous” he says. But with the exception of 808s and Heartbreak, his music was aimed for the masses. It’s easy for people to dismiss him as a person, but it’s hard to deny his impact on music. Daft Punk pretty much owe their comeback this year to him. Gansta rap became passe when he dropped The College Drop-Out. Even hip-pop artists like Flo-Rida have stolen his signature soul-sample inspired sound.
Yeezus on the other hand, is the exact opposite of that. It’s his In Utero, Plastic Ono Band and White Light/White Heat. This isn’t an album designed to pack in the most numbers of fans. It’s a strike in the heart of America. Just take a look at the title of the songs: “New Slaves”, “I Am God” and “Black Skinhead”. Right away the listener knows that West is not fucking around this time around.
I have to admit, that even I was taken aback by
Yeezus on my first listen. It’s minimalistic beats and jarring electronic noises were at first off-putting. The first track “On Sight” is full of scattershot synths and noises. “How much do I not give a fuck?” West asks on the track. With this music behind him, he almost makes it seem like a rhetorical question.
Almost. The irony is of course, that West very much gives a fuck about his music. So much in fact, that it has gotten him in trouble every so often for saying so. You don’t have to listen to one of his “rants” to understand it. Another bit of irony found in Yeezus: almost all of his rants this year are encapsulated within “New Slaves”: a song that has been lauded as one of the top songs of the year, while his “rants” are constant headlines at celebrity news-sites and even more “legitimate” ones like the Huffington Post.
Yeezus is Kanye to the extreme. If you don’t like him, the album isn’t going to convince you that he is. If you think he’s an asshole, there are plenty of rhymes within the album to back your thoughts on that. That’s basically the theme of the chilled out “Hold My Liquor”. Over a psychedelic beat with spaced out guitars (that’s what it sounds like at least), West wrestles with himself, wondering why: “you love me when I’m hung-over, you love me when I’m not sober”.
But everything you love or hate about West is best represented in “Blood on the Leaves”. By the time you get to this song, you’re thinking he can’t go any further. But he does by sampling Nina Simone’s version of “Strange Fruit”. Other minds might have used that sample as the backing for “New Slaves”. But somehow, West uses that sample about one of America’s worst moments, to tell a cautionary tale of scorned love and gold diggers (yes he revisits that theme). On paper it sounds like a disaster waiting to happen. But somehow it works because West is a master at mixing the sacred and the profane.
It’s this reason that “I Am a God” is hilarious. I always thought if you take that seriously, you’re missing the point. It’s supposed to be over the top. How can it not be when West demands his “damn croissants” and then chills with Jesus as he stacks his millions?
The whole album ends with the glorious “Bound 2”. After an album that is filled with musical mind-fucks, West ends it by being fairly straightforward with the now-classic “uh huh honey” sample, courtesy of Brenda Lee. “Bound 2” is the only time throughout the album that West steps back for a moment and muses whether he and his love will make it to Christmas. With the Ponderosa Twins Plus One singing “bound to fall in love” in the background, West finally lets his guard down and declares that “admitting is the first step”.
No other album that came out this year matches the scope and riskiness of Yeezus. Not even close. I could care less about his ranting and raving. It’s his personality that fuels music like this. Brian Wilson has often declared himself to be a genius and nobody argues. And of course, he’s right. And so is Kanye.