Print Edition: July 3, 2013
“Oh he’ll give us what we need/ It may not be what we want,” coos a ramshackle children’s choir. This brief sample, a warm, crackling R&B reprieve from the disorienting, all-digital opening volley of “On Sight” serves as the latest edition of Kanye West’s ever-evolving manifesto. Yeezy spent three records demonstrating his prowess as a intuitively masterful producer and MC on his lauded college trilogy, from the dust-bin soul power of 2004’s The College Dropout to the ornate orchestral flourishes of Late Registration and concluding with the electro dance-rap parchment Graduation.
But then something changed.
West could have easily coasted, continued on the same trajectory of hook-heavy hits. Yet despite an eminently listenable catalogue of non-album tracks and collaborations (“White Dress,” “Diamonds,” etc), West’s most recent trio of albums has continually pushed harder against what might be deemed “radio-friendly.” It’s a purposeful divergence that’s predictably split listeners and asks what we expect of popular music. Musically, most of us seek some mystifying alchemy of new and familiar. Lyrically, it comes down to tolerance and resonance: we want to identify and achieve some minor enlightenment. Yeezus demands that listeners put up with the brutal honesty and problematic elements of West’s music for the cathartic and more deeply-satisfying benefits it promises. Whether the work can support this sort of conceit is up for debate, and my own answer varies a little track-by-track.
Producing a follow-up proper to the 2010 broken and maximal masterpiece My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy (MBDTF) is a tall order indeed, and while West draws on similar personal themes, Yeezus is both leaner and meaner than its predecessor. It’s harsh and unforgiving, particularly in its striking minimalism from its dialled-back, incisive production to its sparse, 40-minute track list. The album packaging follows suit, consisting of only an empty jewel case, orange sticker, and no liner notes.
The opening four tracks are bulletproof examples of West at his dark, caustic, and bitingly mirthful best. Over a driving tribal beat, frantic screams and buzzing bass hook, West blitzes through “Black Skinhead,” a cutting salvo that reveals insidiously virulent American racism (“Enter the kingdom/ But watch who you bring home/ They see a black man with a white woman/ At the top floor they gone come to kill King Kong”). West is at once serious, cutting, lewd, darkly funny, aggressive and vulnerable. He plays the role of the desperate, unhinged jester, incorporating self-effacing (“Hold My Liquor”) and self-aggrandizing (“I Am a God”) tendencies in the service of both personal pathos and political comment.
The baiting blasphemy of “I Am a God” is easily shocking coming from the artist who detailed his complicated Christianity in “Jesus Walks.” Far from the ego-stroking vehicle his detractors will be ready to pounce on, it’s a desperate struggle punctuated by humour (“Hurry up with my damn croissants”) and despairing, spine-chilling howls. It’s West’s attempt to understand the complications of a passage like Pslam 82:6’s “Ye are gods;/ And all of you are children of the Most High.” By the end of his Bruce Almighty divine reign, it’s clear that West’s human apparatus bars any possibility of the title’s literal interpretation.
The album reaches it apex of unholy fury with track four: “New Slaves,” a scathing attack on the U.S. prison system, which disproportionately incarcerates African-Americans. According to American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), one in three black men born in the United States can expect to serve time behind bars to the benefit of private prison profiteers like the Corrections Corporation of America referenced herein. The song also contains the album’s most beautiful moment. After the unrelenting attack of the first four tracks, a soul-soaring falsetto from Frank Ocean breaches the darkness with hopeful strains.
Unfortunately, little else measures up to the innovative, unrelenting punch of the opening four, air-tight songs. “Hold My Liquor” is an underwhelming, ethereal rumination on the aftermath of a drunken one night stand between exes (“You love me when I ain’t sober/ You love me when I’m hungover”) that just doesn’t stick. It’s the closest thematic and musical heir to MBDTF down to the Auto-Tuned Justin Vernon (Bon Iver) hook, but it feels tired, lifeless and cold. It doesn’t help that the track’s lead in is the gorgeous coda of “New Slaves.”
It isn’t until the bleak 808s redux “Blood On the Leaves” that Kanye begins to right the tilting vessel. “Blood” is a sordid summer tale of infidelity and pregnancy riddled with dread and intonations of racially-motivated violence stemming from a devastating sample of Nina Simone’s lynch ballad, “Strange Fruit.” West charts brave new territory with the subversive dance-hall sampling “Send It Up” before landing “Bound 2,” a throwback to his first record that expertly stitches together Brenda Lee, a groove-heavy lost B-side from the Ponderosa Twins Plus One and Wee’s “Aeroplane.” It’s a low-key, nostalgia-tinged closer that’s driven to greater heights by a breathtakingly soulful and unexpected vocal intrusion from R&B veteran Charlie Wilson.
While Yeezus is tighter, more concise and more aggressive than MBDTF, it’s also noticeably less consistent. West’s determination to agitate and alienate his audience as near breaking point as possible before reeling them back is risky, and he falters on a few tracks here. Still, the opening quartet is easily among his best work yet, even though the rest of the album struggles to keep up.